Writing about Novak Djokovic seems somewhat of an easy option.
But to the absolute delight of some, and chagrin of others, he is still winning titles in 2023 - and winning with regularity.
Whereby, he gives us no choice, but to keep writing about him.
Carlos Alcaraz was able to stop Novak winning the calendar Slam this year, yet to triumph in three majors, and fall one match short at Wimbledon, is an extraordinary result for the 36 year old Serbian.
How is he defying age, and continually ‘upgrading’ himself to knock off the new models of tennis players coming through? It would be lazy writing to suggest the new breed are nipping at his heels, because they’re not.
Novak is still far and away the best player on the tour, and although Carlos Alcaraz is a welcome challenge, and will dominate the tour at stages during his career, he is not quite there yet.
There are an abundance of reasons and theories as to why Novak and his peers, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, were so far ahead of any other player in modern tennis. The lack of surface variety, the increase in the number of seeds at major tournaments to protect the top players from being upset early on, the lack of competition below them, and so on.
However…was there really a lack of competition below ‘the Big Three’? Or were Rafa, Roger and Novak good enough to all get their noses in front, and then combine like a breakaway in the Tour de France? Did they fundamentally all work together cohesively, while the rest of the peloton essentially watched them go further and further up the road, until it was impossible to cross the gap?
We’ve heard all the stats regarding the Big 3, including 66 of the past 81 major titles, dating back to 2003. On those irregular occasions where someone else has popped their head above water to claim a title, such as Dominic Theim in 2020, Daniil Medvedev in 2021, Carlos Alcaraz in 2022, and again at Wimbledon this year, we are graced with the customary, ‘passing of the torch’ headlines. Yet, truthfully, we’re 20 years into a generation without any trading of torches.
Looking back, it was the 2022 Australian Open, where Medvedev was just points away from claiming back to back major titles, and possibly putting one hand on the said torch. But the Big 3, yet again, pushed the chasing pack further down the road.
Roger was gone, Novak was detained in detention, and all signs were pointing to a wounded Nadal taking an early flight home. He didn’t. He proved once more, that legends rise when it matters.
So why are the Big 3 (and now Novak out on his own), so far ahead of the rest? One of the reasons which I think gets overlooked, is the….’to be the best, you have to beat the best’ theory. How do you improve your own tennis game? How do you get faster? How do you get stronger in the gym? You have to increase your weights, increase your speed, and you have
to regularly play against players who are better than you, or at least equal to you.
The rivalries Novak has had over the last 15 years with Rafa, Roger, Stan Wawrinka, and Andy Murray, have been so strong, and so regular, that it has been almost impossible for Novak to not improve at a higher rate than most.
Himself, Rafa and Roger were never going to go backwards towards the chasing peloton, when exposed to match-ups of the highest quality week-in week-out. Yet without each other, it’s not unreasonable to suggest the ridiculous numbers and stats we’ve seen around all three, would be somewhat reduced.
In 2021 Roger Federer was asked about Novak…
"I really feel like we get the best out of each other. We have different playing styles, it almost depends on the day, which court we’re playing on and how the matches have been leading up to that match. Against the best players you know you have to bring your best game.
Otherwise, it will not be enough. Especially against somebody like Novak who can go into a mode where he is not going to miss. It has been a pleasure to play against him and he’s one of the players who have made me a better player. It’s great to have him in the game."
There’s a concept developed by Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, called, The Zone of Proximal Development. Part of this concept involves athletes challenging themselves just outside their level. If the challenges are too easy, growth will be slower. Likewise, if things are too hard, players become frustrated, and discouraged.
Think about this in relation to the last 15-20 years on the ATP tour.
If you want the optimal challenge (play the best to be the best), it’s matches against the top 3-5 players in the world on a regular basis. Here are some more stats to back this up.
Novak Djokovic has played the following number of matches against the best players:
Vs Rafael Nadal: 59
Vs Roger Federer: 51
Vs Andy Murray: 37
Vs Top 5 players: 195
That is 195 times, where Novak Djokovic has had the opportunity to play against the best in the world, compounding his improvement, time after time, to a point where he has become almost unbeatable to those players who have rarely had that exposure to greatness.
Compare this to some other players in the chasing pack (I haven’t included Alcaraz, Rune or Sinner, as they haven’t been on the tour for any great length of time yet):
Stefanos Tsitsipas: 45
Casper Ruud: 18
Daniil Medvedev: 40
Alexander Zverev: 57
Andrey Rublev: 29
Grigor Dimitrov (similar generation to Novak): 64
Of these players, only Daniil Medvedev has won a major title (and come very close to winning another). Guess who has played the most matches against Novak? Yes, Daniil. Playing the best player more often, may have elevated his game.
But back to Novak and the Big 3 (4 or 5 when you include Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka). Each time Novak played against one of them, he was required to create new ways to overcome the challenges dished up by the greatest players. He pushed himself further off the court, and on the court, because there were other giants of the sport pushing themselves further, to combat Novak’s game. It became a self-perpetuating cycle, that grew more formidable as the years rolled on.
Earlier this year, Novak was speaking about his two great rivals:
“At the same time, when I reflect on everything that I’ve been through with these guys, I’m grateful because they made me the player that I am today,” he said. “They made me stronger both mentally, physically. My game was improved because of all these matches that we played again each other mostly because of the matches that I lost to them, some big matches.”
If we swing back around to the cycling analogy, Roger, Rafa, and Novak were taking turns up the front, using each others slipstream to keep moving forward. Meanwhile the chasing pack were too busy fighting amongst themselves to cross the gap (which became a chasm) and join them up in the lead. It’s probably fair to say Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka had a foot in both camps throughout their career, but couldn’t quite sustain it at the pointy end for long enough.
In the off-season last year, Nadal was asked about the rivalries, and the next generation…
“I also say with total humility, and we must not lose sight of this, that when Zverev, Medvedev or Tsitsipas arrived, Federer, Djokovic and I were still at a very high level. Athletes also feed back on victories and for many years our rivals have been able to win very little, and when you win, you improve.
…And there is another thing: I think Roger, Novak and I have been pushing each other, and somehow it’s never been enough, we’ve always had to make another effort.
…The competition [between us] has taken us to extreme mental and tennis levels, and this is one of the main reasons why we have continued for so long."
Now with Roger out of the game, and Rafa’s career in doubt moving forward, it’s Novak who remains. His greatest rivals have gone. But as if by divine intervention, there is a new kid on the block. One who may not actually have the desired effect of taking the torch away, as a lot of tennis pundits may hope. One who may in fact extend the dominance of Djokovic.
Carlos Alcaraz is seen as the next gen Rafa. If that is indeed the case, expect Novak to use this new rivalry, to drive himself further, even at the age of 36. For Alcaraz, he may already have some separation on the rest of the field, but if he really wants to extend it, he needs to find ways to play Novak as often as he can in the next couple of years.
The worry for Carlos will actually be when Novak pulls the pin on his career. Will he have someone to push him to the next level, to create that compounding improvement, match upon match? Or will he be so far ahead of his rivals, that he actually starts to go backwards, purely due to the fact he becomes complacent, playing matches that don’t offer him anything new.
While you would expect him to rack up the titles, he will still need that elite competition at the pointy end for ultimate motivation. Players need rivals to exploit their own deficiencies.
Federer got that when Rafa and Novak came along, and he was forced into improving his backhand late in his career.
That’s the way it has been for generations. We’ve discussed The Big 3. Before them, Pete Sampras had players such as Andre Agassi and Jim Courier to keep him honest. While overlapping his career, were Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, and back further when McEnroe, Connors and Borg were reaching new heights.
Novak had 110 matches against Roger and Rafa alone. The learnings taken from these matches are numerous. Big points, big moments, coming from behind, holding a lead under pressure, etc. All this has built Novak into an almost super-human player, who remains relatively untouchable.
It’s a base he’s built up over the last 15 years, that none of his modern-day competitors come close to having. It’s like a football team playing for 15 years in the Champions League. Playing any other team in a lower division, almost becomes auto-pilot.
There will come a time that players such as Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Holger Rune, and the likes, will take the metaphorical torch from Novak Djokovic. But this is unlikely to be due to any great swing in momentum on the tour. It will simply be a matter of the years finally catching up with the Serbian.
Novak’s birth certificate may suggest that he should be slowing down. But the 15 year foundation of excellence he has constructed, with the help of his great rivals, will ensure the new generation of players may have to wait even longer than anticipated.