Former world no. 1 Novak Djokovic has had a rather tumultuous last 18 months. In June of 2016, he was on top of the world having won his first Roland Garros title. What followed was a series of sub-par play by his standards that brought into question his health and mental state. He later admitted to having somewhat of a post-victory hangover with a loss of motivation. Accompanied with Andy Murray’s highest level of tennis ever, he was in jeopardy of losing his no. 1 ranking.
Coming into the ATP Finals that year, he could retain his ranking if he won out, and looked to be back on track as he won his round robin matches and semi-final. Alas, he would fall to Murray in the final to forfeit the no. 1 ranking, but it looked like he was back. He then built upon that rebound with a title win over Murray to start off 2017. Melbourne has always been his best tournament, so it seemed like his rebound in confidence would make him the favorite to win there. Instead, he had a stinker against Denis Istomin in the second round. He then followed that up with more disappointing defeats at Indian Wells, Miami, and more. Something was wrong. We kept hearing things about this “troublesome elbow” every now and then. Ultimately, this elbow ailment ended his season after Wimbledon. Since then he has dropped all the way down to 12th in the world- just five spots away from being unseeded at Grand Slams given the change to seeding formats. After a mediocre 2017, he will look to reestablish himself in 2018.
While he and Murray werr out, two of his biggest rivals split all four Slams between each other. The veterans, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, had renaissance seasons, replacing Djokovic and Murray atop the rankings at world no.’s 1 and 2. With Djokovic returning in January, will two of the sport’s greatest ever continue to dominate?
Djokovic is the only player ever to beat Federer twice at Wimbledon
The only one. While Federer’s dominance on grass is quite apparent, what is not, is that the only real threat to him on grass retired against Tomas Berdych, essentially making it Federer’s crown to lose. Federer and Djokovic have a long, long history between them, and arguably a more interesting rivalry than the Federer-Nadal one. Their head-to-head is 23-22 In favor of Djokovic- almost an even split. Now, an even split still sounds like Federer has a pretty good chance of beating Novak in any match, but the head-to-head is skewed both early on and later on.
Early on in their rivalry, Federer had a comfortable lead, leading 13-6 at one point. Things started to change in 2011 though, and since 2015, Novak has a 6-2 record against the Swiss, decidedly in his favor. Now, to take things one step further, Federer has not beaten Djokovic at a Grand Slam since 2012. In their four meetings, he is 0-4 with two of those losses coming on the Wimbledon grass and two on hard courts. He has a 1-2 record against the Serb on grass. It may be a small sample size for sure, but it is also a testament to the challenge that Djokovic poses to Federer; these past few years before this one, Djokovic found a new level, and Federer was unable to match it. Even when Federer came back rejuvenated in 2014, Djokovic was there to deny him from adding more ATP Finals trophies, Masters trophies, and Slam trophies to his cabinet.
This is not to say that Djokovic is a lock to beat Federer every time they hit the court, but without him in the picture, Federer had a major obstacle to success absent for most of 2017. If Djokovic is right, look for him to put a dent into Roger’s Wimbledon hopes or dethrone the Swiss in Melbourne.
Djokovic is one of a few players who can beat Rafa on clay
Rafael Nadal is the undisputed King of clay. When he is on, he is pretty much unbeatable on clay. Like with his rivalry with Federer, Djokovic trailed in this one for the longest before turning things around in 2011 with seven victories in a row against the Spaniard. Quite a few of those victories came on clay. Even though Nadal does lead the clay court head-to-head, Djokovic is one of a few players who has beaten him numerous times on that surface. He and Robin Söderling are the only two players ever to take him down at Roland Garros. This year, Nadal completely walked all over the competition en route to his tenth French open crown, and two more clay Masters titles. Just one loss to Alexander Zverev was the only stain on his clay court season this year. Had Djokovic been there, would he have stopped Nadal at one of these events, maybe just one? While Nadal is the consensus top clay court player, Djokovic is absolutely number two, and given Djokovic’s improvements on the dirt, Nadal could have been pushed in a potential meeting between the two.
On other surfaces, however, Djokovic has a clear edge. Nadal won the U.S. Open this year, but because of the draw and good fortune, arguably had one of his easiest paths to the final. Nadal and Djokovic have played at the U.S. Open before with Nadal winning two out of three times, but Djokovic has controlled the outcomes of their hard court matchups of late. He has won all seven of their past hard court meetings, dating back to 2013. With Djokovic there and healthy, maybe Nadal would have been playing Kevin Anderson in the final.
Let’s not jump to conclusions though
Novak will be back in January. He will not have played in six months. Both Federer and Nadal took similar amounts of time off in 2016 and came back with a roar. Perhaps Djokovic can do the same, but there is no way of knowing until the first ball is struck in 2018. While it is easy to hypothesize whether Djokovic would have thwarted Nadal and Federer this year, it lacks a strong foundation unless he can validate these claims. Even then, we do not know how he will respond to his time off. Djokovic could come back guns blazing like Federer, or he could very well be rusty; requiring some matches under his belt to build up some confidence. We shall see how he fares this January.