ANALYSIS – Tennis facing an unexpected dynamic: What if Australia 2022 was the big mistake in Djokovic’s career?
At the beginning of January 2022, tennis seemed to surrender to Novak Djokovic: the Serb would add several Grand Slam titles and neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer would be able to stop him. The GOAT (or the most successful, at least), would be him.
But then came the Australian Open, the one Djokovic was supposed to win for the tenth time, and the Serb miscalculated his strength: he no longer felt he was just the king of tennis, he felt he was the potential king of the world. He claimed not to be an anti-vaxxer, but he was not vaccinated against covid19.
The soap opera with the Australian government of Scott Morrison, who has just left power, was followed all over the world, even by people who were never interested in tennis. There was something very powerful, a major challenge that excited many people, but offended many more.
The Serb tried to force tennis regulations and sought shortcuts in the Australian legal system in the midst of a pandemic. Now that’s self-confidence.
Djokovic did not play that tournament, because he was expelled from Australia by the immigration authorities. Five months have passed, and some things are still unclear: was the certificate confirming that the Serb had tested positive at the end of December real? Did his assistant make a mistake when filling in the data in the immigration forms or did he deliberately avoid reporting that he had passed through Spain?
The truth is that January 2022 changed the dynamics of tennis. Nadal played an amazing tournament, but he could very well not have won it if Djokovic was there playing at his best. Had the Serb won, today we would be looking at 21-21-20 in terms of Grand Slam titles.
But the figure is 22-20-20: the Serb will need to win at least three more Grand Slam titles to establish himself as the most successful tennis player of all times. That is, provided Nadal doesn’t keep adding to it. And what seemed feasible in 2021, when Djokovic won three Grand Slams and reached the final of the fourth, today does not seem so likely.
Tennis of 2022 is not that of 2021, from one year to the other there was an acceleration in the generational change. Daniil Medvedev, back at number one this week, might add a title in the next majors, Stefanos Tsitsipas can do it if he gets rid of his own Greek tragedy and Alexander Zverev is getting closer, although his ankle ligament rupture means that he cannot be counted on for the rest of the year. Norwegian Casper Ruud also moved up the rankings.
Although the big difference comes from Spain, Carlos Alcaraz, or “Alcatraz”, as Ion Tiriac calls him.
The 19-year-old Spaniard is already in a position to win a Grand Slam. Or to eliminate players like Djokovic, for example, in one of the four majors.
This new ecosystem makes everything much more difficult for Djokovic. In 2022 it was impossible for him to repeat what he did in 2021, due to his own mistakes and the merits of others. In 2023, the trend of renewal will accelerate. And Nadal will still be there, looking for his 23rd, 24th and 25th.
If he could turn back time, Djokovic would have to do things differently for Australia 2022. But he can no longer change that, it’s no longer possible, and so, the story is not what could have been. All indications are that Australia 2022 was the biggest mistake of his career.
Clay’s managing editor has covered more than 60 Grand Slam tournaments since 1996. Author of “Sin Red”, a journey around the world following Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.