For the first eight months of 2020, Novak Djokovic was perfect on the tennis court, albeit under a reduced amount of match play due to the global pandemic. The 33-year-old Serb won his first 26 matches of the year, and to make the run even more impressive, he only lost nine sets during that stretch.
“I think this has been one of the best starts of all the seasons I had in my career,” Djokovic said after winning the Dubai title early in the year. “I’m just grateful that I’m playing well, feeling well. I’ve won many matches now in a row. I’ll try to keep that run going.”
All in all, Djokovic won his 17th career Grand Slam title, at the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, scooped up three additional titles, and finished the season ranked in the world’s top spot for the sixth time in his career.
Because of these accomplishments, Djokovic was named the ATP’s Player of the Year.
“I will keep striving to be a better player, hopefully have more success and break more records in a sport I love with all my heart.”
Despite the array of accolades, Djokovic’s year was not without blemishes, however. During the summer, with the tours shut down to combat the COVID-19 global pandemic, Djokovic organized a series of exhibition matches called the Adria Tour, with events in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia. There were hardly any safety protocols in place, and as a result a number of positive COVID-19 cases arose and the tour was forced to stop at its second stop.
While Djokovic’s intentions for the tour were in the right place, it was a poor decision that was met with a lot of backlash.
“My intention was pure, I was wholeheartedly committed to organizing a humanitarian event to help players and tennis federations in the [Balkan] region,” he said. “We complied with all the laws and regulations. But we’ve learned our lesson and some things could have probably been done in a different way.”
As the year shifted into the fall and attention turned to the New York bubble, that would house both the Western & Southern and U.S. Opens, Djokovic was slated as the clear favorite for both events. He would drop the first set to Milos Raonic in the finals of the Western & Southern Open, but rallied back to win the match and the title, and afterwards was asked about what wins like this do for his legacy.
“It’s hard for me to talk about, you know, my legacy or my position in sport from that standpoint,” said Djokovic. “Obviously, I am trying to make the most of my career, trying to use this time when I feel that I am physically, mentally, emotionally, game-wise at the peak I think and playing some of the best tennis that I have ever played...I’m just trying to enjoy it and embrace the process. How long that journey is going to last and what kind of legacy I’m going to leave behind, that’s on somebody else to really judge and evaluate.”
Unfortunately, a player’s legacy encompasses more than wins or losses, and we would see that during the ensuing U.S. Open. During his match against Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta, with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line, Djokovic hit a ball in frustration towards the back of the court after he lost a point. While he did not have this intention in mind, Djokovic’s ball hit one the linespersons squarely in the throat and she immediately dropped to the ground.
He was subsequently defaulted from the match, ending his run at the U.S. Open and his undefeated record in the 2020 season.
In a statement afterwards, the USTA said:
“In accordance with the Grand Slam rulebook, following his actions of intentionally hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences, the US Open tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 US Open."
As a result, Djokovic forfeited the ranking points and prize money he had earned at the event up to that point. Later in the day, Djokovic took to social media and released a statement.
“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. I checked on the lines person and the tournament told me that, thank God, she is feeling ok,” he wrote. “I’m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong. I’m not disclosing her name to respect her privacy. As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.”
Djokovic bounced back a couple of weeks later as the tour transitioned from hard courts to clay, and the Serb powered his way to the title in Rome, losing just one set in the process.
“I don’t think I played my best tennis throughout the entire week, but I think I found my best tennis when I needed it the most, in the decisive moments,” he said. “That makes me definitely very satisfied and proud.”
He maintained his high level of play in Paris at the French Open; that was until he ran into the unstoppable force that is Rafael Nadal in the finals. Djokovic was taken apart, suffering the worst loss of his career, winning just seven games as Nadal won his 13th French Open trophy.
After a surprising defeat to Italian Lorenzo Sonega in Vienna, and dropping two matches at the ATP Finals in London, the end of the season was a tough one for Djokovic. Despite that, he still managed to finish the year with four titles and an overall record of 41-5, which sets the stage for 2021. Djokovic has much to play for in the coming season. He has held the top spot in the world rankings for 300 weeks in his career, and will be in pursuit of Roger Federer’s record of 310 weeks as we begin the year. He needs to remain number one until March 9 of the new year to surpass Federer.
In his sights is a ninth Australian Open trophy overall, and his third straight title Down Under. He enters the tournament as the clear-cut favorite, as no player has posted the same level of dominance in Melbourne as Djokovic has.
“This tournament sets a high standard for all the other tournaments around the world and it’s definitely my favorite court, my favorite stadium in the world,” he said last year. “I’m blessed to hold this trophy once again.”
With more records on his horizon and additional motivation following a disappointing end to the 2020 season, we could see an even more dominant Djokovic in 2021.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org