In the U.S., Novak Djokovic’s first career French Open victory might not receive as much attention as it normally would, given the (deserved) wall-to-wall coverage of Muhammad Ali’s passing, the (deserved) excitement about the Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers NBA finals matchup, and the assorted baseball, off-season football, and other sporting news — Copa America! — that typically steals attention from tennis.
But during this busy time, let’s go out of our way to take note: Djokovic just might be the most dominant athlete on the planet right now.
He’s stringing together one of the most stunning stretches in tennis history, and now has a clean shot at overtaking Roger Federer as the greatest player of all-time.
In beating Andy Murray 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, on Sunday at Roland Garros, Djokovic clinched a career grand slam — he’s now won Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens. He’s the first men’s player since Rod Laver, in 1969, to win four straight major championships. He’s the first men’s player since Jim Courier, in 1992, to win the first two Grand Slam tournaments in the same calendar year. With two more victories, at Wimbledon in July and the U.S. Open in September, he’ll be the first men’s player, since Laver nearly a half-century ago, to sweep all four majors in the same calendar year.
For good measure, come August Djokovic will also chase his first Olympic gold medal, at the hard courts of Rio.
Last year was Serena Williams’ summer of slam. This year, it’s all about Novak.
Djokovic, at 29, now owns 12 Grand Slam championships. But somehow, he remains a bit under appreciated, at least in America. Tennis snobs don’t lovingly gush about his game while wearing his initials on their hats, like they do with Federer. Djokovic is a bit of a inbetweener. He doesn’t play as gracefully as Federer did in his prime. He’s not an artiste. And though he’s fast and physical, he doesn’t play with the same snarling bullishness that excites Rafael Nadal supporters.
Maybe American fans have invested so much psychic energy into two sterling foreign players — Federer and Nadal — that they don’t have room for a third.
That’s OK. Because by the time Djokovic’s career is over, he may have passed them all. Yes, by the time Federer was Djokovic’s age, he had won 16 Slams to Djokovic’s 12. (Federer now has 17 Slam victories). But Federer, at 34, is fading: he won his last Grand Slam nearly four years ago, at the 2012 Wimbledon. Nadal, who pulled out of this year’s French Open with a wrist injury, hasn’t won a Slam event since the French Open two years ago. He hasn’t even reached a Slam final since that time.
The path is much clearer. Djokovic will soon get his due.