WATCH—Daily Serve from Day 8 at Cincinnati:
To fully appreciate the magnitude of what Novak Djokovic accomplished a couple of days ago on a memorable Sunday afternoon, consider this: by virtue of his 6-4, 6-4 triumph over Roger Federer in the final of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, the 31-year-old Serbian completed a career sweep of all nine Masters 1000 tournaments, a feat never achieved by any player before since the ATP World Tour established that prestigious category in 1990. Couple that with the fact that Djokovic has also secured all four major championships—the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open—at least once, and recognize that he stands alone as the only man to realize those twin feats at the Grand Slam tournaments as well as the elite and diverse events that matter most outside of the majors.
It was Federer who was the first to laud Djokovic for becoming the first player ever to take all nine Masters 1000 events. After his loss to Djokovic—a defeat that put the Swiss Maestro down 24-22 in the career head-to-head series with his old rival— Federer spoke with sincerity and the utmost respect about what it meant for Djokovic to reach this land of exclusivity.
As Federer put it, “This is an amazing accomplishment, and I hope he’s extremely proud and extremely happy about this moment… All these records that a player creates, you know, at the end of the day you’re going to all judge it all together, bundle it up and say, ‘Okay, what was the coolest thing you ever did?’ And this might be it for Novak, besides winning all of the Slams and all the other things he’s done already.”
Trying to put the Djokovic feat into a deeper context, Federer amplified his remarks by talking about how players in the past never had the chance to prioritize Masters 1000 events since the structure of the tour was so different.
He explained, “It’s just something that the previous generation couldn’t even aim for, because we had the Super 9s, okay, but it wasn’t like a goal of anybody because you had so many experts and on all different surfaces. And then all of a sudden, things slow down. Everybody starts to play from the baseline. Only then could you win all four [Grand Slam events] or could you win all the Masters 1000s. But I think as generations will go by, more and more players will get a chance of doing something like this. But he [Novak] is the first one to do it.”
Clearly, Federer had given Djokovic’s achievement considerable thought.
He asserted, “I think it’s extremely difficult to win a Masters 1000. These tournaments don’t come easy. You saw my performance today. It’s just a long week. It’s tough, grueling. The best players are playing. You play against tough guys early on in the draw, so you don’t have much time to find your rhythm and actually work on your game throughout the week. He’s done that maybe better than anybody. So it’s a great credit to him.”
The numbers back up Federer’s praise of Djokovic and the magnificent work the Serbian has done in Masters 1000 tournaments. After reaching five finals in Cincinnati, he finally placed his name on the champion’s board there after an agonizingly long time. But his line of successes everywhere else in those highly regarded events is astonishing: five times he has been the victor at Indian Wells. He has ruled in Miami on six occasions. Twice he has won in Monte Carlo and Madrid. Four times he has won in Rome and Canada. Thrice he has been the champion in Shanghai, and four times he has claimed the indoor crown in Paris.
And so Djokovic has collected 31 Masters Series shields across his storied career, winning indoors and out, on clay and hard courts, in slow and fast conditions, all against the best in his business. His record is diversified. Altogether, Djokovic has managed to garner 70 singles titles on the ATP World Tour, but what makes that mark all the more remarkable is that 44 of those tournament victories have taken place at either the Grand Slam events (13) or the Masters 1000s (31). Moreover, he is a five-time champion at the ATP Finals, arguably the fifth biggest tournament in tennis. He treats every category of tournament seriously, but has demonstratively been a bigger and better player at propitious moments with larger stakes.
That is the way all of the great players define themselves; they summon their best stuff when it matters the most. Examine Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer owns 98 career ATP World Tour titles; 20 are at the majors, 27 have occurred at Masters 1000s, and he has come through at the ATP Finals six times. Nadal has collected 17 majors and 33 Masters 1000s (the most of any player), taking 50 of his 80 career crowns in those heralded events, yet a minor flaw in his record is never winning the ATP Finals.
To be sure, Federer and Nadal have been even better big occasion players than Djokovic, which is saying something substantial. They have claimed more of the prestigious prizes in totality; Federer has won seven more majors than Djokovic and Nadal is four ahead of the Serbian. Nadal has won a couple more Masters 1000s than Djokovic, but has taken only six of the nine tournaments on the current list; the fact remains that he won Hamburg when it was an official Masters 1000 event. Federer has been victorious in seven of the nine tournaments included now, but took multiple titles in Hamburg. Altogether, he has won four less Masters 1000 crowns than Djokovic.
How does it all add up? Undoubtedly, Federer and Nadal have outdone Djokovic with the weight of their respective records, mainly because of their exploits at the majors. Yet Djokovic in my view has been the most convincing all-surface player of this towering trio. Most observers view Federer as the second best clay-court player of this era behind Nadal. What I have observed is different; on balance, Djokovic has been a better clay-court player than Federer. Both men have won the French Open once, but Djokovic has secured eight clay-court Masters 1000 titles at three different locations (Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid) while Federer has taken three current Masters 1000 clay-court events at that level—all in the high altitude of Madrid. He did, however, win Hamburg four times when that tournament was in the Masters 1000 category. In the final analysis, Djokovic’s clay record is more complete in my view than Federer’s.
Ultimately, the Grand Slam tournaments will determine above all else where a player stands on the historical ladder. Djokovic understands that central fact as well as anyone. And yet, he also realizes that, over the course of his career, increasingly over that time, the Masters 1000s have grown decidedly in stature. That is why he had seldom seemed more content or appreciative about an important triumph than he was in Cincinnati on Sunday.
Djokovic was deeply moved by what he had done in taking the only prize in the collection that had eluded him. Was it on the same level as his breakthrough victory at Roland Garros two years ago, when he became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to capture four majors in a row? Not quite. But his extraordinary gratification was unmistakable; he knew full well what it had taken to keep working toward a goal until ultimately realizing it. Losing five finals in that city had left him disconcerted over the years, but finally he had moved past those disappointments.
“Definitely this is one of the most special moments in my career,” he said after toppling Federer. “Achievements, making history of the sport that I truly love, is a great privilege and honor and something that I’ll be very proud of for the rest of my life. I was saying during this week that obviously this trophy has been a big motivation for me. But at the same time I tried not to think about the pressure of really making history too much, because I have had already some failed attempts, like three years ago with Roger. I mean, [it] wasn’t easy psychologically because I knew I had lost to him every time I had played him on this court.”
Djokovic was asked to compare his desire to win Cincinnati to the way he felt about ruling at Roland Garros a few years ago.
He said, “It’s very fulfilling. It’s hard to compare. I know you guys like to compare, but I will just say that I’m very, very pleased and satisfied, just filled with great emotions. I tried for five times and didn’t succeed. I kept on coming here and felt, to be honest, more pressure every time that I kept coming.”
Now the burden has been lifted, and Djokovic will turn his full attention to Flushing Meadows and a third US Open title. He has had some bad luck over the years on the hard courts in New York, losing five of seven finals, falling in title-round contests against Nadal (twice), Federer, Andy Murray, and, most recently, Stan Wawrinka in 2016. Considering that he has been the premier hard-court player of his generation, Djokovic must lament the fact that his record in Open finals is so disappointing. Moreover, he can’t be content with his overall record in Grand Slam tournament finals. He is 13-9, which is nothing to be ashamed about, but not as good as it should be. Federer is 20-10 in major finals while Nadal is 17-7. Djokovic has put up better numbers in Masters 1000 finals: 31-14. Federer is 27-20, and Nadal 33-16.
Yet this is Djokovic’s chance to make amends, and he approaches the last major of 2018 in the best possible frame of mind, fresh off a long awaited Masters 1000 victory, with his fourth Wimbledon tournament win not far in the rear-view mirror. He has now set himself apart from his esteemed rivals with his Masters 1000 complete collection. Perhaps no one will replicate that arduous feat; Federer never will and Nadal probably won’t.
But if Djokovic wants to make inroads on Federer and Nadal historically, he must win a lot more majors. It is too often overlooked that Djokovic is not only ahead of Federer by two matches in their gripping career series, but he also leads Rafael Nadal 27-25. Those records in direct combat against his two oldest and most crucial rivals are very significant. The fact remains, though, that he needs to make the most of the next three years. He must exploit every opportunity.
Can he win five to seven more majors in that span? I believe he can. He is now the favorite to win the US Open. The progress he has made this season since May on the clay has been nothing less than stupendous. Having returned from missing the second half of 2017 with an ailing elbow, Djokovic commenced his 2018 season in an almost unrecognizable state. Through his first six tournaments, his match record was an abysmal 6-6. But since the start of Rome, when he got to the semifinals, he has won 27 of his last 31 matches.
I believe he will sustain that pace. Two weeks ago in this space, I predicted that Djokovic would finish this year back at No. 1 in the world, and I have no doubt that he can do that. He currently is at No. 3 in the ATP Race to London, and is only 175 points behind No. 2 Roger Federer. If Djokovic wins the Open, he will be very hard to stop in the chase for the year-end No. 1 ranking. And should he do that, it would be the fifth time in his career he has concluded a season at No. 1. That would put him on equal footing with Federer and one ahead of Nadal.
Djokovic could make a lot more history these next few years. I believe he will be more driven than ever to succeed on the highest level, and the view here is that he will reward himself with many more high honors in both Masters 1000 and Grand Slam events.