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Djokovic plays a winning hand in Tokyo

Matt Zemek



Geoff Burke - USA TODAY Sports

As the Big Three continue their tennis journeys, the subject of scheduling decisions will remain relevant to the evolution of their careers. For Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, one of the more fascinating — and hugely impressive — aspects of their tennis lives is how many chapters have yet to be written.

Yes, MOST of the story has been told, but we still have so many interesting and unpredictable dramas in front of us. The story is not about to end. In a few years, yes, but not immediately. Time is passing — the hours, days and weeks moving in only one direction — but none of the Big Three are clearly in a winding-down phase. Not yet.

Of the three, Djokovic is clearly in position to make the biggest long-term gains. He is six years younger than Federer, and he doesn’t have Nadal’s knee problems on hardcourts. Yes, a shoulder injury hampered his hardcourt summer, but his legendary flexibility and open-stance defense form the foundation of his kingdom, and they remain intact.

If Djokovic plays his cards right in terms of scheduling, he could be winning majors at age 38 and 39… and if he does that, it would likely mean that he will end up with a major title count in the mid-20s.

With all this in mind, it seemed foolish in the eyes of some that Djokovic played Tokyo, which he won by defeating John Millman in Sunday’s final.

Yes, we all knew that Djokovic wanted a scouting report before the 2020 Summer Olympics. That was a wise instinct. Yet, was it worth returning to the tour a little sooner in light of that shoulder injury? Was it worth playing an extra week of tennis?

Think about the big picture, right?

Pick your spots, right?

Wait until Shanghai, right?

Conceptually, those arguments contained a certain degree of logic, but what do we always say about decisions in a solo-athlete sport?

Only the athlete can know his or her body. We can’t.

Yes, “pick your spots” often means “don’t overplay,” but the expression can also mean “pounce on an opportunity when it is there,” and that explains Djokovic in Tokyo.

You can’t win if you don’t play, and Djokovic saw a lot more upside in this tournament than many outsiders did.

He reaped the rewards. He made an indisputably correct decision. It all worked out.

Some of you might remember that in February of 2018, I tut-tutted that Federer was unwise to play Rotterdam to get the World No. 1 ranking at age 36. He could have gained that ranking when Rafael Nadal did not play Acapulco later that month.

Yet, Federer sensed opportunity — not just in getting the World No. 1 ranking by virtue of winning matches (instead of gaining it through Nadal’s inactivity), but in experiencing the emotions of having a crowd react to what he did. He forged a moment much more special and personal than if he had received World No. 1 while sitting home on a couch in Switzerland.

He made a decision with benefits I did not appreciate. He knew more about tennis than I did.

Shocker, I know.

So it is with Djokovic. He knew more about his body and his ability to shoulder a risk (pun intended) than outsiders did.

He feasted at the victory table.

He knows more about tennis than I do.

Shocker, I know.

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Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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