I realize that this is Super Bowl week and that the Super Bowl is the preeminent event in American sport.
But since the Big Game is still 5 days away, let’s take a day or two to appreciate and reflect on the 6-hour, 5-set masterpiece we witnessed on Sunday.
World #1 Novak Djokovic outlasted world #2 Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open in the longest Grand Slam final in history. The win gave Djokovic his third consecutive slam and fourth in five tries.
No Other Athlete Compares Currently
Last year Djokovic compiled a 70-6 record, including three Grand Slam championships (everything except the French) and a record five ATP Masters 1000 titles, and he claimed the top spot in the ATP rankings.
The 24-year-old Serbian continued his dominance of men’s tennis this month in Melbourne, dropping only a single set in the first five rounds and eliminating three of the world’s top 5 players in succession to capture his fifth career Grand Slam.
No athlete owns a major sport right now the way Djokovic owns men’s tennis.
— On the women’s side a different player has won each of the last five Slams. For much of the past year Caroline Wozniacki held the #1 ranking, but she has yet to win a major championship. (This year’s Aussie Open winner, Victoria Azarenka, took over the #1 spot this week.)
— Golf’s last 13 majors have seen 13 different winners.
— Michael Phelps, history’s most decorated Olympian, suddenly has a peer in fellow American Ryan Lochte.
— LeBron James may be the world’s best basketball player, but Kobe Bryant is the player most likely to take over a game and will his team to victory; Derrick Rose is the reigning MVP of the world’s top basketball league; Dirk Nowitski is the reigning Finals MVP; and Kevin Durant, the reigning scoring champion, is the best player on the team with best record.
— Sidney Crosby, after a Gretzky-esque start to his NHL career, has been sidelined by concussions.
— It’s difficult for an individual player (other than Jay Cutler) to dominate football or baseball. Justin Verlander dominated a couple dozen games en route to a 2011 sweep of the American League MVP and Cy Young Award, but that’s 24 games out of 162.
— You could argue that Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has a résumé that rivals Djokovic’s.
Messi—whom FIFA named the world’s top soccer player in 2009, 2010, 2011—led Barcelona to 2011 championships in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. But Messi might not even be the best player in La Liga right now. Cristiano Renaldo of first-place Real Madrid currently leads the league in goals scored and is one spot behind Messi on the assists table.
— You could also make a case for Taiwanese golfer Yani Tseng, who won seven tournaments including two majors on last year’s LPGA Tour and is the top women’s player in the world by a considerable margin.
I’ll stick with Djovokic.
The Dominance of Djokovic
Not only is Djokovic winning most of the tournaments he enters, he’s winning them by beating two of the greatest players in tennis history.
If you ask any reasonable person to rank the ten best tennis players ever, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will show up on the list. (Federer should be #2, behind Rod Laver.) In 2011 and 2012 Djokovic is 4-1 against Federer and 7-0 against Nadal. All seven victories over Nadal came in tournament finals. Twice last year Djokovic topped both Federer and Nadal in the same tournament (Indian Wells and the U.S. Open.)
The laws that govern life, the universe, and everything aren’t supposed to allow that sort of thing to happen.
On the other hand, Djokovic barely survived against Nadal on Sunday. He lost the first set and was down a break in the fifth. But he won. That’s what dominant athletes do.
Michael Jordan’s Bulls went 7 games with the Knicks in 1992 and the Pacers in 1998, but they won both series. Michael Phelps out-touched Milorad Čavić by a mere 1/100 of a second in the 100 butterfly at the 2008 Olympics. But he still won the gold.
As long as Djokovic consistently beats Nadal and other top players, it doesn’t matter how he does it.
If there is any doubt about Djokovic’s status as the world’s most dominant athlete, he can erase it with a win at Roland Garros in June. He’s already proven that he can win on clay. Djokovic won Masters 1000 clay-court tournaments in Madrid and Rome last year, both times beating Nadal (the best clay-court player ever) in the final.
Winning this year’s French Open would complete the “Djokovic Slam” and position the young Serbian among the game’s all-time greats.
Other Australian Open Notes
444 for Esther Vergeer
Esther Vergeer of the Netherlands extended her winning streak to 444 matches by winning the women’s wheelchair singles in Melbourne. The win gave Vergeer her 20th Grand Slam singles title.
The Next Great American Tennis Player?
15-year-old Taylor Townsend of Stockbridge, Georgia won the girls’ singles at the Australian Open. Many winners of girls’ and boys’ slams never have the same success at the women’s and men’s levels. But some do. In 2005 a 15-year-old from Belarus won the Aussie girls’ title. That 2005 girls’ champ, Victoria Azarenka, is now the Australian Open women’s champ and the top-ranked player in the world.