How can a player who has won 18 Grand Slams still not be considered by the majority as the 'GOAT'? How can a player who after having won nine Australian Open titles has to still fight to be the crowd favorite in Melbourne? Imagine something like that happening to Rafael Nadal in Paris or Roger Federer at Wimbledon. It would be considered by many as nothing short of blasphemous.
When the player happens to be Novak Djokovic, anything is possible. Make no mistake, with 18 Slams, a few world titles, over 300 weeks as the number one player in the world, he is an absolute champion on the court and off it as well having done his fair share of philanthropy and philosophy within the tennis ecosystem and outside of it. His latest Australian Open triumph would make even his strongest critics grudgingly admit that going by current form and fitness, he is the best player on the planet.
So, what and who has been responsible for Djokovic's transformation? How has he managed to consistently outperform his fiercest rivals and peers on the biggest stages and on multiple surfaces, in different conditions and continents?
In their near-obsession with Federer and Nadal, few people realise that Djokovic's path to 18 Slam titles has been very hard. He has lost 10 Grand Slam finals, which shows he has had more than his fair share of failure at the final hurdle. He didn't have the luxury of growing up in a nice, secure environment like Federer or having his family and coach travel with him as Toni Nadal did for Rafael.
His childhood was very tough having grown up in a country ravaged by war, an experience that left him filled with fear. One of Djokovic's strongest points is his ability to back himself in tight situations and remain calm under extreme pressure which, at most moments in his career, has almost seemed superhuman. While all top athletes in their chosen sport have this ability, Djokovic has a kind of intensity bordering on arrogance that singes and demoralises his opponents.
It's the kind of intensity that debilitates players and is similar to Nadal's intense physical presence on the court. Perhaps, this attitude stems from his childhood years, a majority of which were spent living in fear and seeing his family having to face many hardships to ensure he was able to play tennis. There is possibly no greater fear than that and while he says that he would not wish that on his worst enemies, he admits it has stood him in good stead while navigating the rough and tough environment of the lower rung tournaments on the tour and dealing with the pressures of being the best player on the planet.
Time and again, Djokovic has produced incredible tennis against some of his biggest opponents, especially against Nadal and Federer. Fans will obviously remember the 2019 Wimbledon final against crowd favorite Federer after being down two Championship points, but the transformation from good to great to legend started after his memorable Australian Open final against Nadal in 2012.
It's a final that is arguably one of the best matches of all time not only for its duration and significance but for the extraordinary quality of tennis played over five sets which lasted five hours and 53 minutes. They were ranked no 1 and number 2 respectively and it was a match that changed Djokovic's fortunes not only in his bank balance but also the balance in his head. He dominated the next four years, winning seven Grand Slam titles and reaching the finals of another seven in that period. In addition, he reached the finals of five consecutive year-end ATP World Tour Finals winning four of them.
A big part of his continued success has been his ability to adapt. He is willing to admit his mistakes and rectify them. Perhaps the biggest one he made was to part ways with his childhood coach Marian Vajda and then call him back as his form and game derailed after the purple patch he hit. Vajda's return to his corner has bought back the form and poise that Djokovic had lost in the middle years.
He expanded his team to include some of the best trainers and physios in the world who worked with him specifically on his fitness, nutrition, and the mental aspect which makes him think and act quite differently than his peers. Some of his techniques and processes were controversial and 'out of the box', but it has produced stunning results for him. It would be accurate to say that while Pete Sampras raised the bar of fitness in tennis in the previous decade, Djokovic has taken it to a whole new level in this decade.
On the technical front, one of the biggest changes he has made is on his serve. When he burst onto the tour and players started taking notice, Djokovic's serve was by far his weakest shot. He would lose crucial points and thereby some matches due to his serve deserting him. With the game getting more physical and serves getting bigger and playing an important role, it was imperative for him to work and develop his serve so that even if it wasn't a weapon, it could not be a weakness.
He spent hours practicing the serve, especially working on guile, disguise, and accuracy. He hired Boris Becker first and then Goran Ivanisevic, two Wimbledon champions, the former to develop his serve and mind while teaching him how to deal with intense pressure and the latter who helped him add variety and guile to his serve.
The transformation has been stunning, to say the least. At the Australian Open, he fired 103 aces, an average of 14 per match, more than Medvedev who he destroyed in the final. Medvedev, at 6 ft 5 inches and considered one of the biggest servers in the game, could muster only 80 aces in the entire tournament. Djokovic was always known as a 'counter puncher' who could play all day from the back of the court. He realised early on that with Roger and Rafa, he had to be able to take the initiative in rallies and worked on developing a more compact and aggressive game that has seen him dominate the rallies from the baseline.
Going forward, I believe that Djokovic's best is yet to come and while Federer and Nadal will continue to hold sway over the hearts of the fans off the court, it will be Djokovic who will dominate on the court and get past the 20 Grand Slam mark and will end up with 24 or even 25 Slams.
There is one person who might come in the way of that. Novak Djokovic himself.
Gaurav Natekar is a double Asian Games gold medallist, Arjuna Awardee and former India No 1 tennis player.