Imagine if, after the First Battle of the Marne, the Allies and Central Powers had girded their loins for the long trench battle ahead, only for the United States to surprise everyone with an all-out assault that overwhelmed both forces and turned Europe into a collection of American puppet regimes. It’s a ridiculous premise, of course, but also roughly analogous to what happened in 2011 when Novak Djokovic overtook Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to become Supreme Ruler of men’s tennis. His dominance didn’t come out of nowhere—he won the Australian Open in 2008 and had been a regular in Grand Slam semifinals for years—yet it was expected he’d spend at least a little while longer as third-best and champion-in-waiting. It wasn’t supposed to be his time, but he cut the strings of fate himself and made it his anyway. After years of being weaned on a Federer-Nadal rivalry that showed no signs of slowing up, Djokovic’s greatness came as such a surprise that only the immediate reaction—erupting into applause or conceding any once-held doubts in dumbfounded silence—seemed the right one. And yet it was hard to know how to feel about a champion so unsubtle in his ascent.
Perhaps, though, that uncertain response to his indisputable achievement has something to do with the nature of Djokovic’s game. If the description above paints a picture of Djokovic as some kind of impudent young upstart, then his game evinces a level of point-winning logic typically associated with a grizzled veteran. He wins like a specially engineered victory machine, ruthlessly pulverizing his opponents until they submit. It’s neither a defensive or offensive style, but some unholy hybrid of the two. If his game has a weakness, I haven’t seen it. He’s so good, in fact, that his victories can seem perfunctory, his structural advantage so apparent from the get-go that the rest of the match becomes a slightly more formal version of tennis garbage time.