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Friday April 19, 2024

No writing off Djokovic yet even as young guns gain ground

By REUTERS
February 22, 2024

BENGALURU: For any other player but Novak Djokovic, a below-par Australian Open at the age of 36 would have had pundits brushing up his tennis obituary. Djokovic, of course, is no ordinary player.

Novak Djokovic reacts while playing against Jannik Sinner during the Australian Open semi-final. — AFP/File
Novak Djokovic reacts while playing against Jannik Sinner during the Australian Open semi-final. — AFP/File

Yes, the Serbian fell short of winning a 25th major at Melbourne Park last month but those same pundits have learned the hard way over the last 15 years that you write off Djokovic at your peril.

Single-handedly flying the flag for the “Big Three” last year following Roger Federer’s retirement and in Rafa Nadal’s prolonged absence, Djokovic played through injury to win the Australian, French and U.S Open titles.

A loss to Carlos Alcaraz at Wimbledon and a third defeat in his last four meetings with Jannik Sinner in Melbourne last month were cracks in his aura of invincibility but Djokovic was quick to shut down talk of terminal decline.

“I still have high hopes for the Grand Slams, the Olympics and whatever tournaments I’ll play,” Djokovic said after his first loss at Melbourne Park for six years.

“It’s not the feeling I’m used to. It has been incredibly satisfying to start most of my seasons with a Grand Slam win and I’ve never lost in semis or final of the Australian Open. “So this time it’s a bit different, but it is what it is. This tournament hasn’t been up to my standard or criteria or the level I’d normally play or expect myself to play, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the beginning of the end.”

Djokovic is scheduled to return in the Masters tournament at Indian Wells next month where he will again be in the crosshairs of early twentysomethings like Alcaraz, Sinner and Holger Rune.

Although talk of a power shift may be premature, former player and sports psychology consultant Jeff Greenwald said fans were witnessing the rise of a new generation. “Part of the magic needed at the highest level of the game, in any sport, and perhaps even more in an individual sport like tennis, is the invincibility factor, enjoyed by all the greats at one point in their careers,” Greenwald told Reuters.

“But as the new generation gathers confidence and experience this illusive gap narrows. “Alcaraz, Sinner and Rune have already proven they can beat the King of Grand Slams, while Father Time continues to descend and increasingly become an obvious liability.”

Djokovic showed at last year’s ATP Finals that he is far from being a spent force as he outclassed the young guns en route to the title but Greenwald believes he may need to dig deeper to beat them in the future.

“But if motivation is the quality to hold the next gen off a little longer, he’ll be able to find it to win a few more Grand Slams,” Greenwald, the author of “The Best Tennis of Your Life”, added. “In fact, it may be the final ‘chip’ he needs to rise to the occasion. But the window of time needed to add to his all-time best record is definitely narrowing fast.”

Florida-based Patrick Cohn, who teaches psychological techniques to athletes, believes Djokovic’s powers are not fading. “I don’t see it as a decline in Djokovic’s game but rather Sinner and Alcaraz are raising the level of theirs,” said Cohn, who has worked with top tennis and NFL players, NASCAR drivers as well as golfers on the PGA Tour.

“They know they can compete with anyone on tour ... I think Djokovic will use this (Australian Open defeat) as fuel to try and improve his game and not as a confidence buster.” Djokovic remains world number one but twice major champion Alcaraz is hot on his heels and Sinner rose to a career-high third after backing up his Australian Open triumph with success in Rotterdam.

Other talented players, including Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, have shown similar threats in the past but have largely struggled in their attempts to see off the most successful triumvirate in men’s tennis.

Greenwald, though, believes Sinner and Alcaraz represent a new breed of young talent, with power, adaptability and, most critically, a distinct lack of fear when facing Djokovic. “These players seem to have absorbed a variety of strengths of the ‘Big Three’ and are clearly showing us that not even the all-time great will intimidate them,” he added. “They now believe they can win and this mindset will be Djokovic’s greatest threat in the next one or two years.”