Novak Djokovic’s 18th Grand Slam title won at the Australian Open on Sunday puts him only two short of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s 20, with experts now certain that it’s only a matter of time before he overtakes the universally adored duo.
Federer and Nadal rule the hearts of tennis lovers, with the elegant Swiss maestro probably holding a slight edge over the Spanish “Raging Bull”, but Djokovic, who for various reasons is not so well-liked, has silently crept up on them.
In the past Djokovic was perhaps guilty of trying too hard to be admired the same way as Federer and Nadal, but of late he seems to have gotten over that obsession. He simply doesn’t care anymore, letting his racquet do the talking and collect trophies with imperious authority like he did on Sunday when he vanquished Russian challenger Daniil Medvedev in straight sets.
There’s a calmness with which Djokovic does things now, which is credited to a strict vegetarian diet and a new-found love for the spiritual. Among his staff is Pepe Imaz, a former player and an exponent of a philosophy based on “love and peace” which has reportedly helped the Serb’s game.
He grew up in war-torn Belgrade and says he “came from nothing”, having to practise in a disused swimming pool.
The boy from the ruins of conflict has now banked more than $145 million in prize money and lives in the millionaire’s playground of Monte Carlo.
There were lingering doubts in the past about the size of his heart after a series of big-tournament retirements.
But he has surely laid those to rest after recovering from a severe abdominal injury to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for a ninth time on Sunday.
He could barely walk at times as he beat Taylor Fritz in five painful sets in the third round, and then grimaced in pain through matches against Milos Raonic and Alexander Zverev.
By the time he beat Aslan Karatsev in the semi-final he proclaimed his fitness was better than it had been all tournament.
True to his word, he was back to his imperious best in the final.
It banished memories of retiring from six previous Slams with injury, the most recent examples in the 2017 Wimbledon quarter-final against Tomas Berdych and at the 2019 US Open when two sets down to Stan Wawrinka.
It also allows Djokovic firmly to consign a torrid 12 months since his 2020 success against Dominic Thiem to the rear-view mirror.
The coronavirus pandemic meant the world’s tennis tours were suspended in March and three months later, Djokovic took it upon himself to launch his ill-fated Adria Tour.
The tournament in Belgrade had 4,000 spectators packed in while players shook hands and took selfies with fans, and ballkids handled sweaty towels — all during a global shutdown.
The inevitable happened. Djokovic, his wife Jelena and players Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki all caught Covid.
He was later kicked out of the US Open after hitting a line judge in the throat unintentionally with a ball he slapped away in anger during the fourth round.
The distressed female official needed treatment on court and Djokovic apologised.
But all those indiscretions will be relegated to a footnote when he is finished with the game which will cherish him as one of the all-time greats.
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