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These might just be the regular bumps along the road to GOATness, but I don’t think so. Novak Djokovic used to be a joy to watch on the tennis court. He used to be a combination of fun and fight, and in the end, he was all about the celebration of conquest. The way he did it, there was a drama and bigness to it.
I was at one of the Australian Opens he won. He screamed and looked to the heavens. He tore his shirt off on the court and threw it into the stands. He threw towels into the crowd, too, and then ripped off his wristbands and started taking off so many things that I was getting a little uncomfortable about where it was all going. But it was pure. . .joy.
That’s gone now. If you saw him Tuesday night at the Australian Open, struggling mightily to win 6-3, 6-7 (7-3), 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 over young American Frances Tiafoe, a talented player who is easy for great players to figure out, then you saw one thing for sure:
This isn’t even Djokovic anymore. We’ve seen it from him for months, as he has turned into tennis’ bad guy, even accidentally smashing a ball in anger to the throat of a line judge at the U.S. Open. Djokovic was kicked out for that.
His quest to be known as tennis’ GOAT, ahead of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, has gotten to be too much for him. Maybe he can figure out this battle eventually, too, the way he has in some of his marathon victories. But at this point, his legacy and history are on the line.
He looks like he’s ready to explode.
These GOAT talks have been prominent lately, especially after Tom Brady won another Super Bowl last Sunday. Brady didn’t like being under the cloud of his longtime coach, Bill Belichick, so he left New England for Tampa Bay to prove that his greatness could stand on its own.
But the truth is, the path to GOATness is never a straight line.
Serena Williams is already the GOAT of women’s tennis, but she’s also one major short of the record held by Margaret Court. Williams has been freaking out for a couple of years under the pressure to catch Court. And now this week, she showed up in Australia in better shape than she has been in a while. She says that she had focused on the wrong things, allowing herself to be bullied by the prospect of the record and her GOATness.
So Williams has toned down her on-court emotion and is trying to focus on the joy of the game, not the burden of GOATs.
Djokovic has been melting down for months. He is the No. 1 player in the world. Ahead of Federer. Ahead of Nadal. Truth is, he has been ahead of those guys for years. But he just can’t seem to break into their legendary status.
He isn’t wanted there. He is an interloper.
His career numbers are pushing awfully close. Federer and Nadal have won 20 majors, and Djokovic has won 17. He’s also favored in Australia. Federer is 39 years old and has maybe one more major in him at most. Djokovic is 33 and Nadal 34.
And it’s a good bet that Nadal, who has won the French Open 13 times, will win it again this spring. That’s his tournament.
The Australian is Djokovic’s. He has won it eight times, and he certainly can’t let Nadal win it this time. If Nadal does, and then wins the French, he’ll be five majors ahead of Djokovic. If that happens, then the GOAT debate in men’s tennis will be over four months from now, with Nadal declared the winner. (I already think he’s the GOAT, by the way).
The math is doing jumping jacks in Djokovic’s brain. And his soul.
Early in the match against Tiafoe, this is what I tweeted: “Djokovic could win this match 60 60 60 if he wanted to. Three games in 10 minutes. At this pace, he gets all 3 sets done in an hour?’’
Instead, it took a terrible call against Tiafoe from the chair umpire to clinch things for Djokovic 3½ hours later. The whole time, Djokovic looked annoyed that he had to fight.
Tiafoe played him brilliantly, hitting Djokovic up the middle at medium pace. Most players are afraid to do that because they think Djokovic will never miss. But this way, Djokovic couldn’t do his trademark, which is to run down balls, slide on the hard court and reply with unheard-of angles. Tiafoe stole Djokovic’s angles. So Djoker had to just keep hitting the ball back, hitting the ball back, hitting the back, grinding away.
Djokovic doesn’t want to do that anymore, so he missed. A lot. His game doesn’t work without top energy and speed, and he’s only at about 80 percent on those now.
That’s why Nadal humiliated him at the French Open in the fall.
The path to GOATness is still there in front of Djokovic. It’s there for Djokovic, but not for whoever that guy was against Tiafoe Tuesday night.