September 29, 2016
It’s a little bit worrying, isn’t it?
Novak Djokovic was knocked out relatively early at Wimbledon, left the Rio Olympics in tears, got blasted off court by Stan Wawrinka in the US Open final…and hasn’t played since.
Now he requires further rest and rehabilitation to get his body right for further tennis combat.
‘I’m extremely disappointed not to be able to compete at the China Open this year,’ he said recently. ‘I’m still recovering from my elbow injury and have been advised not to play until my condition improves.
‘I will continue with my rehabilitation and hope to be able to return to the ATP Tour as soon as possible.’
Of course, no one is saying this is the end for Novak Djokovic. No one is even saying that he will never hit the giddy heights he scaled before, or struggle to do so in the manner of Rafael Nadal.
It is inconceivable that Djokovic won’t return to the top and win more Grand Slams. He already has twelve. To beat Roger Federer’s 17 Grand Slam singles titles is still within his capability.
And yet, and yet…Will we ever see quite such a prolonged dominance of world tennis by Djokovic, of the type that terrorised opponents during 2014-2015 and culminated in his wonderful Career Slam in Paris earlier this year?
That has to be more doubtful. Novak turns 30 next May. And his body, quite understandably, is starting to complain about what it has to go through during a long and punishing season.
Not so long ago it was almost regarded as a foregone conclusion that Novak would eclipse Federer’s total, since the Serb was expected to pick up three Slams a year for a couple more years.
And even if he didn’t, then “just” two Slams a year would take him past The Fed before age really started catching up with Novak too.
But now we can take nothing for granted. Novak’s long-term bid to match or surpass Roger will make for a fascinating watch, since the the story will very likely remain on a knife-edge until its climax.
The bodies of these tennis superstars are only human. Nadal, full of bludgeoning beauty, was unstoppable at times in his prime.
These days he is stopped one way or another before a Grand Slam fortnight is done, despite flashes of that former mastery.
Some of us laughed when Andy Murray said at the start of the year that we would have to ‘wait for Novak’s level to drop.’
It sounded like an admission of defeat, that Murray couldn’t beat Djokovic in a really big match unless something started to go wrong with Novak. And why was anything ever going to go wrong with Novak?
The man was like a machine and his pre-match stretches showed an elasticity that seemed to preclude any serious chance of future injury. He had all bases covered.
But the constant punishment to the arms and wrists has eventually begun to tell. Even the most lithe and professional of sportsmen can come unstuck. And Novak has, temporarily at least.
We wish him well and we look forward to his speedy return to perfect health, so that we can marvel at his magic as we did before.
Have we seen the best of Djokovic? No. At least we haven’t seen the last of his best. The great man will taste glory once more.
Will he ever command such fear, or achieve such total domination of men’s tennis again, in the manner he achieved in recent years? Maybe not.