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To the limit – and beyond

Novak Djokovic has it in him to surpass Rafael Nadal’s tally of Grand Slam titles and go even further, says Partab Ramchand

It was difficult not to be touched by the outbursts of emotion by Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park on January 29. He is not by nature a very emotional person and compared to his two great compatriots Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal he is considered ‘cold and aloof’’. This is perhaps why he lacks the charisma of the two others who are endearing personalities and why his popularity has remained below theirs despite his monumental achievements.

But Djokovic simply broke down when amidst his family members and support staff in the stands immediately following his victory over Stefanos Tsistipas in the Australian Open final. The win not only gave Djokovic his 22nd Grand Slam singles title drawing him level with Nadal but also saw him regain the No. 1 spot in the ATP rankings extending his record run at the top to 374 weeks.  

Trust the superbly fit and mentally very strong Serbian to sum up the feelings succinctly. He has notched up innumerable notable triumphs during the last 15 years but he described this as the “biggest victory” of his career. No, he was not getting carried away as he spoke those words. He had control over his emotions by then and his thought process was clear. Having arrived in Australia unvaccinated 12 months ago, Djokovic was deported amid a backlash from angry Australians who had endured some of the world’s toughest lockdowns as COVID-19 infections surged and offered no sympathy for his viewpoint. 

The reaction against him was so strong that there were suggestions that Djokovic would not be welcome in Australia again and that his triumphs at the Australian Open would remain at nine titles. But back he came and triumphed again this time to thunderous applause from a packed crowd at the Rod Laver arena. Not surprisingly, he described it as “one of the most challenging tournaments I have played in my life considering the circumstances. Not playing last year, coming back this year I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome and comfortable.”   

Indeed, the more one thinks of Djokovic’s latest achievement, it would appear to be straight out of the fiction books. The dramatic circumstances and the background would be enough to certify it as a dream come true but again as he put it concisely, “Only the team and the family knows what we have been though in the last four four to five weeks. I have to pinch myself to really live though these moments and it has been a long journey.”

Leave it to Goran Ivanisevic to go into the details of Djokovic battling an injury, which as his coach and former Wimbledon champion said would have forced most players to quit. Djokovic surged through his Australian Open campaign having to deal with suspicion about the severity of his hamstring injury that he suffered en route to winning the warm-up title in Adelaide. There were even charges that he was faking the injury but Djokovic said that these allegations only served to give him extra motivation.  As Ivanisevic explained: “Let me put it like this. I don’t say 100 per cent but 97 per cent of the players after getting results of the MRI scan would go straight to the referee’s office and pull out of the tournament but not him.”

Little wonder then that Tsitsipas commended Djokovic’s contribution to the sport. “Novak brings the best out of me and these are the matches I have been working my entire life for. I think he is the greatest that has ever held a tennis racket. I would like to thank him for pushing our sport so far and it deserves a player like him who pushes every single player who is involved in this sport.”

Tsitsipas could not have put it better. He played some great tennis but then against Djokovic you have to be at your best all the time to succeed for however well the opponent  plays, he finds he is up against someone who pushes the bar that much higher.

Starting the year at No. 4, Djokovic is back at the top and this is an amazing achievement when one considers that he could figure in only two Grand Slam events last year. For much the same reasons he could not play at the Australian Open and the US Open. In the only two events he played, he lost in the quarterfinal of the French Open to Nadal and won Wimbledon. He has had a remarkable run around the ATP Circuit – with 93 titles he is fourth in the all-time standings behind Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer and Ivan Lendl – and he has won the ATP Tour finals a record six times.

More than Nadal who has been ruled out for at least a few weeks due to a hip injury sustained at the Australian Open, it is Djokovic who is now the standard bearer for the ageing superstars continuing to dominate even though there are a number of talented youngsters with Tsitsipas now the leader of the GenNext. Carlos Alcarez, who missed the Australian Open due to injury, Casper Ruud and Andrey Rublev are the other leading contenders but it is a tribute to Djokovic’s sublime skills and superb fitness that four months short of his 36th birthday he is still the most talked about tennis player in the world. And one can be sure he is not one to rest on his laurels, however impressive the list is. Obviously, his first objective is to get to Grand Slam title No. 23, to move ahead of Nadal but he is also thinking of Nos. 24 and 25 which will take him past Margaret Court who has the most number of Grand Slam titles for any tennis player, man or woman. As he himself summed his aims aptly, “I don’t have any intention of stopping here. I feel great about my tennis. I know that when I am feeling good physically and mentally, I have a chance to win any Grand Slam against anybody. I like my chances going forward.” Clearly, Djokovic believes in the ultimate sporting adage: ‘to the limit – and beyond’.