This story appears in the November/December 2018 issue of New York Tennis Magazine.
The second half of the 2018 season on the ATP World Tour has belonged to Novak Djokovic, and it was cemented with his title run at the U.S. Open where he defeated Juan Martin del Potro in routine 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-4 fashion.
The win finished off a run of 16 consecutive straight sets in Queens for Djokovic, and earned him the 14th Grand Slam title of his career, equaling his idol Pete Sampras for third on the all-time men’s list.
“Pete Sampras is one of the biggest legends ever to play the game. He was my childhood idol. He was someone I was looking up to,” said Djokovic. “The first actual thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was his first or second Wimbledon Championship. That inspired me to start playing tennis. There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder-to-shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with him.”
The U.S. Open title also brought him within six Grand Slams of Roger Federer, and three Grand Slams from Rafael Nadal, bridging a gap that, only months prior, felt like a near impossibility for the Serbian.
Earlier this year, Novak Djokovic was suffering through one of the toughest periods of his tennis career.
After failing to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals for the first time in 11 years, Djokovic underwent elbow surgery and was forced out of action. In that period of time, he was left to ponder his professional life, and even had some serious doubts about if he wanted to continue playing.
“This year, in the first months after surgery, I went through emotions and thoughts that were not the brightest,” he admitted. “I also said that I would no longer play tennis … people were shocked. At those moments I was not sure what I was talking about. The worst is when there’s a doubt about the belief that I can do it. I am not ashamed of such moments. One part of me knew that there would be a moment to make a success, for a Grand Slam, and to be number one in the world.”
The 31-year-old had been dealing with the elbow injury for all of the prior year, and it forced to him to miss the entire second half of the 2017 season. Already on the heels of missing a chunk of time, and stuck with the outlook of missing more time to recover from surgery, Djokovic was understandably hesitant about his future.
When Djokovic resumed playing tennis in early March, his return to the top form did not happen immediately. He lost to Taro Daniel in the opening round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and then traveled east to Florida only to lose to Benoit Paire in the opening round of the Miami Open. In his return to the Tour following his elbow surgery, Djokovic lost five of his first eight matches as things seemed to be getting worse before they got better.
He played his best tournament of the year up to that point when he powered into the Rome semifinals before falling to Rafael Nadal, setting him up for a promising run at the French Open. And while he won four rounds in Paris, he lost to little-known Italian Mario Cecchinato in the quarterfinals in a shocking defeat, suffering an injury to his shoulder and once again feeling doubt in his game.
“I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I cannot give you any answer,” said Djokovic. “I’m just not thinking about tennis at the moment.”
And he did just that. He spent some time soul-searching and went on a five-day long hike with his wife, Jelena, in the French Alps. The time away from tennis and with his family helped ground Djokovic, he says, and provided him with a fresh perspective on his life and career.
“I remember one moment particularity when we climbed that mountain. It was pretty high. We reached the top after three hours,” said Djokovic after winning the U.S. Open. “We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective, just kind of breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation. I thought of tennis … thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me in a way. It was all positive. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport.”
With that newfound perspective and a different outlook on his play, Djokovic reached the finals of the Fever-Tree Championships in London and was poised to make his presence felt on the grass courts of the All-England Club at the Wimbledon Championships.
At Wimbledon, Djokovic knocked off top players such as Karen Khachanov, Kei Nishikori and Rafael Nadal, before taking out Kevin Anderson in straight sets in the finals. It was his first Grand Slam title since hoisting the French Open trophy in 2016.
“I understand that people are questioning whether I can consistently play on this level. Trust me, I am too,” said Djokovic after winning Wimbledon, being half-sarcastic. “At the same time, I can’t look too far down the road because I have to embrace and cherish this kind of accomplishment.”
He would not have to look too far down the road to find his next success. After suffering a tough loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Toronto, he powered through the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. At one point, he won four straight three-set matches, coming from a set down in three of them, before ousting Roger Federer in the finals.
His momentum was rolling heading into the U.S. Open, and it only continued from there.
“Ever since then, tennis was completely different for me,” he said referring to the now infamous hike into the French Alps. “In terms of results, I played in the finals of Queens, won Wimbledon, won Cincinnati, and won the U.S. Open. I guess we’ll be hiking some more very soon.”
There were times when many people, including the man himself, were doubting if Djokovic would ever return to the form that saw him dominate the sport just a couple of years prior. Into his 30s and dealing with injuries, nothing was guaranteed. But like all great champions, the Serbian got up off the mat and continued working. A renewed mental strength and outlook on both his play and his life have driven him into this new chapter of his career, and it will be interesting to see if Djokovic can add to his Grand Slam total in 2019.
“I think you’re seeing the new Novak,” Djokovic said recently at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. “I don’t need to describe him. That’s all I can say. I had to reinvent myself and find the proper formula for success. I found it and I’m just trying to hold onto it for as long as I can.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org