Dhruvan Nair, Undergraduate Batch of 2021 1932 was a landmark year for tennis. It was the
Vaibhav Parik, Class of 2020
Djokovic holding his fourth Wimbledon trophy at the 2018 Championships
A year ago, John McEnroe made one of the feistier comparisons. Mentioning veteran golfer Tiger Woods’ issues with his family and wife, McEnroe conjectured the possibility of Novak Djokovic undergoing the same, while commentating on one of his Wimbledon matches. By the quarter finals, the tennis world knew that Djokovic was definitely facing some problem, but turns out, it was a physical one that many athletes face. An elbow injury forced Djokovic to call curtains on his already floundering 2017 season, a stretch that saw him win 2 ATP 250 titles, and enter just one Masters 1000 final.
When he returned to tour early in January, it became a subject of constant misfortune, be it the spirited fight he had in Melbourne earlier this year, going down to Chung despite his injury, or the faded ghost he seemed like at Indian Wells or Miami in March. There was a lot to question and wonder, and a comeback at the magnitude of Federer and Nadal’s feats seemed farfetched. But who would have thought that exactly one year on from his unfortunate retirement at Wimbledon 2017, that Djokovic would be hoisting the same trophy himself?
In what has been a headlining tennis story over the last two months, Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon, in the process of which, he outlasted Rafael Nadal in a classic semifinal, before holding off Kevin Anderson to win his 13th Grand Slam, his 4th at the All England Club, and then roaring to victory at the US Open. He even went on to achieve the Career Golden Masters(the achievement of winning each major Masters and Grand Slam event at least once) at the Cincinnati Open, defeating Roger Federer in the final. This feat made him the only player to have won all 4 grand slam titles, the year-end ATP finals and all 9 ATP Masters 1000 titles (the most important tournaments on the tour after the slams).
However, as unexpected as the timing of Djokovic’s comeback seems, it was piecing up together as early as May, when his long-standing coach Marian Vajda, rejoined the team after a year of splitting up. He reoriented Djokovic’s approach to the sport and moved him to his competitive mindset from a rather philosophical one he seemed to have adopted. This reorientation and his performance on clay seemed to suggest an upward trajectory, even if it ended with a stinging defeat in the French Open quarterfinals. At that point, Djokovic said he was unsure of playing the grass season.
But that moment of doubt was followed by a runner up showing at Queen’s Club, where Djokovic seemed to look quite good. Ranked 21 at the beginning of Wimbledon, Djokovic put together a step-by-step run which involved him defeating British no. 1 Kyle Edmund on home turf, followed by a quarterfinal victory over Japanese star Kei Nishikori. Against Nadal in the semis, Djokovic did absolutely what his game is known most for: enduring the toughest of opponents in the closest of matches. Despite Djokovic’s 10–8 victory in the fifth set, the difference in total points won was just 4 more points won by Djokovic (195 to Rafa’s 191). This victory was arguably a huge confidence booster for Djokovic, who subsequently sailed through the final against a fatigued Anderson.
With the Cincinnati Masters title, Djokovic successfully completed the Career Golden Masters
Almost a month later, at the Cincinnati Masters, Djokovic was trying to relieve the pressure off his shoulders as he began his quest for the Career Golden Masters. He looked nervous in the first couple of matches, particularly when he was down a set in the second round. As matches progressed, the play intensified, with Dimitrov stretching him to the limit, followed by Raonic and Cilic’s spirited fightbacks to force deciding sets in the quarters and semis. But Djokovic found a way to win, just like the old times of his dominance. As a result, a final showdown with Roger Federer beckoned, their first meeting since the 2016 Australian Open. The challenge could have been very daunting for Djokovic mentally, as Federer had denied him the Cincinnati title thrice before in the final. But Djokovic was ready to play at his best against Federer, who looked comparatively rusty. A straight sets victory gave Djokovic the title he had missed in his large and diverse collection.
Often regarded as the Big Three, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have stretched the connotation of athletic longevity in tennis. It was unimaginable, a few years back, for a tennis professional to keep playing beyond 35, or to maintain their top spots and win grand slams after 30. However, the three of them have collectively dispelled this myth with their performances. Federer leads the way as the oldest no. 1, still winning Grand Slams at his age. Nadal followed suit, breaking his own records at the French Open and reigning as the current no. 1. With them came the rebirth of an old and dominating rivalry, starting 2017. But by redefining the boundaries of fitness and stamina, Djokovic at 31, joins the duo in 2018 to complete the historic triumvirate. Ten years since he won his first grand slam at the 2008 Australian Open, it seems another fitting visit to history, as Djokovic came out and broke the Fedal duopoly.
This victory does although, add to the strange situation tennis has been in for the past two years. The tennis equation remains complex with the variable nature of next gen stars like Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios, who cannot seem to take the place of the old guard, particularly at the grand slams. Add to that the rise of Juan Martin del Potro, and the possible comebacks of Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray, and the situation becomes harder to decipher. It remains unclear as to what or who is going to unseat the Big Three, particularly as they set the tone for the Grand Slams and the top spots. Nadal and Federer still occupy the top two spots, and Djokovic has clawed his way back from being no. 21 to no. 6, after Wimbledon, and to no. 3 after the US Open. It seems, like so many points in the last ten years, that for the near future the Big Three shall remain in control.
But for Djokovic, this resurgence is something personally significant. After his conquest of the French Open in 2016, which seemed to take something out of him emotionally, this second conquest in Cincinnati is adding fuel to Djokovic’s unforeseen, yet inevitable revival. If Paris was Djokovic’s elation, it seems that Cincinnati might very well prove to be the revitalization of his peak.