In the fog of three more Grand Slam titles, another ATP Tour Finals championship, and yet another ridiculous season in what has been a ridiculous career, it’s hard to remember just how rocky it all was a year ago for Novak Djokovic.
In hindsight, with the 24-time Grand Slam champion’s legacy as the greatest player of the modern era as secure as it can be, the glide path to all this appears smooth and inevitable. It has not been. Not throughout his career, or even through this past magical year when Djokovic journeyed from his role as the sport’s lightning rod to its grand elder statesman.
“Last year’s circumstances I used as a fuel for this year,” Djokovic said just past midnight Sunday morning, with one last match to play, but knowing better than anyone how far he had come.
In the largest picture, the outcome Sunday evening against Jannik Sinner hardly mattered. But when the final ball of the final tournament of the year ended, Djokovic, predictably, had yet another title, beating Sinner, the hometown favorite 6-3, 6-3 to win the ATP Tour Finals for a record seventh time. The win redeemed his loss to the talented and fast-improving Italian last Tuesday and further delayed a changing of the guard that will come one day, but seemingly not anytime soon.
It was his seventh tournament triumph in 12 starts this season, an astounding winning percentage in a sport where even the best players end most of their weeks with losses. Djokovic had Sinner on a puppeteer’s string all evening, moving him all about the court then shaping winners into the open space, or drawing errors from a still-developing talent not quite ready to meet the moment — or beat the greatest player of the modern era twice in a week. Who is?
“Today I saw that I still have to improve,” Sinner said when it was over. He has plenty of company.
Even before Djokovic walked onto the court he had already achieved every objective for the year. He came within a set of winning all for Grand Slam titles in the same year for the first time in men’s tennis since 1969; he broke the record for most Grand Slam singles titles, then broke it again; he wrestled the No. 1. ranking away from Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish sensation, and finished the year on top of the rankings.
Beyond that, a player who so often wrested controversy out of calm evolved into something he had never been, dimming even recent memories of how divisive he could be, and how far from elder statesman status he was.
But go back a little more than a year. It’s the fall of 2022. Djokovic had not played a competitive match since Wimbledon. He missed the summer season as he could not get into North America because he refused to get vaccinated for Covid-19, a decision that damaged his reputation with huge swaths of the population for more than a year.
His two biggest rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the most beloved players of the era, held hands and cried during Federer’s retirement ceremony at the Laver Cup that September. Djokovic, the third member of the so-called Big Three, was off to the side, both figuratively and literally.
For the rest of the season, he had to scour vaccination regulations to build a schedule that would make up for the lost time over the summer and get him ready for the ATP Finals. Meanwhile, his team of lawyers were busy negotiating with the Australian government to get him eligible for the Australian Open, which seemed like a longshot.
The previous January, Australian authorities detained and deported him over the vaccination controversy, a deeply wounding experience for his psyche and his reputation. The deportation came with a three-year suspension of his visa, unless he received special permission that is rarely given. In addition, the U.S., where the tennis tour travels in late Spring and then through the second half of the summer, showed no sign of changing its vaccination rules, meaning Djokovic appeared likely to miss a huge chunk of the season, and perhaps two of the four Grand Slams, for a second consecutive year.
Inside the sport, leaders were questioning the intentions of the nascent players organization he co-founded, the Professional Tennis Players Association. Rumors floated about whether the organization would attempt to launch a breakaway tour in the style of LIV Golf, with funding from Saudi Arabia.
The first positive news came in mid-November, when the Australian government reinstated his visa. For the next six weeks, he fretted over the reception that awaited him. The government and the media had attempted to turn him into the embodiment of a rich athlete seeking a special privilege, a message that millions of inhabitants of the island nation who had endured more than a year of lockdowns, gobbled up.
Ultimately, Australia gave him a lukewarm but hardly hostile welcome. Still, Djokovic told Serbian journalists he took special pleasure in the 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 fourth-round demolition of Alex de Minaur, the country’s top player. Then his father was photographed celebrating a win with a fan holding a Russian flag. Serbia and Russia have historic ties. Djokovic was a public enemy once more and forced to answer uncomfortable questions about his views on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He made it clear he was against all wars and tried to set the issue aside, but when he won the title, he collapsed in tears on the ground beneath his team, releasing the emotional strain of the past weeks.
And then, other than a mid-tier tournament in Dubai in February, he was gone once more, unable to enter the U.S. for the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells or the Miami Open, two of the biggest stops on the ATP Tour. When the clay court swing began, in April, the losses piled up. Ahead of the French Open, his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said Djokovic had berated his team, telling them he wasn’t adequately prepared.
“I was doubting my game, a lot,” he said Sunday, recalling that time.
The retrospective videos will show Djokovic pushing Alcaraz into cramps and exhaustion in the semifinals, then two days later donning a jacket emblazoned with the number “23” to celebrate his surpassing Nadal and tennis history in the race for the most Grand Slam titles. They will likely skip over the self-imposed crisis of the first week, when he scrawled “Kosovo is the [heart symbol] of Serbia” on a glass in front of a television camera in response to violent clashes in Kosovo, putting himself once more in the middle of a battle that has plagued the Balkans for nearly 1,000 years.
Djokovic’s message came after violence broke out following a decision by Kosovo’s leaders to take control of ethnically Serbian areas of the country. This move defied the Western nations managing the international oversight of the region. Critics accused him of aligning himself with fascism and philosophies that led to ethnic cleansing.
“I’m aware that a lot of people would disagree, but it is what it is. It’s something that I stand for,” he explained. Then he allowed for a moment of broader reflection on yet another dust-up.
“Drama-free Grand Slam, I don’t think it can happen for me,” he said.
Nearly everyone else in tennis spent the next weeks at tournaments in England, Germany and Spain, competing on grass to prepare for Wimbledon. Djokovic went hiking in the Azores with his wife, Jelena, then cruised into the Wimbledon finals.
This was where it always goes right for Djokovic, a master of grass-court tennis. And then it didn’t. Somehow Alcaraz, who was supposed to be a few years away from being able to adapt to slick subtleties of the grass, figured it out in a hurry. When he rose from the edge of defeat and prevailed in five sets, the sport decided it had its torch-passing moment.
Djokovic absorbed the chatter, went on vacation with his family to the waters of Croatia, then traveled to the U.S. for the first time in two years, the echoes of the chatter about the start of the Alcaraz era still reverberating.
First came his revenge over Alcaraz, in the heavy heat of the Western & Southern Open near Cincinnati that early in his career was his kryptonite. The U.S. Open, the Grand Slam that has given him more inexplicable trouble than any other, delivered a third-round, late-night scare from his countryman Laslo Djere, who surged to a two-set lead before Djokovic surged back. And just as Djokovic closed in on a title, he decided to rub the vanquished Ben Shelton’s nose in his defeat by stealing the young and rising American’s “hang-up-the-phone” celebration gesture, giving the fortnight a bit of his trademark spice. Old habits die hard.
“He wants to improve,” Ivanisevic, his coach, said Sunday night. “That’s good news, and also bad news for us.”
The efforts have befuddled and demoralized, for the moment at least, the best of the latest “next generation” of stars, just as they did the last one. They are unable to comprehend how he sustains his level in game after game and match after match.
“You have to play your hundred per cent,” Alcaraz said after his Saturday night drubbing. “If not, you’re dead.
Djokovic will try to win the Davis Cup with Serbia in the coming days. Then comes a well-deserved month-long break, a post-Christmas exhibition against Alcaraz in Saudi Arabia, and then it’s off to Australia to start anew, trying to find the right balance between his professional life and his personal life that may be the toughest puzzle for him to solve as his young children grow.
The journey continues.
(Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)