The English poet Francis Quarles, noted paraphrase royalty, once wrote, “The way to bliss lies not on beds of down, And he that has no cross deserves no crown.” As was more or less his M.O., and the standard run of play in seventeenth century literature, he was drawing largely from The Bible, though you could be forgiven if in a vacuum you thought he may have been discussing the rise of Stan Wawrinka, 2016 U.S. Open men’s champion.
Four sets: that’s all Stan Wawrinka needed to upend Novak Djokovic in the men’s final of the U.S. Open, which he captured in a magnificent 6-7 (1-7), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win that elicited some of the best shot-making either player has ever flashed. Once an underperforming prodigy, Wawrinka is now, against most well-meaning odds, a three-time major champion as well as, for the moment, the king of New York.
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.