Go back to that cramped press room in Stade Roland Garros. Go back to that scene in Paris. Go back to the moment when Novak Djokovic had just lost to Marco Cecchinato at the French Open after having a 5-2 lead in the fourth set.
That was not a happy time for Djokovic. How could it have been? Matches he didn’t normally lose were lost. Situations he normally handled were unable to be contained and managed. No, he was not in the same place as March in the United States — his game was clearly getting better — but no one thought he was ready for Wimbledon.
In fact, in the aftermath of that loss to Cecchinato, Djokovic gave a throwaway line — obviously in frustration and laced with sarcasm, not reflecting anything close to actual intent — about possibly not playing the grass season. No one should have taken that statement at face value. Some did.
The point of the statement was not what Djokovic’s words literally meant. The point of the statement was the frustration beneath the words. A great champion was growing tired of not being able to unleash his best tennis, after having laid the tennis world at his feet two years earlier, in June of 2016.
It was in that same place — Roland Garros, Paris — where Djokovic completed his seminal “Novak Slam” and did what neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal had ever been able to do, and will almost certainly never do before they retire as professional tennis players: Win four straight major tournaments. Only Rod Laver gets to share that distinction among male tennis players in the Open Era.
Djokovic set the bar so high — and busted through the Fedal axis of power so thoroughly and convincingly — that his status in the sport’s history had forever changed, even if the media lavished more attention upon Federer. People who knew what Djokovic was up against at the end of the 2010 tennis season — who knew how hard it had been for him to coexist in a competitive sense with these two giants of the sport — could appreciate the enormity of what Djokovic subsequently achieved from 2011 through 2016, and HOW he achieved it.
In a long introductory essay to my 2017 book on Djokovic, I spent time focusing on this process of absorbing how hard it would be to conquer Federer and Nadal… and then actually doing it as Djokovic did. This feat is one of the most remarkable transformations in sports (not just tennis) history.
It belongs to Novak Djokovic alone.
No wonder he was frustrated after losing to Marco Cecchinato.
Go back to that moment. Djokovic had not just lost to Nadal or Federer, but with Wimbledon just around the bend, Djokovic knew he would likely have to go through one or both to return to the mountaintop of tennis.
A lot of people thought he was on the way back. What a lot FEWER people thought in Paris, in early June of 2018, was that he would restore his empire so quickly, chiefly at the All-England Club.
But he did… and he did so by going through Nadal… and he did so by winning an epic match which very likely denied Rafa an 18th major title. Djokovic — in a manner very similar to the 2007 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal — won a third-set tiebreaker, served his way out of deep trouble in a fifth set, and then broke Nadal to put his hands on another Wimbledon trophy. He continued a decade-long pattern of absorbing a rough loss in Paris but then transforming the trajectory of his season and career at Wimbledon.
Djokovic used his emergence at Wimbledon as emotional fuel for a run to his first-ever Cincinnati title and the completion of the Golden Set of Masters 1000 championships, nine out of nine, the only player to pull off the feat. Djokovic was nearly felled by the New York heat and humidity, but he survived in more ways than one. As soon as the weather became remotely normal in the semifinals and final, he destroyed Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro. He vanquished everyone in his path in Shanghai.
No, he did not win Bercy or the 2018 ATP Finals, but he left 2018 as the No. 1 player in the world and the only member of the Big 3 to win two major titles.
He is — indisputably — the 2018 ATP Player of the Year. In half a season — from the rubble of Roland Garros — he reestablished his place not just in the top tier of men’s tennis, but at the very top of the mountain, looking down on everyone else, including and especially the Fedal Axis.
That he regained his place as No. 1 is not the surprise of the 2018 season for Djokovic. That he did so with such speed and immediacy is the remarkable part of a season which, at the start of April, lacked Marian Vajda and lacked the ability to beat Taro Daniel or Benoit Paire on hardcourts.
Vajda, of course, is the man who began to set the wheels in motion for this renaissance. As soon as Djokovic returned to Vajda, he had already made the coaching decision which enabled this transformation to occur.
That said, the athlete still has to execute what the coach wants him to do. The athlete still has to perform in pressure situations, no matter what the coach says. Djokovic still had to turn frustration into inspiration at the start of the summer of 2018. That he engineered the transformation is not remarkable. That he made it happen so decisively and profoundly in the span of just five months — wresting World No. 1 and Player of the Year honors from the Fedal Axis — is the true marker of iconic greatness at the level Novak Djokovic has established.
The man who — staring at an Everest-sized climb at the end of 2010 — scaled every inch of rock to rise above his two fabled rivals over the next six years has, in 2018, replicated that same massive ascent up the mountain, only in a compressed amount of time.
The 2018 tennis season embodied everything great about Novak Djokovic. It offered, within the context of 10 months, a perfect representation of the journey which has defined — and immortalized — a career which, in the course of history, could still become the greatest that has ever existed.