WASHINGTON, July 27, 2011—When Roger Federer began tearing up the tennis world, only one question was on everyone's mind: how long would it be before he dominated so completely as to win the Grand Slam? When Rafael Nadal started reeling off his string of French Open titles, the collective human mind switched to pondering how long it would be until any player could beat Nadal on clay, opening the door for Federer to reach his goal. When Nadal started to defeat Federer on hard court and grass as well, speculation took off as to how long it would take for Nadal to completely overcome Federer and win the Grand Slam himself.
But it is a cruel irony, as we look back at those years, the talk of 2003-2010, and see that neither Federer nor Nadal has joined Don Budge and Rod Laver in the exclusive group of men who have won the Grand Slam. Crueler still is the fact that the best shot at seeing a Grand Slam in the next five years, hinges not on Nadal nor Federer.
No, the best hope for a Grand Slam is centered squarely on the shoulders of Novak Djokovic. As has been well documented, Djokovic is in the midst of a near-perfect season. He won his second Australian Open title in January, starting a 41-match winning streak that lasted deep into the French Open, ending only after a defeat at the hands of Federer in an epic semifinal. Djokovic then proceeded to claim his first Wimbledon crown and the title of World No. 1, rolling over Nadal in the final after avoiding a rematch with Federer.
Now, Federer is written off as old at nearly 30. Nadal isn't dismissed to the same extent, but is criticized for not seeming to play with the same energy and intensity as he did pre-injuries. Neither premise is particularly valid. Why would Federer, acknowledged as the greatest player of all-time, burn out so suddenly? And Nadal, even when considering his incredibly injury-conducive style of play, done for at 25?
That Djokovic has performed so well as to inspire these attitudes about the two greatest tennis players of his time is nothing short of a miracle. To step in with a performance dominant enough to produce a bounty of doubt about a man with 16 major titles to his name, and another previously on pace for even more, is simply unheard of.
In 2007, when Djokovic came to prominence after taking out the top three players in the world— Andy Roddick, Nadal, and Federer—in a row at a US Open Series event in Toronto, he was merely described as a rising player who would be stuck in the shadows of Federer and Nadal. Even when he backed up his performance that summer by making it all the way to the 2007 US Open final, he was still dismissed. But he merely became better and better. It seems simple, but the simplicity is what has made Djokovic's accomplishments stand out to the extent that they have. He quietly hijacked a decade that was supposed to be dominated by two others. The 2011 US Open will seal his case should he win it for his third major of the year. For better or for worse, Novak Djokovic represents the future of tennis, even if his rise still seems too meteoric to be true.