In 2022, if the tennis season 2022 began with Novak Djokovic, it ended with him too. If the beginning was about embarrassment, the end was one of triumph.
Djokovic, who began the year getting ousted from the season’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, owing to his anti-vaccination stand, won the year-end Nitto ATP Finals on Sunday. He got through the event, which showcases the top eight players in men’s tennis, winning all his matches. He dropped just one set in a dominant performance that left in no doubt to who the world’s best player still is, irrespective of what the rankings might say.
The one set he did lose, was to Daniil Medvedev. Djokovic beat World No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 8 Andrey Rublev, No. 9 Taylor Fritz and world No. 3 Casper Ruud, all in straight sets, for his sixth Nitto ATP Finals title, equalling Roger Federer’s record.
After the win, both Djokovic and his coach Goran Ivanisevic signalled to the young aspirants of tennis dominance a warning. While Federer’s retirement and Rafael Nadal’s tryst with injuries may have indicated that the Big Three of tennis were finally waning in prowess and the next generation could now take over, Djokovic declared in no uncertain terms that it’s not yet time.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Djokovic said in his post-match press conference, “but I know that what I hold in my mind is a huge hunger still to win trophies. (To) make history in this sport, compete on the highest level all around the world, bring good emotions to sports fans, tennis fans. That’s what drives me a lot.”
Djokovic, in the process, became the oldest winner of this title, at age 35. He has now also won at least one ATP Finals title in each of the last three decades, his first coming in 2008 in Shanghai. “He’s practising even harder than when he was 22,” Ivanisevic told the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) website. “That’s why he’s still so good and that’s why he’s still going to be even better. The will to practise, the will to improve, the will to be better is amazing. He’s taking care of his body.”
The first title of the Serbian’s tumultuous year came only in May, at Rome, followed by a quarter-final loss to Nadal in the French Open. Triumphing at Wimbledon took his Grand Slam count to 21, but by June his ranking had dropped down from No. 1 as younger contenders, like Carlos Alcaraz—the current world No. 1—and Ruud took over.
“It feels deeply satisfying and, at the same time, a huge relief because of the circumstances that I have been through this year, situations earlier this year, of course, with Australia,” said Djokovic after the ATP Finals on Sunday. “That had an effect obviously on my start of the year. For the first several months, I was trying to find that balance game-wise, but also mentally in order to be able to come back to the court and find that tennis level that I need.”
He withdrew from the US Open in August before a repeat of the Australian Open fiasco could unfold. He won two other ATP titles this year, at Astana and Tel Aviv, both indoors, proving his superiority in that arena. “I had an amazing finish to the season with most of the tournaments that I played indoors I won,” he said later. “I always see myself as the best player in the world. I have that kind of mentality and that kind of approach. Regardless of who is across the net, regardless of what the surface is, regardless of what season it is... It’s always the same. The ambitions are as high as possible.”
2023 could well be another big year for him. With Federer now retired, and uncertainty over Nadal’s playing future looming large, Djokovic can make a push for winning the most number of Grand Slam titles, in which he trails the Spaniard by one. With 65 big titles—counting Grand Slams, ATP Finals, Masters 1000 or the Olympics—he is already ahead of Nadal (59) and Federer (54).
Australia has indicated that it would welcome Djokovic back next year as the virus’ long shadow begins to fade in the background. He already enjoys a better head-to-head record against most rivals who played in the Finals, including Ruud (5-3), Nadal (30-29) and Tsitsipas (10-2), with Alcaraz (0-1) being the only exception. Even former No. 1 (currently seventh) Medvedev (8-4) compares poorly, as does Rublev (2-1) and Taylor Fritz (6-0) with Felix Auger-Aliassime (1-1) being the only one with a relatively respectable record.
Djokovic may not have had a better 2022 compared to Nadal, given that the latter had four titles, but two of them were the Australian Open and at Roland Garros. Nadal won only one match in the ATP Finals, against Ruud, losing to Auger-Aliassime and Fritz. But Nadal is still ranked second in the world, with his career graph remaining unpredictable: big Grand Slam titles and frequent injury breaks.
If all the Grand Slams allow Djokovic to play in 2023, it would give him another chance to get a calendar Grand Slam, which he missed so narrowly in 2021 (winning three out of four). There are young contenders in fray, there is Nadal dipping in and out, but Djokovic has proved that there are few, if any, tennis players as mentally and physically capable of conquering them all.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.
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