It took an enormous amount of dedication, time and effort for world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to catch up with and ultimately dominate Roger Federer on the court. Now that Djokovic has also taken control of the political conversation in tennis, he seems intent on replacing Federer as the most influential player in the game.
While declining to publicly take sides, Djokovic -- the president of the ATP player council, which advises the ATP board -- has emerged as the figurehead of a populist movement that has unexpectedly engineered the demise of ATP president Chris Kermode. Federer, who is not active these days in ATP politics, was (along with most of the other top players) a supporter of Kermode.
Then, in another recent blow to the status quo that had Djokovic's support, ATP executives resolved to move the ATP Finals from London's O2 Arena -- where they have been spectacularly successful for a dozen years -- to Turin, Italy beginning in 2021, the ATP announced in a statement Wednesday.
"It's still a few years away but I know that the players will be very excited to compete there, and I also hope to be part of what will be a very special event," Djokovic said in Wednesday's statement.
Rafael Nadal has always had a beef with the O2 hosting the ATP Finals, the fifth-most prestigious title in men's tennis. That's mainly because the King of Clay would like to see such an important event played now and then in his own fiefdom. Federer and Djokovic have been equally advantaged on the O2's indoor hard court -- one or the other has won 11 of the previous 16 ATP Finals -- but they expressed philosophical differences on the hosting issue during news conferences at last November's finals.
"If the O2's happy and the crowds keep flocking and coming to this venue and the tour has a good deal, why not stay here?" Federer asked. "It's been a winning formula."
Said Djokovic, a five-time champ: "I should be the last one talking about moving it anywhere. [But] I feel like maybe 10 years in one place is a bit much. I feel that the general idea of this event is that it travels more."
Djokovic's assertion is debatable. The event has been a huge hit at the O2, drawing weekly hordes of more than 250,000 spectators. It has been a run comparable to that of the event's forerunner, the Grand Prix Masters, which was played for a dozen years ending in 1989 in another comparably hot media zone, New York's Madison Square Garden.
ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale, a founder and the first president of the ATP, told ESPN.com: "You have there [the O2] a venue and event that's working and profitable and is a great showcase for the game. I never did understand this compulsion to move things around. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Drysdale spoke for many when he added, "I don't know what [Djokovic's] motive is in this whole conflagration, but I'm a great fan of his and I have a great deal of respect for his intellect. To shake things up sometimes is not a bad thing. On the other hand, I've never heard anything bad at all about Kermode."
This sudden destabilization of the ATP Tour status quo could open the door for Djokovic to become a power broker and, ultimately, a leader. His motive might be as simple as ambition -- at age 31, he too has to begin thinking of his future -- or as complicated as finally escaping for good the long shadow cast by the widely beloved Federer and, to a lesser extent, Nadal. That has been easier to accomplish on the court than off it.
The Serbian star is 8-2 in his past 10 outings against each of his two career rivals (granted, Federer is 37 and Nadal, while less than a full year older than Djokovic, has been injury plagued). But until his breakout year of 2011, Djokovic was the awkward, third wheel in the "Fedal" rivalry/bromance. Neither icon welcomed Djokovic with open arms, but then some of Djokovic's own behaviors in those early years -- including his excuse-making, forced humor and even his clipped, confident way of speaking -- didn't help his own cause.
Djokovic has worked hard, and not entirely successfully, to win over a public that seems besotted with Fedal. Along the way he also has become ("evolved," as he undoubtedly would say) a more thoughtful individual with a sophisticated worldview. He even speaks with the cadences, embellishments and catchphrases more in keeping with the speech of a highly placed diplomat addressing a sensitive subject. Sometimes he sounds downright presidential.
But Djokovic has to be careful that he doesn't presidential himself right out of the top ranking. It's highly unusual for the No. 1-ranked player to be so invested in the politics of the sport.
Djokovic admitted recently that his political activities have played a role in the mediocre 5-3 record he has logged since winning the Australian Open. "I just had, you know, way too many things off the court," he said after losing in the third round of the Miami Open last month. "I guess that affected me a little bit on the court."
After losing in the quarterfinals at the Monte Carlo Masters, Djokovic insisted that nowadays he plays his best at Grand Slam events and -- with the French Open looming on the horizon -- declared: "That's just what I intend to do."
Meanwhile, his political game is getting pretty good, too.