By Sigurd Neubauer
It can be lonely at the top. But Novak Djokovic, 36, seems to be relishing in the glory of being the greatest tennis champion of all time.
Following his crushing defeats of Carlos Alcaraz, 20, who suffered from cramps during the semifinals and later Casper Ruud, 24, in the final of the 2023 French Open at Rolland-Garros, the Serb has demonstrated his supremacy over his competitors.
With his victory at Roland-Garros, Djokovic has won 23 Grand Slam titles: the most of any male player in the history of the game. The Serb is also a favorite to win the upcoming Wimbledon.
Commentators have rightfully pointed out that if it wasn’t for drama surrounding Djokovic’s inability to participate in various tournaments because of his refusal to take the Covid-19 vaccine, he could potentially have racked up two additional Grand Slam titles; the 2022 Australian Open and the 2022 US Open. At the time, the Australian and U.S. governments barred non-vaccinated foreigners from participating. The restrictions have since been lifted, which paved the way for Djokovic to win this year’s Australian Open.
The U.S. government will allow him to participate in the upcoming US Open where he will be one of the favorites to win as well.
“The US Open has a unique atmosphere,” explains President Vesa Ponkka of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in response to whether it can be expected that Djokovic will trounce his opponents the way he did in Paris.
“In Queens, New York, the crowd plays an important factor in the match,” Ponkka says, pointing out that the top two American players, Taylor Fritz, 25, and Frances Tiafo, 25, are expected to do well there.
Ponkka is one of America’s preeminent tennis coaches. Photo credit: Courtesy
I was wrong about writing off Djokovic: Ponkka
Djokovic, along with Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, 27, Fritz and Tiafo, “could each pull it off this year by winning,” says Ponkka who is also one of America’s preeminent coaches.
Commenting on Djokovic’s performance at Roland-Garros, the JTCC President notes that the Serb “was very impressive over the past two weeks,” adding: “lots of people had written him off, me included. But Djokovic proved us wrong with both his mental strength and physical abilities.”
The Serb had not done particularly well during Europe’s clay court season, which led up to the French Open. “He can turn it on whenever he wants to and nobody can take him on,” Ponkka says in reference to Djokovic’s ability to win a Grand Slam. “Nobody came even close to beating him in Paris.”
In the semifinals Djokovic defeated Alcaraz 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.
Ponkka credits the Spaniard for being honest and open about his loss to the Serb. “Alcaraz couldn’t keep up with him mentally; his cramps were triggered by stress because Djokovic was able to enter his mind. This is what Djokovic does to his opponents.”
On what’s next for Alcaraz – who is the new wonderkid of men’s tennis – the JTCC predicts that he will do well at Wimbledon where “he will be able to play pressure free tennis” because all attention will be on Djokovic who has won the storied tournament seven times.
Another player who did well in Paris this year was Ruud. “The Norwegian has had a great tournament; he’s also played consistently well over the past 12 months as this was his third Grand Slam final,” Ponkka explains.
Ruud lost to Rafael Nadal at the 2022 French Open and to Alcaraz at the 2022 US Open.
Nadal holds 14 French Open titles.
“Ruud played well during the final at Roland-Garros, but at the end he had no chance against Djokovic.”
“Djokovic was able to enter Alcaraz’s mind:” Ponkka
Iga Swiatek, 22, easily defeated Karolina Muchova, 26, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4. It was Swiatek’s third consecutive victory at Roland-Garros. She also won the 2022 US Open. “Swiatek is the best female player in the Grand Slams at the moment,” Ponkka says, pointing out that she’s found success by constantly raising the bar for quality tennis.
During the 2023 Italian Open final, Medvedev, 27, defeated Holger Rune, 20, 7-5 7-5.
Medvedev secured his fourth title this year.
“What made Medvedev’s victory in Rome unique is that it was his biggest clay court victory, and he was surprised that he won,” Ponkka explains. The JTCC President attributes Medvedev’s ability to establish himself as a top player on all surfaces. “There are no visible changes to his movements or style,” he says while pointing to Medvedev’s evolution as a top player.
Responding to what surprised him the most about the Italian Open, the JTCC President points to Alcaraz’s loss to Hungarian qualifier Fábián Marozsán, 23, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
“It was a big surprise that Alcaraz lost to the qualifier,” Ponkka says, but plays down its implications by arguing that “it wasn’t a big deal” as the Spaniard continues to improve.
Another surprise at the Italian Open, Ponkka quips, was Djokovic’s loss to Rune in the semifinal. “Rune has been consistent on the clay court.”
Holger Rune defeated Djokovic during the Italian Open
Elena Rybakina, 23 defeated Anhelina Kalinina, 26, 6-4, 1-0.
“Rybakina is just playing so well, and it simply doesn’t matter on what surface,” Ponkka explains.
“The Kazak is missing 2,000 points for her WTA ranking from when she won the 2022 Wimbledon. Due to the British government’s then boycott of Russian and Belarussian athletes due to their governments’ role in the Ukraine war, no ranking points were awarded to the respective winners,” Ponkka reveals, then quips: “This is why Rybakina is not ranked higher.”
“Rybakina is nonetheless winning the big tournaments; her serves are good, and she scores big points as her tennis is simply of the highest quality.”
Rybakina, along with Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka, 25, are the three best female players in the world at the moment. “The three of them play on an entirely different level from their competitors,” he points out.
Swiatek is the World’s No 1, Sabalenka No. 2 while Rybakina is No 4.