In January, he was attempting his comeback to the tour after six months away with elbow injury. And it was not easy. It had not been easy prior to his lay-off, either, as the residue from a staggering 12 months caught up with him.
His first French Open title in 2016—which completed the set of four Majors held at the same time—was followed by the Olympics, and then a final run at the US Open and the ATP Finals, and he was pursued all the way by an Andy Murray who seized the end-of-year title and the No1 ranking in the final match.
Djokovic was physically and mentally exhausted, rejigged his long-standing coaching team, even flew solo for a while, and suffered some unexpected losses. Yet with his elbow already causing concern, he managed to go deep at almost all the big tournaments, until Wimbledon drew a line: He retired in the quarters against Tomas Berdych and did not return until Australia this year.
It was a decent return, too, to the fourth round, but it hid underlying issues: his elbow was not right, and he finally resorted to what he called ‘a minor procedure’.
Even so, he was back in harness very quickly, and although it took some tricky losses before he got that match-sharpness and confidence back, he turned a corner come the clay. Reunited with his old coaching friends, he made the semis in Rome and the quarters at Roland Garros—though a shock loss to world No72 Marco Cecchinato was a sharp reminder that tennis is an unforgiving sport, on body but also mind.
That, and a five-day hike in the mountains with his wife to re-evaluate both life and tennis, reinvigorated both, and the results were clear to see: the final at Queen’s was followed by the Wimbledon title, then the crowning Masters achievement, all nine titles, in Cincinnati.
Hard to believe that he had been ranked at 22 at Roland Garros, as he was the first to admit in the aftermath of his impressive US Open title run:
“If you told me in February this year when I got the surgery that I’ll win Wimbledon, US Open, and Cincinnati, would be hard to believe. But at the same time there was always part of me that imagined and believed and hoped that I can get back on the desired level of tennis very soon.
“I expected, to be honest, quite frank, after surgery that I’ll be back on a high level quite fast. But it took me actually three, four months. In that process, I learned a lot about myself, learned to be patient, which was never really a stronger side of me.”
He has clearly also stood back to gain a wider perspective of his career in the context of significant changes in his life:
“My mind-set always was not to compare myself to any other year or season because my life has turned upside down in the last couple years with so many different things: becoming a father twice, being away from the tour six months, getting surgery, all these different things.
“I think it’s just important to see things from a larger perspective in order to appreciate everything that you do, to be humble in all of that success, as well. I try to keep my both feet on the ground. I love this sport. As long as there is that flair in me, I really will keep on going.”
No doubt some of his refocused perspective has also been influenced by his closest rivals. For with age and maturity—and Djokovic last year crossed another threshold in joining fellow Major champions Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, and Murray to turn 30—comes understanding and experience.
He expanded on the general:
“I know how much it takes from sacrifice and effort and energy to actually give yourself a chance to fight for the trophy. But I also see other guys. We share the locker room, we share the gym. I see them every day. I see how much sweat they put, as well. It makes me work even harder. On top of that, I have to balance my family life… I’m just glad that they travel with me so I can spend some time off the court with them, which gives me a great foundation.”
Federer, now 37, Wawrinka, 33, Murray, 31, are all family men, and have also been sorely tested in the last year or two by similar injury challenges. Nadal, 32, is as familiar with fighting back from injury as any of them.
Djokovic moved to the particular:
“Maybe 10 years ago I would say I’m not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer. Actually, today I am. I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am, have shaped me into the player I am today.
“I have utmost respect for what they have achieved on the court, but also the champions, role models they are off the court. I think we have pushed each other to the limit every time we get to play each other. For me, that was always an ultimate challenge: to play Nadal or Federer anywhere.
“I think I had to figure out early in my career, when I was losing most of the big matches in Grand Slams against them, what it takes for me to improve and develop my game to be able to challenge them, to be able to start winning against them when it matters the most. I think that was one of the most important periods of my life, my tennis career, my development. I owe it to them.”
He saw, during his own long absence, these two champions come back better than ever to win six Majors in a row between them. It was inspiring—and so has been Djokovic’s own return these last few months to win the next two Majors.
And he, like his rivals, has used his time wisely, it would seem. His serve is better, more varied, more accurate, and he has improved his front-of-court play—against Juan Martin del Potro in Sunday’s final, he won 28 points from 37 net approaches. As for his athleticism and speed, he looks sharper than ever.
What is more, after those early tests by both rivals, Djokovic has a superior head to head over both Federer, 24-22, and Nadal, 27-25.
And looking ahead, it is entirely possible that, just as those two managed between them over the last 12 months, Djokovic could reclaim the No1 ranking by the year’s end.
As it is, he is currently No2 in the Race to London, No3 in the 12-month rankings.
As it is, he is clearly in a very good place:
“Life showed me that it takes time for good things, it takes time to really build them, for things to fall into place, so you can centre yourself, balance yourself, and thrive. The last two months have been terrific.”
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge