In the parlance of modern tennis, Roger Federer has become the default, that against which any and all challengers fill in a blank as some kind of placeholder until the younger, better next generation arrives. For many players over the last decade, most notably Spanish clay court foil Rafael Nadal, it is a frustrating truth which is, nevertheless, true, because playing in the shadow of a man who has won seventeen Grand Slam titles since 2003 leaves you in a begrudging negative space, an elephant graveyard where hyenas battle for Federer’s scraps.
Unlike Nadal, Andy Murray and other would-be mutineers, however, Novak Djokovic has always looked like he feels comfortable in that negative space. His rocketing serves, his maddening return game, his consumption of grass: this is the one they colloquially call “the Joker,” and he is the best tennis player alive.
To understand Djokovic, which, frankly, may be impossible anyway, it stands to reason that we must examine Federer. It was the 33-year-old Swiss king whom he faced in the final, after all, and the one objective measuring stick for any men’s tennis player from this point forward. Fed’s nonchalance and precision have helped make him who he is, and at no other event does he seem more comfortable, more at home, than at Wimbledon. The all-white dress code certainly fits the one he requires of party guests anyway, I like to imagine.
(Side note: Serena Williams is in a different dimension, and as much as we may laud her for being America’s greatest female athlete, or even America’s greatest athlete outright, we may still be coming up short. Serena may be the single most dominant athlete ever.)
Federer fits a singular place at the head of the athletic table. His excellence doesn’t so much precede him as it does follow him into a room, like a group of servants carrying a king’s preposterously elongated silk robe. You’re constantly aware of it, yet it doesn’t define him. The Wimbledon crowd takes up Fed’s robe like no other. Even though Great Britain hailed Andy Murray as a hero upon his victory at the All England Club in 2013, his distinct lack of actually being English caused him to be more of a placeholder than a breadwinner.
You need Federer, of course, to see where the other members of the so-called Big Four fit in the grand context of men’s tennis. Nadal has long been Federer’s greatest foil; on two occasions, in 2006 and 2007, Nadal single-handedly prevented Federer from winning all four majors in the same year, and it took Robin Söderling defeating Nadal first for Federer to complete his career Slam in 2009.
Andy Murray is the relative minnow of the group, being the youngest and having only won two majors to date. His frustrated pace of play and pent-up remorse over not being just that much better has always accompanied Murray’s game, and though we probably wish better for him than he wishes for himself, defeat has come to seem inevitable.
All of which makes Djokovic the curious case of the bunch. He was never the consistent threat in Federer’s prime that Nadal was, nor did he carry the weight of a thousand lives on his back like Murray does. Hell, in the first two questions of the on-court interview he held following his triumph on Sunday, Djokovic basically ignored the question to defer to Federer, as parts of arguably two separate men’s tennis generations have now done:
Interviewer: How good were you today?
Djokovic (paraphrased): Slightly better than Roger.
Interviewer: That second set tie-break was really something special, and you knew after that that you had to try and take control of the match.
Djokovic: I knew I had to beat Roger.
It is telling that the woman interviewing Djokovic on Centre Court put particular emphasis on the you in the first question, because she knew – we all knew – how good Federer was throughout the match, and how much better Djokovic had to be in order to defeat him, particularly in four sets. Saying that Djokovic merely overpowered Federer would be misleading, though toward the end it resembled a military coup more than a tennis match. Rather, the Serbian seized control only after Fed started to crack, allowing Djokovic to break his serve multiple times. Until the final, Federer’s serve was broken only once in the fortnight.
Having the crowd so vehemently on his side helped keep Federer afloat, but it could only go on so long. Following a rain delay (which seems inexplicable, given that Centre Court has a roof – surely, Jim Cantore’s power crosses oceans), Djokovic accelerated the match, going stroke-for-stroke with Federer, pushing the Swiss out of control and making him run more than he had in previous matches. Even at 33, Federer has a way of establishing a tempo and rarely, if ever, backing down from it, but Djokovic disrupted that tempo and claimed his third Wimbledon title.
Novak Djokovic is 28 years old and has just won his ninth Grand Slam singles championship. He remains a French Open victory away from the career Slam, but for all intents and purposes, this is a man at the top of his game, refusing to compromise for anyone but himself, his wife and his coach, Boris Becker, himself a three-time champion at the All England Club. While Federer continues to prolong his twilight – where there is sun, there is Federer as the greatest living tennis champion – Djokovic has established his own legacy in the spaces others refuse to occupy. For here, in the darkness, the Joker is alight.