Novak Djokovic is so good at what he does that he is beginning to sound a bit bored by himself.
This week, the Serbian tied Roger Federer’s record for most weeks ranked at No. 1 in the world – 310. Next week, he is guaranteed to surpass it.
Six years is a long time to play professional tennis, never mind be the very best at it. It’s a remarkable run. But as tennis records go, this isn’t one people keep track of. Back in the day, Lleyton Hewitt was No. 1 for 80 weeks, and all you can remember about him now is that wretched backward baseball cap.
Nonetheless, to hear Djokovic tell it, this streak was something he’s been grudgingly keeping up for years, like a long commute or the fiction that you do daily push-ups.
“When you are going for No. 1 ranking, you kind of have to be playing for the entire season and you have to be playing well. You have to play all the tournaments,” Djokovic said after winning the Australian Open.
I feel you, man. Playing all the tournaments must be a bummer. There are nearly, like, 20 of them. And what do you get for all that hassle? Shipping containers full of cash, sure, but where’s the work/life balance? Who wouldn’t trade a million after-tax bucks for a chance to sleep in until 9 a.m. and eat a single slice of Beyond Meat™ pepperoni pizza?
Freed of this cross to bear, Djokovic sounds like he’s entering a sort of quasi-retirement, the part of working life after you’ve collected a buyout and started doing some consulting.
“Now, after achieving the historic No. 1 for the longest weeks at No. 1, it’s going to be a relief for me because I’m going to focus all my attention on slams mostly.”
Mostly? What else is he going to do? Fight crime?
This must be what the final stages of extreme, sustained athletic success look like. A sort of apathy sets in. Maybe ennui is a better word. Like Alexander, you have conquered the known world. Unlike him, you can’t afford to weep. That would rob you of precious electrolytes.
One honestly wonders what keeps an athlete like Djokovic interested.
It can’t be the money. Other than as an indicator of his place in the pecking order, the amounts must have stopped mattering long ago.
Everything else – the adulation, the perks, the military discipline, the constant stimulus and fawning attendants – must dim as well, if only because they become habits.
That leaves you with superlatives. Every professional athlete has spent most of their life being the best at something. Then they get to the top and hit a wall.
For most, say, hockey or football players, the proof they mattered is a championship. Just one is enough. You were, for at least one moment, the very best again.
How many great competitors who fail to reach that goal stay in the game long past their sell-by date? It isn’t aspiration that keeps them going, but embarrassment. Regardless of how good they were, they know that on some intrinsic level they failed.
If one championship is enough for most, what does it feel like to have 18 of them?
Djokovic’s 18 grand slams isn’t analogous to 18 Super Bowls, because Djokovic didn’t have someone else to play defence for him. For most of his tenure, he had to go through the two best men’s players in history in order to pick his winner.
Now that he’s securely in his prime, things are getting easier. Nadal is beginning to look like a spent force and Federer is already there.
How many majors could Djokovic win? Twenty-five? Thirty?
What you wonder about now is motivation. Why does Djokovic want to do this? He just made being the greatest in the world sound like the vocational equivalent of vacuuming – something you don’t want to do, but feel you must.
The greatest danger to that motivation is a wandering mind. We have seen athletes get so good, they no longer get from their work the primal energy that made them want to do it in the first place. This is how a Michael Jordan decides in mid-career that instead of being better at basketball than anyone has ever been, he would prefer being bad at baseball.
The best thing for Djokovic now would be a foil. But who’s that exactly? This new generation of men’s players looks a lot like the last generation – a bunch of stiffs.
If he’s going to keep going, Djokovic will be left to his own competitive devices.
The truly great ones aren’t the most talented. At the professional level in any sport, everyone is full to bursting with talent. The least talented guy out there, the guy you feel sorry for when you see him sitting all sad-sack on the bench, has talent like you could never begin to dream of.
The really great ones get that way because, for them, there is nothing else. As much as we like to imagine them so, these are not complicated people. They don’t have a wide variety of interests. For these exceptional individuals, only one thing is best in life – crushing their enemies and seeing them driven before them.
Is Djokovic that guy? He may be more that guy than any pro out there. Sure, he’s a bit off, but that’s all part of it.
Djokovic has a deep and – here’s the important part – unfulfilled need to be admired. You can see it every time he tries to get philosophical in a postmatch presser, horns in on some player issue that’s none of his business or starts talking about wellness like he is a visitor to our world from Proxima Centauri.
Djokovic doesn’t need to win so much as he needs to be acknowledged as a winner. It’s probably not how you’d want to live your life – requiring others to supply you with emotional sustenance.
But based on the evidence so far, it works. It works so well Djokovic can do his job part-time and still be the very best. Maybe that need will make him the best there ever was.