Thank you, Captain Obvious.
Clearly, no one is Novak Djokovic, who is now three wins away from achieving the calendar Grand Slam, and winning the most majors of anyone in history (it would be his 21st, breaking a tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal), two accomplishments that will cement him as the best player of all-time, and perhaps give him the most unique and greatest accomplishment in sports.
But what it means is that the only way to beat Djokovic is to basically out-Djokovic Djokovic. There isn’t really a trick, some secreted away weakness that you can find if you just probe long and hard enough. He has no weaknesses. You can’t blow him off the court with sheer power, because he’ll get to most everything and get something on his defensive shots. Every other player has a bad day here and there, especially those who are in their mid-30s as he is now. But he doesn’t. Maybe a bad hour. And if you’re playing two out of three sets, that might just be enough to get you a win. When it’s three out of five, it most certainly isn’t. And you can’t outlast him, because even if he’s got some truly bizarre ideas on health and fitness, he can be out there for a week-and-a-half straight and not look like he’s sweating.
So the only choice is to try and grind with him through tortuous rallies, dozens of them, and just hope you come out on top. Which is why no one’s really done it in a few years, except for Nadal on clay, and then he got his this year on the dirt.
Jenson Brooksby, possibly the next great American player, certainly took his shot last night. Brooksby’s game is more Kyle Hendricks than Gerrit Cole, based on variety, creativity, and a throbbing brain to keep things changing and weird. His two-handed sliced backhand isn’t something opponents see all that much, and he’s already far more developed at 20 in constructing points than most of his contemporaries. He can throw the kitchen sink at anyone across the court from him, which had Djokovic flummoxed for a set-and-a-half or so. He made some wild errors in the 1st set and lost 6-1. Even when he seemed to have a grip in the second set, Brooksby went out into the deep water with him in the second set’s fifth game, where he was down a break to the world’s No. 1. With Djokovic serving, Brooksby eyeballed him for nine deuces, 20 minutes, 24 total points, and six break points before getting back on serve. And almost all of those 24 points were elongated, obstinate rallies, waiting for the other one to crack. There is no other way to get around Djokovic. There is no shortcut. You have to hit three winners to win one point, such is his defense, and then the next point he’s still metronomically lacing groundstrokes within a foot of the baseline. Brooksby stared all of this down and returned it, got his break, and then looked to be set to really test Djokovic with Arthur Ashe Stadium full-throated behind him.
He won five games the rest of the match.
Whereas Brooksby was able to rise to that level for 60-90 minutes, and was telling himself he could do it for five sets if need be, Djokovic never dropped. His game is too easy for him to regain if it goes wayward, and it just leans on you for long enough until you fall over. If he has to wait a set, a set-and-a-half, even two sets as Stefanos Tsitsipas found out in Paris, eventually the scales tip back to him. Give him long enough and he’ll clock his opponent’s serve, and everyone of them comes back with venom. And no matter how much energy you think you have, whenever it comes time that your legs and mind five out, he’ll still be lining groundstrokes at your feet. Anyone can unleash all their firepower at him, and when the smoke clears he’ll just be dusting off his shoulder and continue as is.
Perhaps Brooksby can get there one day. There has to be a will to do that, and perhaps by the time Brooksby is ready to, he won’t even have to as Djokovic will have toddled off into the sunset. Right now, only Djokovic has it, and that’s why he can’t lose.