Feet of clay: Djokovic clay-rly the best
KARACHI: The last time Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic played against each other, it was on the clay courts of the eternal city at the Rome Masters.
Djokovic, two-time defending champion, was brushed aside by Murray in straight sets. After the match, the world number one admitted the Scot would be his biggest threat at the upcoming French Open — the only Grand Slam he had not won in his career.
Perhaps, in hindsight, Murray was foolish to have won that day — serving to only awaken the giant. Or perhaps it was Murray’s comfortable 6-3 win in the first set of the final on Sunday that did it, especially after being broken in the opening game. Or maybe it was the ignominy of being on the verge of becoming the first-ever man to lose four French Open finals in five years.
Whatever it was, a switch flicked on after the first set. In the eight minutes between the first and the second set, Djokovic unleashed tennis’s most feared beast.
His first serve winning percentage increased from 59% to 72%, second serve winning percentage from 25% to 71%, from eight winners to 11, from 13 unforced errors to eight, from 24 points won to 29. Everything he did, he did better.
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Murray didn’t know what hit him. The world number two went from 10 winners in the first set to three, from 32 points won to 15. But at least it was merciful and quick; over in just 36 minutes.
They might as well have started carving ‘Novak Djokovic’ onto the Coupe des Mousquetaires — French Open’s Musketeers Trophy. By then Murray was as much a spectator to the way the events were unfolding as the 15,000 gathered in the Court Philippe Chatrier; just as powerless, just as much in awe of what the Serbian could do with that racket of his.
Murray managed to hold two serves in the next round though — a commendable task in itself considering the other-worldy level the world number one was by now playing at — and even managed to break Djokovic once in the fourth.
But when the Scot hit the ball into the net on the third championship point and lost the fourth set 6-4, Djokivic — lying exhausted and relieved on the clay surface that had tormented him for so long — had set his legend in stone.
For most of his early career, Djokovic played third fiddle to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in what many believe to be tennis’s golden age. As those two great rivals sparred in epic battle after epic battle, Djokovic was forced to pick up the scraps.
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But something changed in 2011. Some say it was the Serb’s diet, others believe it was Nadal’s injuries, others still point to Federer’s age. Whatever it was, Djokovic stepped out from the shadows of those two giants, heralding in tennis’s greatest era of dominance.
He now has 12 grand slam titles to his name; behind only Federer, Nadal and Pete Sampras. There was little warning of this five years ago. There were a few glimpses of genius here and there but precious few to suggest how utterly and completely Djokovic will make tennis his own.
At the start of 2011 Djokovic had one grand slam to his name. Nadal had 10 and Federer had 16. Now he has 12, to their 14 and 17 respectively.
Out of the 22 grand slams since 2011, Djokovic has won 11 of them himself and has reached 17 finals. He is the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to have all four titles under his belt — the first since the introduction of hard courts at the US and Australian grand slams — and complete a non-year calendar slam.
His tally of 16,790 is the highest in ATP rankings history. He has won all four ATP World Tour Finals since 2011. His winning percentage of just over 83% is the highest in open-era history.
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The numbers do not lie. Djokovic currently rules tennis with an iron grip. At 29, many believe he doesn’t have long left. But the Serb has had a habit of defying common sense and logic. He is the youngest of the traditional big four and none of the younger breed seem even half-way capable of mounting a challenge against him.
With no rivals to speak of, Federer’s record tally of 17 grand slams will surely be firmly within Djokovic’s sights, so would be a calendar slam. On Sunday he highlighted the chasm that separates the world number one from the world number two. He is so far ahead of the chasing pack that he can continue his dominance even when age inevitably catches up with him.
The Serbian machine shows no sign of slowing. Men’s tennis belongs to one man and one man alone. This is Djokovic’s era.
When all is said and done and the wizard of Belgrade hangs up his racket, he may go down as tennis’s greatest ever. The Djoker may well have the last laugh.