x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

All that glitters is not gold for Djokovic

During this era in men's tennis, the shine was slightly taken off Novak Djokovic's 2012 campaign.

Novak Djokovic practises with a youngster at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
Novak Djokovic practises with a youngster at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.

The first question asked of Novak Djokovic at his news conference was about the absence of Rafael Nadal.

A little later he was asked about a brief trip he made to Brazil to play exhibition tennis and do social work with Gustavo Kuerten.

Then someone asked him to elaborate on the nature of his rivalry with Andy Murray, at once old and established, and now newly compelling. A question about donkey cheese also came up (don't ask).

Sat there, if it needed reminding, was the world No 1, a five-time grand slam winner, off the back of a year in which he won a slam and finished runner-up in two others (and a semi-final in the other), and aiming to become the first man in the Open era to win the Australian Open three times in a row.

There were questions about the season just gone, the season ahead, the challenges, but as it has been for the last half of this year, it felt like Djokovic was not the headline.

In Murray's breakthrough, Roger Federer's return (and his age) and Nadal's injury, Djokovic has not gone by unnoticed exactly, but with less of the intense focus, lesser certainly than it was this very time last year.

This is, all are agreed, a golden age in men's tennis. It is a heady time to be following tennis, to fall in love with it, to document it, to celebrate the achievements of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and now Murray (only one grand slam so far, but what a back story) and getting lost in their rivalries.

But what about the collateral damage of such a time, because we cannot pretend that there isn't any. One evidence of it came, funnily enough, in an admission made by David Ferrer in the news conference held just before Djokovic's.

The Spaniard, currently world No 5 and winner of seven tour titles last year, said that the four players ahead of him were just better and so quietly did he make this startling admission, that he said it twice, for good measure.

You do not often hear top-flight athletes making such admissions publicly, even if they sense it privately. And it gets you thinking how Ferrer, and Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, to use but three examples, must feel to play in this era, when they will always be the earnest support, the second, vanquished name in a headline? How brutal must that be?

The other manifestation of it comes from within the top four itself. It isn't just that the quartet is so good that someone else's narrative is always more compelling, as might be the case with Djokovic right now. It is so golden that it seriously skews perceptions, because from some angles Djokovic's 2012 could be seen as a little less than golden.

In any other age, Djokovic's year would be a very, very good one (he won six tour titles in all as well, including the World Tours Finals). The problem is that very, very good right now does not readily feel great. Federer won multiple slams in five different years; Nadal has won at least two slams in two different years.

So overbearing has that duopoly been that it is important for some kind of corrective to emerge about what is good, what is great and what is beyond. So from within the gilded cage itself, Djokovic's perspective of his year is significant. This year, he assessed, was in some ways an even more successful year.

"The last two years were quite different," he said. "I managed to have the best year of my career in 2011 and I knew it was going to be very hard for me in 2012 to maintain the top spot, and to play consistently well and win majors.

"So it was an even more successful year from a psychological aspect because I had to face many circumstances on and off the court which weren't easy but I overcame them. Right now I feel relieved because I had another great year and a great experience to learn from."

This was necessary because it is a small reminder to not undervalue winning even a single, solitary major (as Murray no doubt appreciates). When Federer and Nadal and then Djokovic were winning multiple majors from 2004 right through 2011, the expectation came to be that the very best should regularly win more than one slam a year.

Which is why the last year, with four different major winners (the first time since 2003), was truly the golden one.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae