• What the Deuce

Djokovic poised to muscle in on Roger-Rafa show

Jo Carter March 22, 2011

"Nobody is invincible," proclaimed Novak Djokovic after he extended his unbeaten start in 2011 to 18 matches and three titles.

That may be true, but the Serb is as close to unbeatable as a tennis player could ever hope to be. Not even the great Roger Federer and world No. 1 Rafael Nadal had a sniff as they came up against the supremely confident Djokovic as he romped to victory at Indian Wells.

When Djokovic burst onto the scene in 2007, beating Federer and Nadal en route to the Rogers Cup title Montreal, we wondered whether the 'big two' had just become a threesome. Djokovic's Australian Open title in January 2008 underlined his claim, but inconsistency and asthma disrupted his charge. He attracted accusations from his peers of retiring too easily from matches, and many wondered whether he had the mental strength to add to his grand slam tally.

But sport is all about turning points, and for Djokovic it all began in New York last September. On the brink of a fourth successive defeat to Federer at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic saved two match points before triumphing in five sets to deny Federer a dream final against Nadal.

Few suspected it at the time, but this was the beginning of Djokovic's resurgence as he went on to claim victory in Beijing before helping steer Serbia to Davis Cup victory for the first time in the nation's history.

That victory over Federer was the first sign that Djokovic could muscle back in on the top two. And that match was worth much more than just ranking points - it gave him a serious psychological boost over the king of the mental edge as he finally got the better of Federer at the fourth attempt at Flushing Meadows.

Although Federer went on to win the pair's next three meetings (in Shanghai, Basel and London), Djokovic showed he had cracked the code as he dispatched the Swiss in Melbourne - the first time he had beaten his rival in back-to-back slams.

Victories in Dubai, beating Federer in the final, before his semi-final victory in the Californian desert saw him close the gap and climbing to world No. 2, this time under his own steam rather than as a result of a slip-up from Federer, or a lengthy injury absence from Nadal.

Djokovic is threatening to muscle in on the dominance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal © Getty Images

He is, without doubt, the best player in the world right now, but as the old adage goes, nobody remembers the runner-up. Djokovic is arguably a better player than the likes of Carlos Moya and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who both reached the pinnacle of the world rankings for brief spells in 1999.

Djokovic is cursed and blessed in equal measure to be playing in one of the greatest eras of men's tennis, but history will not remember the two-time grand slam champion who reached world No. 2. His top priority should now be overhauling Nadal at the top of the pile before going about cementing his legacy.

Even if Djokovic reaches the No. 1 spot in 2011, he is still a long way off the achievements of Federer and Nadal. His two grand slam titles to date have both come in Melbourne, and nine of his last ten ATP titles have come on hard courts.

Even if he extends his winning run to 24 matches with victory in Miami, a much sterner test lies ahead as the season heads to Europe for the run of three clay-court Masters events in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome before the French Open at Roland Garros. Rafael Nadal is the defending champion at all four, and as Djokovic hunts down his world No. 1 ranking, the Spaniard will have little intention of surrendering any one of his 5000 ranking points.

If Djokovic is to be considered a true great, he must look at success beyond the hard courts, and with Nadal and Federer dominating proceedings at Roland Garros and the All England Club in recent years, it will be no easy task, regardless of his form.

Time will tell whether Djokovic has what it takes to challenge Federer and Nadal for a place in the history books, but his new-found confidence, if not invincibility, could see him firmly bring the curtain down on the Roger-Rafa show.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jo Carter Close
Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk