Novak Djokovic tries to join fellow legends as a Japan Open champion

Novak Djokovic tries to join fellow legends as a Japan Open champion

The Serbian seeks to add his name to the list of past and future Hall of Famers who've triumphed in Tokyo, including Edberg, Sampras, Federer and Nadal.

As a new tournament on the Grand Prix circuit, the Japan Open featured what would have been considered a dream final in 1973 between Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe. 

“Muscles” topped “Newk” in that championship match, but the next year, the tables were turned as the younger Newcombe defeated his fellow Australian.

Over the years, the tournament in Tokyo hasn’t lacked for Grand Slam winners among its list of past champions. Now, one more is looking to add to his own legacy by capturing one of the game’s most prestigious prizes.

Roger Federer defeated Tim Henman for the Tokyo trophy in 2006. (Getty Images)

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic is making his debut at the tournament this year. Traditionally, the Serbian has played the China Open in Beijing during this week, where he’s the all-time title leader. However, he’s undertaken a new challenge this year as he returns to the court for the first time since retiring from the US Open in the fourth round due to an elbow injury.

Over the course of its history, the Japan Open has been one of the hardest titles on tour outside of the majors and Masters 1000 events for any player to capture, so Djokovic can continue to expect challenges as he seeks his fourth title of 2019.

After those first two finals, two more Grand Slam winners—Roscoe Tanner and Manuel Orantes—claimed titles at the tournament in the 1970s. The next decade kicked off with a triumph by a player who would go on to be one of the most dominant forces in the men’s game.

Ivan Lendl won the 1980 title—one of seven events he earned the top prize at over the year. It was the only time the Czech-turned-American won the tournament, but he was still playing in finals there more than a decade later.

The latter portion of the 1980s and early 1990s saw the smooth serve and volleyer Stefan Edberg establish a foothold at the tournament. The Swede won his first title there in 1987; lost the final in 1988 to John McEnroe in a net-rushing battle; then posted a “three-peat,” where he defeated Lendl, Aaron Krickstein and Lendl again in successive years.

Stefan Edberg owns a tournament leading four titles. (Getty Images)

Immediately after Edberg’s run, the Japan Open seemingly became the domain of Americans—in particular, two of them who would go on to reach the Hall of Fame shortly after their playing days were done.

From 1992 to 1996, the big-hitting baseliner Jim Courier and the prodigy Pete Sampras split the titles there between them. In ’92, Courier defeated Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands, but the next four finals were all-American affairs: Sampras beat Brad Gilbert and Michael Chang in 1993 and ’94, respectively, while Courier returned to the winners’ circle there by topping his former academy mate Andre Agassi in 1995. Sampras wrapped up the run in 1996 with a win over Richey Reneberg in the championship match.

Krajicek would actually be the last Grand Slam champion of the 20th century to triumph there when he won in 1997, but the next millennium soon saw a future Hall of Famer win in Tokyo once again.

In his return to tournament play after capturing his first Grand Slam title at the 2001 US Open, Lleyton Hewitt ran his winning streak to 14 (including two Davis Cup rubbers) by taking the top prize in Tokyo. 

Five years later, Roger Federer would repeat Hewitt’s exact run. Playing Tokyo for the first—and to date, only—time, the Swiss claimed the top prize without the loss of a set over the week.

Andy Murray handed Rafael Nadal a rare bagel in the deciding set of the 2011 final. (Getty Images)

Federer’s not the only one of Djokovic’s peers in the “Big 4” to have a Japan Open title under their belts, though: Rafael Nadal won the title in 2010, but his efforts at a repeat attempt were thwarted by Andy Murray a year later.

In 2015, Federer’s countryman Stan Wawrinka made his mark as the most recent Slam champion to win it all in Tokyo. Since then, some of the game’s brightest up-and-comers have emerged victorious at the Ariake Coliseum. However, as the top seed and seemingly healthy so far, Djokovic is a heavy favorite for the title as he seeks to join some of tennis’ all-time greats as a Japan Open champion.