This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Australian Tennis Magazine. Subscribe now!
Sometime in 2016, tennis will have its first $100 million player – and sometime soon after, its second.
If both can stay healthy, the question is not whether Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will get there, but who will get there first.
Federer may have had a $3.3 million head start in the race to nine figures – he began this year with $97.3 million in career prize money, while Djokovic surged to $94 million in 2015 – but don’t bet against the world No.1 pipping the 17-time Grand Slam champion to the mark.
Since the Swiss became the first player to reach $50 million back in 2009, the Serb has earned over $80 million.
He seems destined to catch and surpass Federer’s career earnings in the fullness of time – a trend the world No.1 hopes to extend beyond their bank balances.
Djokovic is currently, emphatically, the best player in the world. Of the 16 tournaments he played last season he reached 15 finals and won 11 titles, including Wimbledon, the US Open, and his fifth Australian Open. He claimed a record six of the nine ATP Masters 1000 crowns, sealed the China Open for the loss of just 18 games and capped the year with a record fourth consecutive ATP World Tour Finals title.
It seemed fitting that Federer, the only player to beat Djokovic more than once, was there to offer the final congratulatory handshake in London.
This is the rare air Djokovic is now breathing. Take that 82-6 win-loss record in 2015, just shy of the marks set by John McEnroe (82-3 in 1984), Jimmy Connors (89-4 in 1973, 95-6 in 1974) and Federer (81-4 in 2005, 92-5 in 2006). Or his year-end lead over world No.2 Andy Murray in the ATP rankings, large enough to rank above No.4 Stan Wawrinka.
He went 31-5 against top 10 opponents, 16-4 against the top five, beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, and became just the sixth player since the ATP rankings began – after Connors, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt and Federer – to occupy the No.1 spot for the entire season.
Then there’s the money.
Djokovic walked away with $21.6 million last year; no player had previously broken the $16 million barrier in a single season.
Over the same span, Federer, Murray and Nadal – his Big Four cohorts, a band the world No.1 is threatening to leave in his wake – earned a combined $21.4 million.
Djokovic may well reach $100 million before Federer, but majors, not money, remain the measure of greatness.
Djokovic now has 11, placing him fourth on the list of Open-era Grand Slam champions and within striking distance of the summit – and this at a time when two of the men above him, Federer and Nadal, still rank among his rivals.
“Nothing is impossible,” the Serb said in Shanghai last October. “I have that kind of mindset. I know that it’s still a long way, but it’s one of the things that motivates me to keep going.
“I love this sport. I feel like there are many more years in front of me. If I’m able to sustain this level of dedication and level of performance, the way I play tennis, I think I have a good chance to compete for the trophy on any Grand Slam in the future.”
The foundation of Djokovic’s dominance is control – both on court and off. Meditation, devotion to his diet and the joy he finds in his family life with wife Jelena and son Stefan are each as important to his holistic approach to the sport as time on the practice court or in the gym.
By his own admission, no one shot defines his game through its strength or weakness. Twinned with an elastic athleticism that appears increasingly bulletproof, it is his accuracy, intelligence and clarity of thought that make him the complete player.
“Every player has his own pros and cons,” Djokovic said. “Over the years I managed to improve my transition from the defence to offense. My serve has gotten better, not in terms of speed, but in terms of precision and accuracy. The matches against the top rivals at this level are won when you are aggressive and when you’re taking the ball early. The first shot, serve, being aggressive and constructive in the right points, that’s what I focus on.”
Paul Annacone, one-time coach to Federer and Sampras, summed up Djokovic’s game in two words: relentless perfection.
“He’s perfected his game on the hard courts, no doubt about it,” Federer said after their US Open final. “He was always a great clay court player, and because he moves as well as he does, he’s solid and consistent now on the grass. To say the least, it’s very impressive.”
But the season was not perfect.
Defeat in the French Open final against Wawrinka prevented a stellar season from making the leap to historic. It was a crushing blow for Djokovic, desperate to win the one major that eludes him – the complete player chasing the complete CV.
All of which makes his victory at Wimbledon, a feat ironically overshadowed by Serena Williams’ win and the prospect of a calendar Slam, all the more impressive. It was a team effort, Djokovic insisted – and Boris Becker, the three-time Wimbledon champion, was a key part of the process.
“That three week period was really difficult, much harder than coaching a semifinal,” the German told New York Magazine.
It was Becker’s idea to have Djokovic practice with Wawrinka during Wimbledon – to face up to his failure and move on.
“Now and then you have to shake Stan’s hand and say, ‘Son of a bitch. You played better today,’” he explained. “And that’s okay.”
“Whenever you’re winning, everybody feels happy and it’s easy to say positive things,” Djokovic said after lifting the Wimbledon trophy for the third time.
“But in the tough times, Boris was there, as was the entire team. They were encouraging me to keep going, supporting me. That’s a unity that keeps us together and allows us to experience these beautiful moments.”
Now comes another tough time for Djokovic: the clean slate. Could he possibly improve on last year?
There are targets – Roland Garros tops the list, alongside a shot at Olympic gold in Rio and another chance to complete his Masters 1000 collection in Cincinnati.
Having won 27 of his 28 matches at the majors in 2015, a calendar Slam bid is not beyond the realms of possibility, but simply matching the feats of 2015 will be a monumental challenge.
“We’re talking margins,” said Federer when asked what it takes to follow a season of dominance.
A break point here or a tiebreak there, he explained, and invincibility can quickly give way to vulnerability.
“Rafa has been there, I’ve been there. We both know how hard it is to back it up year after year. It takes a lot of effort – you’ve got to be physically in shape, no injuries whatsoever. Mentally you have to be at your peak at all times. It’s not as easy as it seems.”
Djokovic has been there, too.
Back in 2011 he swept three of the four majors, but before the season was over fatigue had set in. He defended his Australian Open title in 2012 but lost four of his next five major finals and endured a six-month title drought in 2013. Becker was appointed soon after.
Two years and four major triumphs later, the partnership – and Djokovic – seem stronger than ever as both strive to push the 28-year-old to new heights and cement his status as one of the game’s greats.
“There is always room for improvement,” Djokovic insists.
“I’m very proud to achieve what I have achieved in the last 10 years, but I want to do more, and I can do more. Hopefully the health, fitness serves me, the fresh mind, and I can do more things in the future.”
Try stopping him.
This article originally appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.
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