Is Novak Djokovic Set To Return To His Dominant Best In 2023?

Novak Djokovic went undefeated at the ATP Finals.

Novak Djokovic ultimately won the 2022 ATP Finals with such ease, beating Casper Ruud in the final to ensure that he won every match he played and thus won nearly $5 million in prize money (the biggest ever pay-out in tennis history), that it was hard to believe he had not won the tournament for seven years. The fear for his opponents now is that he looks in such good form and physical shape that he might just be around for another seven years.

A Relatively Routine Weekend For Djokovic

After the physical and mental rigours of his last group match against Daniil Medvedev, in which Medvedev served for the match at 5-4 in the third before Djokovic broke him and ultimately won the match on a tie-break, the weekend’s semifinal and final were relatively routine for the Serb. In the semifinal, he defeated Taylor Fritz in straight sets, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6). Both sets may have gone to tie-breaks, but Djokovic remains the king of the tie-break, with his “no mistakes” mantra, and he never looked in danger of losing either one to the American.

The final itself was even more straightforward. Casper Ruud has had a superb 2022, reaching two Major finals and the title-match at the ATP Finals, as well as rising to #2 in the world. However, the suspicion remains that he can beat everybody except the very best. That suspicion is based on his defeats to Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz respectively in the French Open and US Open finals, as well as his relatively meek dismissal by Djokovic in Turin.

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By complete contrast, Djokovic looks as if he is ready to reassert himself, as he has done so often for over a decade, as the absolute best of the best. After an extraordinarily difficult and disrupted 2022, when he was unable to play at two of the four Majors because of his stance against Covid vaccination, which itself followed a 2021 season in which he nearly won the Calendar Slam, Djokovic may just be ready for one final late great phase of his career.

Can Djokovic Win The Calendar Slam In 2023?

In fact, Djokovic looked so good in Turin that it seemed legitimate to wonder whether he can get back to his very best in 2023, which would mean another possible attempt at the Calendar Slam. That of course is the truly historic milestone that has only ever been achieved by two male tennis players in history: America’s Don Budge, in 1938; and Australia’s Rod Laver, twice, in 1962 and 1969. Djokovic came so close in 2021 to becoming the third man to win the Calendar Slam that he may just be motivated to try for it again in 2023.

However, even if the Calendar Slam proves a Major too far (and of course the French Open, Rafael Nadal’s personal stomping ground, remains the biggest challenge), Djokovic still has plenty to look forward to in 2023. Now that he has been cleared to return to Australia, after the country reversed its previous ban on his returning within five years, Djokovic can be confident that he will win a record 10th Australian Open in Melbourne early in 2023.

That would set him up perfectly, as it has done in previous years, for an all-out assault on the other Majors next year. And even if he cannot beat Nadal in Paris, where the Spaniard himself will be aiming for the incredible feat  of winning a 15th French Open, Djokovic, injury permitting, will be the strong favourite to defend his Wimbledon title. If he does win Wimbledon, it would be for a record-equalling eighth time, bringing him level with Roger Federer.

Finally, if Djokovic can do well in the other Majors earlier in the year, he would return to New York at the end of August with at least one historic goal in his sights, if not two. Either he would be aiming to complete the Calendar Slam that he was unable to complete in 2021 or, at the very least, he would be looking to draw level with Nadal in the total number of Majors won, or even go past him.

But There Are Big Threats Ahead

Nevertheless, for all the understandable optimism among his many fans that Djokovic’s ATP Finals triumph has generated, there will be at least two big threats to his chances of winning any Majors next year, let alone all four. And that is without considering the enduring threat posed by Nadal, who is still out in front in the all-time Major race, on 22 Majors to Djokovic’s 21.

The first big threat beyond Nadal is that posed by the new generation of male players who have comprehensively broken through this year. Leading that charge is Carlos Alcaraz, the US Open winner and the youngest ever year-ending world #1 at just 19. Alcaraz achieved so much in 2022 that, assuming he recovers completely from the season-ending injury he suffered at the Paris Masters (which could prove a blessing in disguise if it allows him to prepare properly for the Australian Open), he will be just as capable as Djokovic of competing seriously for all four Majors, notwithstanding the fact that he has yet to prove himself on grass.

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However, while it had been thought that Alcaraz was unique in his ability to marry youthful exuberance with extraordinary composure, there may just be another young gun with an old head who can threaten Djokovic, even at the Majors. Most tennis fans had assumed that that would be Italy’s Jannik Sinner. However, while Sinner’s career has stalled just a little this year (certainly in comparison with that of Alcaraz), Denmark’s Holger Rune did enough in winning the Paris Masters to suggest that he, not Sinner, will be Alcaraz’s main rival in the years ahead. Certainly, Rune’s achievement in the last Masters event of the year was historic, as he became the first man ever to beat five top 10 players, Djokovic included, en route to winning a tournament.

Beyond Alcaraz, Rune and even Sinner, there is a veritable youthquake of new talent emerging on the ATP Tour, including Lorenzo Musetti, Emile Ruusuvuori, Sebastian Korda and many more. Although individually these players may not yet be ready to stop Djokovic at a Major, which of course would necessitate winning three sets against him and not just two, cumulatively they might just pose the kind of collective threat that would really challenge him, just as The Big Three collectively posed such a threat to any other opponent during their heyday.

But Djokovic’s Biggest Opponent Is…

Despite the outstanding claims of Alcaraz and Rune, the biggest threat to Djokovic’s future ambitions is not the youthful talent he will face but Father Time. Djokovic is obviously an extraordinary athlete, whose famous resilience is never better demonstrated than by his ability to compete at the top year after year. However, at the ATP Finals this week, there were perhaps the first signs that age is finally catching up with him, just as it does with everyone else.

First, against Medvedev in the last group match, Djokovic seemed genuinely physically distressed, as he gasped for air in a way that no-one could ever remember seeing before. Then, in the final against Ruud, even though he was not as physically challenged as he had been against Medvedev, there were times at the end of the first set when he again seemed to be struggling to breathe, particularly after long rallies.

Just because Roger Federer played until he was 40, there is no guarantee that his greatest rivals, Djokovic and Nadal, will be able to do the same. Nadal, who has always had to contend with far more physical ailments than either Federer or Djokovic, has often looked as if he is on the point of retiring from a match, if not from tennis altogether, and that impression has only been strengthened by his poor end to the season, in which he lost four matches in a row. And even Djokovic, the legendary “Rubber Man” who has seemed capable of bouncing back from anything, will ultimately be incapable of recovering from any future injury with the same speed and completeness he has shown in the past.

So, as the 2022 season comes to an end (bar the Davis Cup), it is time to look ahead to 2023 with enormous relish. If Djokovic and perhaps even Nadal too can withstand the rigours of ageing for at least another year, their biggest opponents (apart from the ageing process itself) are likely to be Alcaraz and Rune, who are more than a decade and a half younger than them. That promises to be a battle of the ages for the ages.

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