Column: Djokovic, greatest athlete out there?

What a horrific dilemma this could be. The men’s 100 meter

sprint final and men’s tennis final fall on the same day, Aug. 5,

at the London Olympics. If forced, which would you miss: Usain Bolt

possibly becoming the first man since Carl Lewis to win the 100 at

consecutive games or Novak Djokovic perhaps putting a golden sheen

on what promises to be another astounding year?

Until Sunday, Bolt would have been a comfortable winner.

But now? Impossible choice. And what a memorable day it could

prove to be for those with time to rush from one event to the other

or to tune into both.

Like Bolt, Djokovic is becoming one of those special athletes

who transcends the confines of sport, a figure whose achievements

on the field of play teach us not only new things about sporting

endeavor but also about the bottomless well of human

possibility.

Bolt’s 100, 200 and relay golds at the 2008 Beijing Games made

the Jamaican more than just an Olympic champion sprinter but one of

the greatest sportsmen of all time because he redefined our

understanding of how fast humans can run.

Likewise, in outlasting Rafael Nadal for 5 hours and 53 minutes

in the longest ever Grand Slam final, Djokovic played far more than

a mere tennis match to win the Australian Open. He tested our

definition of human endurance. How, just how, did he find those

last drops of energy to first reel in and then finish off the

Spaniard who, with a 4-2 lead in the fifth set, looked as though he

might wriggle free?

It was the incredible will Djokovic demonstrated that made this

feat immortal. Like Muhammad Ali flooring George Foreman with a

left, then a right in the eighth round of the Rumble in the Jungle

or Lance Armstrong picking himself up from a crash at the 2003 Tour

de France and powering up a climb with cold-eyed fury on his broken

bike, this was epic because it was as much about heart as it was

about physical ability.

”You’re going through so much suffering; your toes are

bleeding,” Djokovic said. ”Everything is just outrageous, you

know, but you’re still enjoying that pain.”

At the end, he ripped open his shirt with a primal scream. It

wouldn’t have been that much of a shock if Djokovic had also ripped

open his hairy chest to show us just how fiercely his ticker

beats.

What a terrifying sight for Andy Murray and Roger Federer. The

hypochondriac Djokovic who in years past looked unlikely to ever

match Nadal’s physicality, the joker Djokovic who seemed unlikely

to equal Federer’s cool professionalism, has been body-snatched and

replaced by Superman on a gluten-free diet.

Murray, the world No. 4, came away from his five-set, 4 hour and

50-minute Australian semifinal loss to Djokovic feeling that he is

edging closer to the No. 1. Maybe. But two days later, on Sunday,

Djokovic and Nadal then shifted the benchmark yet further forward.

The ferocity of their contest made the idea that Murray could beat

first one of them and then the other in a Grand Slam semifinal and

final look fanciful again.

Same goes for Federer, the No. 3. As long as Nadal and Djokovic

are fit, it will only get more difficult for the 30-year-old to get

his hands on a 17th Grand Slam title by toppling those men five and

six years his junior.

For Nadal, Sunday’s final offered some evidence that the No. 2

no longer looks in trepidation across the net at Djokovic and that

the deep hurt done to his confidence by losing six finals to the

Serb last year might not be permanent. In becoming the first man to

lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals, all to Djokovic, at least

Nadal this time pushed his nemesis to five sets.

But as positive as Nadal sounded about this defeat – ”I always

said is good suffer, enjoy – enjoy suffering, no?” – will the

scabs on his psyche simply flake right off the next time they

meet?

One hopes not. Because, like the very best Hollywood

blockbusters, this epic cried out for a sequel and left us hungry

for more. Some, including 7-time major winner Mats Wilander,

already are talking up the possibility of a calendar Grand Slam for

Djokovic this year. That is premature, but won’t be if Djokovic

wins the French Open – the only major he let slip away in 2011 –

this June.

After that, Wimbledon’s Center Court will be calling, with the

men’s final on July 8 and the Olympic final a month later. Just

imagine if those produce a Djokovic-Nadal double-bill.

If that happens, then the Aug. 5 dilemma won’t seem so quite

knotty anymore.

Anyone want tickets for Bolt?

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at twitter.com/johnleicester