In a year when tennis was aggressively bouncing back from lockdowns and tournaments played before vast swaths of empty seats, nobody rebounded more ferociously than Novak Djokovic.

While the bodies of his exalted rivals were crying out, “No mas!”, Djokovic didn’t just put the pedal to the metal, he punched it through the floorboard. He won three of the four majors, pulling even with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the amazing Slam race (all three have 20). Djokovic has become the prohibitive favorite to win that derby, owing to his excellent health and, at 34, relative youth.

Djokovic locked down numerous records in 2021, including the most prolific champion at the Australian Open (he won his ninth) and at the high-value ATP Masters 1000 events (he’s won 37, one more than Nadal). He shattered another impressive mark when he earned the year-end No. 1 world ranking for the seventh time, surpassing his childhood idol, Pete Sampras.

Ironically, Djokovic garnered the most attention a tennis player has achieved in a long time at the US Open, where his quest to become just the third man in tennis history to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam was ruined just one match from realization.

The consolation prize for Djokovic, runner-up to Daniil Medvedev in that US Open final, was the affection showered on him by the New York crowd. Saddled with the reputation of a spoiler who inserted himself into the cozy rivalry between Federer and Nadal, Djokovic had waged a years-long battle to be loved as well as respected. He was so moved by the support he felt in the final that, overcome by emotion as he sat in his chair during the final changeover, he trembled and broke down in tears.


Djokovic was overcome with emotion late in the third set and during the trophy presentation.

Djokovic was overcome with emotion late in the third set and during the trophy presentation.

“Of course, part of me is very sad,” Djokovic said later. “It's a tough one to swallow, this loss, I mean, considering everything that was on the line. But on the other hand, I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. . . I did not expect anything, but the amount of support and energy and love I got from the crowd was something that I'll remember forever. I mean, that's the reason on the changeover I just teared up.”

That was an unexpected plot twist, considering the spartan nature and self-assured manner of the Serbian star. Just weeks earlier, he had left the Olympic Games in semi-disgrace after throwing an ugly, racquet-smashing tantrum en route to losing the bronze medal singles match. His setbacks in Tokyo may have been propelled by hubris. With just one bronze medal to his name, Djokovic entered the singles and mixed doubles event despite the tight schedule and oppressive heat. In addition to losing his chance at a singles medal, Djokovic pulled out of the mixed—denying partner Nina Stojanović a chance to claim her own bronze medal.

I’m citing these incidents because they show, along with other episodes in Djokoic’s career, that he is, still—as he would be the first to admit—a work in progress. If Djokovic isn’t as polished and conservative as his two storied rivals, he’s more willing to take risks, more comfortable swimming against the tide in ways that can be both praiseworthy and disappointing. Djokovic may be prone to tearing at his shirt, pounding his heart, and bellowing in triumph—something few opponents appreciate—but he has supported and encouraged young rivals, and he was the first player to reach out to Naomi Osaka when she experienced her own crisis in May.


WATCH: The ATP Player of the Year, Novak Djokovic


You might think that compiling a 55-7 record with five titles, including three majors, would have kept a fella pretty occupied in 2021, but not Djokovic. Between times, he found time to indulge his aspirations as a mover-and-shaker, and an ambassador for the game, even as he took criticism for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition to carrying a hefty load on behalf of charity, Djokovic helped his native Belgrade secure an ATP 250 tournament. He continued to play an active role in the budding player organization (the Professional Tennis Players’ Association) that he co-founded and helped launch in 2020. The intent: to give players a greater voice in the administration of the game—and a larger slice of the revenue pie—than they enjoy under the current ATP system. And when Chinese pro Peng Shuai’s safety and freedom were in doubt, Djokovic spoke out quickly and forcefully in her defense.

The common refrain that has popped up throughout his career in various ways—not all of them related to his ambitions as a player—is that Djokovic has bitten off more than he can chew. But in 2021, as on previous occasions, Djokovic demonstrated that he’s not about to quit taking big bites, no matter how difficult it may be to chew it all.