Djokovic: The complete package
LONDON -- Their time at the top, measured against the backdrop of history, is fleeting.
First Roger Federer, then Rafael Nadal and now Novak Djokovic have taken their turn as the ATP World Tour's No. 1 player. Djokovic has won five of the past 10 Grand Slam singles titles and finds himself the man of the moment -- for the moment.
Djokovic, because of his overall excellence -- and the mayhem in the bottom half of the draw -- is a healthy favorite to win his second Wimbledon title here in less than a fortnight's time. If you sauntered into a London bookie's office and plunked down 5 pounds on Djokovic to win, your return would a less-than-breathtaking 11 pounds.
But the way things are lining up, you might want to go all-in on Djokovic.
On Tuesday, without the benefit of a single warm-up match on grass, the 26-year-old Serb walked onto the lush lawn of the All England Club and ground out a serviceable 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory over Florian Mayer in less than two hours.
"First match of the grass court this season for me, at Wimbledon, the biggest tournament in the sport," Djokovic said afterward. "Big pleasure for me to play on Centre Court with a packed crowd. I am satisfied. There are still a few things I would like to better but, generally, my game is there, of course."
Mayer is not exactly cannon fodder. The 29-year-old German is ranked No. 34 among ATP players and, more importantly, is a two-time quarterfinalist here at Wimbledon. Djokovic has beaten him in all four of their matches without losing a set.
If Djokovic can wrestle the title away from Federer or Andy Murray, or whomever the muddled bottom half of the draw produces, his total of major championships will rise to seven, a nice, round number in tennis. That would be one more than Boris Becker and the same total as the immortal John McEnroe and Mats Wilander.
That would be some classy company, for sure, but legendary coach, Nick Bollettieri, is willing to go even further. The 81-year-old, who has coached Serena Williams, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and even Becker, believes Djokovic is "perhaps" the most complete player he has seen in six decades of tennis.
"I don't believe that anybody can equal everything on the court that Djokovic does," Bollettieri told The New York Times earlier this week. "I don't think you can find a weakness in his game."
Bollettieri went on to catalog Djokovic's extraordinary movement, his personality, return of serve, serve and outstanding touch. He might just be right.
Federer, of course, would be the best previous example of the complete package. You could make the argument that Djokovic is a better pure mover, certainly more nimble. His two-handed backhand has not been a liability against Nadal, as Federer's less powerful one-handed backhand has. And, Djokovic might be a slightly better returner of serve than Federer was in his prime.
One of the rewards in following the sport closely is seeing the evolution of elite players' learning curves on different surfaces, particularly their worst. Nadal lost in the final here to Federer in 2006 and 2007 before surpassing him in that epic 2008 final. Djokovic has worked hard to close the gap on Rafa in his ultimate comfort zone -- clay.
The one major title that has eluded Djokovic to date is the French Open, but he came staggeringly close earlier this month when he blew a fifth-set lead and lost 9-7. With Rafa's increasing on-court mortality, you get the feeling Djokovic will complete his career Grand Slam sometime soon.
Which brings us to Wimbledon.
With Federer approaching his 32nd birthday and Rafa out of the tournament before the third round for the second straight year, Wimbledon is Djokovic's for the taking, maybe for the next several years. Going forward, it looks as though Murray will be the chief challenger.
Like Djokovic, Nadal declined to play a grass warm-up event after going the distance with Djokovic in Paris. Djokovic watched that stunning first-round upset by Steve Darcis.
"In the big moments, Darcis came up with the shots," Djokovic observed. "That's what happens when you come from clay."
During the match, Becker, working as a commentator for the BBC, speculated that Rafa might consider dropping the grass season from his schedule.
"He won the tournament twice here," Djokovic said, clearly thinking this idea was ridiculous. "He likes the surface. That's sport; you cannot win them all."
Still, more than anyone, Djokovic remains the favorite to go 7-for-7 at the All England Club.