Tennis’ eternal outsider

Courtesy of Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Amidst the introspection, celebration and jubilation that followed Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon title on Sunday, there was a moment, during the Serbian star’s post-match press conference, that was, in a strange way, darkly comedic.

“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger!’, I hear ‘Novak!’” explained Djokovic, with a shrug. “I know. It sounds silly, but it is like that, I try to convince myself of that.”

The answer came with a knowing smirk from the champ, and laughter from the assembled press, but upon reflection, it was every bit as somber as it was droll. Here was a now 16-time grand slam champion, one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen — perhaps the greatest, when it’s all said and done — lamenting the fact that all he can do, on his sport’s most sacred ground, is imagine the crowd supporting him.

“I knew the atmosphere will be what it was,” said Djokovic. It wasn’t his fault, of course. He was playing against the face of the sport, a man picture-perfect on and off the court without a vice or blemish, a near godlike figure in tennis’ pantheon. The crowd at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on Sunday was roundly partisan, firmly behind Federer and against Djokovic. It all had very little to do with Djokovic himself, and everything to do with his rival. Just weeks from his 38th birthday, Roger Federer was bidding to make history as the oldest grand slam winner in history, and despite the remarkable way in which the Swiss legend has eluded the typical deteriorations of time, there is still a sense, inevitable at this late stage of his career, that any major championship could be his last.

Juxtapose this with Djokovic, whose fitness, versatility and newfound composure all but guarantees that there will be handfuls of championships still to come. We’ll see plenty of Novak, one can imagine hearing throughout the grandstands at the All England Club, so for now, we’re going to root for the other guy.

Welcome to life as the man whose only mistake was arriving fashionably late to tennis’ golden age. When Djokovic won his first slam, in 2008, Federer was already 12 majors deep in his historic run. By the time he broke through for his second slam title, in 2011, Rafael Nadal appeared to have cemented his place as Federer’s eternal tormentor and generational rival, completing his own career slam, and punctuating his rise with a 2008 Wimbledon Final that is still widely considered the greatest match in tennis history.

It was inevitable then, once Djokovic arrived on the scene, a touch more emotional, candid and aloof than his peers, that he was destined to become perhaps the greatest third wheel in sports history — even if his skill-set should have positioned him firmly at number one. Tennis already had its sublime, transcendent, marketable rivalry with the smooth, effortless, ever-composed game of Federer matched up perfectly with the all-out, physical, trench warfare style of Nadal. So who was this interloper, inserting himself into a clash of the titans that had no need for another combatant? Good things always come in twos. Didn’t Djokovic know that?

Well, as it turns out, he might just be the best to ever play the game, even if choosing one of these three men over the others feels less like quantitative analysis and more like a Rorschach test. The trio is collaborating to see just how long they can fight off the generation that follows them, and extend their dominance over a timeline that was inconceivable before they came along. They’re not only competing against each other. They’re competing against history itself.

Never was that more clear than the past two weeks in London, where a number of highly touted youngsters all exited in the tournament’s first week. This new generation may well have its own moment in the sun someday, but in this tourney they did as so many have before them, ceding the stage once again to the “Big Three” of men’s tennis.

The trio did what they generally do on the game’s biggest stages, with Federer and Nadal trading momentum over the course of four captivating sets in the semifinals, as a prelude to Sunday’s iconic finale. As expected, Federer was every bit as aggressive as he needed to be, dialing up the bludgeoning, powerful serve that becomes an unmatched weapon on the grass, every time he felt threatened in a big moment. And Djokovic was ever the counter-puncher, relying on his incomparable return game to keep his opponent off-balance and doing just enough to see three tie-breakers, all of which he took down through the sheer completeness of his game. As Brian Phillips wrote for The Ringer, Djokovic has become the greatest in the history of the sport at withstanding opponents’ runs and thriving at the pointy end of a metaphorical switchblade. While neither man played anything approaching the best tennis of his life, complaining about a lesser masterpiece is sort of missing the point.

Roger had more than his share of chances at a record-setting win, including a pair of championship points in the fifth set that will likely haunt him for the rest of his days, should this indeed prove to be one of his last opportunities at major championship glory. Then again, were it not for a 2019 rule change that mandated a fifth set tiebreak at 12–12, the two men might still be doing battle, captivating the crowd and keeping the British Royal Family from getting back to… whatever it is the British Royal Family actually does.

Instead, it was Djokovic, the great interloper, the ever-talented, all-encompassing outsider, holding the trophy and addressing a crowd that has not and might never really be on his side; not under these circumstances, at least. As he too has grown older, and more circumspect, he appears to have gravitated to a grudging acceptance of his situation. Forever noted for his seeming insecurity, Djokovic has finally embraced his place in the game’s grand narrative. And while he would never dream of apologizing for his victory, he made sure to take time in his acceptance speech to pay his own tribute to the man that still captures the collective imagination of his sports’ fan base.

“Roger said that he hopes that he gives some other people a chance to believe that they can do it at 37,” Djokovic proclaimed from All England’s Centre Court, “I’m one of them.”

Maybe then, sometime in 2024, Djokovic will finally get the adoration and enthusiasm that he’s probably deserved all along. He’ll be 37 himself at that point, and presumably, Roger and Rafa will have finally slowed down and moved along to retirement, (although who can be so sure?)A whole host of young up-and-comers will likely be knocking at the door, trying to shove him aside to make room for a new era. But perhaps then, a Wimbledon crowd that doesn’t want to let go of the last remnant to the greatest generation they’ll ever see, will actually be chanting the words he can now only imagine, “Novak! Novak! Novak!”

He’ll be one of the greatest of all time then, just as he is now. But on occasion, the very best things in life take a long time to be properly appreciated.

I know it sounds silly. But sometimes, it really is like that.

Follower of Jesus and the Detroit Red Wings