There was a time when Novak Djokovic still had some quit in him. His talent was evident even in his junior years; all of 14, he reached the singles final of the Junior Davis Cup shortly after the turn of the millennium. His now-legendary fighting spirit, however, was not as apparent; in fact, withdrawals dotted the early part of his pro career. Of his 13 all told, six have been in Grand Slam tournaments. And of the six, two have been against clay court king Rafael Nadal. Which, in a nutshell, is why he has earned a reputation, if unfairly and from critics, as a slacker.

To be sure, Djokovic is anything but a wimp. There’s a reason he owns 19 major singles titles, and is halfway to a coveted calendar-year-Grand Slam. It’s not because he jumps at the slightest opportunity to accept defeat. To the contrary, it’s due to his never-say-die mind-set. And it’s certainly why he’s an astounding 32 and nine in five-setters on the sport’s grandest stages; no one else in the annals of tennis has more marathon victories.

Speaking of marathons, Djokovic’s quest for greatness can be termed as one. Roger Federer and Nadal, the other members of the vaunted Big Three, had a head start in terms of compiling Grand Slam hardware, and, for a while there, it appeared as if he would not have enough time to catch up. And then he flipped a switch; as the calendar turned to the 2010s, he compiled major wins just like a child would amass sweets in a candy store. Only a lengthy bout with injury in 2017 and subsequent surgery early the next year halted his attempt to keep pace.

These days, Djokovic is on top of the world, the owner of the record for most weeks at the top spot in world rankings, not to mention countless other marks in history books. As all and sundry know, though, he’s after claiming a single distinction: He wants to have the highest number of major championships of all time. It’s why he didn’t fold when unheralded Lorenzo Musetti had him on the ropes in the fourth round of the French Open, and why he continued to plod on even when fifth-seed Stefanos Tsitsipas appeared to be well on the way to an upset.

Indeed, Djokovic is just one back of Federer and Nadal precisely because of his unparalleled determination. His self-confidence under pressure is without peer, and backstopped by an uncanny capacity to summon his best in the throes of defeat. Quitter? Yeah, right. He’s not perfect, but if he’s arguably the most complete player of any era, it’s due to his keen understanding that, on the court, his most fearsome opponent is himself.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications,  and business development.