The ball rocketed back and forth with no end in sight. Top seed Novak Djokovic and second seed Rafael Nadal stood in the centre of the ring at the 2013 US Open final trading knockout punches for what felt like days as the New York crowd tried—and failed—to contain its excitement, whooping and hollering as if witnessing a heavyweight title bout straight out of boxing’s golden era.
About one minute into the rally (for context, the average hard-court point in men’s tennis lasts roughly six seconds), Djokovic lobbed a soft backhand over the net. Rope-a-dope. Nadal smelled blood in the water. He launched a deep, booming cross-court forehand that sent his opponent fleeing to retrieve it. On paper, it was a sound strategy. On paper.
Djokovic stretched out, dived to his right and returned the shot. Nadal fired another one back to the opposite side, a put-away winner against virtually anyone else on tour. But Djokovic deftly sidestepped his way across the baseline, stretched out in near-splits behind the left-hand doubles alley and placed a smooth backhand at Nadal’s feet. Nadal, backpedalling and unbalanced, promptly sent the ball into the net.
It’s considered the greatest rally in tennis history, a 54-shot epic that perfectly encapsulated what makes Djokovic arguably the toughest opponent the sport has ever seen. He won that battle against Nadal, but he lost the war, dropping the final in four sets. “Nobody pushed me to my limit like Novak did today,” Nadal said after the match.
In the years since, however, Djokovic has defied logic and taken his game to new heights. In 2015, he pulled off the greatest season of the Open era, winning a record six Masters 1000–level tournaments and reaching the final in all four Slams. Before he was upset in the third round of Wimbledon 2016, he’d won four straight Slams and six of the past eight. In an era that features, in some order, the three greatest players of all time—Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer—he’s making his case as the greatest of them all.
Nadal did it with power and speed, Federer with precision and the best forehand in the game. But how did Djokovic become virtually unbeatable? “He’s the best defensive player on tour right now,” says Canadian pro Philip Bester.
Bester received a phone call the day before last year’s Rogers Cup in Toronto with a special request: Djokovic was en route from Europe and looking for a hitting partner.
The two had never met, so they spent a few minutes chatting before they began hitting. Djokovic asked Bester, a Vancouver native, about the soaring real estate market in his hometown. Bester has practised against most of the best players of the past decade, Federer included, and immediately recognized what separated Djokovic from the rest of the class. “He strikes the ball cleanly and hits the ball just as well as anybody else,” he says, “but his defence is just incredible.”
What makes Djokovic so effective isn’t simply his ability to consistently return shots and sustain rallies, but a knack for turning defence into offence. He’s able to hit winners on the run and off-balance, effectively shrinking the court for his opponents in the process.
As former American pro Mardy Fish outlined after losing a match to Djokovic, there’s no clear game plan to beat him. Against Federer, a player can try to force shots to his backhand; Nadal plays so deep that opponents can try to hit a shallow ball. But Djokovic is a poker player with no tells. “With Novak, there is no safe place to hit the ball,” Fish said. “And as a result, you feel so much pressure playing him.”
For Djokovic, it all begins with movement. As Bester puts it: “He moves like a cat on the court.” His ability to cover ground—particularly from side to side on the baseline—allows him to retrieve virtually any ball sent his way. His signature move is the slide splits, a physical gift that’s been attributed to skiing as a child, but is more accurately the result of hard work.
Witnessing a typical Djokovic practice session is like watching Tom Hanks playing both parts of “Chopsticks” on the piano at FAO Schwarz by himself. His hitting partner is instructed to send balls way wide—often outside the doubles line—as Djokovic jumps, sprints and slides from one end of the court to the other. He doesn’t just get to balls; he reaches them in a balanced position, which allows him to fire off high-quality shots on the run—particularly to his backhand—that often catch his opponents off-guard.
It wasn’t always like that. Unlike Nadal and Federer, Djokovic was hardly a phenom growing up; as a junior, he never reached higher than No. 34 in the singles rankings. Always a strong baseline player, the biggest turnaround in Djokovic’s game happened when he took his physical training more seriously. He’s now considered the fittest player on tour. While strictly regulated eating and sleeping habits have become the norm, Djokovic stands out from the pack. “A lot of players are doing things like travelling with their own sheets or pillows,” says Bester. “I’ve heard he travels around with his own hyperbaric chamber.”
Djokovic’s tools help sustain his level of play in marathon rallies and matches, which are more frequent than ever as the tour’s talent level has soared the past decade. Factor in his defensive prowess and it’s no wonder he’s tennis’s most consistent threat. And as he enters the Rogers Cup with his Wimbledon defeat still stinging, he should be even more motivated. The scary part? He also keeps getting better. Just ask Nadal: Two years after that insane US Open rally, Djokovic got his revenge, ending the Spaniard’s 39-match winning streak on clay at Roland Garros. With 179 weeks (and counting) as world No. 1, Djokovic has clearly separated himself from the rest of the field. It won’t be long before we can safely call him the best ever.