The Great Ones

by: Steve Tignor | April 03, 2016

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Seemingly at the peak of his powers, Novak Djokovic appears unthreatened at the top of men's tennis. (Photos by Anita Aguilar/TENNIS.com)

KEY BISCAYNE, FLA.—There’s a vivid, and perhaps overly vicious, phrase in basketball that’s used when a spectacular shot puts a game out of reach: “The dagger.”

Daggers by their nature come near the end of a game, typically with less than two minutes to go. In tennis, they usually happen when a player who has won the first set belts a winner to go up a break late in the second, and takes any remaining wind out of his opponent’s sails. So it may be a measure of Novak Djokovic’s dominance at the moment that he essentially put his Miami Open final against Kei Nishikori out of reach when there were still nine games left to be played.

Djokovic had scratched his way through a break-filled, 6-3 first set that was as flat as the gray skies above Key Biscayne. Now it was 30-30 on Nishikori’s serve in the opening game of the second. Both players had loosened up a little, and they pushed each other through the best and longest rally of the match. Finally, at around the rally's 30th shot, Djokovic surprised Nishikori with a short backhand. It wasn’t a dropper, exactly, but it was enough to throw Kei off and win him the point. A minute later, Nishikori, breathing heavily, missed a volley and was broken. There was still nearly a set to go, but the feeling in the stadium and on the court told you this one was over. Forty minutes later, it was, 6-3, 6-3.

With his never-in-doubt victory, Djokovic won his sixth straight match and seventh straight set over Nishikori. It was a day when Djokovic was always a step and a thought ahead. When Nishikori guessed down the line, Djokovic went crosscourt. When Nishikori jumped to return what he thought would be a short second serve, he discovered, too late, that Djokovic had put a little extra kick on the ball to take it out of his strike zone. When Nishikori went for his first serve and missed it, he lost the point. When he tried to be safe and get his first serve in, he lost the point just as often. 

“It was a really tough one,” Nishikori said. “He has great defense, so it’s tough to break his game.”

Nishikori had said beforehand that he needed to do everything well to have a chance of knocking off the world No. 1, and that started with his serve. Unfortunately, it deserted him.

“My serve wasn’t going today,” said Nishikori, who was broken five times and who won a meager 40 percent of his first-serve points in the opening set.

Djokovic, not surprisingly, had a happier take on the proceedings.

“I started to get used to his pace,” he said, “and started hitting the ball cleaner and stronger and finding angles and depth and moving him around the court, putting a lot of pressure on his service games ... All in all, I think it was the best performance of the tournament here for me.”

While the match wasn’t one to remember, it unleashed a tide of statistics that testify to Djokovic’s current and historic dominance. It was his sixth Miami Open win, tying him with Andre Agassi for the most on the men’s side. It was his record 28th Masters title, putting him one ahead of Rafael Nadal. It was his 714th match win, putting him one ahead of his coach, Boris Becker. Most amazing of all, it gave him his third straight Indian Wells-Miami double, something no other player has accomplished; from 2004 to ’06, Roger Federer won five of six, but not all six. In the old days, before the Big Four, just doing it once was often called the toughest task in the game.

“The fact that I put myself in a position to make records and have my name in the history books,” Djokovic said, “is a great incentive before matches like this... I’m very thrilled about it. Hopefully I can make many more records.”

“Hopefully” may be a little too modest. At the moment, it’s pretty much a given that Djokovic, who at 28 is still the second-youngest man in the Top 10, is going to keep putting up unprecedented numbers for the foreseeable future. If his easy wins over Milos Raonic and Nishikori in the Indian Wells and Miami finals told us anything, it’s that the next generation has a long way to go to catch up to him. Over the last two years, Djokovic has almost always faced Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray in these title matches; this spring, of the Big Four, only Djokovic remained at the end.

Djokovic’s run of invincibility comes at a moment when there’s a lot of talk about dominance in the U.S. sports world. What are its pros and cons? Does it rob sports of the drama and tension they need to keep people interested? Or are fans drawn to all-time brilliance? Over the last month, we’ve heard the question asked of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, and the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, each of whom has made its competition look largely hopeless. In tennis, on the women’s side, we’ve heard the same questions asked of Serena Williams for the last four years. If the ATP’s Big Four era really does become the era of the Big One, we’ll hear the question asked of Djokovic as well.

On balance, greatness is a good thing for a sport. People who don’t normally watch basketball now tune in to see the special genius of the Warriors' Steph Curry. That was true in tennis when Roger Federer rose to No. 1, and Djokovic is in the process of gaining that same widespread respect. It’s been well documented that he’s not as popular as Federer, but Federer himself would not be nearly as popular today if he hadn’t been as dominant as he was 10 years ago. Yes, people love his style, but that style wouldn’t mean as much if it hadn't made him so successful. A dominant No. 1 gives the sport a face, and a name that can be mentioned alongside Messi, Jordan, Gretzky, and other athletic immortals.

At the same time, one player winning everything is never going to make all hardcore tennis fans happy. Even as Serena Williams was putting herself on the cover of Sports Illustrated with her Grand Slam run last year, there were those of us who follow the game on a daily basis who wondered when another woman was going to "step up” and challenge her. If we keep seeing performances like Nishikori’s today, and Raonic’s in Indian Wells, we may soon be asking the same thing of Djokovic’s fellow male pros. 

Djokovic’s matches in Miami were packed. Many fans chanted for “Nole!” and others rooted for his opponents to upset him, or at least win a few games against him. And that’s one of the beauties of having a dominant player: When someone wins all the time, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing an opponent rise up and threaten, finally, to beat him. 

This weekend, the Boston Celtics rose up and beat the Golden State Warriors, ending their record home winning streak at 54. Curry had an open look at a three-point shot at the end, but this time, for what seemed like the first time, he missed. The upset was thrilling, but I think it would have been more thrilling to see Curry do what everyone expected him to do and make that shot—it would have felt right. 

In Miami this week, Djokovic did what everyone expected him to do; he made all of his shots and won all of his matches. Unlike Curry, he drove in the dagger every time. While that may not have been the most thrilling result, you couldn’t say it was a lucky one, or a fluke, or unjust, or a meaningless one-off. That’s the beauty of seeing a dominant player win: It feels right.

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