ABU DHABI, December 30, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Arguably, the greatest performance – and biggest story – in tennis during 2018 was the return to form of Novak Djokovic. The resurgence of his game and his rise to No. 1 was part of a throwback look at the top of the men’s rankings, which also saw Rafael Nadal, 32, and Roger Federer, 37, share time at No. 1.
What goes around comes around, and as the 2019 season is upon us, that these three-long lasting figures of men’s tennis have maintained a level of excellence and consistency over the past decade is truly remarkable. It’s something which Djokovic hopes to maintain and even build upon.
The 31-year-old Djokovic, who won the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi for the fourth time in his career on Saturday, when he beat Kevin Anderson, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, in the final, starts the new year as the current World No. 1. He’s the top seed in the 32-player draw at the ATP 250 Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha beginning Monday, which includes three other Top 20 players (No. 8 Dominic Thiem, No. 11 Karen Khachanov and No. 20 Marco Cecchinato). It’s a tournament Djokovic has won twice, in 2016 and 2017. His first official opponent of 2019 will be Damir Dzumhur of Bosnia, ranked No. 47. The Qatar hard court tournament will serve as Djokovic’s final tune-up for the Australian Open, the season’s first Grand Slam, which begins in Melbourne in two weeks.
Fantastic 2018 season
Looking back, Djokovic enjoyed a truly remarkable year in 2018, one that turned itself around when, ranked as low as No. 22 in June, he won Wimbledon and the Cincinnati Masters, then continued with titles at the U.S. Open and the Shanghai Masters. He raised his ranking to No. 1 by the end of the season, surpassing Nadal on November 5, following a 22-match winning streak.
After a disappointing, injury-plagued beginning in which he underwent elbow surgery following the Australian Open and lost six of his first 12 matches, Djokovic resurrected his season by capturing his 13th and 14th career Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In the second half of the season, he lost just three times. Only a 6-4, 6-3 loss to Alexander Zverev in the championship of the Nitto ATP Finals at London in November kept the Serbian from becoming a six-time champion at the year-end event. He finished 2018 with a 55-12 win-loss record, which included four titles and more than $12.6 million in prize-money earnings.
After he won Wimbledon, Djokovic said, “I’m very grateful to everyone who has been supporting me. The last couple of years haven’t been easy, facing for the first time a severe injury. I had many moments of doubt and didn’t know if I could come back. But there’s no better place in the world to make a comeback. I always dreamed of holding this trophy as a boy. This is a sacred place for tennis. It’s very special.”
Djokovic’s main goal: To win as many Grand Slams as possible
Fast forward to Saturday, Djokovic was asked after his win in Abu Dhabi if he could catch Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles. He currently owns 14, which is third place behind Federer, and trails second-place Nadal by just three. Djokovic said, “I would lie if I say I didn’t want to get to as high a Grand Slam wins number as possible. That’s definitely the objective, the desire, the goal.
“Those are probably the tournaments where I want to do my best for the rest of my career, however long that’s going to be, and of course trying to also fight for No. 1 with everyone else.”
Djokovic: “The greatest challenge is myself!”
Djokovic admitted that it will be a big challenge to maintain his game at such a high level, such as he exhibited against the World No. 6 Anderson, whom he also defeated in the Wimbledon final last summer. “It’s very demanding, especially as a family man,” he said during his post-match press conference on Saturday. “But I like challenge in life, because from the challenges we grow and we learn. So, I try to embrace whatever is in front of me. I have to accept it, but I’m working for the best.”
When Djokovic was asked what his greatest challenge is, he confessed, “Myself. It’s always been like that. We are the greatest allies and enemies of ourselves. So it just depends which wolf you feed.”