One of the more appealing aspects of Novak Djokovic‘s extrovert personality is that he enjoys a chat with those who work at tennis events as security guardsfto and locker room attendants.
‘So what have you been up to since we last saw you?’ one of them might ask at the All England Club this week. The answer could be a long one.
Among the things the 34-year-old Serb has been up to since winning Wimbledon 2019: two Australian Open titles; a recent French Open triumph; a disastrous attempt at promoting a Balkans tour during high Covid; a default from the US Open; clocking up the weeks as world No 1; starting an independent players’ union.
Novak Djokovic’s French Open win was the latest episode in an eventful two years for the Serb
The 34-year-old organised the disastrous Adria Tour which saw several players get Covid-19
He arrives back at SW19 as the man who, in all senses, dominates world tennis.
It looks like his victory at Roland Garros might even have broken one of his greatest rivals, Rafael Nadal, who has withdrawn from the fray for a month to nurse his body and psyche.
Nadal will be powerless this fortnight to stop Djokovic from drawing level with him and Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slam titles.
He was then disqualified from the US Open last autumn after accidentally striking a line judge
They claim to be relaxed about this prospect — about as credible as Sir Alex Ferguson phlegmatically accepting it if Liverpool had beaten his Manchester United team to the Premier League.
Federer is in the field, but there will need to be an upset of seismic proportions if, two weeks from now, Djokovic has not added to his collection of Wimbledons. Few outcomes have ever looked more likely at the start of a Championships.
Former world No 1 Andy Roddick put it succinctly after Djokovic had come back to see off the game challenge of Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Paris final.
‘Physically and mentally dominant. Hardest player in history to attack through the court. No holes in his game. No holes physically. Can’t break his mental belief,’ tweeted the American.
Andy Roddick hailed Djokovic’s unbelievable mentality after his Roland Garros final comeback
The feeling persists that the biggest threat to another Djokovic triumph is himself, as it was at the 2020 US Open, which he probably would have won had he not poleaxed a line judge in one of his angry fits.
Such is the restlessness of his mind that it remains possible he might get in his own way, somehow.
In the past week he has come closer to realising his dream of setting up a union to represent the players’ interests, putting him on a collision course with the ATP Tour.
It is one of those in-house issues in which tennis specialises — of limited interest to outsiders but of much importance within the parish — and is informative about the Djokovic character.
Djokovic will equal Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s record of 20 majors if he wins in SW19
There is doubtless an altruistic motive in helping lower-ranked players, whose interests often get overlooked, and it is quite remarkable how much time and effort someone consumed by an otherwise selfish business has put into the project.
At the same time it pits him against the game’s establishment, a position he enjoys and draws energy from. It is also about legacy, something that is important to him.
There is a strange neediness to Djokovic, who has to contend with the fact that he is simply not as well-liked as Federer and Nadal, the two players he has duked it out with for so long.
A decade from now, who will get the biggest cheer from the crowd if they do one of those parades of former champions at Wimbledon? We probably know.
This will not be related to exact achievement, and all the evidence suggests that it is the Serb who will end up as the undisputed greatest of all time.
In fact it could be strongly argued that the whole concept of what was the Big Four (when Andy Murray was in his prime) has shrunk further from the Big Three it became, to the Big One.
Djokovic has locked horns with the ATP Tour over plans to create a new players’ union
Over the last 10 years Djokovic has won more Grand Slam titles than Nadal and Federer put together, spent more than double the weeks at the top of the rankings as the other trio combined, and won more ATP Masters events than the Spaniard and the Swiss between them.
In Paris he became the first man to win all the majors twice each in the post-1968 Open era. This year the ‘Golden Slam’ — encompassing an Olympic gold — is very much on.
Blessed with an elastic and wiry physique, it looks likely that his body will hold up for a few years.
For all the talk of recent years about Serena Williams overtaking Margaret Court’s tally of 24 Grand Slams, the person most likely to do it is actually a man.
Not everyone will be pleased about this, and not just Nadal and Federer.
He is a man of many contradictions. The superstar desperate to be loved with his cheesy (and often unreciprocated) give-the-love gestures in victory. There is his sometimes Vesuvian temperament.
Contrast his refusal to say whether or not he has taken the vaccine to fellow 2019 singles champion Simona Halep, who all the way back in February publicised herself being injected because she felt it would set a good example.
But then you can also point to his extremely generous charitable donations, his impressive mastery of six languages, a good sense of humour, a curiosity about the world.
When it comes to his pure tennis one thing is key, as he put it this weekend: ‘Once I’m on the court, I try to lock in and exclude all the distractions. I feel like over the years I managed to develop the mechanism to do that.’
Can anyone beat him? Contrary to expectation it would not be a huge surprise if Jack Draper gave him the odd uncomfortable moment on Monday, or perhaps the veteran South African Kevin Anderson in the second round.
Djokovic has refused to say whether he has taken a Covid-19 vaccine like Simona Halep
Yet the best of five sets format affords him the time to recover from periodic dips. Significantly, the best of the big servers who might drag him into tiebreaks, and then nick them to exert some serious pressure, are safely distanced from him in the draw this year.
A small handful, such as Tsitsipas and Federer, have the sheer class to disrupt him on a given day later in the tournament. Or he might do something daft, like in New York.
But it says a lot about Djokovic the tennis player that odds of 4-5 on him winning the event before it has even started look perfectly realistic.