Through the Fall of Federer, the Day of Djokovic Dawns
August 12, 2011 · Print This Article
MONTREAL – So it goes. So it goes. The slaughtering of a hero, the changing of the guard, the strangling reality of time: what has been said about Roger Federer that hasn’t already been said? How many times has that question been asked?
Yet no one is willing to put the story to bed. Roger Federer, chief among them. It still takes some getting used to, hearing Federer discuss what went wrong in his matches versus what went right but in each press conference, as gloomy as he might be feeling, he refuses to accept that his time has come. In his recent, somewhat surprising loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during the third round of Montreal’s Rogers Cup, Federer didn’t seem too shaken. “I feel good physically… I can tell you I feel good mentally and I’m playing well.” His shield of invincibility might be worn down to a soft glow, but there’s this fascinating mix of quiet determination and calm confidence that manages to unravel what would be the logical argument: that his decline is clear and unavoidable.
There’s a sense that Federer is comforted by a personal belief that he truly is the greatest of all time. He’s been careful not to confuse his self-assurance with arrogance and it seems he takes comfort in all those years at number one, all the slams, all the success, all the glory. There’s still the raw hunger and thirst for victory, but he shows it less often. When there’s a challenge, he rises to it, seeming to draw from a belief that whoever is beating him now isn’t as good as he once was, and still can be. Don’t think it didn’t mean something to him that he is the sole person the new kid in town, newly minted number one, Novak Djokovic lost to this year. At the French Open, no less. The surface Federer’s struggled on the most saw him take Djokovic down in the height of his rise to number one, with an uncharacteristic show of swagger, the much discussed index finger wave that seemed to shout, “Not so fast, kiddo.”
It was an incredible statement, a new kind of win for Federer, who’s seen them all, and a shining moment of triumph against the rumblings that he doesn’t have what it takes anymore. But those moments are going to be coming fewer and farther between, no matter how free from physics he’s seemed in the past. There is a new kid in town and he’s playing tennis with his own brand of otherworldly command. Djokovic has hit his stride, and with an incredible 50-1 record on the season, he is the man to watch.
Oozing charisma on and off the court, the affectionately nicknamed “Djoker” is coming into his own with admirable aplomb. He respects the game, respects the past and knows what it means to be number one. After his first win under the official number one ranking in Montreal’s Rogers Cup, he acknowledged the weight on his shoulders with grace, shifting from his trademark jovial attitude with an endearing sincerity. “[As number one], the world is looking at me a bit differently, which I think is obvious to expect… You represent not just yourself but the game of tennis in general. You need to handle yourself well.”
Djokovic has been dreaming about this time in his life since he was a child and he is now the man for the job. Where others such as Andy Murray and, to some extent Tomas Berdych and Robin Soderling, have tried to grab the spotlight and stumbled, Djokovic has proven he has the stamina and mental stability to seal the deal. The only other player who has shaken Federer’s stronghold on tennis is Rafael Nadal, who, when healthy, remains a formidable opponent and will surely capture future slam titles, but has not proven to be the same immovable obstacle for the fired up Djokovic than the roadblock Federer faced.
Djokovic is playing with a joy and command that is beautiful to see. There’s an actual spring in his step and a maturity has settled into his game that is satisfying not just for him personally, but fans as well. His success means something to him. “I feel great… I achieved the dreams of my childhood. I had a bit of time to enjoy the success I had, but now it’s back to reality, back to the tennis court, back to business.” He’s taking nothing for granted, respecting what he’s achieved, and somehow without taking himself too seriously, he’s taking his game to another level.
What’s ironic is that one of the only things standing in Djokovic’s way from becoming a bona fide superstar is the inescapable fever for Federer and his undeniable continued megawatt presence. Not to mention that the story of Federer’s fall has the power to overshadow the rise of Djokovic. As Federer’s star flickers and fades, Djokovic will have to keep climbing if he ever hopes to eclipse some of the Federer legacy. Something tells me, though, that he’s up for the challenge. And as Djokovic’s love affair with the sport and the crowd continues to evolve, Federer will have to settle for taking a seat farther and farther back to marvel at the view.
So it goes. So it goes.
Lyra Pappin will be covering the Rogers Cup in Toronto and Montreal for TennisConnected. You can follow her on Twitter at @allthatracquet.