Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon toys with a hypothetical regarding the Serb’s career.
Novak Djokovic is certainly on the short list for the sport’s best global ambassador.
He’s a funny and charismatic champion who’s used his time on the global stage to fight for all pro tennis players. He’s a fairly great leader in a sport that hasn’t always been led by them. He’s a man who, unlike his two other contemporaries, does not shy away from controversy if it’s something he truly, deeply believes in.
We’ve seen as much during the pandemic, a time when Djokovic has used his massive platform on Instagram—where he has 7.2 million followers—to entertain a number of different topics and ideas. One day it was a long chat with Maria Sharapova, which was fun enough. But Djokovic, ever the one to further his knowledge of the human mind and body, has also invited folks like someone named Chervin or Jim Kwik for chats on topics that amount to, basically, esotericism? It’s quite the sight to see perhaps the greatest player in men’s tennis history dabble into science and pseudo-science. These things and topics aren’t inherently dangerous; they become dangerous if and when they’re treated as gospel and evidence-based empirical science.
But anyway, that’s neither here nor there. That said, how did you like last week’s column for Rafael Nadal in our ongoing series on each member of the Big Four of men’s tennis? This week we’re moving from someone who’s had so many difficulties at the Australian Open throughout his career to a player who’s used the place for his greatest career triumphs.
If you wanted to change Novak Djokovic’s career and legacy the most by reversing the results of a handful of matches, which matches would you land on? Here are our choices.
2012 US Open final – Andy Murray defeats Novak Djokovic: 7-6(10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2
It’s honestly pretty staggering that a player as talented and gifted as Djokovic has “only” three titles on the US Open hard courts. He has somehow lost five times in the Flushing Meadows final, including yet another time against goddamn Wawrinka (his lone Grand Slam final lost in his last 10), and this 2012 final played on the Monday probably is the toughest loss to swallow: it finally, mercifully gave Murray a first major title after a delayed final that lasted almost five full hours. Ultimately, this loss stings a fair bit not so much because it would have changed everything for the Serb, but more so because it was such a wasted opportunity. He was right there man. Right there.
2011 Roland-Garros semifinal – Roger Federer defeats Novak Djokovic: 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5)
Honestly, we could probably pick three or four separate matches from recent Roland-Garros editions—and if you look at the next entry you’ll see there’s another one. Djokovic has known quite numerous heartaches at the French Open throughout his career but, funnily enough, not that many of them have come at the hands of the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. (Well, that’s not entirely true because some have: the 2012 and 2014 editions come to mind, not to mention the 9-7 fifth set lost in the 2013 French Open semifinal.)
But by and large, the French Open has been so cruel to Djokovic because a handful of times the heartbreak came at the hands of someone other than the player it should have come against.
We’re going with this 2011 semifinal against Roger Federer just because of the sheer shock of when and how it happened. Up to that point in 2011, the Serb had been literally unbeatable, with 43 wins in as many matches since the start of the season. He was the most destructive force in men’s tennis and, had he managed to beat Federer here, might have had a great shot in the final against Nadal; by that point, Djokovic had won all four encounters with the Spaniard that year, including two on clay.
It’s silly to do this because that’s not how that works and because the complexity of the entire season changes then, but if you fix the lone real blemish on what’s an unreal Djokovic 2011 season, suddenly does he manage to complete a calendar slam?
2015 Roland-Garros final – Stanislas Wawrinka defeats Novak Djokovic: 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4
We did mention how heartbreaking the French Open has been for Djokovic over the years, but the truth is you could say that for more or less anyone throughout Nadal’s career.
What’s so shocking here is that this Djokovic loss came after he had already done the difficult part, after he had already beaten the great Nadal—this time in the quarterfinals and in straight sets. Next came a relatively gruelling five-set match against Andy Murray before Djokovic had to take on a rejuvenated Stanislas Wawrinka in the final.
And look, though we love Djokovic as much as anyone, there’s no denying that the man just had no answer on this day against probably the one opponent who’s given him the most trouble over the course of the past decade. But oh, what could have been.
2010 Davis Cup final – Novak Djokovic defeats Gael Monfils: 6-2, 6-2, 6-4
We’re probably cheating a bit here because we’re looking at the overall result of this tie here, with Serbia emerging victorious over France to win the 2010 Davis Cup final. But if we must pick one single match from the five played, how about the one where Djokovic and Serbia are down 2-1 and absolutely must win in order to force a decisive final rubber?
Without this Djokovic win over an in-form Gael Monfils (just after he beat an in-form Gilles Simon), all we know is that Viktor Troicki doesn’t get the chance to push Serbia over the top afterward against Michael Llodra.
But let’s dive into the hypothetic. Without this win, does Djokovic’s all-conquering 2011 season happen? Do the 10 singles titles, including three majors, 70 wins in 76 matches and almost $11 million in prize money happen? We can scale it even further back. Without this win in the Davis Cup, do the ensuing nine years even happen? Without this win, is the period where Djokovic captured 16 of his Grand Slam titles, all five of his year-end No. 1 rankings and countless dollars in prize money, is this period pushed down the drain?
Thankfully for us Djokovic fans, we’ll never have to know.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG