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Djokovic’s chasing pack ate his chalk dust this year


The changing of the guard in men’s tennis is like one of those futuristic car shows. It’s great in theory and conceptually possible, but the reality is that it’s still only viable at some undefined point in the future.

That’s because Novak Djokovic still rules over the sport with an iron fist despite his advanced age (in tennis terms) of 36 and a wide range of challengers trying hard to dethrone him.

The 2023 season once again showed the folly of talking about the changing of the guard as long as Djokovic holds a racquet and has the desire to compete.

The concept of the “changing of the guard” first started as a serious discussion about five years ago. Yet half a decade on, here we are, with Djokovic rewriting records almost weekly.

Record-setting

Djokovic’s chasing pack ate his chalk dust this year

Novak Djokovic is two tournament victories shy of 100 professional wins. Here he kisses his latest trophy after winning his singles finals match against Jannik Sinner of Italy in Turin on 19 November. (Image: EPA-EFE/Alessandro di Marco)

The Serbian maestro ended 2023 ranked number one for a record eighth year, and he did it with one of his most dominating seasons ever.

He has now spent more than 400 weeks at No 1 in the world – a record in all tennis, male or female. He won his 22nd, 23rd and 24th Grand Slam singles titles in 2023 and won the season-ending ATP Finals for a record seventh time.

Djokovic has won 40 Masters 1000 titles (the rung below Grand Slams) and has won each of the four majors – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open – at least three times. He’s made more than $180-million in prize money alone and is two tournament victories shy of 100 professional wins, which will surely come in 2024.

Two years ago, he set the record as the oldest ATP Year-End No 1 in history (since 1973) aged 34. This year, he has broken his own record aged 36.

In what is supposed to be the twilight of his career, he seems to be getting better. This year he won seven singles titles, including three of the four majors, only missing out at Wimbledon in an epic final against Carlos Alcaraz.

That defeat at SW19 denied Djokovic a calendar Grand Slam, but instead of derailing his year and supercharging Alcaraz’s season, it only served to motivate the Serbian.

“I had an almost perfect season, Grand Slam season,” Djokovic told reporters at the ATP Finals in Turin.

“Ended the year as number one in the world, reached really all the objectives that I had, broke many records, made history of the sport. Of course, I’m thrilled with the season.”

Djokovic had a 55-6 win-loss ratio in 2023 and collected almost $16-million more in prize money.

In Turin last week, he took care of Alcaraz 6-3 6-2 in the semifinals and then the Italian starlet Jannik Sinner 6-3 6-3 in the final. Alcaraz and Sinner are the next in line to dethrone Djokovic, but they are treading a path that many others have unsuccessfully been down before.

Djokovic’s canon is even more gobsmacking when you consider he achieved most of it while competing against prime Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. They probably cost him 20 more majors and conversely he probably cost them as many too.

Not done

And he’s not finished yet. Which is bad news for the chasing pack. The 2024 Paris Olympics presents a chance for a “Golden Slam” – winning the four singles Grand Slams and the Olympic gold in the same season. No man has done it. Germany’s Steffi Graf achieved it in 1988.

“Well, you can win four slams and an Olympic gold,” Djokovic said of the 2024 season after the final in Turin.

“I have always had the highest ambitions and goals. That’s not going to be different for next year.

“The drive that I have is still there. My body has been serving me well, listening to me well. I have a great team of people around me.”

Alcaraz and Sinner are lucky in a sense that they might have come along at the right time. Nadal is unlikely to be the force he was after a spate of injuries when he does return to court. Federer has retired and Djokovic cannot deny time indefinitely, although he will give it a good go.

High bar

The reality is that Djokovic (and Nadal and Federer before him) continues to set the bar that they raised so high that few can consistently touch it.

Alcaraz is certainly the most likely to dominate the sport. He already has two Grand Slam singles titles (the 2022 US Open and 2023 Wimbledon) but has also regularly been plagued by injuries. It is unlikely he will have the longevity of Djokovic and the others, simply because his body already appears to be straining under the pressure of pursuing the Terminator-like Serbian.

Two whole generations of players have tried and failed to haul Djokovic in. Players such as Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Juan Martín del Potro and Grigor Dimitrov, who are all younger than Djokovic, failed.

The next generation seemingly had a better chance, having grown up as students of the big three. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sascha Zverev, Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, aged 25 to 27, have missed their chance to dominate the game. Only Medvedev of that group has won a Grand Slam title. Between them they might capture no more than a handful of Grand Slams, and even that seems unlikely.

So it’s probably left to Alcaraz, Sinner, Holger Rune and Ben Shelton, who are all between 20 and 22, to take down the old warrior and consistently beat the tier just above them as well.

Players such as Casper Ruud, who has been in two Grand Slam finals and is only 24, falls in between the two chasing packs, as do Frances Tiafoe and Félix Auger-Aliassime.

There is enough talent hunting Djokovic and he will fall eventually. But for now and the foreseeable future, only Djokovic can beat himself. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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