Novak Djokovic. Remember him? World No.1. Top seed at this year’s Wimbledon. I’m joking of course but it seems like every time that the third major of the year rolls around Djokovic is often overlooked during most of the fortnight in London. And it has nothing to do with his grass court resume. After all, he did raise the coveted men’s trophy back in 2011.
But despite this being the first time in over a year that the “Big Four” have convened together at a Grand Slam, it is the same three men who once again find themselves getting the bulk of attention from fans and media alike.
Roger Federer, who seeks an eighth title that would make him the winningest men’s champion of all time, is once again the sentimental favorite. Andy Murray, last year’s finalist, carries the blessing and burden of being his nation’s only hope to finally win their home Slam in almost a hundred years. And then there’s Rafael Nadal who is hoping to go a lot farther than the second round as he attempts the rare French Open/Wimbledon double.
Djokovic is certainly a favorite to win it all and, judging by his draw, perhaps an even bigger one now. But though the Serbian star continues to dominate the bulk of the hard court tournaments, grass is viewed as his weakest surface. Yes, he has only one grass court title to his name and it is the biggest of all, but Djokovic is viewed by many as being the most vulnerable on the green stuff among the top seeds. And that’s an unfair assumption given how the courts at the All-England Club have become a more neutral playing field in the last decade. Djokovic’s sublime movement and his rock solid return game forces his opponents to serve at their very best if they want to defeat him. That was certainly the case with Roger Federer last year in his Wimbledon semifinal against Djokovic. The Swiss star found the big serves he needed to win that critical third set en route to a four set victory. If you want to beat Djokovic at Wimbledon, serving well and big is not just a necessity, it is an all or nothing must.
No one flies under the radar when they are No. 1 in the world. But Djokovic at Wimbledon, especially during the first week, almost does just that. With “Murray Mania” beginning its overwrought, frenetic tempo each time the Scot takes Centre Court, the waves of adulation from the British public whenever Federer plays and the roars of approval and cries of “Vamos Rafa!” when the two-time champion Nadal competes, where does that leave Djokovic?
Djokovic certainly hears his deserved share of respectful applause from those gathered to watch him on the show courts. But I wonder what the Wimbledon crowds really feel like after a Djokovic win? Do they grow excited with the sense that they are witnessing impending history in the making as they do with each Federer victory? Do they feel the same relief each time Murray points to the heavens as he edges a step closer to his almost impossible dream? Or do they nod their heads in confirmation as they do when Nadal notches another “W” that they are watching one of the best ever to play the sport? Djokovic certainly has his share of fans yelling for him during the fortnight, but I sometimes feel the majority of those in attendance view him as an obstacle for the other three to overcome. And not the one that they really want to be the last man standing on the final Sunday.
Djokovic, despite his six major titles and his No. 1 ranking, is still trying to catch up to both Federer and Nadal in terms of his overall legacy. He may continue to dominate the ATP Tour, but a second Wimbledon title for Djokovic is really a necessity for him to be considered one of the greatest ever to play the game. Despite his triumph again at Melbourne earlier in the year, Djokovic’s achievement there has been somewhat eclipsed by Nadal’s own incredible comeback that includes the Spaniard winning seven titles this season. After suffering a tough defeat to Nadal in their stirring five set battle in the semis of Paris, a Wimbledon victory for Djokovic would only reconfirm his status as the world’s best player, especially if he has to defeat Nadal to do so.
Despite being the reigning “best in the world”, Djokovic must once again deal with finding the spotlight turned away him ever so slightly in favor of the other three big contenders. Perhaps that is something he is used to by now. Perhaps it is even something he relishes. Whatever the case, he may not be the sentimental favorite, the local hero, or the legend in the making, but Novak Djokovic is certainly not only a contender for the biggest prize in tennis, he may well be the one to beat this fortnight for anyone who hopes of taking that glory away from him.
Erik Gudris is a tennis writer based in America. Follow him on Twitter @atntennis