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AS I WATCHED Novak Djokovic destroy Italian Adrian Mannarino in straight sets 6-0, 6-0, 6-3 from a bar outside Melbourne Park this last Sunday, I must confess to having mixed feelings.

You see, I had tickets to the evening session involving Australia’s last hope, Alex De Minaur against Russian Andrey Rublev. Watching the Djoker so ruthlessly despatch Mannarino, I was glad tournament organisers hadn’t scheduled his match for the evening as it would have meant an early trip home. On the other hand, however, I felt some disappointment that I wouldn’t get to see the Grand Slam GOAT in action, as it might have been a story to tell my grandkids.

The Djoker, of course, is the remaining member of tennis’ illustrious ‘Big Three’, a celestial-level triad that included Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The Serb is now largely a Big One, though you would be foolish to write off Nadal at Roland-Garros.

For a while Federer was the Big One. Between 2003 and 2009, the Swiss ace played in 21 out of 28 major singles finals. He won three of the four majors and the ATP Finals in 2004, 2006 and 2007, as well as five consecutive titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open.

Then Nadal began winning outside of Roland-Garros and Federer suddenly had a genuine rival, in the same way that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi traded Grand Slams in the ’90s.

Then came the Djoker, who after announcing himself to the world with a 2008 victory at the Australian Open, stalled for a couple of years before going berserk in 2011, a year in which he won his second Australian Open and first US and Wimbledon titles and became world no.1 for the first time. After that it was a Big Three, even a Big Four for a little while there, when Andy Murray took home gold at the London Olympics in 2012 and defeated Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2013.

As the 2010s wore on, age and injury began to catch up with Federer and Nadal and the Djoker just got better, establishing winning records against both of them and eventually overhauling their Grand Slam tallies.

These days Djokovic stands alone and rather than fading at 36 years of age, seems energised by the threat of a long promised new guard in the form of Carlos Alcaraz, Jannick Sinner (who he meets in Friday’s semi-final), Holger Rune and the slightly older Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov. Indeed, Djokovic said he was so incensed at losing last year’s Wimbledon final to Alcaraz that he vowed not to lose a match on last year’s US tour. He was true to his word and avenged his Wimbledon defeat by winning the US Open against the young Spaniard. Going into his semi-final against Sinner, he looks on track to win his 11th Australian Open, particularly with Alcaraz now packing his bags after losing to Zverev. In the words of Die Hard villain Hans Gruber, “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer”.

Now, while Alexander (the Great!) remained undefeated in battle when he died at the age of 33, his death did herald the demise of the Macedonian Empire (another empire to start thinking about guys). Perhaps Federer’s retirement back in 2022 was the beginning of the end for the Big Three empire. Certainly, when the Djoker goes, the Big Three will be history.

The Serb’s fate lies in his own hands. He could keep playing and gradually be forced to cede his dominant position to Alcaraz et al, as Federer was forced to do with him and Nadal. He could retire now as the arguable GOAT, though, as he has never been as beloved as Federer and Nadal, many will not grant him undisputed GOAT status, constructing flimsy arguments about Federer’s style or Nadal’s grit, that don’t really stand up to the Djoker’s impregnable empirical case. Besides if he retires sooner rather than later, he may be subject to the same dilemma Michael Jordan faced, in that you will always wonder how many more titles you could have won and find the competitive itch so irresistible that you try to come back.

Complicating things is the pesky fact that neither he, nor any of us, know what the future holds. Everybody thought Pete Sampras’ then record 14 Grand Slam titles were unassailable when he retired. Jordan too, didn’t see LeBron James coming. Djokovic must play the tricky game of deciding how many more titles he can win before Father Time has his say.

The all-conquering West Indies team of the 1980s I Getty Images.

If he does play on, he would do well to heed the lessons of history, this time the more recent sporting kind. As a rather pitiful West Indian outfit currently takes on Australia at the Gabba, it’s hard not to look back on the golden age of Caribbean cricket in the 1980s and early ’90s. This team was undefeated in a Test series for 15 years, with players like Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose and Joel Garner, to name a few, ruling the cricket world like modern-day Alexanders. These days the ‘Windies’ are the eighth (of 10) ranked team in Test cricket and failed to even qualify for last year’s limited overs World Cup. If you had told someone that in 1988, they would have looked at you with incredulity—and probably some degree of suspicion given you would be claiming you were from the future; Back to the Future 2 was a year away so you can forgive ’88 dude for his scepticism.

Golden State Warriors’ fourth NBA championship in 2022 I Getty Images

If you want a more recent example, you need look no further than the plight of this year’s Golden State Warriors in the NBA, who currently reside at 12th in the Western Conference. Their nucleus of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are now in their mid-thirties. Age and injury have caught up with the once mighty Splash Brothers and Green, their combustible henchman, who won four titles together between 2015 and 2022, but are now being roasted on a nightly basis by younger, faster opponents.

And then there’s LeBron, who despite putting up incredible numbers—25, 8 and 8—at 39 years of age, barely plays defence and has become what all players dread: a good stats-bad team guy, rather than a player anchoring a title contender, as he has been for most of his career.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch the Djoker navigate this still imperial, Lion-in-Winter stage of his career and keep his reign as the Top 1 going as long as he can. Because the truth is, the first signs of decline often go unnoticed. And the beginning of the end usually comes sooner than you think.  


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