When you have won as many major titles as Novak Djokovic, it becomes impossible to compare them in terms of sporting successes.
Every Grand Slam that Djokovic has won, all 18 of them, have come with their own sporting challenges. You don’t get freebies at that level he reaches.
Djokovic’s successes have come in the same era as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and if you believe in their greatness, as you should, you must also acknowledge and marvel at the greatness of what Djokovic has achieved.
Judging one against the other in a strictly sporting context, therefore, becomes an increasingly impossible task.
What you can say, probably without question, however, is his victory at the 2021 Australian Open was his greatest personal triumph.
If we are being honest, the tournament itself was not a classic. We were grateful for it, because putting on an event of such scale in such circumstances was not easy.
That said, there was no Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal was short of his best, Dominic Thiem was a shadow of the player we have seen. Djokovic played the world number 114 in the semi-final, so it’s fair to say that the quality wasn’t really at the level we would usually expect.
But the reason this was Djokovic’s greatest personal triumph was because he was ultimately up against the only man, Nadal on clay aside, that can probably stop him right now – himself.
It’s easy to forget that, as Djokovic walked out onto Rod Laver Arena, it had been over a year since he had won a Grand Slam title. Within that year, he had been disqualified at the US Open and thrashed by Nadal at the French Open. Many others have been broken, mentally, by much less.
On top of those disappointments on the court, Djokovic has had to deal with increased, and often unfair, scrutiny off it.
In the middle of a global pandemic which has seen over 100million people infected across the globe, Djokovic alone was blamed for a small outbreak at the Adria Tour.
He was further vilified for setting up an independent players union and openly accused of dividing tennis, despite that move being a reaction to tennis’ existing division – the division that only Djokovic was seemingly prepared to publicly address.
When he arrived in Australia, he was the target of a media campaign against him for what Craig Tiley later confirmed were misreported attempts to improve the conditions of players stuck in hard quarantine.
And then, there was injury, and it was serious – An oblique abdominal tear if you want specifics. But to go from saying you fear you will be forced to withdraw in round three due to an injury, to winning the title a week later is a remarkable achievement.
There were the usual accompanying accusations of faking, which appear to rear their head anytime Djokovic, and only Djokovic, is hurt.
As Boris Becker said on Eurosport before the final: “Many players had [injury] problems [at the Australian Open], though the only one who’s criticized is Novak Djokovic. It goes with the flow now.”
And yet, those detractors and conspiracy theorists do not deserve an airing.
The facts are that we saw Djokovic injure himself. We saw Djokovic struggle to move. We heard Djokovic groan in pain. And we saw Djokovic overcome it all to hang about in the competition to give himself a chance.
Winning despite being injured is not a crime and while, yes, he appeared to have all but fully recovered by the end of the tournament, but he wasn’t. The sheer strength of will to stand strong and give yourself a chance to win a tournament when your body is telling you to quit is something to be celebrated.
You can say, and plenty will, that Djokovic won the Australian Open without having to play Nadal, or Federer, or any other Grand Slam winner, faced a qualifier in the semi-final, and a below-par Daniil Medvedev in the final.
It’s true, but it shouldn’t be anyone’s takeaway from the tournament either because it ignores and dismisses considerably more than it acknowledges.
No, make no mistake about it, Djokovic has been beaten, battered, and knocked onto his knees by myriad factors since, and before, his arrival in Australia. His body has tried to betray him, the public have tried to undermine him, and one of the most talented players in recent memory has tried to dethrone him.
And yet what he never was, was defeated, for the simple and singular reason that he never allowed himself to be.
As Serena Williams says, “a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall.” By that, and by any other definition you might want to quote, Novak Djokovic is a simply remarkable champion.
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