The singles final of a Grand Slam event is an ending, but in the case of Novak Djokovic's recent win at the Australian Open, it might have signaled the historic beginning of his drive to equal or surpass Roger Federer as the all-time men's Grand Slam singles champion.
Federer has 17 titles (and could conceivably add more), winning his last at Wimbledon in 2012, when he was almost 32 years old. Djokovic will be 29 by the time he plays his next major, so he'll have to win about half the majors he plays by the time he turns 32 to stay on Federer's pace. It's a tough assignment, but not an impossible one for two reasons:
First, as hard as it might be to believe, Djokovic's star is still rising.
Second, the stars of his main rivals are descending.
It's an ominous combination for everyone but Djokovic.
Djokovic has undergone a remarkable evolution, from callow, excuse-making youth into a tensile, dominant champion who is proud but seemingly unburdened by his status as the alpha dog of men's tennis. Djokovic has embraced a holistic lifestyle; he is married, recently became a father, and seamlessly integrated his personal and professional lives without surrendering his laser-like focus on tennis.
When a reporter, citing evidence of the world No.1's popularity in his native Serbia, asked if he had political ambitions, Djokovic gave an uncharacteristically brief answer: "No. I'm an athlete. I think I should stick with that."
And why not? It's been working pretty well for him so far, and he can't kick about the pay -- over $96.5 million just in prize money so far in his career.
Of course, it can't all be about the money. It's not about the fame anymore, either. At this point, it's about history, and one reason Djokovic might catch and/or surpass Federer is because he cares as much about tennis history as anyone has, and is more willing than some to admit it.
He was well aware of the records at stake at the Australian Open a few weeks ago (he would join Roy Emerson as the most prolific Australian Open singles champ (six titles) and tie Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg as an 11-time major singles winner). Djokovic told the press, "I can't lie and say I didn't think about it. Of course it was in back of my mind ... It served as a great motivation, as a great imperative to play my best."
That best is now conspicuously better than that of all his peers, some of whom are waning as Djokovic is waxing. Djokovic has won four of the past five Grand Slam finals, losing only to No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in a stunning upset in the 2015 French Open final. Wawrinka played a perfect match that day, but Djokovic leads that rivalry 19-4.
Federer has skirmished successfully with Djokovic in best-of-three matches, but he's 34 and coming off recent knee surgery and four consecutive best-of-five Grand Slam final losses dating back to 2012.
But Nadal's history in interesting here in different way.
It wasn't so long ago that Nadal was in a position similar to the one Djokovic now occupies. If anything, he was even closer -- two majors closer -- to catching Federer at the outset of the pivotal year of 2014.
In January of that year, Nadal was coming off a 2013 in which he had won two of the only three majors he played (he was injured for the Australian Open and was upset at Wimbledon). He had memorable wins against Djokovic at the French (semifinals) and US Opens (final). At age 27, he had 13 majors in hand and the French title seemed like a given for a good two or three more years.
Nadal blasted his way to the 2014 Australian Open final, where he faced first-time major finalist Wawrinka. Hampered by a sudden back injury, as well as Wawrinka's unexpectedly solid and anxiety-free play, Nadal lost. Although he won his fifth consecutive French Open (major No. 14) a few months later, he hasn't won a major since, never mind threaten Federer's record. It's a sobering reminder of how quickly gold can turn to dross.
But there are no warning signs in Djokovic's career so far, as there have been for years in Nadal's medical records and stop-and-start history. Djokovic is healthy and devoted to the mission.
"It's actually many years of commitment, hard work, sacrifice and dedication, not just to training sessions, the things that you are obliged to do as a tennis player, but also to a lifestyle," Djokovic said when asked to reveal his secret to success. "Trying to devote most of your time, energy and thought to make yourself the best person and the best player possible."
He added, "I can't pick one thing and say that was the secret of success, even though I know people would like to know or get something out of me that would explain this. But it's not that easy. If it's that easy and simple and [I could] say one or two things, then I think many people would do it."
Emerson's record of 12 major singles titles stood for quarter of a century before Pete Sampras won his 13th major in 2000 (he'd finish with 14 overall after his US Open win in 2002). Most people thought that mark would stand at least as long as Emerson's, but along came Federer. His record, almost everyone assumed, had the shelf life of salt. But here we are, barely three years after the new record was set, already wondering if this Serbian Superman will catch him.