If Serbia’s Novak Djokovic defeats Roger Federer in the French Open semi-finals today, he will be one win away from tennis greatness. Victory in Paris this year would make world No. 1 Djokovic the first man to win the Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open, and French Open titles in succession since Rod Laver in 1969 – and only the third man ever to accomplish the feat.
Though not a true “Grand Slam,” which is winning all four majors in a single season, the achievement would be remarkable. It’s an accomplishment that has eluded even Federer, the 30-year-old Swiss virtuoso whose shot-making is “like something out of The Matrix,” as the late David Foster Wallace put it, and whom many consider the greatest tennis player of all time. (All apologies to diehard fans of Laver, who won two Grand Slams.)
As I write this, Djokovic and Federer are only hours away from center court at Roland Garros. Last year Federer stopped the Serb’s 43-match winning streak on the same court, in the same round. But my money’s on Djokovic. Unlike even many superb athletes, Djokovic is a clutch player. He held off four match points to defeat crowd favorite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France in the quarterfinals Tuesday. Djokovic excels under pressure.
And what pressure. “I was never at the holding three in a row and going for that fourth one,” John McEnroe, the former ATP enfant terrible turned network commentator, said this week. “But I know that’s gotta start to get to you a little bit.”
Would a Djokovic victory in Paris herald a new “greatest ever” contender? Not quite. At 25, the Serb has five majors on his resume, but Federer’s 16 is a daunting record. Professional tennis careers tend to ebb in a player’s late twenties – Federer won his last major in 2010 – so Djokovic would need to average two a year through his 30th birthday just to get close. Federer and Rafael Nadal, the 26-year-old Spaniard who’s heavily favored in the other French Open semi, will have something to say about that.
But a French Open title for Djokovic this week would certainly cap an inspiring turnaround story. As a junior in Belgrade, Djokovic’s talent was recognized early, but he struggled professionally and was long considered a head case. Since last year, though, Djokovic has dominated professional tennis thanks to a new training regimen, more on-court discipline, and the best service return game on tour.
Time named Djokovic one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World 2012. The Serb is beloved on tour for his sense of humor – he’s an uncanny mimic (check out this hysterical clip of Djokovic’s McEnroe impression at the 2009 U.S. Open) – and is a national hero in Serbia. In February, former Serbian President Boris Tadic awarded him the country’s highest honor, the Order of the Karadjordje’s Star of the 1st degree.
“I may have dreamed of lifting the trophy at Wimbledon, but I could never have thought that my country would reward me with such a great honor,” Djokovic said. “I am indebted to my people, and I will do my best to continue representing our beautiful country in the best possible way.”
For Serbia, 2012 has been a year for the books, with the country winning coveted European Union candidate status in March. Djokovic might just give his homeland another big win this week.
Photo from www.novakdjovic.com