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September 22, 2019

Better safe than sorry


September 22, 2019

Over this weekend, the eyes of the tennis world would be on the Laver Cup, which over the past couple of seasons has garnered growing popularity. Fresh from his US Open win, Rafael Nadal will join Roger Federer in spearheading the bid for Team Europe to complete a hat-trick of Laver Cup wins, with the underdog Team World looking to spark an upset.

Meanwhile, Europe’s No 1, and indeed World No 1, Novak Djokovic who helped his team win the Laver Cup in 2018, will not only miss out on the event this year, he might have to stay out of the game a few weeks longer.

The Serb, who had to retire from his US Open Round of 16 clash after going two sets to love down against StanislasWawrinka, has been carrying a shoulder injury since the Cincinnati Masters in August. While Djokovic is scheduled to return for the Japan Open slated to begin on September 30, in a recent press conference he conceded that his injury is of a ‘more serious nature’, which might mean postponing the return.

Under regular circumstances it would’ve been a no-brainer for Djokovic to delay his comeback till he’s absolutely 100% fit. In fact, it would’ve been advisable for the Serb to even consider wrapping up his season and focus on being healthy for 2020.

Now 32, Djokovic can ill-afford any moves that might prevent him from playing at the top of the men’s game for as long as possible. And of course it was the shoulder injury that sidelined him for the second half of the 2017 season, after which it took another six months for him to find his best form by Wimbledon 2018 – which was his first major title in over two years at the time.

Having already won all the silverware on offer during this part of the season, the only reason Djokovic would consider making an early comeback is to retain the No 1 ranking, which he is currently clinging on to with Nadal closing in. Finishing 2019 at the top would give Djokovic his sixth year-end number one ranking, putting him joint top on the list with Pete Sampras.

Djokovic has kept no secrets about his ambitions to own the biggest accolades in tennis. His ultimate goal, as he’s confessed himself, is to catch Federer’s record haul of 20 Grand Slam titles and finish with the most majors. In that regard, topping the list of year-end finishes would be high on the Serb’s priority list as well.

But while there’s still more than a fair chance that he might be able to ward off Nadal’s challenge in the battle for No 1 – especially since this is the part of the season that the World No 2 has had the least success in, and also the fact that he is participating in a limited number of events next month – the fact remains that the Spaniard has almost no points to defend from here till the season finale.

What that means is that Djokovic would need an almost perfect finish to the season, while hoping that Nadal struggles to go deep in the ATP Masters 1000 events in Shanghai and Paris, along with the World Tour Finals as well.

The opportunity cost for putting in all that effort to retain the No 1 ranking could be an aggravation of the shoulder injury, that could result in an even longer layoff than Djokovic might need right now. And if topping the Grand Slam count is his ultimate goal, the Serb needs to make sure he is in prime condition for the majors.

Many, including this space, have peddled Djokovic’s chances to finish top of the pile in terms of majors when all is said and done among the Big Three. A lot of that has been owing to the fact that he won four of the five majors between Wimbledon 2018 and 2019.

However, what we also need to factor in is the age. The resurfacing of the shoulder injury is a reminder that the physical restraints will only become bigger for each of the Big Three as the ATP tour enters the next decade.

For instance, Nadal’s US Open win this month was his fifth Grand Slam title since turning 30 – the most that anyone has ever won in the fourth decade of their life on the ATP tour. Djokovic currently has four majors on the other side of 30, and assuming that 20 remains the Grand Slam target, the Serb would need to finish with at least nine majors in his 30s to finish top on the list – almost the same as he won in his 20s.

Daniil Medvedev’s inspired comeback in the US Open final suggests that the Next Gen might finally be ready to vie for majors 2020 onwards. That, coupled with the physical challenges as they grow older, would mean that despite the fact that the Big Three have won all of the previous 12 majors between them, the trio will only find it more difficult to dominate Grand Slam events as they’ve done recently.

Therefore, Djokovic should reconsider an early comeback and schedule his return so as to peak at the Australian Open – a tournament that he has dominated like no other. With the Olympics scheduled for next year as well, the chance to win the Singles Gold – which has eluded both Djokovic and Federer thus far – means that 2020 could be the decisive year for the Big Three’s individual ambitions, and for the Next Gen to finally arrive.