These are trying times for Novak Djokovic, not exactly what he might have anticipated when he turned 29 a year ago today and started down the road to his watershed 30th birthday. It’s all the more reason for him to welcome—and ponder—the seismic shift that has taken place in tennis longevity.
It wasn’t so long ago that 30, traditionally a landmark year that spooked youth, was especially tough on athletes. Tennis players usually thought of it as the beginning of the end, at least in terms of peak performance. But lately, 30 in tennis looks more like the end of the beginning.
True, it’s unimaginable that Djokovic, or any other player, will ever accumulate more Grand Slam titles after turning 30 than before. But it’s also true that the Grand Slam titles accumulated at that stage of a player’s life provide lot more bang for the buck. They can be the most satisfying Grand Slam titles of them all.
Case in point: Pete Sampras, who launched the revision of the mens’ Grand Slam singles title record book, ignored the yellow light represented by his 30th birthday. He suffered through two full years of doubts and criticism, then won his 14th Grand Slam title at the 2002 U.S. Open.
“I could have walked away from the game at 29 feeling great about what I’d accomplished,” Sampras told me, years later, while we collaborated on his autobiography. “But I just had this nagging feeling. I had something left. I wanted one more. I had trouble making it happen and the critics were on me during that dry spell.
“In the end it made it even more satisfying.”
More recently, 35-year old Roger Federer’s stunning win over fellow 30-plus icon, Rafael Nadal, at the Australian Open will go down as one of the most rewarding of his (thus far) 18 majors. Why? Because champions have a thing about naysayers. Federer hadn’t won a major since 2012. Some thought he was finished with 17.
“I can’t compare this to any other one, except maybe the French Open in ’09,” Federer said after he won in February, referring to his only win at Roland Garros. “Emotions poured out of me (in Melbourne). I was incredibly happy. You don’t know if they ever come back, these moments.”
Of course, Djokovic is in a very different situation. He will enter the French Open as the defending champion and the No. 2 seed. Sampras was ranked a lowly No. 17 at his final U.S. Open. Coincidentally, Federer was also ranked No. 17 at this year’s Australian Open, having missed the entire second half of 2016 because of a knee injury.
Djokovic’s current slump is relative; he’s still ranked No. 2, he won a title in Doha, and just posted semifinal and final-round runs at the Madrid and Rome Masters over the past two weeks. Yet a year ago at this time, Djokovic was well-nigh invincible. When he won the French Open to complete his career Grand Slam, pundits were already whispering calendar-year Grand Slam. Thus, Djokovic’s drop-off seems dramatic. The murky reasons and his reactions to the slump make it even more mystifying.
Djokovic has admitted to having difficulties in his private life, without going into details. They are thought to be the main reason his game ran off the rails at Wimbledon last year, where he lost in the third round. Since his seminal win in Paris and the ensuing crisis, Djokovic has parted ways with the entire coaching team that shepherded him through his most prolific years. At least one former of that team, “supercoach” Boris Becker, has publicly said that Djokovic stopped working as hard as he needed during his slump.
Some Djokovic fans were alarmed by these developments, particularly in light of Djokovic’s flagging results. But the 12-time Grand Slam singles champion seems bent on starting what he has called “another tennis life.” He appears to be building that life around his family, which is a significant and not necessarily easy transition for a pampered athlete. His wife, Jelena, is pregnant with their second child.
Another part of Djokovic’s second coming includes his recent announcement that Andre Agassi will be in his corner during the French Open.
Djokovic’s actions are a perfect testament to the concept of 30 representing “the end of the beginning.” In fact, he could well take the theory to the next level: instead of added a few landmark wins that rebuke naysayers or vindicate his personal convictions, perhaps he’ll put together a second act that rivals his under-30 accomplishments.
Physically, Djokovic is a coach’s dream: flexible, lithe, quick, strong, capable of great endurance. He’s been relatively injury free. Technically, his game is nearly flawless. Now it all comes down to motivation and confidence.
Djokovic already has won 12 Grand Slam singles titles. He could equal Federer’s record of 18 by the time he’s 33 by winning two each year. Given what we’ve seen from the Serb on the court as recently as last year, it’s well within the realm of possibility—provided Djokovic navigates this challenging period and figures out who he is, and what he wants.
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