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The Rally: Novak Djokovic, in the homestretch of a topsy-turvy season
Where does the world No. 1 stand, and what do we hope to see from him in 2021?
Published Oct 23, 2020
What a year it’s been for the world. And who in tennis best personifies all that’s happened any more visibly and viscerally than Novak Djokovic? Off the court, he has been in the thick of various controversies involving everything from the properties of water to the staging of events to the creation of a new player’s organization. Of course, none of those moments were as challenging as when Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, tested positive for COVID-19.
Inside the lines, though, Djokovic has maintained sparkling form. He is on a path to end 2020 ranked No. 1 on the ATP computer for the sixth time, one more than Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Djokovic’s feat would leave him tied with Pete Sampras for most years finished atop the rankings, though Sampras’ were consecutive.
Similar to Sofia Kenin—my pick for WTA player of the year regardless of year-end rankings—Djokovic won the Australian Open and reached the finals at Roland Garros. While Dominic Thiem is also 1-1 in Grand Slam finals, his loss came to Djokovic in Melbourne, a tiebreaker that gives Novak the edge. Djokovic’s 2020 match record is a sparkling 37-2.
Amid the pandemic, players are allowed to retain their ranking points from 2019. With that in mind, Djokovic earlier this week announced his withdrawal from the Rolex Paris Masters event (he won it last year), opting instead to seek additional ranking points by playing in Vienna, as well as the Nitto ATP Finals in London.
Certainly it was frustrating for Djokovic to be expelled from the US Open and then lose to Nadal in the finals of Roland Garros. But over the years, I have been repeatedly impressed by Djokovic’s resiliency, a level of determination largely aided by his unsurpassed discipline, efficiency and technique. If not quite as visible as Nadal’s intensity or Federer’s versatility, Djokovic’s assets also make him a tennis genius. Week in and week out, one year after another, he has proven reliable and sustainable.
And then there’s this X factor: What lingers from COVID-19—from the physical to the mental, not just for Novak, but also for Jelena?
Steve, how do you see things for Djokovic these days?
“Resilient” is a good word to describe Djokovic at this stage of his career—he’s needed to be. Controversies come and go, but he shrugs them off by continuing to play well. Whatever disaster may befall him at one major is quickly forgotten as he strives to win the next one; whatever off-court setbacks he may suffer are eventually drowned out by his on-court accomplishments. I mean, you didn’t even mention the fact that he was defaulted from the US Open for hitting a line judge with a ball until the fifth paragraph of your post above.
That doesn’t mean Djokovic’s issues aren’t real, or that his actions haven’t had consequences. His Adria Tour, as well-intentioned as it was, led to at least a half-dozen Covid cases. He helped a fitness guru sell “advanced brain nutrients” online. And his default in New York wasn’t just “bad luck,” as some tried to say. Djokovic has been banging balls and slamming racquets in frustration for years, and has narrowly escaped similar excommunications in the past. Let’s hope his Covid-vaccine doubts from 2020 aren’t a harbinger of more science skepticism to come.
But it also seems that whatever Djokovic does, he’ll never get the benefit of the doubt from tennis fans. They don’t like his “clinical” game, or his roaring, clench-fisted celebrations. What they don’t like most, of course, is that he regularly beats their favorite players, Federer and Nadal.
We know Djokovic will never match the global popularity of Roger or Rafa, but more recently he has begun to be compared, negatively, to the fourth member of the Big 4, Andy Murray. With his forthright call for gender equality across the board in tennis, Murray is in tune with the progressive times. Djokovic, by contrast, started his new players union, the PTPA, without mentioning the women at all in the initial announcement. He has since said he welcomes WTA players, but failing to talk to them, or about them, from the beginning was an unforced error.
I like Djokovic. As a player, I marvel at his consistency and his underrated artistry. As a fan, I like his reliably good sportsmanship in defeat. As a writer, I appreciate his thoughtful, famously long answers to questions in press conferences, and his desire to take on new challenges. I like that he doesn’t shy away from stating his sky-high on-court goals, and that he cares about records and achievements. And whatever the flaws were in his player-union launch, it’s an effort that was overdue in tennis, and one that he didn’t need to make. Fans roll their eyes at his antics and say that he “wants to be loved,” but for me that quality adds a poignant side to his story.
One thing I do wish is that Djokovic would use his leadership position to push for gender equality, and to help unite the tours. He may never call himself a feminist, the way Murray has. But tennis has an opportunity to be a leader in that sphere, which means Djokovic has that opportunity, too.
Joel, is there something you’d like to see from Djokovic as he moves into 2021, either on-court or off?
As a start, I hope Djokovic and his wife are completely healthy and that there are no further complications from COVID-19. Of course, who knows how this virus will play out in the years to come?
Off the court, as much criticism as Djokovic generated in 2020 for his various comments and actions, the topic that most intrigues me is how he’ll continue to approach the PTPA. How will this fledgling organization look in the weeks and months to come? The PTPA’s stated desire to have a greater voice in the game is a worthwhile goal, so what does that encompass? And also, though this has not been mentioned, I would like to see the PTPA articulate what it might do to further enhance the fan experience of tennis. I hope all of these topics get at least slightly addressed in the first few months of 2021. The dish needn’t be completely cooked, but a glance at a few ingredients would sure go a long way.
As far as Djokovic’s tennis goes, it’s tough to ask for more from someone who puts in lots of hard work, has such a balanced arsenal and competes so well (amazing that Djokovic has three times beaten Federer at majors from match point down). Still, I wonder if Djokovic and Goran Ivanisevic have discussed Roland Garros in depth. Did they assess how his semifinal versus Stefanos Tsitsipas took a twist from an apparent routine straight-setter into something far longer? Have they studied what Nadal did in the final? It was fascinating to see Nadal so quickly read the Djokovic down-the-line backhand drop shot and even expose slight flaws in the Djokovic overhead. What lessons might Djokovic take away from that?
Also, at the age of 33, does Djokovic look to alter his fitness regimen? In the spirit of Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, Djokovic has taken training to new levels. I wonder if he’s exploring new techniques at this stage of his career.
Then again, maybe little review or change is necessary. After all, when you’re in the Top 3 for well over a decade, the opponents are the ones forced to make changes. As football legend Al Davis once said, “Don’t adjust. Dominate.” Though of course others have also captured major titles during the last ten years, Djokovic’s results made him the player of the ‘10s and it’s hard not to see him continuing to flourish in the early part of the ‘20s.
Steve, how do you see things going for Djokovic as a new year nears?
You’re right that, within tennis, the PTPA is the Djokovic story from 2020 that will matter most in the long run. Like I said, despite its early missteps, a player union is a logical development for professional tennis. I just want to see it used to help unite the players and the sport, rather than drive one more wedge into it. The game already has an ATP, a WTA and an ITF to keep track of; that alphabet soup doesn’t need to get any bigger, or the game any more bifurcated.
And I second your hope that the PTPA will address the fan experience and discuss ways to grow the game, rather than just figuring out how the players can take a bigger piece of its proceeds. I had a conversation with the young U.S. player Noah Rubin earlier this year (about a different topic), and I was pleasantly surprised to hear him bring up the subject of growing the game and appealing to more fans. That’s ultimately how you bring you more money into tennis.
What’s interesting is that even after 15 years on tour, Djokovic remains a controversial and even surprising figure, one whose reputation and legacy still seem to be up in the air. By that age, most past male champions have either been (a) safely retired, or (b) well into their grand-old-man phase. But 2020 may have been the most topsy-turvy, and newsiest, of Djokovic’s career. Will that begin to change in 2021? Will he play it safer, or will his thoughts and opinions only become more radical? Will the PTPA begin to gain popularity, or will Djokovic push other top players, and their fan bases, farther away?
But while Djokovic’s legacy may be up in the air with fans, as a player I still think he’s in the driver’s seat as far as his three-man race with Nadal and Federer goes. Yes, he didn’t gain any ground on Rafa in 2020, and he’s still three majors behind both of them them. But he’s No. 1 in the world, he’s the youngest of the three, he’s in excellent shape, and he’s going to be the favorite at the Australian Open. Aside from his US Open default, Djokovic’s various issues from 2020 didn’t get in the way of his Grand Slam pursuits.
It will be interesting to see whether Djokovic can continue to successfully compartmentalize his off-court and on-court selves. Whether he can hold off the Next Gen, now that Thiem has finally put them on the major-title board. Whether he’ll become a more popular or sympathetic figure as he ages, and after Federer makes his exit. Despite all of the ups and downs he’s already experienced, there’s a lot more of the Djokovic story still to be written.