Shark-like Serb

Early in the U. S. Open final at Flushing Meadows, Novak Djokovic fell heavily, scraping his elbow and wrist in nasty fashion. It affected Djokovic’s game and he dropped six of the next seven points but he battled on. It is the only way he knows.

Novak Djokovic with the trophy.   -  AP

Djokovic celebrates his victory with coach Boris Becker.   -  AP

Who knows where Novak Djokovic will finish? Late on that Sunday night in New York, he collected his 10th Grand Slam singles title, not so much overpowering Roger Federer as wearing him down. At 28, Djokovic is at the peak of his powers and clearly better than all his competitors. He is technically sound, physically unbreakable, and mentally rock-solid. He is rarely injured and his confidence seldom crushed.

Djokovic is now seventh on the list of all-time major winners, and seven titles behind Federer’s record 17. It is not inconceivable that, for the next two years at least, the Serbian will continue to dominate men’s tennis. Where, then, will he end up? How close to surpassing Federer’s high-water-mark will he come?

Nobody can look into the future but it would take a brave man or a fool to bet against Djokovic one day climbing higher than any other male tennis player. Djokovic's consistency over the past five years has been astonishing. He has made 15 Grand Slam finals out of 20, winning nine of them. In 2015, he won three majors and finished runner-up in the fourth to join Federer and Rod Laver as the only men in the Open era to reach all four Grand Slam finals. This season had echoes of 2011, when he had won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m dominating, but I definitely am very proud of all of the achievements,” Djokovic said after his victory at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. “You know, winning Grand Slam is very special for any tennis player when you are dreaming of becoming a professional tennis player. When you are kind of finding that inspiration, motivation, these are the tournaments you dream of winning. So to actually relive these moments again after 2011 it’s quite incredible.”

Djokovic’s success has not come easy. His opponent in three of his last five Grand Slam finals has been Federer, a player who at 34 continues to astound and delight. Djokovic has triumphed on all three occasions — the only times they’ve met in major finals. The two have met 42 times, with their head-to-head record now tied at 21 wins in favour of each player. But at the majors, Djokovic has won seven of their last nine engagements.

“To win against one of the biggest rivals, the all-time Grand Slam champion, somebody that always keeps on fighting till the last point, keeps making you play an extra shot — all these things now are very special to me,” he said. “The biggest tournaments that I have played this year, as anybody else, and I won three out of four. It’s more than I could ask for, definitely. It’s an ultimate challenge that I can have now, winning against Roger back to back finals at Wimbledon and here at the U.S. Open. It’s tremendous. I’m really, really proud of it.”

In the end, there were only two points between Djokovic and Federer in that Sunday’s final. But the younger man shaded the critical points while Federer buckled. The Swiss won only four of 23 break points, the most damning set of numbers from the match and a summary of his loss. Djokovic did not win because the quality of his tennis was vastly superior to his opponent’s; he just took his opportunities better.

Goran Ivanisevic compared him to a shark that attacked when it smelt blood; it is an apt analogy.

“I think it was the right game plan, just execution was sometimes missing in some crucial moments,” Federer said later. “But other than that, I think I played a good match. Maybe I haven’t played this offensive for a very long time, and that’s maybe the reason as well why maybe I was slightly shaky when it came to the crunch on the break points. Who knows?”

This was as much a defeat for Federer’s game as a triumph of Djokovic’s remarkable defensive capabilities, his strength to fight back when pushed into a corner. In the third set, Djokovic held from 0-30 at 2-3 and then saved two break points in his next service game at 3-4. At once, he broke Federer at 4-4.

In the fourth set, Federer clawed his way back to 5-4 from 5-2 and had three break-point chances to draw level at 5-5. But Djokovic saved all three, a measure of his resolve and unshakable mental strength.

He may not look invincible, like Federer and Rafael Nadal did at the peak of their careers — his loss in the French Open final to Stan Wawrinka a case in point — but Djokovic will fight for all he is worth. He saved 19 break points (including 10 out of 11 on his second serve) on that Sunday; it followed a pattern he has set this year. He saved 7 out of 12 in the final of the Australian Open, 11 of 15 at Roland Garros, and six of seven at Wimbledon. It requires enormous guts. Fans of the Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini may employ a cruder term, one he used to hail James Milner’s qualities last season.

It must not be forgotten that Djokovic has had to battle Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal in the prime of their careers, and a very, very good Federer. In finals, his record against Nadal is 3-3 and Murray 3-2. Between June 2012 and June 2014, he lost a total of five major finals to these two rivals, winning only one. A lesser man may have withered away, but Djokovic duly secured four more Grand Slams, having systematically fought and conquered weakness after weakness in his game.

Early in that Sunday’s final at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic fell heavily, scraping his elbow and wrist in nasty fashion. It affected Djokovic’s game and he dropped six of the next seven points but he battled on. It is the only way he knows.