As Novak Djokovic once again displayed his mastery over the Australian Open, winning it for the fifth time – taking his total number of majors to eight – it became clear that his dominance will be the leading storyline for men’s tennis in 2015. It will be difficult for anyone to upstage him at any of this year’s Grand Slams, in which he will enter as the odds-on favourite, barring any injury or catastrophic drop in form and confidence.
Men’s tennis is in a state of transition right now, much as it was in 2004-07 when Roger Federer began his rapid ascent to the top of the rankings and, with the sole exception of Rafael Nadal, especially from 2008 onwards, had phases of uncontested dominance. By contrast, Nadal enjoyed no such transitional respite, pitted as he was against some of the best competition in the history of the Open era. Djokovic is actually in a more favourable position than even Federer was, because there is now a clear demarcation. Federer, due to the limitations of age, and Nadal, due to his frequently debilitating injuries, are clearly heading towards the twilight of their careers, despite their passion and frequently scintillating play.
What is even more fortuitous for Djokovic, however, is his vast edge over his nearest rival, Andy Murray, and the clearly unripe talents of the rest of the contenders. Murray looks at times hapless, and at times unsure, especially when playing his fellow “Big Four” – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Last year’s Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has been unable to string together any sort of consistent tennis since last year’s tournament, and admitted to mental and physical fatigue after his defeat to Djokovic in the semi-finals this year. Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov have limitations in both their mental and physical games that disadvantage them against someone with Djokovic’s mental fortitude and physically bruising game.
Ironically, the two players who possess the physical skill to trouble Djokovic falter frequently in the mental game. Tomáš Berdych remains a gifted player who flatters to deceive, and at least thus far has not shown the ability to win a major. He does, however, seem to be taking measures to ascend to the next level by hiring a new coach, and in handing Nadal a beating at this year’s Australian Open. Marin Cilic, on the other hand, won the 2014 US Open – but, between injuries and a loss of confidence, appears to be a non-factor in 2015.
Competition aside, there were some exciting initiatives in tennis in 2014, although their long-term success and viability will depend to a large extent on a couple of factors. The International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) amazingly managed to present virtually all of the world’s top players in a league format. The IPTL was held during a period that is traditionally set aside for the players to rest or recover from nagging injuries, and that is one of the controversies it will need to address. Four of the players who participated in it full-time – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Cilic and Ana Ivanovic – were either unable to compete at the Australian Open due to injuries or were shockingly upset in the first round, perhaps due to fatigue. The IPTL has become a talking point for its supporters and detractors, and its ability to repeat and expand will depend a great deal on the performances of its participants during the tour’s season, and their willingness to sign on for an encore later this year. But for now, the focus remains on Djokovic.
There is a sense of inevitability surrounding Djokovic this year – the feeling that he will pull out a win despite any setbacks or not playing his best. The greatest players of their generations have that, and Djokovic has many advantages that could make this the first Grand Slam season since Rod Laver in 1969. Djokovic lacks the universal acceptance of Federer and Nadal, and at times still has to defend himself against veiled barbs of gamesmanship, including in the 2015 Australian Open final. But there are two things Djokovic has that could well make him a legitimate threat to the majors record by 2017: the best all-court game in the world at present, and a mental edge over every other men’s player on the planet. From what one knows of Djokovic, he’s going to make that count. The era of the “Big Four” is almost over, but the era of Djokovic may just have begun.
The writer leads the sports law practice at J Sagar Associates. These views are his own