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Zverev Gets A Reminder Of The Distance He Must Travel

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Tennis, as I am fond of saying, is a dialogue. Most sports — golf being a conspicuous exception — involve the push and pull of one side’s reactions to the other. From this tension between two competitors comes the complex and often counterintuitive reality of sports: You can play better on one day and still lose. On the other side of the coin, you can play worse on another day and still win. Your opponent might be the bigger and more important variable.

Such has been the case for Alexander Zverev at the 2018 ATP Finals.

All things considered, Zverev has played two relatively similar matches in London. He defeated a player  who is chronically unable to raise his game at the ATP Finals. He lost to a player who almost always finds solutions at the same tournament.

Zverev defeated Marin Cilic, who — entering Wednesday, before his match against John Isner — had won only one match in London in four ATP Finals appearances. Zverev then lost to Novak Djokovic, who has won five ATP Finals championships and is steamrolling toward his sixth.

The opponent was the main variable.

This does not, however, mean Zverev had no say in the Djokovic match. It also doesn’t mean Sascha has Zvery little to worry about. He has PLENTY of work to do in the coming offseason, regardless of whether he advances to the semifinals this weekend.

I begin nearly every discussion of Zverev these days with the reminder/disclaimer that Sascha’s career is still well AHEAD of schedule. No NextGen player has made more consistent or substantial advances than Zverev. He is a stone-cold rock of reliability at Masters 1000 tournaments. Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Kevin Anderson, and other high-quality players in their early 30s have spent many years struggling how to find the special sauce of success at Masters 1000s. Zverev already owns three M-1000 trophies and made seven quarterfinals this year at that level of the ATP Tour.

Zverev’s challenge is to walk over the hot coals of pressure in the biggest matches at the biggest tournaments against the best players. He handled Cilic in match one, but Djokovic — as usual — set the much higher standard in match two. Much of what happened on Wednesday was the product of the World No. 1 remaining supremely steady in important moments, but at least some of the day’s decisive developments came from Zverev’s inability to pounce… and his subsequent failure to handle that disappointment. From this realization comes a fascinating detail about Sascha’s journey at these ATP Finals.

Anyone and everyone who watched the Djokovic match could pinpoint the moment this match turned. Zverev had multiple break points at 4-4 in the first set and could not convert them. His failure to break in that ninth game of the match flowed in part from an inability to attack vulnerable second serves. Yet, those kinds of moments happen for all tennis players. No one plays several years on tour without enduring those frustrations. We saw Djokovic deal with that frustration in his Bercy semifinal against Roger Federer, in which he went 0 for 12 on break points.

Djokovic, though, kept holding serve throughout the third set of that match, despite failing to gain a decisive lead. Most players would have allowed the accumulation of missed chances to get to them, creating a very familiar Federer escape.

Djokovic isn’t most players. He is a standard of success unto himself.

Sascha might have been Zvery close to winning the first set against Djokovic on Wednesday, but as the saying goes, “So close, and yet so far away.” The small margins in tennis look like the Grand Canyon when one sees the vast difference between two athletes’ responses to scoreboard pressure and high-stakes tournaments.

Ivan Lendl knows how poorly Zverev responded to that ninth-game failure to break Djokovic. That’s exactly the kind of situation Lendl himself failed to handle in the biggest moments against Jimmy Connors (especially at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon) before he finally turned the corner in 1984 and 1985. That’s the real-world experience Team Zverev is counting on Lendl to impart to Sascha, as this coaching relationship tries to take root and bear fruit in the coming offseason.

Zverev’s bright start on Wednesday, followed by his abrupt fall off a cliff in the second set, inverted his performance against Cilic two days earlier. In the Cilic match, Zverev started the match as a dead fish, with Cilic having a sitter forehand for 5-1 but somehow missing it. Zverev battled back, but even then, Cilic’s failure to challenge a call at 5-4 and deuce prevented the Croatian from getting a set point on Zverev’s serve. Cilic played a terrible service game at 5-3 to enable the set to continue.

Zverev wasn’t very good in that first set, but as soon as he stole it in a tiebreaker, he played and served a lot more freely in the second set. Wednesday’s match against Djokovic was exactly the opposite.

Zverev very plainly knew how to run with good fortune in a first set, and didn’t know how to confront adversity at the end of a first set two days later. In both matches, he played one set well and one set poorly. The results were different — the opponent was indeed the main variable — but the inconsistent performances were the same.

Establishing a higher ceiling is part of a young athlete’s task. Lendl beefing up the Zverev forehand and improving the German’s footwork is how that process will occur. Yet, in the pursuit of raising a ceiling, one cannot forget the equally important need for a young athlete to raise his floor as well.

Raising a ceiling is needed to beat the best players in terms of skill and raw athletic prowess. Raising a floor is much more in the province of the mental game, because the mental giants in any sport are able to win even when they are struggling. Mental strength shows up the most when the shots aren’t flowing and the opponent is resolute in offering resistance. Personal struggles against an opponent who demands persistence create a supreme test for an athlete.

Cilic doesn’t demand persistence — he will donate a key game late in a set against elite players. Djokovic always demands persistence. He gives virtually nothing away.

The first set against Djokovic might have been Zvery close on Wednesday, but it showed Sascha just how much growing, learning and internalizing he must do under Lendl’s watch to grow into the even more complete player he hopes to become.

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 radioinfluence.com. 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: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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Marin Cilic Knows The Sunshine As Well As The Shadow

Matt Zemek

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Danielle Parhizkaran - USA TODAY SPORTS

It is not easy to concisely summarize many athletes’ careers — not when those careers defy a neat and tidy form of categorization.

What does one say about Gilles Simon, so dogged and relentless yet prone to lapses in concentration? What does one say about Marius Copil, so clearly talented yet only beginning to (potentially) find his range and rhythm on a sustained basis as a professional?

Even the Big 3 are not easy to process — not in relationship to each other. Alone, their stories might be able to be digested and explained with great clarity, but in connection to their two great rivals, each man in that trio becomes a much more layered mystery. If the Big 3 were easy to define as a group, fans would not debate their levels of greatness to the extent they do.

At various tiers of men’s tennis, making sense of a career is not simple.

Of any prominent ATP career this century, few are harder to grasp than Marin Cilic, the king of complexity.

I hasten to say at the outset: Complexity is not bad. Complexity is part of life. Complexity invites us to not settle for the easy conclusion if the reality of a situation demands a more layered assessment.

So it is with Cilic, who helped Croatia win a Davis Cup for the first time in 2018, culminating in his two-point tie on the opponent’s soil against France. As I wrote on Sunday — and as I always stress with Davis Cup — this is not something to check off on a laundry list, a “to-do item” one coldly eliminates in a businesslike manner. This is a moment of profound national meaning for Croatia, especially since it was the last Davis Cup, and even more particularly because earlier in 2018, France had defeated Croatia in the World Cup Final. It meant a lot to the whole Croatian team to win the global championship in another sport. The fact that France happened to be the last obstacle was a bonus — for Cilic, and Borna Coric, and everyone else.

Yet, while this is a team competition, let’s not pretend that of the many dramatis personae in Lille, France, Cilic stood above them. His gut-wrenching loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the 2016 Davis Cup Final against Argentina was supremely shattering. Carrying that scar isn’t easy to do for athletes. We can see, in the second half of Cilic’s 2018 season, a lingering inability to straightforwardly finish sets and matches. “Is he going to blow it again?” is not a rare or infrequent question raised during many Cilic matches.

Yet, for all the questions Cilic elicits when he fails to make the ATP Finals semifinal round (zero appearances in four attempts), or fails to go deeper in a Masters 1000 than he could or should, this man just keeps coming back with notable resilience.

For much of the rest of the world, American individualism is a very ugly thing — not on a conceptual level (individualism can and does represent personal striving to break free of repression or groupthink), but on an applied level. No one needs to wonder which American person represents the excesses of individualism more than any other.

Tennis, however — even in a team concept — is an individual sport. (You might roll your eyes and groan when you read this, but, for the 9,734th time, the American sport of baseball is so much like tennis in this way: Baseball is a team sport defined by individual confrontations and performances. One pitcher goes up against one hitter.) Even with Davis Cup teammates cheering you on and a coach at courtside offering advice on sitdowns, the player has to go out and execute the game plan.

Few American artists are more associated with individualism than Frank Sinatra, who dominated the nation’s cultural consciousness during the decades-long prime of his career. You could ask, “Why select Sinatra out of various other entertainers or singers as an emblem of American individualism?” The answer: Sinatra’s life on and off stage was equally bold, consumed by a runaway appetite for success and pleasure. That doesn’t make him one of a kind, but Sinatra represented that way of being as well as any prominent American public figure in the 20th century. Moreover, unlike Elvis Presley — who exists on the same plane of global fame and American individualism — Sinatra also sang songs which were anthems of American individualism.

Purely as a reflection of a cultural ideal, no Elvis song from his own lengthy canon can match Sinatra’s tribute to American individual striving, “My Way,” which concludes with the following lyric:

The record shoowwws…

I took the blooowwws…

And did it myyyyyyyyyyyy waaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyy…

This is American individualism, defined.

It is also the story of Marin Cilic. He does keep taking some very significant and high-impact punches, the punches which have caused many other careers to wither and die.

Consider, in the history of tennis, just a few examples of players who absorbed devastating losses and never really recovered from them: Nicole Vaidisova at Wimbledon in 2007 against Ana Ivanovic. Marcelo Rios to Dominik Hrbaty at the 1999 French Open. David Nalbandian in the 2006 Australian Open against Marcos Baghdatis.

So many athletes in various sports never recover from a major psychic blow. We’re only human, after all. We are not gods or monsters.

Cilic? He takes some very big, fat roundhouse punches to the jaw… but undeterred, he finds ways to keep coming back in a meaningful way. He has, to be very clear, redefined his career such that he won’t merely be remembered as “The guy who caught fire for one week at the 2014 U.S. Open, muddling through week one but then torching the field in week two with untouchably great tennis.”

No, he has transcended that narrow categorization and its accordingly limited narrative arc.

Cilic is a lot more than that.

The complexity of his career is not a bad thing. If anything, it is a virtue… because if his career had been easy to categorize, the negative probably would have outweighed the positive.

I don’t think you can make that claim about Cilic — not now. Not at the end of 2018.

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ATP Tour

Zverev Roundtable — Tennis With A German Accent

Tennis Accent Staff

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

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.

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ATP Tour

2018 Embodied Everything Great About Novak Djokovic

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

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.

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