Judging from Novak Djokovic’s weekend, he may wish he had gone to Disneyland himself, rather than flying to Asia for last week’s Shanghai Rolex Masters. The world No. 1 lost to Roberto Bautista Agut in the semifinals, and lost his cool in the process. Afterward, Djokovic echoed a statement he made earlier in the month about being exhausted with the tour grind at the moment. At the same time, he confirmed that he will play the final two events on his schedule, in Paris and London. If he wants to finish the year ranked No. 1, Djokovic probably doesn’t have a choice. He’s the defending champion at both of those tournaments, and Andy Murray, fresh off his wins in Beijing and Shanghai, is closing the gap.
Even Serena and Djokovic, it seems, can start to feel lonely at the top. What’s amazing isn’t that each of them has slipped a bit in 2016; it’s that it took so long to happen. Since 2011, Djokovic has held the No. 1 ranking for 221 weeks, while Serena tied Steffi Graf’s 30-year-old WTA record for most consecutive weeks at the top with 186. In 2014-15, Serena won four major titles in a row for the second time; not to be outdone, the next year Djokovic became the first man to do it since Rod Laver in 1969. During a highly competitive era, the Serb and the American have made themselves into two of the sport’s most consistently dominant champions.
But there must be something about winning four Slams in a row that changes a player, mentally and physically, or leaves him or her wondering what’s left to achieve. Of the five majors that Serena has played since, she has won one; that qualifies as a dry spell for the 22-time Slam champ. Djokovic, by his own admission, hasn’t been the same since completing his career Slam at the French Open in June. And as for Laver, he won all four in ’69, and never won another.
It’s safe to say that neither Serena nor Djokovic are likely to suffer a Rocket-like flame-out in the coming years. Djokovic is still No. 1, and the fact that Serena is No. 2 after playing just eight events is, in a way, one more measure of her dominance. But neither champion is, as they say, getting any younger. Djokovic is 29; while the men’s game has grown older, that age remains a rubicon for its greatest players. Since turning 29, Roger Federer has won just one Slam, while Rafael Nadal hasn’t won any. Serena is 35, which is already uncharted territory for major champs; even Martina Navratilova, who played on tour in her late 40s, won her last Slam at 33.