by Matt Zemek
With Roger Federer at age 37, it can reasonably be said he is in the autumn of his career — not in the sense that he is declining (he isn’t), but in the sense that the end of his career is relatively close at hand. This does not mean he will retire from professional tennis within a set period of time, but the endpoint is probably not THAT far away. Maybe four years, maybe two. The amount of tomorrows for Federer is shrinking to a conspicuously small number.
This past March, everyone in the tennis community wondered how many tomorrows remained in front of Novak Djokovic. It was certainly fair and reasonable to wonder when his mind and body would click back into form and enable his outstanding brand of tennis to shine once again. This was a period of uncertainty for him, and we can’t know precisely how human beings will handle the more uncertain points in their lives and careers.
What was always unfair though — and which I acknowledged when Djokovic won Wimbledon earlier this summer — was the idea that Djokovic was finished, and that he would never come back. That much seemed unreasonable to the point of deserving scorn. That was not a serious claim by anyone who thinks of himself or herself as an intelligent tennis observer.
When one digested the magnitude of Djokovic’s Wimbledon victory, however, the question immediately shifted to something else: not if Djokovic was BACK or not (that conversation was put to bed), but if he could dominate the ATP Tour again.
Winning Cincinnati for the first time in his career — and doing so by winning six matches, not five, since he was seeded outside the top eight in Ohio — reinforced Djokovic’s latest ascendancy. Could he complete the hat trick of Wimbledon, Cincy and the U.S. Open to make it absolutely clear that, once again, he was the leader of the pack and everyone else was chasing him?
We received our answer these past two weeks, culminating with Sunday’s convincing victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the U.S. Open men’s final. Djokovic wasn’t really able to show how good he was as a TENNIS PLAYER in the first five heat-smothered, humidity-drenched rounds of this attrition-dominated tournament, but in the last two rounds of the 2018 U.S. Open, Djokovic — not the weather or the lack of air circulation inside Arthur Ashe Stadium — did the dominating.
He roared through the first set, briefly lost focus in the second set, but steadied himself at the end of that set, won the tiebreaker with a series of points that took away del Potro’s legs, and then managed the third set without too many problems, his opponent clearly tiring under the strain of trying to find a way, any sort of way, to hit through the Serbian superstar.
What is the new landscape of men’s tennis? It’s not that new — it is much the same as the end of 2015 and the start of 2016. Djokovic walked the Earth as its conqueror, everyone else playing for second place in the other halves of draws. Players in Djokovic’s half are playing for semifinal berths. Players in his quarter are playing for quarterfinal berths. This is how the ATP used to be, and this is how it is again. Djokovic was not to be doubted in his ability to restore himself to this point. The most impressive part, though, is how quick and complete this restoration has been.
It was only in June that Djokovic lost to Marco Cecchinato in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros. He didn’t at least get to face Dominic Thiem in what might have been a blockbuster semifinal in Paris. On that evening, when he lost a break lead in the fourth set and somehow allowed that match to slip away, it was clear that Djokovic was getting better. What was unclear: When his restoration would occur. That match might not have set him back and represented a regression, but even the most ardent Djokovic fan would have found it hard to call that match (not the tournament, but that specific match) a step forward in his evolution.
Yet here we are.
From the 2017 Australian Open through the 2018 French Open — six majors — Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal scooped up all the loot at the major tournaments. In 2016, especially after Roland Garros, Djokovic seemed to be on the cusp of overtaking Nadal for second on the all-time major title list, and needing three more years to catch Federer. That was the trajectory at the time, let’s not forget.
From the 2015 Australian Open through the 2016 French Open — also a batch of six majors — Djokovic won FIVE of them to gain 12 majors. When 2016 Wimbledon rolled around, the major count was Federer 17, Nadal 14, Djokovic 12… and Federer injured himself at that 2016 Wimbledon tournament, leading to a subsequent shutdown of his 2016 season. Nadal was a shell of his former self, plagued by an injury at Roland Garros and not able to build back full trust in his body in the latter half of the 2016 season.
Then, however, the injuries which had taken a bite out of Federer and Nadal also did the same to Djokovic, who emptied his tank in the process of winning the signature Novak Slam from Wimbledon of 2015 through 2016 Roland Garros, four majors in a row, something only one other man (Rod Laver in 1969) has done in the Open Era of men’s professional tennis. Federer and Nadal stepped into the vacuum left behind by Djokovic, so after all those years of pushing toward the other two members of the Big 3, Novak had to hit the reset button this year.
Because of his remarkable capacity to rebuild himself and become the toughest out on a tennis court in the ATP realm, Djokovic is very close to his position roughly two years ago. There are two fewer years left for him to make this charge up the mountain, relative to 2016, but once again there is a sense that if he CAN stay healthy, the time window is there in these next three years — 2019, 2020 and 2021 — to change the dynamics in an era which has constantly changed the equation for men’s tennis. Djokovic once again stands on the plateau, overlooking a horizon rich with potential to change the way the history books are written by Steve Flink and the other longtime chroniclers of the sport.
For 18 months, from January of 2017 through June of 2018, the ATP’s old guard, Federer and Nadal, were the talk of the kingdom, but at the end of 2018 — as seen through the prism of the major tournaments — it is Djokovic who once again rules the roost, owning more of tennis’ signature trophies this season than his two fabled rivals. He didn’t play either man in New York, but he beat Nadal in a Wimbledon semifinal which could one day be remembered as one of the five most important matches of this era. (Time will tell.) He then beat Federer in Cincinnati, one of the toughest things to do in men’s tennis over the past 10 years. Now he has won a third U.S. Open, meaning that he has won three of the four majors at least three times, a testament to his balance and consistency at different points on the tennis calendar.
He hasn’t just come back to the top tier of men’s tennis. Novak Djokovic has come back to the top at Number One — not in the rankings, but in one of the central categories which measures tennis greatness: major titles in a tennis season.
There is no autumn of a career — not from where I can see, at any rate. The summer of Novak Djokovic doesn’t just refer to this triumphant and transformative 2018. It refers to the belief that Djokovic has a long stretch of time ahead of him.
If he fills that stretch of time with the level of quality witnessed these past two months, stretching from SW19 to Flushing Meadows, the idea that Novak Djokovic is Number One won’t merely refer to ATP rankings on a given date.
It will refer to something much, much greater than that.
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