Amid all the fun and frolic during Novak Djokovic’s Instagram Live chat with Andy Murray last week, the world number one Serb slipped in a sombre detail. He spoke of just how difficult his return to top form had been after a half-year absence from competitive tennis. This was in early 2018 and the struggles really began after he was fully fit.
“When I returned from injury, I felt I was very confident in myself (physically). I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m going to practice for whatever weeks, I’m going to be okay’. But once I stepped on the court, it took me probably about four-five months to really start playing as I wanted to play,” said Djokovic. The point Djokovic made was both poignant and pertinent, as he—and every other professional tennis player around the world today—is currently clueless about when he will get to return to the tennis court, following what has now become an indefinite absence from the game.
In other words, that self-assessment goes to show that although every player will be returning to tennis after exactly the same amount of unscheduled downtime, not every player will find their rhythm at the same speed. And for Team Novak, the current break couldn’t have come at a worse time as he was in the middle of his career’s third hot streak, after 2011 and 2015.
To make matters worse for Djokovic, both his big rivals in Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer were far from their best this year—the former with a dip in form since winning the US Open last year and the latter due to a knee injury. And it is widely known that both Nadal and Federer find their optimum levels faster than Djokovic, a fact they proved at the Australian Open in January 2017 by making the final—this after both had spent the previous December recuperating from serious injuries.
Before professional tennis was suspended in March this year, Djokovic had a neat 18-0 win-loss match record in 2020, which included his eighth Australian Open title to stretch his Grand Slam count to 17 and a trophy in Dubai. In both those finals, he defeated the cream of the youngest generation, Austria’s Dominic Thiem and Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, respectively.
This break also comes at a time when Nadal perhaps would’ve tied Federer on 20 Grand Slams in Paris—given that the Spaniard has won the last three French Opens and 12 out of the last 15. Still, this break will affect Djokovic’s rhythm more than it will Nadal’s.
The postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021 wouldn’t make Djokovic happy either, for in 2020 he looked primed to live out his dream of finally winning a gold medal for his country. He won a bronze back in Beijing and didn’t medal either in London or Rio. “If I had a ‘chance’ to turn back the time and change past outcomes it would be Rio Olympics (where Djokovic lost in the first round to Juan Martin Del Potro) and against you in London (where he lost in the semis),” said Djokovic when Murray asked what he would like to change about a near-perfect career. A gold will make him only the third man after Andre Agassi and Nadal to complete the Golden Slam.