Novak Djokovic Currently Lacks a True Rival, but Tennis like Nature Abhors a Vacuum
On a few occasions in my tennis viewing life, a player has separated himself so far from his competition as to lack an identifiable rival. I saw matches prior to the 1985 Wimbledon championships, but I did not start following tennis until Boris Becker won his first Wimbledon title. In 1987, Ivan Lendl ended the year with Tennis Magazine asking if anyone could challenge him. Mats Wilander emerged in 1988 and won an epic 5-set US Open final to pull the #1 ranking away from Ivan Lendl for the remainder of 1988. Pete Sampras won 4 of 5 majors from Wimbledon 1993-Wimbledon 1994. Andre Agassi emerged as a rival and took the 1994 US Open and 1995 Australian Open titles. Roger Federer dominated 2004, but Rafael Nadal emerged as a rival in 2005. That leads to Djokovic’s current status as an unchallenged #1.
Someone should emerge, but who?
Roger Federer – Roger has a game that can bother Novak Djokovic. This is particularly true if the surface is fast and if the crowd is dialed into the match. Roger has innovated a bit by coming forward more often in recent events. Roger also has upgraded his equipment. Why Not – Roger is 34 and is unlikely to be a lasting, years-to-come rival of Novak Djokovic.
Stan Wawrinka – Stan’s game matches up well with Novak’s. He is one of the few players on tour who can say that. Stan has battled Novak in multiple 5-set thrillers in Melbourne and New York. Stan also blunted Novak’s quest for a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros. Why Not – Novak reached 8 Masters 1000 finals and 4 major finals in 2015. Stan is not as consistent as the Big 4 have been on a week to week basis. Until Stan is playing more finals across a full season, he is unlikely to be a defining rival to Novak.
Rafael Nadal – Rafa was Novak’s rival from US Open 2010 through Roland Garros 2014. Rafa has shown a willingness to dig incredibly deep and challenge Novak. On clay, Nadal can never be overlooked even if Novak is rolling. Why Not – Can he keep doing that with a game that seems to be in decline?
Andy Murray – Andy seemingly should be Novak’s rival. They share certain characteristics including great court coverage, impressive two-handed back hands, and strong return instincts. Murray defeated Novak in the championship matches of both of his major singles titles and in the semifinal round of the 2012 olympic games. Why Not – Andy Murray has only defeated Novak once since his straight set 2013 Wimbledon championship win over the Serb. Novak has owned their head-to-head for 2 full years. It just does not seem that Murray has the weapons to defeat Djokovic with any regularity.
So Who Else?
I am at a loss. A host of talented players are close to 20-years of age. Another group of players are clustered on each side of 25-years of age. The older grouping has been disappointing in 2015. Grigor Dimitrov has regressed. Milos Raonic is hurt. Neither seem to have the qualities needed to make a leap toward being number one. The players in their late teens and early 20s have potential, but tennis today is favoring players who have fully physically matured. Projecting how these young guns will develop is difficult because injuries are likely to frustrate if not claim a few career trajectories.
Rivalry By Committee?
Does Novak face challenges from Federer on fast courts, a rebounding Nadal on clay, Stan Wawrinka when things are working for him, and Murray rediscovers some of his 2012 and 2013 fight in select situations? Do players such as Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori, and Kevin Anderson pick off a few wins over Novak in 2016 as well? I do not think a force of nature akin to Rafa Nadal in 2005 will emerge in 2016. I also don’t think it is easy to replicate Nole’s 2015. 2016 will likely be a harder year for Novak than 2015 was, and not in small part because the calendar is always tricky during olympic years. I think Novak Djokovic will finish 2016 as the #1 player in the world. I just think the upcoming year will also present something at least resembling a true rivalry for Novak. That likely is good for Novak’s legacy, and it certainly will be good for tennis fans.