(Photo credit: Marianne Bevis)
Novak Djokovic returned to the top of the tennis world by lifting his 13th Major title at Wimbledon. It was the arrival of a storm that had been gathering since the Serb reunited with Marian Vajda, and when it rolled over south-west London, none could stand before it. Tennys Sandgren was hammered and Horacio Zeballos dispatched with ease, the home hope Kyle Edmund was felled in the third round and young gun Karen Khachanov was swept aside on Manic Monday.
Kei Nishikori, a US Open finalist, battled valiantly in the quarterfinals, but in vain. Even the great Rafael Nadal was overcome, though he came closest to quieting the thunder over the course of five dramatic sets. Djokovic then ended the challenge of Kevin Anderson, who had conquered Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, 6-2 6-2 7-6 to win the title. But with Federer surely smarting from defeat, Nadal imperious atop the mountain and Murray’s return already underway, what’s next for Djokovic?
Is Nole back to his best?
During the Wimbledon fortnight Djokovic was able to find his best tennis when he needed it. It wasn’t all entirely smooth sailing for the former world #1, but when the chips were down he stood up to be counted and delivered some great tennis. He was able to remind the world that on his day he can beat anyone and everyone. But whether he can rediscover the consistent levels of brilliance that allowed him to dominate the game, particularly in 2011 and 2015, is unclear.
By his own admission, there were mental hurdles to be overcome as he sought to come back from the serious elbow problem that had been ailing him since 2016. But, he was able to find the right balance, both mentally and physically, to do so at Wimbledon. His performance against Nadal, which was surely his best of the tournament, illustrated the progress he had made. In that match, Djokovic reached his peak, both physically and mentally.
He returned well, as he did all tournament with the Serbian breaking serve over 39 times during the Championships. He was able to withstand the considerable power of Nadal from the back of the court and the quality of the ball-striking from both men was at times quite astonishing. But Djokovic also stayed strong mentally. Few could have sustained their belief so late into the fifth set against Nadal, but Djokovic proved again that he is equal even to the mighty Spaniard.
Why the dip in form?
The obvious and most important cause of Djokovic’s decline through the second half of 2016 and into 2017 was the elbow injury. It forced him off-court for the second half of 2017, and it was not until he had surgery in January this year that he began to make progress. He also may have had to contend with personal problems, though such rumours remain unsubstantiated, and also looked short of motivation in the wake of his long-awaited French Open triumph in 2016.
Furthermore, being out of the game for so long made it difficult for him to compete on his return. He was short of practice, attempting to introduce a new racquet and some way off his best condition physically. One also sensed that he was looking for a big performance and result to break out of his malaise, and he found it at last in Rome, where he made the semifinals. Though there were setbacks still to come, that run does appear to have been the turning point for him.
Whilst fatherhood, with Djokovic and his wife Jelena now the parents to a son, Stefan, and daughter, Tara, has surely presented him with new challenges, it has also been a motivator for Djokovic. Indeed, in the wake of his Wimbledon triumph, Djokovic admitted that having his son see him lift the title was ‘one of [his] biggest dreams’ and that visualising such a moment had been firing him up all tournament.
Where can he go from here?
The question of what is next for Djokovic has come to the forefront during the hard court season. In Toronto, he was disappointing. Though he won a couple of rounds, defeating Mirza Basic and Peter Polansky, he was defeated by his first opponent of real quality, Stefanos Tsitsipas, a match in which he played very poorly. But that is no cause for panic for him or his fans. Expectations had perhaps been raised unrealistically high in the wake of his Wimbledon win and a let-down was to be expected.
But his victory at the Championships has surely given him renewed confidence and it should be a springboard for further success in the not too distant future. He seems likely to do well at the US Open with a run to the semifinals or final well within his reach. But the crown itself may still be beyond him. Winning a second consecutive Grand Slam, after such serious injury problems, would be an incredible achievement, but the mental and physical toll of doing so seems too high for Djokovic at this moment.
His ranking, currently 10th in the world, will also make his path to US Open glory more difficult, with a clash with Nadal or Federer possible as early as the fourth round. Djokovic of course has the quality to beat either, but facing such an opponent so early at a Slam is never ideal. Truthfully, the storm that rolled over Wimbledon looks to have abated and expect the next few months to be those of calm consolidation for Djokovic. But the waters will rise again soon.