The reign of the usurper Novak Djokovic ended in 2017. He had emerged from the pack in 2011, seemingly from nowhere, to challenge the kings, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, for mastery of the tennis world. In 2011, he scattered them, winning three of the four Majors and finishing the year as the world’s best player. Nadal and Federer launched a determined rearguard action over the next two years, and each returned to the rankings summit, Nadal even finished the year there in 2013.
But men’s tennis had a new colossus to contend with. Title after title fell to his growing strength and the power of the Swiss and the Spaniard looked to be fading. In 2014, Djokovic outlasted Federer on the hallowed lawns at the All England Club. A year later, he bested a sadly diminished Nadal in his Parisian fortress, though his wait for that particular title was extended by the hammered groundstrokes of Wawrinka in the final.
Still it could not be far away, and when he arrived at Roland Garros a year later, with the other three Majors in tow, destiny seemed to be in the air. Miserable conditions and pressure made the tournament a difficult one, but Djokovic persevered and at last conquered the French Open. As he lifted the title, as he completed the ‘Nole Slam’, as he assumed a position of dominance unknown in recent memory, the clouds parted and he stepped into the brilliant light of the sun.
At last, surely his legacy was assured. No longer could he be relegated to third place behind Federer and Nadal, conspicuous by their absence in Paris. Instead, he stumbled. And then he fell hard. Defeats, once unthinkable, began to pile up. By the end of 2016, he had lost his #1 ranking. In 2017, he was to lose far more. As he crashed out in the second round in Melbourne, Nadal and Federer battled to the final to reclaim their thrones and Djokovic was cast out into the cold once more.
Djokovic limped on to Wimbledon, but his tennis seemed to grow more ragged with every tournament. And the visits from the physio to tend to his elbow became increasingly frequent. His long-time team departed and were replaced by Andre Agassi but to no avail. Djokovic bowed to the logic forced upon him when he had to retire from his Wimbledon quarterfinal with Tomas Berdych and called time on his season.
He returned for the Australian Open at the start of 2018, but it came too soon as he fell in the fourth round, and Federer claimed his 20th Major title, the fifth in a row that had been split between him and Nadal. The Spaniard made it six with his 11th French Open. The dominance of Djokovic had been forgotten. So low did injury bring him that he seemed forgotten in the conversation about greatness that he had worked so hard to enter.
But, for Djokovic, the fire within had been renewed. Still, few could have predicted just how brightly it would burn at Wimbledon. None could stand before him at the Championships, not even the mighty Nadal who he bested 6-4 3-6 7-6 3-6 10-8 in the semifinals in an instant classic. He followed that by dismissing a weary Kevin Anderson 6-2 6-2 7-6 to claim the title. The Djokovic of old had returned, and he had business in North America.
He was not at his best in Toronto, short of focus and motivation, and lost in the third round to eventual finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. But in Cincinnati, though his tennis at times let him down, his focus and commitment were unwavering. He battled through the draw to reach the final to face Federer, who had thrice denied him in Ohio. But Djokovic would brook no opposition in 2018, humbling Federer in straight sets to complete the Career Golden Masters, an unprecedented achievement.
His sights were surely set on glory under the lights in New York. He had twice reigned there already, ending banner years in 2011 and 2015 with US Open triumphs, but more often than not he had fallen just short, losing five other finals. It looked like it could be another summer of frustration for him as he made a sluggish start in brutally hot conditions. The humidity, which has always troubled him, also did not help his cause.
But, as the temperature cooled Djokovic warmed to his task. He began the second week by battling past Joao Sousa and John Millman, straight sets wins both, but neither as straight-forward as the scoreline suggests. That put him into a semifinal with Kei Nishikori, a rematch of the 2014 clash that Nishikori had won. But the Japanese did not come close to managing a repeat. Djokovic exposed the gulf in class between them in a 6-3 6-4 6-2 win to reach his eighth final.
Del Potro dismantled
Waiting for him there was the fearsome power of Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine had waited nine long years for a second shot at Grand Slam glory, but with his body once again healthy and his game firing on all cylinders, he looked ready. All tournament his thunderbolt of a forehand had smashed through the defences of his opponents and his fans had been backing him to the hilt. At times, he had looked unstoppable.
But he needed time to breathe and time to swing and Djokovic gave him neither. At his best the Serbian seamlessly blends attack and defence into a suffocating cocktail and that is exactly what he did to del Potro. All night the walls drew in around del Potro, robbing him of the time and space he needed to deploy his big weapons. Even his serve was rendered almost useless to him as Djokovic made return after return, limiting del Potro to just six aces.
He also won only 50% of the points behind his second serve and ended the match with one less winner than Djokovic but nine more unforced errors. In short, del Potro was outclassed, despite a valiant effort. He may well rise again and there would certainly be few more popular champions. But Djokovic has turned the second half of the year into his story. At the start of July he was outside the world’s top 20, now he is the world #3 and he has the year-end #1 well within his sights.
His US Open title was also his 14th Grand Slam. That sees him draw level with his idol Pete Sampras at third on the all-time list and more seem likely to fall to him in the near future. If this was once the era of Nadal and Federer, it certainly isn’t any more. Djokovic the usurper has indeed fallen and he will not return. But in his place has come Djokovic the rightful king. And his power is still growing.
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