Love or loathe his dexterously-gymnastic-yet-absurdly-errorproof brand of tennis, you’ve likely reasoned for yourself that it would have been an immiserating blow to an already ailing ATP landscape if Novak Djokovic’s first twelve matches of 2018 had foretold the shape of the rest of his year. Half these contests, Djokovic won; in the others he fell short, at times in so abject a fashion that to believe this was the same man who had held all four Grand Slams as recently as 2016 beggared belief. What has come afterwards—the complete and total turnaround in his fortunes—is, as with Roger Federer rolling back the years during his majestic 2017 season, the stuff that lore is made of. History illustrates what happens during Djokovic’s rough patches: when it rains, it pours. But long too, do his reigns at the top of the game last; surprise should be the last of your emotions if Djokovic’s title runs at Wimbledon, Cincinnati, the US Open and Shanghai don’t turn out to be a series of isolated triumphs, and instead a microcosm of what to expect in 2019 and beyond.
Finding his Feet on Clay
The arc of Djokovic’s reascension began part-way through the clay season, during which time he rehired coach Marián Vajda, one of the mainstays of his team before the ‘great purge’ of May 2017, and a stabilizing influence on the 31-year-old immediately upon his return. After running Rafael Nadal close in a pulsating semi-final bout at Rome—the first set an evenly-contested scrap that bore shades of their closest battles from years past—Djokovic made it through to the last eight of the French Open, eventually labouring to a deflating defeat against unheralded Italian Marco Cecchinato. Though Cecchinato produced the best tennis of his career throughout the tournament, deleting top ten seeds David Goffin and Pablo Carreño Busta in four sets as he did Djokovic, he was hardly unplayable. Djokovic let a healthy fourth-set lead slip and made costly mistakes in the tiebreak that, had he won, would surely have impelled him to win the decider. It was a stinging loss—the Serb made no attempt to conceal his smarting in the post-match press conference—but in hindsight a much-needed catharsis.
Battle-hardened by the clay-court swing and a run to the final at Queen’s Club, Djokovic launched his Wimbledon campaign eager to prove that the previous months’ upswing in form was the first glimpse of a heady climb back to the summit of the sport he once dominated at will. To this end, the vindication was swift and spectacular; the two best weeks of Djokovic’s career in two years brought him a 13th Grand Slam trophy, his fourth at Wimbledon, and re-entry to the top ten. At every juncture, Djokovic manifested the champion’s aura that he’d long since lost, letting loose positive energy when things went his way, digging deep and staying clutch when he found himself in a tough spot.
As he wrested back control of his third-round encounter with Britain’s Kyle Edmund, Djokovic contended with an unusually boorish home crowd and raised his level when the partisans raised Cain. In the heat of his quarter-final clash with Kei Nishikori, he squawked at an instance of Carlos Ramos’ heavy-handed umpiring, but never lost his focus and downed the Japanese in four. Against Nadal in the semis, his serve was sublime, his nerves unshakeable, and his endurance inexhaustible through five sets and five hours of bruising combat. Djokovic’s task in the final—to overcome Kevin Anderson—was in no way likely to tax him to the extent that the previous one had, especially given the South African’s exertions in a semi-final serve-fest that threatened, more than a few times, to never end. That Djokovic got the job done so effortlessly in what was perhaps the least memorable Grand Slam final he’s been involved in felt almost incidental to the journey to get there; it was merely a confirmation that the previous six matches weren’t a lead-up to a false dawn of epic proportions—that his rebirth was, and is, most definitely real.
Since Wimbledon, Djokovic has played twenty matches on his favoured hard courts and won all but one of them (he was knocked out early at the Rogers Cup by eventual finalist and 2018 ATP breakout phenom Stefanos Tsitsipas). Progressively his level has risen, from merely lackluster at Canada, to nigh untouchable at Shanghai, and veering somewhere between excellent and average at the Cincinnati Masters and the US Open—two stops where he has been uncharacteristically poor at converting finals reached into titles won over the years.
During a rainswept week in Ohio, Djokovic slogged through a tight maiden meeting with American Steve Johnson in the first round and awkward three-setters in the next four, before dismantling seven-time champion (and perpetual tormentor at this event) Roger Federer in the title match. Cincinnati was the only remaining Masters 1000 event Djokovic hadn’t yet won, thus distinguishing him as the first man (or the second, depending on how much weight you put on Ivan Lendl completing the set of the Masters variant that existed in his time) to win all nine. Following that feat, Djokovic made a halting start at Flushing Meadows, losing a set each to Marton Fucsovics and Tennys Sandgren while battling a familiar foe in the form of the Big Apple’s stifling humidity. He finished the tournament in fine style, cruising past Joao Sousa, John Millman, Nishikori, and Juan Martin del Potro in the final. This, his 14th Grand Slam title, ties him in the all-time standings with Pete Sampras, puts him three away from catching Nadal and six behind Federer.
Past vs Present
Djokovic’s storming displays at the US Open and Shanghai Masters leave plenty of room to speculate about how close he is to being as good as he was at his absolute best—the interpretation of which is a debatable topic in its own right. It’s a matter practically beyond dispute that the Djokovic of 2011 was a baseliner par excellence, blending fearless aggression and tenacious defence to notch up 43 straight wins in the first half of the year, as well as three majors and five Masters 1000 trophies in the span of nine incredible months. In 2015, however, Djokovic served with greater precision, continued to return serve with his usual effectiveness, fine-tuned his volleys, movement around the net and backhand slice, perfected the strategy of using suffocating shot depth to rob his opponents of backcourt real estate. The result: Three slams, an 82-6 win/loss record to 2011’s 70-6, 15 consecutive finals, and total, year-round domination (in 2011 his season fizzled out after winning the US Open). Djokovic arguably entertained more in 2011 but evolved into a more complete player four years later.
The Djokovic we see in 2018 has reintegrated much of what made the 2015 version of himself so formidable, and at least one aspect of his game, according to Matt Willis, tireless content aggregator over at The Racquet, is better than ever:
— Matthew Willis (@MattRacquet) October 14, 2018
Djokovic’s serve game (what he does after the serve is returned) in conjunction with the shot itself is now devastating—he held all 37 of his service games played in Shanghai. When the ball is in play, Djokovic is supremely comfortable either driving his backhand down the line, or hitting powerful forehands from his backhand corner to move his opponent out of position, sometimes not even needing to hit double figures in groundstroke winners each match due to the quality of his shot placement. His defensive scrambling, the product of intelligent court positioning and gazelle-like lateral movement, is still the best of anyone’s on tour. His net game is grounded in well-developed fundamentals and he can get improvisational in the forecourt when the situation calls for it. Presently, there isn’t a more potent force in men’s tennis, nor any other capable of dislodging Nadal from the top of the rankings. Novak Djokovic’s greatness, however much it has dimmed, is no less worthy of awe than it always has been.