<
>

Novak Djokovic is the master of Masters

play
Can Federer, Nadal challenge Djokovic at Miami Open? (2:59)

Greg Garber examines Novak Djokovic's dominance coming off a win at Indian Wells, realistic expectations for Roger Federer after missing five weeks due to arthroscopic knee surgery and what to expect from Rafael Nadal. (2:59)

Novak Djokovic is on the cusp of adding convincing proof to the growing argument that he ranks second to no man, now or ever, as a tennis player. With his win at the ATP Masters 1000 at Indian Wells, he equaled Rafael Nadal's leading haul of 27 Masters titles.

Djokovic will now be working on a three-peat that he's already accomplished three times at the Miami Open, which started Wednesday. You probably have just enough time to run out to restock on refreshments before this guy becomes the all-time Masters event champion, at age 28.

Nadal never got enough credit for being master of Masters, and Djokovic is unlikely to break that pattern. In a way it's their own fault. As they and other Grand Slam champs of either gender keep telling us, they play for the Grand Slam titles.

Yet here was Djokovic on Sunday, effusively praising the tournament in his victory speech: "I truly believe that this tournament deserves to be a level higher ... between 1000 and Grand Slam there is nothing." It was less a complaint about the structure of the tour than praise for the overall quality of Indian Wells.

The other Masters might not be in quite the same league as Indian Wells when it comes to some amenities, but they are its equal in the most important way: the caliber of the competition. The Masters concept has become a vital part of the game's foundation.

The quality of the competition at these elite, sub-major events is evidenced by the fact that 49 of the past 53 Masters events have been won by one of tennis' Big Four. Over that same six-year span, 22 of the 25 Grand Slam events went to one of the elite quartet.

One of Djokovic's great attributes is his versatility. He's won every Masters title multiple times except for Cincinnati, where he has yet to win the title. It's ironic, because hard court is his best surface. After he was upset by resurgent Roger Federer in last year's Cincinnati final, Djokovic told the media, "This year I got to the finals, step closer. I'm going to keep going, keep fighting to make the history. It's a great incentive."

After easily dismissing Milos Raonic in Indian Wells on Sunday, Djokovic also put his finger on an important aspect of the Masters Series when he said, "I'm just glad to be able to raise the level of my game as the tournament progresses, and that's something that I have been doing in the last two years, particularly on the big events."

Some of the Masters events are tuneups for majors (Madrid, Cincinnati). Others, like these late-winter U.S. hard-court Masters, are bridge events that enable players to stay sharp between majors. That 49 of 53 stat demonstrates that the players don't exactly look at these events as spring training or glorified, between-the-majors exhibitions.

Besides, 1000 ranking points are a real trove. They accounted for 6,000 of Djokovic's current 16,540 ranking points.

All this is a testament to that least sexy but most valuable quality: consistency. Djokovic is winning like no one since Federer in his heyday. Djokovic hasn't surpassed Federer in the Grand Slam singles title hunt, and he's not close. Federer has 17, Djokovic 11. But Djokovic is building an unprecedented record for versatility and consistency married to spectacular achievement.

To put this into baseball terms, with the major league season just around the corner, Djokovic might not end up the home run champ, but he might become the batting average and RBI king. A player with several seasons like that would have a pretty good shot at being called the greatest ballplayer of all time, no?

Federer currently trails Djokovic and Nadal by three Masters titles. He could bag a few more. Nadal, who's been struggling since he was upset at Wimbledon in 2014, hasn't won a Masters 1000 since he took Rome in happier times that same year. Andy Murray, the junior partner in the Big Four, won two Masters last year to boost his total to 11, same as Pete Sampras.

The list of players with anemic Masters records also is telling.

Lleyton Hewitt? A paltry two Masters for his entire career. Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych, and David Ferrer have one each. Marin Cilic, a US Open champion, hasn't won a Masters event. Neither has No. 6 Kei Nishikori, nor No. 10 Richard Gasquet.

Djokovic will try to move into sole possession of first place on the roll of Masters champions over the coming days in Miami. Nadal will be there, trying to stop him. So will Murray. Federer pushed up his return date in order to compete in Key Biscayne.

Who needs Grand Slams?