I played No­vak in 2006. He was a kid. Ev­ery­one said he had a weak­ness, he didn’t.

For­mer Bri­tish No.1 be­lieves Serb mas­ter has al­ready done enough to be con­sid­ered the great­est player in ten­nis his­tory

The Herald - Herald Sport - - FRONT PAGE - STE­WART FISHER

GREG RUSED­SKI still shakes his head in dis­be­lief when he thinks back to the first and only time he ever locked horns with No­vak Djokovic. This was April 2006, Brae­head Arena. Great Bri­tain were tak­ing on Ser­bia in a Europe/Africa Zone Group I sec­ond round tie.

While each team was armed with ex­cit­ing young tal­ent – Andy Mur­ray part­nered Rused­ski in the dou­bles on the Satur­day – the for­mer US Open fi­nal­ist dis­tinctly re­calls be­ing taught a ten­nis les­son by this skinny lit­tle teenager from Bel­grade. Ten years down the line, as these two teams pre­pare to bat­tle again in a World Group quar­ter fi­nal in Bel­grade next month, Rused­ski sees a player who has all four Grand Slam titles in his kit bag and well on the way to sup­plant Roger Fed­erer as the great­est of all time. Mur­ray’s mis­for­tune at Wim­ble­don this fort­night is merely be­ing the man whose task it is this fort­night to try to stop him. As­sum­ing, that is, the Serb gets past James Ward on Mon­day.

“I sit here and talk with Tim [Hen­man] and some of the other guys and we look at Djokovic and ask, ‘How the heck do we beat this guy?’” said Rused­ski, speak­ing at the Brodies In­vi­ta­tional event at Gle­nea­gles. “I re­mem­ber play­ing him at the Davis Cup in Glas­gow in 2006. I beat [Janko] Tip­sare­vic in five sets, then Andy and I lost in the dou­bles, then I played No­vak the next day and I lost in the fourth. Ev­ery­body was telling me that his fore­hand breaks down and he gets a lit­tle tight. But I played just about as well as I could and I still lost to some 18 or 19-year-old kid.

“That 18 or 19-year-old kid is now 29 now and a hell of a lot bet­ter than he was back there,” Rused­ski added. “That was the only time I ever played against him, so it is a huge co­nun­drum. Ev­ery­body thinks you have to be ag­gres­sive so his fore­hand breaks down a lit­tle bit, then you have to sus­tain. But he can hit win­ners from full splits. So he has taken the level up in terms of move­ment on a court from where [Roger] Fed­erer had it.”

Djokovic cur­rently has an even dozen Grand Slam titles to his name, com­pared to the Swiss leg­end’s 17. Whether or not he ever makes up that ground, Rused­ski feels he al­ready has a rea­son­able claim to be con­sid­ered the best player in the his­tory of the sport. Al­ready armed with all four Grand Slam titles, adding Wim­ble­don and the US Open would mean that he has also com­pleted an un­prece­dented six-in-a-row.

“He is pos­si­bly not only go­ing to sur­pass Fed­erer’s record but do the cal­en­dar Grand Slam this year and no-one in the his­tory of the game has ever done that - six in a row,” said Rused­ski. “I like to look at sta­tis­tics and he has a win­ning record against Fed­erer, a win­ning record against [Rafa] Nadal and a win­ning record against all his other main ri­vals at their peak. Fed­erer, on the other hand, has a one sided record against Nadal and Andy had a win­ning record against him for a while too, un­til he lost six on the fly.”

Should Mur­ray make it to men’s fi­nal day, few of the 15,000 fans will be hud­dled within Cen­tre Court on men’s fi­nal day will be root­ing for a man who is more feared than loved, but Djokovic tends to thrive in the lion’s den. Look at last year’s US Open for in­stance, where he spoiled the party by tak­ing down Fed­erer in four sets. “The only peo­ple cheer­ing for No­vak that day were maybe a few Serbs in the crowd and his sup­port team,” said Rused­ski. “The rest, maybe 22,000 were root­ing against him. I saw him months later against Monte Carlo and told him ‘that was the most amaz­ing per­for­mance I have ever seen’. The guy is tough is nails.”

With Ivan Lendl back in his en­tourage, hav­ing never so much as dropped a set against him on grass, Mur­ray has rea­sons to be cheer­ful ahead of this year’s Wim­ble­don. But even in the event that he goes down for a sixth Grand Slam fi­nal to the Serb at SW19 this sum­mer, there is hardly any shame in that. As clearly the sec­ondbest player in the world right now, Rused­ski feels that gives him equiv­a­lence to ei­ther Lionel Messi or Cris­tiano Ron­aldo.

“Andy is spe­cial - he is our best player by far in the Open era,” said Rused­ski. “He is beat­ing records that Perry had back in ‘36, he has been in all four fi­nals of the slams, win­ning two of them, and he hasn’t been far off in the oth­ers. I think peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate how great a cham­pion he is. When he goes away he will get more credit than he does now.

“When you are talk­ing about World No 2, then you are ba­si­cally talk­ing about Ron­aldo and Messi ev­ery week, de­pend­ing on what your ar­gu­ment is. If you were talk­ing about Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships or World Cup and you fin­ished first and sec­ond ev­ery time then I think you would be pretty happy. Last year he was un­lucky. Fed­erer in the semis - a stink­ing hot day at Wim­ble­don. Fed­erer served out his mind then the fi­nal was cold and windy. He was my pick to win the cham­pi­onship if he got into the fi­nal but he didn’t make it that far.”

Rused­ski namechecks Do­minic Thiem, Alexan­der Zverev - the con­queror of Fed­erer in Halle re­cently - and Nick Kyr­gios as three mem­bers of an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion who could throw a span­ner in the works this fort­night. But per­haps the big­gest po­ten­tial flaw in Djokovic’s bid for world dom­i­na­tion is the lo­gis­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of play­ing so many dif­fer­ent tour­na­ments in such short or­der.

“He [Djokovic] wants the cal­en­dar slam,” said Rused­ski. “And the Olympic gold medal. So he is go­ing to just keep go­ing. For me the gold is go­ing to be harder be­cause it is Brazil, with Zika, the trav­el­ling, all those things. So one thing is go­ing to have to give - it is just whether it is go­ing to be the cal­en­dar slam or the Olympic medal.”

Ev­ery­body was telling me that his fore­hand breaks down and he gets a lit­tle tight. But I played just about as well as I could and I still lost

EARLY PROM­ISE: A Teenaged No­vak Djokovic in Davis Cup ac­tion for Ser­bia & Mon­tene­gro

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