Djokovic surmounts drama to headline tennis in 2022
The 21-time Slam winner had so much going against him, and yet as he ended with the ATP Finals crown last week his peers knew he is still the man to beat.
Prior to the ATP Finals, Novak Djokovic had played just 10 tour events—discounting the Laver Cup—this year. He was packed off from one country, refused entry into another. His season’s only Grand Slam victory carried no ranking points. Yet, the Serb qualified among the top eight players for Turin’s season-ending finale. And signed off winning it.
Welcome to Djoker’s theatre of the bizarre. Few boss it quite like him. Djokovic equalled Roger Federer’s tally of six ATP Finals titles defeating Norwegian Casper Ruud 7-5, 6-3 in the final on Sunday. He dropped just one set—a tiebreaker to Daniil Medvedev—through the week, belying his tournament seeding of No 7 and world ranking of No 8.
The title pushed Djokovic three places up in the rankings on Monday, but even the four sitting above him would probably agree he has been the player to beat, especially in the season’s latter half.
After returning to the tour a couple of months after his Wimbledon title, Djokovic won three of the four tournaments he entered, only losing a close three-set final to Holger Rune at the Paris Masters. Overall, Djokovic has won five titles this season, matched by Carlos Alcaraz, the world No 1. Djokovic has a 42-7 win-loss record, a better percentage than Alcaraz and the best among all players this year.
“I always see myself as the best player in the world," Djokovic said after his title in Turin. "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.”
Regardless of the vaccination status… oh wait.
“We don't need to go back. We know what happened,” Djokovic said.
It’s worth going back for what more may have been for the 21-time Grand Slam champion.
Djokovic flew into Australia at the start of the year with the tag of a three-time defending champion and an exemption for being unvaccinated. What followed was drama at its peak: Djokovic was questioned for hours at the airport, placed in a detention centre, made to fight in the court of law to stay put in the land before being sensationally deported.
That happened less than 24 hours before his title defence at Melbourne Park, where Djokovic is often an unstoppable beast. His anti-vaccine stand would continue to bite him throughout the season. The Serb couldn't enter USA in March to play the hard-court tournaments in Indian Wells, California or Miami as the country mandated vaccination. It remained the case some months later, forcing Djokovic to miss the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, National Bank Open in Canada and the US Open in New York.
That’s a lot of tournaments and two Grand Slams not played due to his vaccination status, and a lot of ranking points dropped despite defending his Wimbledon title (the Slam was stripped of ranking points due to the ban on Russian and Belarusian players).
“Alcaraz is No. 1, I suppose with a bit of a star next to his name,” Matthew Ebden, who joined Djokovic at this Wimbledon’s honours board as the men’s doubles champion, said in a chat over Zoom.
“I mean, Novak was successfully the world No 1, defended his Wimbledon crown and went from No 1 to 7 because of politics of the points. That was ridiculous, obviously. He was probably favourite for the US Open.
“I think it’s pretty clear that he’s the best player on the planet right now. Everyone on the tour basically still considers Novak as the world No 1. Potentially in the next 3-6 months, Novak could be back there anyway,” added the Australian doubles world No 26 and former top-40 singles pro who will be in India next month for the Tennis Premier League.
Generational shift? Not yet
Which brings us to an oft-repeated question: has the generational shift finally started to take shape?
“Yeah, it feels like people have been talking about that for 10 years!” Ebden chuckled.
“It’s sort of happened with the help of some external circumstances, but I can’t say it’s fully happened yet.”
The 36-year-old Rafael Nadal made that remarkable comeback with the Australian Open triumph and pocketed another French Open. At the other end of the age stick, Alcaraz, 19, capped off a breathtakingly breakthrough season that fetched him five titles with US Open glory. Ruud, 23, made the finals in Paris and New York. Felix-Auger Aliassime, 22, scaled a career-high world No 6 with four titles to boot. Rune, 19, bagged three titles including a Masters.
“It’s true that these super young guys are now popping up, where probably five years ago someone thought that maybe it was (Grigor) Dimitrov or (Dominic) Thiem or (Alexander) Zverev doing it. But now it’s guys younger than them–Alcaraz, (Jannik) Sinner, Felix—who are stepping up and winning those big Masters or Slams or getting close to the top rankings. It’s exciting for the game.”