As Novak Djokovic sealed his third major title of the year and went on his victory lap at the Arthur Ashe stadium, he locked eyes with his friend, actor Gerard Butler, and screamed, “This is Sparta.”
That famous dialogue from the film “300” explains Djokovic’s place in the tennis world today. It is an embodiment of his personality. Djokovic is the toughest fighter that men’s tennis has ever seen. He faced world No. 2 Roger Federer in the U.S. Open final Sunday, along with a crowd of about 23,000 people, and defeated them both. Every point he took was met with a number of jeers. Yet he never let the hostile crowd get into his head — ever. Djokovic’s greatness lies not only in his gameplay but also in his mental toughness.
I might be going a bit far in saying this, but I have never seen a player with as perfect of a game as Djokovic’s. His rivals — such as Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — had some weaknesses, such as Federer’s troubles with top spins, that one could notice throughout the course of a tournament.
Djokovic, on the other hand, has no discernible weakness. His service game has improved exponentially, and so has his forehand. His backhand is one of the finest the game has ever seen and is his main weapon. Most importantly, however, his defensive side of the game is magnificent. It is very hard to hit winners against him, as he has the ability to chase down every single shot and return it at extremely tough angles on the court. He is the best returner in the game, by far.
But I find that Djokovic’s strongest aspect is his fighting spirit. At no point in a match does he feel he cannot win it. The 2012 Australian Open final is possibly the greatest example of his indomitable spirit. He and Nadal faced off in one of the most exciting tennis matches of all time, and after nearly six hours of exhilarating play, the Serb prevailed. That match, in my opinion, signaled a change in the way Djokovic approached the game. He used to be notorious for taking long breaks during a game and having multiple treatments of “phantom” injuries, but at this match, the world saw a different Djokovic. He was not “Djoker,” a player known for his hilarious impersonations of his contemporaries, but rather emerged as the Novak Djokovic of today — a perfect, well-oiled machine built to dominate tennis.
I saw Djokovic emerge as a serious contender in 2008, when he won the first of his five Australian Open titles. His rise to the top put him on a collision course with the top two players at the time, Federer and Nadal. Slowly but steadily, Djokovic has honed his game to a point where it is difficult to argue about who is the best player on the planet. His rivalry with Federer is one of the best in the history of sports.
That rivalry has also led to a large number of fans firmly siding against Djokovic whenever he faces off against Federer. The Wimbledon final this year featured both players, and I felt like the match was happening in Switzerland instead of England; such was the support for Federer and the animosity for Djokovic. Djokovic, however, still prevailed and showed why he was the superior player of the two. Sunday’s U.S. Open final was no different in terms of the crowd atmosphere, and so was the result.
I agree that Federer is one of the greatest players of all time and is the perfect sportsman, complete with gentlemanly charm and grace. Obviously, he will have a legion of fans. As one of my friends pointed out, “Federer is a world citizen. Every place he plays, he’ll always be the crowd favorite.”
Djokovic is a different kind of champion. He grew up in a war-torn Serbia, which shaped his personality. When he won his first Wimbledon in 2011, he dedicated the victory to his people and his country. Djokovic’s resilience has always enamored me. So it is astonishing when he is berated by fans for being so good. Novak Djokovic is, beyond dispute, the best player in the world, and I feel he deserves the utmost respect for being so.