Ostensibly the main draw in Christopher Nolan’s epic movie, The Dark Knight, is the Batman. It implies that in the title itself, Dark Knight being another name for the Caped Crusader. And yet, when one watches that movie, one cannot help but feel that everyone gets put in the shade by the movie’s villain—The Joker.
Seemingly out of nowhere the antagonist arrives and simply steals the show. Perhaps an interesting parallel is starting to come alive in the tennis world, along those same lines.
For years, in fact a decade and more even, the conversation was essentially around the Federer-Nadal rivalry. It was about who among the two would eventually win the greatest number of Grand Slam tournaments.
However, Novak Djokovic’s recent victory at the Australian Open, brings his tally to 18 slams. He is now only two titles behind his famed rivals—both tied at 20 apiece—though far ahead of others in the annals of tennis history.
And for a man who is often referred to as the ‘Joker’, the prospect of eventually surpassing all before him remains a very distinct and real possibility.
Djokovic prospects were still taken with a touch of levity at the end of the first decade of the new century. Interestingly, the one thing which probably made Djokovic stand out in public perception initially were his imitations of famous players on the court. These antics endeared him to the crowd, and brought the spotlight on him. In a circuit increasingly becoming bland and faceless, it identified him as a ‘character’, something perhaps the sport itself badly needed.
But soon his tennis was the thing people began paying more attention to. Now, just one more great year at the Slams might make him the person everyone wants to copy; not in any funny or mocking kind of a way, more purely as a benchmark of excellence to aspire to.
The silken grace of Federer had many tennis legends waxing eloquent about him. The rippling power of Nadal, his pulverizing strokes from the back of the court had experts raving. For long, Djokovic was in the slipstream of these two.
In fact, at a recent interview he even admitted that he used to curse himself for being in the same era. They seemed to always be in his way.
But Novak Djokovic is a fighter!
Born in Serbia, a country torn by war, he realized at a very young age to appreciate and make the most of what he had. The wall of his home garden patch which he used as an obdurate opponent to practice against, bear the scars of bombing raids even today.
However, playing in such adversity perhaps honed Djokovic’s greatest weapon on court, his indomitable will and absolute refusal to give up. Maybe, and at a romantic level, the wall, which kept returning anything and everything Djokovic threw its way, taught him to never consider any point won because the ball might surprisingly find its way back to his side.
To this unbeatable temperament, fighting spirit and remarkable athleticism he nurtured one of the greatest returns of serve the game has ever seen, ensuring opponents were always under pressure when facing him. Add to that a deceptively effective serve, and precisely powerful and deftly devastating groundstrokes off both flanks, with a particularly glorious two-fisted backhand down the line, and the prototype of the ‘greatest battler on a tennis court’ was put into action. Proof of that is often found in many of his peers admitting he is the toughest player to beat on the tour.
He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal, something few, if any, can claim. He has spent an all-time record number of weeks as world number one. He is also the youngest of the three.
There is a slight window of opportunity for all of them to add to their laurels before time and a newer generation will take over. And unheralded though this period of elite domination has been in the sport, it too will soon come to an end.
The torch will inevitably pass on, and someone else will look up to see the mountain he has to climb to be considered worthy of the throne.
At this point, whilst he lags behind, Djokovic seems best equipped to trump them all, albeit not in a Donald sort of way. Though, as any champion will tell you, that the distance between wins at two Slams can often seem like a lifetime, Djokovic will typically be relentless in his pursuit. Unflinching in the face of rising years and growing expectations. Because that’s simply the way he is.
Born out of the fiery crucible of war, the eternal soldier who will keep ploughing through the trenches.
And for someone who was inspired to scale the summit when he saw Pete Sampras win his first Wimbledon 28 years ago on television, who is to bet against him going all the way.
Yes, this Joker can certainly be the King of them all!