This weekend, Serena Williams confirmed what many in tennis had suspected for the last month: She won’t be playing the season-ending WTA Finals in Singapore, which begin this coming weekend. What gave it away? The reasons were almost too numerous to count. She had been hampered by a shoulder problem since the summer. She played just eight tournaments all season, and only three of those were WTA events. She missed Singapore last year, and has played the Finals only nine times in her nearly two-decade career. And last week Serena was spotted not on a tennis court, but in Disneyland.

“My doctor insists that I stay home and heal [my shoulder],” Serena said on Monday, “ I have a chance to play next year.”


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.


So is this late-2016 dip a sign of bigger declines to come for Serena and Djokovic? It’s possible, especially for a player of Serena’s age. She has said that as soon as she doesn’t feel like playing anymore, she’s not going to waste any time getting out of the game. But I think her desire to win her 23rd major and pass Graf on that list will keep her competing for the time being.

What seems just as likely, though, is that Djokovic and Serena will learn from this down period and find new ways to get the best out of themselves in the future.

Maybe playing just seven or eight tournaments a year is the most realistic schedule for Serena if she wants to continue into her late 30s. At this point, with her streak at No. 1 snapped, she’ll probably focus even more exclusively on the Slams, anyway. The WTA won’t love it, but who’s going to deny Serena the right to design her season as she sees fit, especially if the alternative is chronic bad health?

As for Djokovic, he has talked about wanting to change his approach to the game. He says he put too much pressure on himself in the tournaments after the French Open, and that he didn’t enjoy the competition the way he always had. I think that was in part because, with his win in Paris, he had left himself with no competition. Djokovic had not only won all the big events, but had fully vanquished all of his rivals; he could only compete with himself, and with history. That’s not an easy road for any player to travel, and if Federer and Nadal are a guide, Djokovic won’t be able to dominate in his 30s the way he did in his late 20s. Maybe a new attitude toward the sport, and a reassessment of what he hopes to achieve in it, is exactly what he can use at 29.

If a trip to Disneyland, or some time to reassess, is what Serena and Djokovic need, they’ve earned it.