Novak Djokovic is at a crossroads. The world’s most successful tennis player of the last half decade says he’s in the process of redefining what success means to him.
Since 2011, Djokovic has consistently maintained that he didn’t want to put any limits on what he believed he could achieve. During that time he has mostly lived up to his own sky-high expectations. He has spent 219 weeks at No.1, won 12 major titles, and at the French Open this year, he became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once. That’s more success than even a young Djokovic could have reasonably expected from himself by age 29.
After spending a decade chasing the achievements of Federer and Nadal, the Serb found himself alone at the top. And that may have been the problem. After Paris, Djokovic had only history to play against. Was he the greatest of all time? Could he reach Federer’s record 17 Grand Slam titles and ,match his 302 weeks at No.1? Could he do the seemingly impossible and win a calendar-year Slam? Could he even equal Steffi Graf's historic Golden Slam, with the potential for Olympic triumph in the offing?
These were the questions that surrounded Djokovic as he came to Wimbledon. Now they’re the questions he doesn’t want to have to think about.
Maybe this will be a temporary phase, a breather after achieving a long-awaited goal. Maybe a few disappointing results will re-motivate him. Maybe, if Murray manages to take his top ranking away, he’ll care about being No.1 again. But Djokovic is 29, and while the sport has grown older, that age remains a rubicon for the top men. Federer has won just one major title since turning 29; Nadal has won none.When each was riding high in his late 20s, there was little sense that a decline was waiting around the corner. Laver’s drop-off was even more precipitous; after winning the calendar-year Slam at 31, he wouldn’t win another major.
All of which makes the next chapter of Djokovic’s career more intriguing. Can he find a new way to enjoy the game and compete successfully? Can he remain No.1, and still be hungry for more? Could a more relaxed or holistic approach to his career help him stay fresher, mentally and physically, into his 30s? The history of top tennis players tells us that just when we think one of them might go on dominating the game forever, we need to think again.
Maybe this time, Djokovic was one step ahead of us.