Novak Djokovic, or the danger of loving your rivals
Jannik Sinner changed the history of the Australian Open by eliminating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals on Friday. Did he change the history of the entire 2024 season as well, if not more? That’s part of the danger of getting along with hungry youngsters.
That had to do with one of the most interesting reflections of the Australian Open: Djokovic compared his relationship with younger tennis players, versus how he related to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Several adjectives tipped the scales to one side. “Much better,” “nicer” and “more open.” For Djokovic, the youngsters being “more communicative” has helped him surf those relationships better.
At the ATP Finals 2023 preview, the seven young players and the veteran played a game that consisted of choosing whichever of the contenders best represented a certain statement.
Djokovic was the one who moderated the game. “Who will do the best pre-match walk out?” he asked, reading off a card. “After Jannik walked into Wimbledon with a Gucci bag…,” remarked Andrey Rublev. The Russian’s comment was enough to spark laughter from the room. Unanimous decision. Everyone raised up the printed image of the Italian’s face, held with a stick.
Such a dynamic was unthinkable during the era he shared with the Swiss and the Spaniard. Much less in the run-up to the competitive season-closing tournament.
Something so often written and analyzed by journalists and commentators, when it comes out of the Serbian’s mouth is logically appealing and very tasty. He was never really welcome in the “Fedal” dynamic. On the other hand, with the U30s and U25s who are close to the top and who grew up watching him as a champion, the relationship has a different perfume and there is less bitterness.
Paradoxically, it is these guys that Djokovic likes so much, who are managing to end with the dictatorship of the Serb, and are achieving what neither Federer nor Nadal could do during the last decade: beat Djokovic on the big stages when the Serb has been the favorite.
Alexander Zverev knocked him out of the running for Olympic gold in Tokyo 2021. A month later Daniil Medvedev deprived him in New York of achieving the Grand Slam (winning all four majors in the same year). And despite the fact that his era extended beyond, and that he extended many of his records (and continues to do so) the youngsters, those friends, are telling him enough is enough. They are inflicting bitter defeats on him, as the Spaniard and the Swiss did not know how to do.
To be precise, Djokovic’s last defeat at the hands of Federer in a Grand Slam was in the semis of Wimbledon 2012. Against Nadal, outside Roland Garros, he lost the last time at the US Open 2013.
Then came Carlos Alcaraz on July 16, 2023 and beat him in the Wimbledon final. Djokovic was undefeated for ten years in a place of confort: Centre Court.
Then came Sinner and beat him in the Australian semis on January 26, 2024. With a blistering start that ended in a 6-1, 6-2, 6-7 (6-8) and 6-3. The Serb accumulated 33 consecutive victories on the court where he lifted the trophy ten times. He had not lost since 2018.
With these disrespect from the younger players, comes a very striking coincidence: Novak Djokovic remained 2195 days undefeated in London, Alcaraz cut the streak; the Serb slept 2195 nights without losing in Melbourne, Sinner unknowingly imitated his Spanish contemporary.
These new friends are slowly setting limits for the “old kid of the block”, who turns 37 in May.
One game doesn’t change an era, but a group of matches that create a trend might. And 2024 will be fundamental in the timeline to determine if Djokovic’s era is over, or if he continues to be that dictator that a long-suffering rival like Stefanos Tsitsipas describes as “selfish” and gives once in a while some happiness to the rest.