When a legendary athlete who has set the bar unfathomably high for the rest of his sport looks pedestrian, it is easy for observers to freak out. While plenty of Roger Federer fans took Sunday’s Cincinnati final in stride, some surely gulped inwardly and got the sneaking suspicion that the window of opportunity might be closing quickly for the Swiss in his bid to win more significant titles.
Novak Djokovic made Federer look ordinary in a routine straight-set victory in Ohio. Djokovic’s quality defined the match. Djokovic planted his flag on defense, established control of the whole court, and punished Federer from start to finish whenever Federer couldn’t hit an unreturnable serve or win the point in four strokes or fewer.
Djokovic’s defense squeezed Federer, who pressed, and whose groundstrokes had not been consistent enough over the course of the full week to give him the confidence needed to stay with Nole from the baseline. The result was predictable as soon as Djokovic finally broke Federer’s serve in the first set — finally not in relationship to Federer’s streak of 100 straight service holds in Cincinnati (dating back to 2014), but to something else.
I use the word “finally” in the sense that Djokovic hadn’t broken Federer’s serve in the 2015 Cincinnati final or their 2012 Cincinnati final. The last time Djokovic had broken
Federer in Cincinnati was in game two of the second set of the 2009 final.
The 2009 final involved 10 Federer service games. The 2012 final involved 9 Federer service games, the 2015 final 11, for a total of 30. Federer then held in the first three games on Sunday in 2018, meaning that in three Cincinnati finals plus the first half of Sunday’s opening set, Djokovic — quite possibly the best returner in men’s tennis history — had broken Federer’s serve just once in 33 service games.
As soon as Djokovic put his foot down in the seventh game of the first set — Federer’s fourth service game of the match — the Swiss’s lack of a strong return game or durable groundstrokes made the match feel over. When Djokovic double faulted to give Federer a break lead early in the second, there was a brief sense that the flow of the match could change.
Yet, a lot like the 2009 final in which Djokovic lost the first set and got a *2-0 lead in the second stanza, Federer couldn’t hold his break very long on Sunday, nine years later. Djokovic reasserted himself, confirming the notion that his first-set surge felt like a decisive moment in the match. Nole’s early lapse at the start of the second set was more aberration than hinge point.
As everyone knows, this was the first Fedole match since the 2016 Australian Open semifinals. That night in Melbourne, Djokovic was simply unplayable in the first two sets. The version of Djokovic seen on Sunday was not as overwhelming as the January 2016 iteration, if only because NO version of Djokovic was as dominant as that one in Australia. Yet, this midsummer form of Djokovic, in August of 2018, was still very locked in. Federer had to have a vintage serving day to have a realistic chance. Roger didn’t come particularly close to that needed standard. He got kicked around.
It is easy to regard this as a shattering, devastating moment if you’re a Federer fan. If the ATP Tour is now recalling early 2016 or late 2015, when Djokovic would steal Federer’s thunder in a lot of big-tournament finals, it is a natural reaction for Fed fans to be depressed. Yet, when seen in a fuller perspective, there is very little for Federer himself to be discouraged about.
What Federer fans need to realize is not that the ground has shifted (though in a very real sense it has, with Djokovic back on top of the mountain). The bigger epiphany is how little the earth has moved in relationship to Federer himself.
Djokovic has drastically altered the balance of power on tour within the course of the 2018 season, going from hopeless wanderer in late March in Miami to familiar tour juggernaut at Wimbledon and in Cincinnati.
Federer, though, has been conspicuously consistent in so many ways and on so many levels. Far from seeing this loss as an alarming moment or a time to speculate if a nosedive is imminent, this is precisely an occasion in which Federer’s ridiculously relentless consistency should be marveled at.
Before I wrote at either Patreon (my personal, independent blog site) or here at Tennis With An Accent, I had written at multiple media companies from 2014 through the early summer of 2017. Some of you followed my work at those outlets, but for those who didn’t yet know me or didn’t yet follow my work at the time, let me briefly share my condensed version of how I viewed Roger.
Very simply, I said in those years — particularly after the 2015 losses to Djokovic in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals — that Federer, in his mid-30s, remained a top-three men’s tennis player who simply wasn’t quite as good as Djokovic. Federer was exceeding so many expectations of what people thought he would achieve at age 33 and 34, especially in light of his annus horribilis in 2013, when a lot of people (many who considered themselves Federer fans) thought he should retire to preserve his legacy and reputation. Losing those big-event finals to Djokovic stung, but the fact that Federer was MAKING those finals was very special and impressive.
I noted the steady, forward-moving consistency of Federer’s career, a linear journey in which the Swiss kept himself in the top three, kept giving himself chances at important tournaments — as he has always been fond of saying — and kept maintaining a high standard relative to his age and level of longevity in tennis.
I said that as long as Federer remained a semifinal or final-level player at the top tier of the ATP Tour, he just needed a bit of good fortune to win another major and add to his legend.
It wasn’t good luck that Federer himself got injured, but Federer — like Djokovic and Nadal — knows how to turn the bad aspects of a negative development into helpful and restorative details. He turned his injury rehabilitation period in the latter half of 2016 into a rest period which enabled him to be both physically and mentally fresh for the 2017 Australian Open.
Federer got anything but an easy draw — the path through the bracket was as tough as he could have hoped for, save for a breather against Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals after the older Zverev brother knocked off World No. 1 Andy Murray. Yet, within that cutthroat draw, Federer had the legs and the mental reset he needed to make his way to the finals and, once there, play with a new degree of inner freedom against Nadal, his old nemesis.
We can debate this until the end of recorded time: What if Federer never took several months off? Would he have done as well as he did at the 2017 Australian Open? We will never be able to know. I know I will go to my grave convinced that stepping away from the tour gave Federer the refreshment he needed to turn the page in his rivalry with Nadal.
He turned an injury into a gateway for one of the foremost highlights of his career, quite possibly the moment he will cherish more than the 2009 Roland Garros title when he hangs up the sneakers and racquets.
So much about the 2017 Australian Open was anything BUT lucky for Federer, but the rest break was an unexpected benefit. What also helped Federer was that Djokovic, injured and not in form, bowed out early. The two never crossed paths. A final detail which did matter: The combination of Nadal playing a five-hour semifinal against Grigor Dimitrov plus Federer getting two days off due to playing the Thursday men’s semifinal in Melbourne (Rafa played Friday) enabled Fed to go the distance in the final.
Nadal surely would have had more verve and vigor had he played in the Thursday semifinal, but the bigger point of emphasis is that Federer — who took a medical timeout during his highly physical semifinal against Stan Wawrinka — had more time to recover. Had Federer played in the Friday semifinal and not the Thursday semi, he probably would have been toast against a fresher Nadal.
Federer got a little bit lucky, but he was good enough at that Australian Open to put himself in position to benefit from that luck. In a much larger context, Federer was skilled enough, competent enough, hungry enough, and resilient enough to be what he has been throughout this decade — save for that dark patch at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2013: one of the three best male tennis players on the planet. 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, now 2018: Federer has been a top-three player in all those years.
Whether age 28 at the start of this calendar decade or age 37 as he is now, Federer is still there. He is simply always there. He is that steady line which just keeps moving forward with uncommon consistency.
At the 2017 Australian Open, and then later that year at Wimbledon — followed by this past January at Melbourne Park — Federer was rewarded for that mind-blowing consistency at the top of men’s tennis. That was the payoff in exchange for losing Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals to Djokovic, tournaments in which Federer played at a very high level.
Federer was bitterly unlucky to play great six-match tournaments and then encounter a better player in the final. Many men Federer had beaten in his prime — Andy Roddick at Wimbledon comes to mind — knew the exquisite pain of playing an A-grade tournament and still not lifting the championship trophy because that one damn guy from Switzerland stood in the way. In 2014 and 2015, Federer stepped in Roddick’s shoes while Djokovic became the big daddy.
2017 as a whole, and 2018 at the Australian Open, paid Federer back with confluences of circumstances which rewarded Roger’s uncanny ability to keep humming along on that straight and smooth highway as a top-three player in the world. As soon as Djokovic fell from the picture, Federer was there to capitalize.
This forms the proper background and subtext in which to appreciate Sunday’s Cincinnati final: This was not regression on the part of Federer — not in any meaningful sense. First of all, Federer didn’t play worse than he did against David Goffin on Saturday, or in set one of Friday’s quarterfinal against Wawrinka. Federer’s groundstrokes and return game weren’t particularly crisp in those situations. Sunday merely failed to IMPROVE the equation — it didn’t represent a noticeable DECLINE in quality. His level was never that high to begin with, which makes it hard to regress on a large scale.
This also was not regression for Federer in a broader sense: He has made 6 finals in 8 tournaments played this year. At so many tournaments in 2017 and 2018, Federer has made finals by playing B- or B-plus tennis. 2017 Montreal was an example. 2017 Shanghai was an example. 2017 Miami was an example in relationship to the middle rounds of that tournament, though not to the spectacular Miami semifinal against Nick Kyrgios, the best three-set men’s match anywhere on the ATP Tour in 2017.
Federer was scratchy in Basel last year before finding his way to the final in that tournament. In 2018, the same song has been playing. Federer was elite as a junkyard-dog fighter in Indian Wells this past March, rarely looking elegant but steering through landmines en route to a final. He did not play unworldly tennis when he defended his Australian Open crown, but he owned the key moments such as the break point at the start of the fifth set against Marin Cilic.
Halle and Cincinnati merely continued in 2018 what Federer has been doing for most of the past 1.5 years: making finals on tour without his best fastball. The consistency with which Federer has reached the finals of tournaments is matched only by the consistency with which he has played a notch below his absolute best self, his JesusFed or “Federer’s Funhouse” God-Mode settings.
In Australia and Indian Wells in 2017, God-Mode Federer entered the building. Even though Federer struggled in the middle rounds of Miami in 2017, he was his best self in the semis and the final against Kyrgios and Nadal. Other than those occasions, however, Federer has been winning without needing to be overwhelming.
Some will see that as a criticism or perhaps a backhanded compliment, and if you do, I can’t prevent you from feeling that way. I can, however, try to emphasize and impress upon you the idea that I am giving Federer a lavish form of praise.
Stop and think: How ridiculously impressive is it that a 35, 36, and now 37-year-old tennis player keeps reaching a very high bar — finals made in a MAJORITY of his tournament appearances in a tennis season — despite the withering toll modern tennis takes on the human body, especially in an era when the tour is disproportionately weighted toward hardcourts, the surface which punishes the body more than any other?
Even with Federer not playing clay, his fat stack of hardcourt finals is impossible to ignore.
This is not normal. This is not to be taken for granted. This is not what regression looks like.
Roger Federer is not declining — not in the way he plays tennis. His 2017 results were better than 2018, and in the early months of 2017, it is true that he attained a higher level than the one he currently possesses. Yet, since July of 2017, it can very reasonably be said that Federer has been playing at or close to the same level — very solid, occasionally spectacular, hardly ever poor — and maintaining that standard at nearly every tournament.
Whereas so many WTA stars are way up in one tournament and then way down the next (Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, among others), Federer is that steady, reliable presence one can still count on, two weeks after his 37th birthday. Only once has Federer failed to play into the quarterfinals of a tournament this year (Miami).
Only twice has he failed to make a final. Even if he didn’t play clay, it’s not as though this is a sample of two or three tournaments; it’s a sample of eight tournaments on two surfaces over the course of five months of playing activity. That’s not a drop in the bucket.
The bottom line: Federer isn’t regressing — not in the quality of his tennis. The main thing which was different about Sunday’s Cincinnati final is that Novak Djokovic improved when compared to previous Cincy finals against Fed, and also when compared to the early months of the 2018 season, when he was lost and had not yet realized that he needed Marian Vajda back in his life.
Roger Federer isn’t going anywhere. Moreover, he hasn’t gone anywhere. He has been a top-3 player for an insanely long period of time. He still owns that elevated status. He is still making finals. He is still beating younger foes even when he is not playing at his best. Federer is still doing the kinds of things which should elicit awe and amazement.
Djokovic beating him in a final once again means that Federer is No. 2 in a tournament. It’s not as good as being No. 1, but at age 37, being a consistent No. 2 at the most important tennis tournaments in the world is an extraordinary feat of human engineering and Swiss precision.
The steadiness of Federer, like a Swiss watch, just keeps on ticking. As was the case in 2013, and as has been the case for so much of this decade, rumors of a Federer decline have been greatly exaggerated. Cincinnati did nothing to change that notion; on the contrary, this latest ATP Masters final only affirmed it.
Zverev Roundtable — Tennis With A German Accent
German translation of our Sascha Zverev roundtable by @daflurl:
Runder Tisch – Wird Sascha Zverev 2019 ein Major gewinnen?
JANE VOIGT — @downthetee
Die Grand Slam Zukunft eines Spielers vorherzusagen gleicht einem Glücksspiel. Alexander Zverevs Chancen, 2019 ein Grand Slam Turnier zu gewinnen, sind letzten Sonntag bei den Nitto ATP Finals mit seinem 6-4, 6-3 Finalsieg über den 5-fach Sieger und die Nummer 1 der Welt dennoch gestiegen. Dieses Ergebnis gegen den stärksten Spieler auf der Tour seit Wimbledon war nicht unbedingt zu erwarten.
Der 21 Jahre alte Zverev zeigte allerdings mentale Stärke, eine Vorhand mit viel mehr Punch als noch vor einem Monat sowie ein sehr gutes Stellungsspiel näher an der Grundlinie, mit dem er Djokovic wichtige Zeit für seine Schläge und damit den gewohnten Komfort genommen hat.
Der Finalsieg war aber noch nicht alles. Im Semifinale hat er Roger Federer geschlagen, der das prestigeträchtige ATP Abschlussturnier ganze 6 Mal gewonnen hat. Die direkt aufeinanderfolgenden Siege über diese beiden Größen, die gemeinsam eine Sammlung von 34 Grand Slam Titel vorweisen können, geben dem 1,98m großen Deutschen bestimmt viel Vertrauen in sich selbst, in sein Team und seinen neuen Trainer Ivan Lendl, das es in die kommende Saison mitzunehmen gilt.
Sport Experten sprechen schon seit mehr als einem Jahr davon, dass Zverev ein Grand Slam Turnier gewinnen wird. Mit dem Viertelfinale in Roland Garros ist er diesem Ziel schon etwas näher gekommen, seine Schwäche in 5-Satz Matches hat aber weitere Vorstöße auf dieser Ebene verhindert.
Möglicherweise war Lendl derjenige in seinem Team, der ihm nahegelegt hat, näher an der Grundlinie zu stehen. Möglicherweise war er es, der ihm geraten hat, auf sich zu vertrauen, ans Netz zu kommen und Punkte schneller abzuschließen.
Sollte das der Fall gewesen sein und Zverev diese Ratschläge weiterhin befolgen, dann wird er auch bald auf Grand Slam Ebene zur Spitze gehören.
ANDREW BURTON – @burtonad
Zverev war erst 20, da wurde schon so viel von ihm erwartet. Heuer konnte er sich zum 2. Mal für das Turnier der 8 besten Spielern qualifizieren; nun hat er den Publikumsliebling im Semifinale und den aktuell Besten Spieler (gegen den er schon in der Gruppenphase gespielt hat) im Finale direkt hintereinander geschlagen. Die ATP hat einen neuen, leuchtenden Stern. Aber wird sein Aufstieg nächstes Jahr weitergehen?
Wäre nächstes Jahr 2004, wäre die Antwort JA.
Mit seinen Sieg 2003 in Houston hat Roger Federer einen 4-jährigen Erfolgslauf gestartet, in dem er 11 Majors, 3 davon im Jahr 2004, gewonnen hat. Schon 2005 wurde Federer als möglicher „Bester aller Zeiten“ Kandidat gehandelt. Obwohl er seinen ersten Majortitel schon früher im Jahr 2003 (in Wimbledon) gewonnen hat, war er in Houston nicht die Hauptattraktion. Andre Agassi und Andy Roddick (die 2003 auch Majortitel gewonnen haben) gehörten die Herzen des texanischen Publikums und Turnierpromotor, Mattress Mac“ Jim McIngvale.
McIngvale hat Federer während der Siegerehrung fast ignoriert, da er sich in seinem Stolz verletzt fühlte weil sich der junge Schweizer in Interviews negativ zu den Bedingungen des Platzes geäußert hatte. Im November 2004 als Federer zweifellos der größte Star im Herrentennis war, versöhnten sich die beiden. McIngvale lud Federer und den ehemaligen Präsidenten George Bush sowie First Lady Barbara Bush zu einem Mittagessen in seinen Club. (der aus Houston stammende Bush war ein ehemaliger Topspieler in seinen jüngeren Jahren).
Steht diese Zukunft auch Sascha Zverev bevor? Möglicherweise noch nicht. Im Gegensatz zu Federer hat Zverev noch kein Major gewonnen: Sein bestes Resultat ist nur ein Viertelfinale in Roland Garros im heurigen Jahr. Zverev spielte heuer eine ordentliche Saison, die er als Nummer 4 im Ranking beendete: Abgesehen vom Titel in London hat er das M-1000 in Madrid, das 500er Turnier in Washington und das 250er in München gewonnen. Zudem stand er im Finale der beiden M-1000 Turniere in Miami und Rom. Seine Bilanz war 58-19: Federers Bilanz 2003 war 78-17.
Zverevs Ausgangslage ist klar. Er ist ein klassischer Topspieler der späten 2010er Jahre. Mit 1,98m ist er genauso groß wie Juan Martin del Potro, bewegt sich aber deutlich besser als der Argentinier. Bei seinem Sieg am Samstag gegen Federer sagte ich, dass er mich an eine verbesserte Version von Tomas Berdych erinnert. Mit 21 Jahren ist er weit und breit der kompletteste aller jungen Spieler auf der Tour, der große Titel vor sich hat. Mit seinem Sieg am Sonntag ist er der erst 4. Spieler nach Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal und David Nalbandian, der Federer und Djokovic im Semifinale und Finale des gleichen Turnieres geschlagen hat.
Die Gegenargumente (für 2019) liegen jedoch auch auf der Hand. Das 7-Spiele Format bei den Majors hat er bis jetzt noch nicht optimal gemeistert. Dabei gilt es, in den frühen Runden nur so viel zu investieren um die 2. Woche mit einem fast vollen körperlichen und mentalen Akku zu erreichen. Auf dem Weg ins Viertelfinale von Paris musste er in den 3 vorhergehenden Runden jeweils einen 2 zu 1 Satzrückstand aufholen, wodurch er Dominic Thiem nichts mehr entgegenzusetzen hatte. Anfangs der Woche in London habe ich geschrieben, dass Zverev imstande ist, aggressiv zu spielen aber gerne in konservatives Spiel verfällt. Im Montreal Finale 2017 hat er gegen Federer von Anfang an aggressiv gespielt: Das würde ich gerne öfter von ihm sehen.
Wird er 2019 ein Grand Slam Turnier gewinnen? Von mir kommt ein klares „vielleicht“: um genauer zu sein würde ich sagen, dass die Wahrscheinlichkeit in etwa bei 35% liegt.
Heutzutage stellt sich Erfolg erst später ein als noch in den 2000er oder den 1990er Jahren. Vielleicht ist 21 das neue 18 oder 19. Und vielleicht steht 2019, 2020, 2021 und 2022 – und darüber hinaus – ganz im Zeichen von Sascha Zverev.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
Ich hasse es der weniger Enthusiastische hier zu sein, aber ein Major zu gewinnen – 5-Satz Matches zu spielen – ist eine ganz andere Herausforderung als sie Zverev in der O2 Arena zu überstehen hatte. Zudem war die Herausforderung in der O2 Arena eine Premiere für ihn. Infolge eines Erfolgslaufes wie ihn Sascha gerade in London hatte, neigen wird dazu zu vergessen, wie jung und nach wie vor neu er auf der Tour ist. Ich würde seine Chancen, 2019 ein Major zu gewinnen, deutlich besser einschätzen wenn er in den letzten zwei Jahren mehr als nur ein Viertelfinale gewonnen hätte bzw. noch weiter gekommen wäre.
Abgesehen davon, gibt es keinen Grund warum es nächstes Jahr nicht passieren könnte. Jedoch müsste er sich dafür in der ersten Jahreshälfte stetig weiterentwickeln und verletzungsfrei bleiben. Ehrlicherweise glaube ich aus den oben angeführten Gründen nicht, dass es schon bei den Australien Open soweit ist. Ich nehme aber an, dass er dennoch ein gutes Turnier in Melbourne spielt und danach können wir unsere Aufmerksamkeit den nächsten 3 Majors widmen. Roland Garros wird extrem schwer zu gewinnen sein wenn Novak Djokovic und Rafael Nadal gesund und in Form sind.
In Wimbledon könnte seine erste gute Chance sein, den Titel zu gewinnen, abhängig davon wer in welcher Form dabei ist. Denn dann sind 6 Monate der Saison vergangen und Sascha könnte durch gute Ergebnisse viel Selbstvertrauen aufgebaut haben. Mit seinem starken Aufschlag und der Fähigkeit den Ball zu beschleunigen, erscheinen mir Wimbledon und die U.S. Open als die beiden besten Möglichkeiten für einen Titel. Allerdings ist meine Definition von „Möglichkeit“ in diesem Zusammenhang eher ein kleiner Hoffnungsschimmer. Ich sage nicht nein, aber empfehle vorsichtigen Enthusiasmus.
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
Sascha Zverev wird ein Major gewinnen…aber nicht nächstes Jahr.
Als Zverev Novak Djokovic im Finale abfertigte – dem Rom Finale 2017 – glaubte ich fest daran, dass er eines Tages eine der prestigeträchtigsten Trophäen im Tennis in die Höhe stemmen wird. Zverev war an diesem Tag eiskalt und unbeeindruckt. Auch wenn Djokovic nicht 100 prozentig fit war, wie wir im Nachhinein erfahren haben, hat Zverev diese schwierige Aufgabe mit einer unglaublichen Gelassenheit und Klarheit bewältigt. Als ich gesehen habe, wie er im Titelmatch der ATP Finals die langen Ballwechsel gegen Djokovic kontrolliert hat, erinnerte ich mich wieder daran.
Dieser Spieler wird es schaffen. Er wird eines der 4 wichtigsten Turniere im Tennis gewinnen. Die Frage ist nicht OB, sondern WANN.
Ich glaube aber nicht, dass es schon 2019 soweit sein wird.
Rafael Nadal, sofern er für die Sandsaison fit ist, wird Zverev in Roland Garros in die Schranken weisen. Djokovic ist der klare Favorit bei den Australien Open, wo er nach 2018 wieder gesund dabei ist. Roger Federer wird in Wimbledon angreifen, wo vermutlich aber auch Djokovic der Favorit ist.
Ich glaube wenn 2019 alles gut läuft für Zverev, sind die U.S. Open seine beste Chance. Wenn die „Big 3“ viel gespielt und viele Turniere gewonnen haben, könnte Zverev zur Stelle sein und einen Vorteil aus deren Müdigkeit ziehen… aber ich bezweifle es.
In Zverevs einzigem Grand Slam Viertelfinale letztes Jahr war sein Akku leer, da der Aufwand dieses eine Major Viertelfinale zu erreichen enorm war. Er hat so viel Energie verbraucht, sich durch 5-Satz Matches zu kämpfen, dass er seine Chancen das Turnier zu gewinnen vergeben hat.
Zverev ist die ATP Finals richtig angegangen. So muss er auch bei den Majors spielen… aber bei Grand Slam Turnieren so zu spielen ist etwas womit er nicht vertraut ist. Die Anpassung an ein Turnier stellt ein Puzzle dar, das er lösen muss, und das kostet Zeit – möglicherweise mehr Zeit als ein Jahr.
Was wäre ein gutes Grand Slam Jahr 2019 für Zverev? Ich glaube nicht, dass er unbedingt eines gewinnen muss, er muss nur konstant stark spielen und die Weichen für den nächsten Sprung 2020 stellen.
Zwei Viertelfinali und zwei Semifinali bei den Grand Slams 2019 wäre gut – ein Finale wäre ideal, aber nicht unbedingt notwendig. Dann wird er mit dem Wissen, bereit für große Titel zu sein, in die Saison 2020 gehen. In 2019 muss er nicht sämtliche Zweifel ausräumen, er muss nur seine Grand Slam Blockade überwinden, nicht konstant über 2 Wochen bei den großen Turniere spielen zu können.
2018 Embodied Everything Great About Novak Djokovic
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.
ROUNDTABLE — Will Sascha Zverev Win A Major In 2019
JANE VOIGT — @downthetee
Predicting the Grand Slam future of any tennis players is, of course, a roll of the dice. However, the chances that Alexander Zverev will win a Grand Slam tournament in 2019 spiked Sunday, when he took down five-time champion and world number one Novak Djokovic in the final of the Nitto ATP Finals in London, 6-4, 6-3. The outcome was not predicted, especially against what has become the toughest opponent on tour since Wimbledon.
Nonetheless, the 21-year-old Zverev showed massive mental strength, a forehand that packed much more of a punch than it had even a month ago, and court positioning closer to the baseline which gave him split-second opportunities to syphon time away from Djokovic’s strokes, tactics and comfort.
But here’s the kicker. Zverev defeated Roger Federer in the semifinals to earn the right to play Djokovic. Federer has won the year-ending ATP extravaganza six times. That the six-foot-six German put away both these men, with a combined Grand Slam trophy case of 34, in two days amounts to a dose of confidence in himself, his team, and new coach Ivan Lendl that could push him over the line come 2019.
Sport pundits have admitted for well over a year that Zverev would win a Grand Slam event. This year he got closer, scoring a quarterfinal run at Roland Garros. But his propensity to drag out five-set matches undermined any real shot at a major. Lendl was probably the man on Zverev’s team who suggested he get himself on or close to the baseline. Lendl was probably the one who suggested that Zverev trust himself enough to come to the net and put points away. Put sets away. Get on with it, man.
If that was the case and Zverev paid that much attention to implement those coaching suggestions, then he is ready to head to the top of the Grand Slam class.
ANDREW BURTON – @burtonad
He was only in his early 20s, but a lot had been expected from him for years. It was his second time among the game’s top eight players; now on successive days he took out the crowd favorite in the semifinal and the veteran in his 30s (whom he had already played in the round-robin stage) in the final. The ATP had a bright new star. Would his rise continue next year?
Next year would be 2004, and the answer, emphatically, was yes.
Roger Federer would use his 2003 Houston win to start a four-year sequence in which he won 11 majors, three of them in 2004. By 2005 Federer was seen as a possible “greatest ever” candidate. He had actually won his first major earlier in 2003 at Wimbledon, but he certainly wasn’t the main attraction in Houston. Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick (who had also won majors in 2003) were cheered on by the Texas crowd and tournament promoter “Mattress Mac” Jim McIngvale.
McIngvale almost ignored Federer during the trophy ceremony, smarting at what he saw as interview slights from the young Swiss about the facilities at McIngvale’s club. By November of 2004, when Federer was unquestionably the biggest star in the men’s game, the two men made up and McIngvale hosted a lunch for Federer and former President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush at the club. (Bush, a Houstonian, had been a former star tennis player in his younger days.)
Is that future also in store for Sascha Zverev? Probably not quite yet. Unlike Federer, Zverev hasn’t won a major yet: His best result is a single quarterfinal at Roland Garros earlier this year. Zverev had a decent 2018, ending fourth in the rankings: Apart from the London title, he won a M-1000 in Madrid, a 500 in Washington, and a 250 in Munich, and was a finalist in two M-1000s in Miami and Rome. Zverev went 58-19 in 2018: in 2003 Federer was 78-17.
The case for Zverev is straightforward. He’s a prototypical late-2010s top ATP player, listed at the same height (6-6) as Juan Martin del Potro but with more fluid movement. Saturday, during his defeat of Federer, I said that Zverev reminded me of a more polished Tomas Berdych. At 21, he’s far and away the most accomplished young player, with many more big titles to come. His win Sunday made him the fourth player to beat Federer and Novak Djokovic in a semifinal and final after Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and David Nalbandian. That’s pretty good company.
But the case against (in 2019 alone) is also fairly simple to write. Zverev has yet to master the seven-match format at majors, which rewards doing just enough in the early rounds to arrive in the second week with a near-full physical and mental tank. Yes, he made the quarterfinals in Paris this spring, but he came back from two sets to one down in his three prior matches, and he had nothing left against Dominic Thiem. Earlier this week I wrote that Zverev is capable of playing aggressively, but tends to prefer playing conservatively. In the Montreal final in 2017, he took the game to Federer from the first ball: I’d love to see him do that more often.
Will he win a major in 2019? It’s a definite “maybe” from me: If pressed I’d say a 35-percent probability.
Success comes to players later in the 2010s than it did in the 2000s or the 1990s. Maybe 21 is the new 18 or 19. Maybe 2019, and 2020, and 2021, and 2022 – and beyond – will belong to Sascha Zverev.
If it does, I promise I will tell you that I didn’t see it coming. Just as I didn’t in 2004.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
I hate to be the unenthusiastic one here, but winning a major — playing best-of-five matches — is a different level of challenge than the one Zverev had to overcome at the O2 Arena. And the one at O2 Arena was a first for him. In the wake of dream runs like the one Sascha just had in London, we tend to forget how young and still new he is to the tennis arena. I would feel a lot more comfortable about Zverev’s chances of winning a major in 2019 had he reached more than one quarterfinal in the last two years, or even went past one.
Having said that, there is no reason why that could not occur next year, but it would need to be the result of a gradual process that takes place during the first half of the year, with no injury involvement. Honestly, I do not see it happening in Australia due to what I noted above. Assuming he still has a successful Australian Open, then we can turn our attention to the next three majors. Roland Garros will be extremely difficult to win if both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are healthy and in form.
Wimbledon could be his closest (in terms of time) chance to winning the title depending on who shows up and in what form. That will be six months into the 2019 season and Sascha may have built some serious confidence by then, riding great results from earlier in the year to complement the O2 title. With his big serve and acceleration skills, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open appear to me as the two possibilities. Having said that, my definition of “possibility” in this specific context is closer to what a glimmer of “maybe” represents in a pitch-dark “unlikely.” I am not saying nay, but I am recommending cautious enthusiasm.
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
Sascha Zverev will win a major… but not next year.
I firmly believed Zverev would one day lift one of the most prestigious trophies in tennis when he dispatched Novak Djokovic in a final – the 2017 Rome final. Zverev was so clinical and unbothered that day. Even though we know in hindsight that Djokovic was not 100-percent physically fit, it remained that Zverev handled a high-stress occasion with great poise and levelheadedness. That outlook came back to the forefront of my mind when watching him control long rallies against Djokovic in the ATP Finals championship match.
This man will get there. He will win one of the four most important tournaments in tennis. It’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN.
On this point, I don’t think 2019 will deliver this first title.
Rafael Nadal, if healthy for clay season, wipes Zverev off the board at Roland Garros. Djokovic is the firm favorite at the Australian Open, where he will relish being “whole” again. Roger Federer will try to make a charge at Wimbledon, with Djokovic probably still being the favorite there.
I think if it all comes together for Zverev in 2019, the U.S. Open would represent his best chance. If the Big 3 have played a lot of tennis and won a lot of tournaments, Zverev could swoop in and take advantage of their tired legs… but I doubt it.
Zverev’s only major quarterfinal last year was a match in which he had nothing left in the tank. The costs of getting his one major quarterfinal in 2018 were large. He spent so much energy fighting through five-set matches that he dismantled his chances of winning that tournament.
Yes, Zverev played the ATP Finals the right way. THAT is how he needs to play at the majors… but of course, doing that at majors is not something he is familiar with. The pacing of the tournament represents a puzzle he must adjust to, and that will probably take time – more time than one year.
What would be a good 2019 for Zverev at the majors? I don’t think he has to win one. He just needs to be consistently solid and set the table for the next leap in 2020.
Give me three quarterfinals and two semifinals at the majors in 2019 – one final would be ideal, but not necessary – and Zverev would be able to enter 2020 knowing he would be ready to claim great riches. 2019 doesn’t have to answer every question or quiet every doubt. It just has to get past the idea that Zverev can’t consistently play late in the second weeks of these signature tournaments.