What a week this has been for Novak Djokovic. On Wednesday, Djokovic was told he would be able to travel to Australia in January, and in response, Djokovic held a series of on-court masterclasses.
During Sunday night’s celebration – first holding the ATP Finals trophy and then lifting his eight-year-old son Stefan in his arms – Djokovic looked around with a brilliance that reminded Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films.
It’s not like “I’ll be back.” More “I’m already back, what are you going to do about it?”
For the most part, 2022 has been a disappointing story for Djokovic. He has been ruled out of two of the four Grand Slams due to a Covid vaccine failure. At Wimbledon, he won his fourth title in a row on Center Court, but did not earn any ranking points for it due to a general sports dispute between Russian and Belarusian players.
Another player might be demoralized by such repeated failures. But it was hardly Djokovic’s answer. Instead, his elimination only spurred him on, sending him back to the practice courts to hone his already polished game.
We shouldn’t be completely surprised. Recall that Djokovic began his tennis life as a beggar at a feast where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal sat in ermines. His genius lay in being able to see himself next to them, or even above them—a result that now seems increasingly likely—when others simply bowed their heads.
This bravado, which was only fueled by his early underdog status, still gives him wings. “What I have in mind is a huge hunger to win trophies,” Djokovic told reporters in the interview room on Sunday. So, see you in Australia!
Djokovic’s dominance in Turin was astounding. Okay, there was one match – the second group stage against Daniil Medvedev – where he got into an air fight. But his other four victories – all against opponents in the top ten – were win-wins.
Against Kasper Ruud on Sunday night, he looked unsteady in the first set – huffing between glasses and massaging his temples – but then dominated the second. Any sense of fatigue was dispelled by an amazing 36-shot rally in the final game of his 7-5, 6-3 victory.
As Djokovic later explained, “It’s an internal struggle with yourself, because there’s one voice that always tells you, ‘You can’t do it, you’re too tired,’ this and that, right?”
Over the years, he has won this battle most often, and this is one of the reasons why the younger generation is so afraid of him. Another reason is his technical prowess, which is certainly unmatched in the long history of the sport. There isn’t a single hit – not even an overhead these days – that he doesn’t play with dedication and control.
Eight weeks before the first goal is scored in Melbourne, any sane bookmaker will make Djokovic the favorite – if only because it is difficult to determine a plausible opponent. Just look at his head-to-head meetings with three other semi-finalists in Turin. Djokovic leads Ruud 4-0, Taylor Fritz 6-0 and Andrey Rublev 2-1.
The counterargument could be that two 19-year-olds – Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune – beat Djokovic this year. But both of those matches were three sets, while the longer format of the Australian Open contributes to Djokovic’s uncanny stamina. In addition, the sample sizes are still too small to declare them worthy of competition.
A real rivalry with Rafael Nadal, who is 30-29 behind in the highest scoring streak in ATP Tour history. At the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Djokovic won both meetings, including a two-hour loss in the 2019 final in what has to be considered one of the worst moments of Nadal’s career.
Nadal’s army of fans will point out that he won last year’s Australian Open, recovering from a career-threatening foot problem and a two-set loss to Medvedev in the final. While few would back him to keep the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup – thanks in large part to another list of injury concerns in 2022 – we were just as skeptical 12 months ago. So there is reason to postpone the sentencing.
What does seem likely is that if Nadal wants to maintain his position at the top of the Grand Slam leaderboard, he will have to beat Djokovic himself. For the 100th season in a row, the kids still haven’t made a strong enough case for succession.
“I think I always see myself as the best player in the world,” Djokovic said Sunday night. Owing to the strange events of 2022, he may only be in fifth place, but this is increasingly hard to disagree with.