What a week it has been for Novak Djokovic. Told on Wednesday that he will be able to travel to Australia in January, a delighted Djokovic responded with a series of on-court masterclasses.
As he celebrated on Sunday night – first holding up the ATP Finals trophy, and then lifting his eight-year-old son Stefan into his arms – Djokovic looked around with a glint that evoked Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movies.
Not so much “I’ll be back.” More “I’m back already, and what are you lot going to do about it?”
For the most part, 2022 had been a story of frustration for Djokovic. He was excluded from two of the four grand slams because of his rejection of the Covid vaccine. At Wimbledon, he cruised to his fourth successive title on Centre Court – but earned no rankings points for it, thanks to the sport-wide row over Russian and Belarusian players.
Another player might have become demoralised by such repeated setbacks. But that was never likely to be Djokovic’s response. Instead, his exclusion has only spurred him on, sending him back to the practice courts to fine-tune his already streamlined game.
We shouldn’t be entirely surprised. Remember that Djokovic began his tennis life as the pauper at the feast where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal sat in ermine. His genius was the ability to see himself alongside them, or even above them – an outcome that now seems increasingly likely – where others simply bowed their heads.
This bravado – which was only fuelled by his early status as the outsider – still gives him wings. “What I hold in my mind is a huge hunger still to win trophies,” Djokovic told reporters in the interview room on Sunday. “So see you in Australia!”
Djokovic’s supremacy in Turin was startling. Okay, so there was one match – the second group-stager against Daniil Medvedev – where he got drawn into a dogfight. But his other four wins – all against top-ten opposition – were straight-sets affairs.
Against Casper Ruud on Sunday night, he looked uncomfortable in the first set – puffing between points and massaging his temples – but then dominated the second. Any sense of weariness was dispelled by an astonishing 36-shot rally in the final game of his 7-5, 6-3 victory.
As Djokovic explained afterwards, “It’s an internal battle with myself because there’s one voice that is always telling you ‘You can’t do it, you’re too tired,’ this and that, right?”
He has won that battle more often than not over the years, which is one reason why the younger generation fear him so much. Another is his technical mastery, which is surely unsurpassed in the long history of this sport. There is no stroke – not even the overhead, these days – that he does not play with commitment and control.
With eight weeks to go until the first ball is hit in Melbourne, any sensible bookie would make Djokovic the odds-on favourite – if only because it is hard to identify a plausible challenger. Just look at his head-to-heads against the other three semi-finalists in Turin. Djokovic leads Ruud 4-0, Taylor Fritz 6-0 and Andrey Rublev 2-1.
A counter-argument might posit that two 19-year-olds – Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune – have beaten Djokovic this year. But these were both best-of-three-set matches, whereas the Australian Open’s longer format favours Djokovic’s preternatural endurance. Plus, the sample sizes are still too small to pronounce these as worthy rivalries.
The real rivalry is with Rafael Nadal, who trails 30-29 in the most prolific series in ATP Tour history. On Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Djokovic has won both their meetings, including a two-hour demolition in the 2019 final which must rank among the lowest moments in Nadal’s career.
Nadal’s army of followers will point out that he won last year’s Australian Open, coming back from career-threatening trouble with his foot and a two-set deficit against Medvedev in the final. While few would back him to retain the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup – thanks largely to another litany of injury worries in 2022 – we were equally sceptical 12 months ago. So there’s a case for reserving judgement.
What does seem probable is that, if Nadal wants to maintain his position at the top of the grand-slam leaderboard, he will have to take Djokovic out himself. For the umpteenth season in a row, the kids still haven’t made a strong enough case for the succession.
“In my mind I always see myself as the best player in the world,” said Djokovic on Sunday night. He might only be ranked at No5, because of 2022’s bizarre events, but it’s increasingly hard to disagree.