Despite losing in the Paris Masters final against Karen Khachanov Novak Djokovic returned to the number one ranking after a gap of two years. His return to the summit was confirmed after Rafael Nadal pulled out of the tournament on the eve of the competition. The Spaniard has also withdrawn from the World Tour Finals in London, which means that for the fifth time Djokovic would end the year as the number one player in the world.
It’s hard to imagine any of the other four occasions feeling as sweet for the Serb as it would when he lifts the number one ranking in London, where he would be hoping to round off the year with another title. This is because of the sheer contrast that the first and second half of the season brought for him, resulting in him jumping from World No 22 to the top – the greatest jump to the year-end number one ranking in ATP history.
After a string of low-profile, nay unbelievable, losses Djokovic resoundingly announced his comeback with the Wimbledon title in July. In the six months prior to that he had been gradually stepping up with an abysmal hard court season following by a clay court run where he notched up prominent wins and made the quarterfinal at Roland Garros.
Going into Wimbledon, Djokovic wasn’t among those fancied for the crown, with Roger Federer being the firm favourite, and Marin Cilic – who beat Djokovic in the Queens final leading up to the grass major – pining for his first crown at SW19. As it turned out, after sweeping the clay season and reaffirming his grip on the No 1 ranking, Nadal too had found his mojo at Wimbledon and was aiming for the title.
The Djokovic-Nadal epic semifinal at Wimbledon – one of the matches of the year – was perhaps the turning point for the Serb. He weathered an onslaught by the Spaniard, where despite conditions not being suited to him the then World No 1 outplayed Djokovic for large parts of the match – especially second set onwards.
After having edged out Nadal and then going on to completely beat Kevin Anderson in the final Djokovic finally got his belief back. That was evident in his US Open triumph as well, as he made it back to back major wins. Either side of his US Open win came ATP Masters 1000 titles in Cincinnati and Shanghai.
Djokovic’s only losses since Roland Garros have come against Stephanos Tsitsipas (Canada Masters) and Khachanov. With both these players representing the future of men’s tennis, perhaps this could be a sign of where the challenge to Djokovic’s supremacy might come from.
Djokovic’s return to the top of the rankings and triumphs at majors and ATP 1000 events, is a reminder of the dominance that he, Nadal and Federer have collectively mustered over the past decade and a half, which makes them the Big Three of men’s tennis.
Nadal and Federer dominated 2017, splitting the four majors evenly. This year each of the Big Three has won a major, and the trio forms the top three of the rankings as well. And yet there is significant daylight between where Djokovic is right now and where his two rivals are.
Nadal’s withdrawal from all post-US Open tournaments is not just a reminder of his typical struggles at the end of the year where his body can no longer cope with the pressure he puts on it, it is also a culmination of a year which despite many successes was injury laden for him. As Nadal put it himself that it was a ‘miracle’ that despite playing only nine tournaments this year, and completing only seven, he found himself at the top of the ranking till late October.
Federer meanwhile had his best ever start to the season with another blistering Australian Open win. His season fell in the North American hard court season, but was expected to pick up during the grass. That Wimbledon loss to Anderson derailed the season for the Swiss. The US Open fourth round loss to John Millman further added to the slump.
Federer didn’t play Nadal at all this year after winning all four of the pair’s meetups last year, and played Djokovic twice – losing the Cincinnati final, and he Paris semifinal. Last week’s meeting at the Paris Masters between Federer and Djokovic, decided in the third set tie-break, was one of the best three set matches of the year, and was perhaps a reminder that even at 37 Federer can still go on and continue his pursuit of silverware next year.
Djokovic, hence, could face a two pronged onslaught from fellow members of the Big Three, and the young pretenders to their thrones, which include the likes of Khachanov, Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Denis Shapovalov and Chung Hyeon among others.
That could mean a pulsating 2019 for tennis fans where everyone would be looking for the big scalp of Djokovic. But before that there is the year-ending World Tour Finals to be contested, where Djokovic would reservedly be crowned the best male player in the world.