| OPINION | Novak Djokovic under siege: World No 1 to continue ATP dominance?

  • World No 1 tennis star Novak Djokovic has been in the news for the wrong reasons of late.
  • The 17-time Grand Slam champion tested positive for Covid-19 after playing in an exhibition event in the Balkans which he organised.
  • There was little social distancing between players and packed crowds, while a video also emerged of Djokovic celebrating shirtless in a nightclub.
  • Herman Mostert delves deeper and reckons Djokovic may come out firing once tennis resumes.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic has created a media storm over the past few weeks after the Adria Tour exhibition he organised in the Balkans ended in shame with several contestants, including himself, testing positive for Covid-19.

The event was promptly cancelled after the second leg in Croatia, with Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki all testing positive for the virus.

The event saw little social distancing and packed stands, and after a video emerged of the world No 1 celebrating shirtless in a nightclub, it was hardly surprising that he copped heavy criticism in the aftermath.

There’s no doubt that Djokovic is currently the world’s best player, but it’s also no secret that he’s not the majority of tennis fans’ No 1.

That mantle is usually carried by his two great rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

In the early parts of his career, Djokovic played in the shadows of Federer and Nadal, and while he eventually rose to the top of the rankings pile, it’s fair to reason that he hasn’t been as popular a world No 1 as his predecessors.

A few reasons can be attributed to this.

Federer’s style of play and his grace on and off court have had tennis purists in raptures since day one.  

In contrast, Nadal’s warrior-like fighting spirit, added with his humble off-court demeanour, made him the people’s champion.

Djokovic, on the other hand, has never endured such grand overtures, likely because the third wheel is often viewed as somewhat of an annoyance, while his regular on-court tantrums have hardly helped his cause.

The Serb is well aware of fans’ preference for Federer and Nadal and admitted as much in an interview earlier this year: “It is a fact that most fans support Federer and Nadal against me but that’s due to what they represent in world tennis.”

Even though his answer is diplomatic, one gets the sense that Federer and Nadal’s superstardom does not always sit well with the Djokovic camp.

His parents have often hit out publicly against Federer, the most recent outburst coming from father Srdjan who last month called on 38-year-old Federer to retire and “go raise children”.

“Since both Nadal and Novak are breathing down his neck, he simply cannot accept the fact that they will be better than him,” Srdjan said.

These comments from Djokovic Snr will do the image of his son no favours and the PR disaster that was the Adria Tour certainly did more harm than good.

Djokovic is no doubt a complex character and his unorthodox methods in gaining an edge on court are well documented.

It’s also no secret that his dominance in the sport in 2011 started when he discovered he was allergic to gluten.

Before that, the Serb had a penchant for retiring in big matches but has since become renowned for digging his heels in when the going gets tough, especially in prolonged physical battles.

He regularly practices yoga and after his French Open win in 2016 he made headlines when he started working with ‘spiritual guru’ Pepe Imaz from Spain.

It wasn’t the best of partnerships and Djokovic’s form started to dip when he refused surgery on a troubled shoulder.

He eventually gave in to medical advice, and after reuniting with long-time coach Marian Vajda, the Serb’s rise back to the top was eye-catching – he has won five of the past seven Grand Slams.

Djokovic, with 17 Grand Slams, currently trails Federer (20) and Nadal (19) in the all-time pecking order, but he’s made no secret of his desire to match – and surpass – both rivals.

With an ageing Federer sidelined until 2021 with a knee injury, Nadal remains Djokovic’s main rival in his Grand Slam quest.

Djokovic leads their overall rivalry 29-26 and hasn’t lost to Nadal on hard courts since 2013, while the Spaniard still has the edge on his beloved clay.

Despite the coronavirus ruining much of the 2020 tennis season, there are still hard court (US Open) and clay court (French Open) Grand Slams scheduled for the remainder of the year.

The events are scheduled on uncharacteristic dates – the US Open for 31 August – 13 September and the French Open at the later date of 20 September – 4 October.

There remains uncertainty as to whether all the frontline players will feature at both majors, but Messrs Djokovic and Nadal will no doubt feel it’s a great opportunity to catch up with Federer in the Grand Slam tally.

Nadal had given the indication that he’ll only vie for the French title which will make Djokovic the outright favourite to win at Flushing Meadows, provided he plays.

Djokovic has had a point to prove his whole career and this writer feels the recent negative press will just spur the talented Serb on even further.

He’s often thrived on the big stages in front of largely pro-Federer and Nadal crowds and my money would certainly be on the “Djoker” once tennis resumes in all earnest.

Traditionally, one wouldn’t expect a 33-year-old to be the dominant force in world tennis but the reality of the current men’s game is that the so-called “Next Gen” has flattered to deceive.

Apart from the “Big Three” of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, the only other active Grand Slam champions on the circuit are three-time major winners Andy Murray (33 years) and Stan Wawrinka (35 years) and one-slam wonders Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro (both 31 years).

The above-mentioned quartet are well past their prime and have struggled on the injury front of late. It would take a brave man to bet on them winning another Grand Slam.

Nadal, 34 and nearing the end of his career, will remain a threat but it’s tough to see the Spaniard getting the better of Djokovic on any surface other than clay.

That leaves the younger generation of players as main obstacles in Djokovic’s quest for the greatest of all time (GOAT) mantle.

There are obvious talents in the form of Austria’s Dominic Thiem, German Alexander Zverev, Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and Russian Daniil Medvedev, but until one of them breaks through and wins a major title, the notion of “generation weak” will remain.

Thiem, 26, has come closest to upsetting the apple cart, having reached three major finals and he came desperately close to beating Djokovic in this year’s Australian Open final.

The world No 3 led by two sets to one but failed to maintain his highest level when it mattered most.

Djokovic’s experience proved vital in that final Down Under and nothing to date suggests that this status quo is likely to change once he meets one of the other younger upstarts on the grandest of stages.

Zverev, 23, has long been touted as a multiple major winner, but the tall German, who boasts 11 ATP titles, has a solitary semi-final appearance at this year’s Australian Open as his best performance at a Grand Slam.

Medvedev, 24, lost an entertaining five-set US Open final to Nadal at Flushing Meadows last year, but until he starts going deep regularly at major events, the status quo is likely to remain.

If you’re a Djokovic fan, you’d want Covid-19 to subside sooner rather than later… there may be a few more major titles up for grabs over the next season or two.

Herman Mostert is a long-time Sport24 employee. His sporting interests range from tennis, rugby, cricket, golf and soccer.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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