Playing the role of the man in black in the sport famous for its fixation on “tennis whites” suits … Novak Djokovic. Wearing black above and below the waist, the top-seed at the ATP World Tour Finals has gone about his business with a chilling efficiency and patience, and that hint of dire inevitability we generally associate with the Grim Reaper. The outstanding difference is that Djokovic bears not a sickle but a tennis racket.
Djokovic backed up the image Friday by clinching the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking for the third time in four years by virtue of a persuasive beating of Tomas Berdych on the final day of round-robin play in London.
The score was 6-2, 6-2, but Berdych could console himself with the fact that he forced the issue for over an hour (1:09), most of it spent on life support. It’s been that kind of week for Djokovic, who has lost just nine games in three round-robin matches, breaking serve 15 times in 22 attempts.
There’s not much point in parsing the details of this one. It was evident from the start that Djokovic was feeling no pressure to beat Berdych in order to avoid potentially having to play Roger Federer for the year-end No. 1 ranking come Sunday. It was equally obvious that Tomas Berdych was unprepared to insert himself into the midst of the conversation that has been driving our interest in tennis for the past few months: Could Federer, the No. 2 seed in London, catch and surpass Djokovic in the rankings?
That storyline is stone-cold dead now, thanks to the efficiency with which Djokovic shut down Berdych, kicking things off with a service break. Djokovic won the first set in 31 minutes, largely because he won 78 percent of his second-serve points, while Berdych converted an anemic 38 percent of his own. Given his 2-16 record against Djokovic, and the way Berdych’s meat-and-potatoes power game plays right into Djokovic’s strength (superb groundstrokes and defense), the No. 6 seed’s only real chance was to shoot out the lights. But it was Djokovic who ventured the greatest risk and reaped the greater rewards.
Djokovic smacked 18 winners to just eight for Berdych, he out-aced his rival 4-2 and attacked more frequently and productively, claiming eight points on 12 trips to the net, while Berdych won just five of eight.
So the man in black moves on, preparing to win these year-end championships for a fourth time. Should he play No. 2 seed Federer, a six-time winner of this event, the underdog will certainly compete with the taste of bile in his mouth. Djokovic keeps closing the gap on some of the more vital statistical fronts (next: the attempt to surpass Rafael Nadal in total weeks spent ranked No. 1. Nadal held that ranking for 141 weeks; Djokovic is at week No. 121), but that doesn’t mean that his persona as the outlier, the man in black, is any less accurate.
Djokovic, with help from Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, crashed the rankings in 2006, putting the nation of Serbia on the tennis map. Djokovic quickly became the third wheel in the cozy relationship between two wildly popular stars, Federer and Nadal. That Djokovic was confident, brash and either struggling with ailments and injuries or exhibiting a streak of hypochondria added more polarizing elements to the awkward narrative.
Over the ensuing years, Djokovic evolved from a callow youth into an engaged, sophisticated adult -- an appropriate ambassador for the game. But the pattern was set by then, and neither Federer nor Nadal was particularly keen on turning a split kingdom into a tripartite one. The third wheel has become a permanent fixture, and as Federer pushes 34 years of age and Nadal has had to start paying the principal on his punishing, ultra-physical game, their 27-year old Serbian tormentor seems ready to make another push, cutting deeper into the legacies of his rivals.
Should Djokovic meet Federer on Sunday and win, it will also go some way to undoing the theme that Federer, with his artful and increasingly aggressive game, has become Djokovic’s nemesis. (Federer has won three of their past five matches.) Djokovic completed Part A of a two-part operation when he clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking. We’ll have to wait to see how well he handles Part B over the weekend.
For the time being, Djokovic doesn’t even seem to need to worry about Andy Murray playing Nadal to his own Federer. Djokovic and Murray are no longer a bargain-basement version of the Swiss and Spanish icons. Murray is out of the picture for the moment, and unless Federer can convince us otherwise Sunday, the man in charge going into 2015 clearly will be the man in black. His track record at the Australian Open is formidable (43-6 with four titles).
Of course, by next January, Djokovic’s clothing sponsor surely will have him wearing different, more colorful clothing. But it hardly matters. No matter what color he’s wearing, in spirit Novak Djokovic will probably always be the man in black.