He has seen off Roger Federer and nearly Rafael Nadal. He has seen off Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and the first act of great pretenders. Now is he poised to do it all over again? Novak Djokovic, regenerated, shows no signs of ceasing.
There was a cool callousness to the way he dispatched his opponents at the recent ATP Finals, the marquee curtain-closer to the men’s professional tennis season. With the Spaniard Nadal’s absence, there was nobody in the draw who approached the Serb for years, experience or titles. The next great Iberian, Carlos Alcaraz, stumbled to a straight-sets defeat in the semi-final, his body and mind tired. The great mental victory he deployed on Djokovic in July’s Wimbledon final could yet define a generational transition of sorts, but it was not the straightforward turning point many predicted.
It is Djokovic’s Lazarushian ability to transform his own fortunes and fate which has defied all normal logic in recent years. After completing the feat of a career Grand Slam in 2016 and subsequently disappearing off the boil, he was forced to watch Federer and Nadal fight it out on his own Melbourne turf in January 2017. Not so fast. The calendar year would prove his only in an ongoing run of 13 to be bereft of a major victory.
Then there was Covid, and the later ensuing drama over Djokovic’s vaccination status, which denied him participation in two Grand Slams. For a short period, he became public enemy number one, dominating headlines for all the wrong reasons.
His 2022 Wimbledon win was packed with pathos and revenge and he has followed it up with another breathtaking season.
Ending the year 55 wins for six defeats for the season is as bizarre as it is anomalous. All evidence suggests that by 36, a sportsperson should begin their inevitable decline to retirement. Take Andy Murray, albeit not one of the sport’s leading players for six years, but beginning to finally have his resilience against injury and willpower tested. The Serb’s spirit and body has defied all of that, with the script for 2024 looking very different to six months ago.
Never has the world number one been as driven and laser-focused as now. That is the one benefit of his increasing years: it has made him absolutely ruthless about his ambitions. He plays less tournaments than ever, keeping his very best for the most important occasions. 2024 provides another year of open-ended expectation. Now clearly safe from harm on 24 majors, he may well look to the Olympics on the sometimes unfriendly clay of Paris as the next lure of victory.
But if the sport’s greatest has taught us anything, it is to never guess his next move. Time to watch and learn.