An Unplayed Australian Open Is a Turning Point for Novak Djokovic

Energy is one of Djokovic’s hallmarks. Spend time with him one on one and his life force and restless curiosity come through, but he has expended a great deal of effort in recent years on causes beyond winning tennis matches: taking on the status quo on the men’s tour and creating a new player group to promote — so far unsuccessfully — change and more decision-making power for players at all levels of the rankings. He has helped start a new tournament in Belgrade, done charitable work in Serbia and the Balkan region and has cooperated with a behind-the-scenes documentary that is expected be released in 2022.

It should have no dearth of content: no shortage of major triumphs and brutal setbacks. At what point does it all dull his edge? The answer could be right about now.

Even in his remarkable 2021 season, there were hints of new vulnerability on court. He played less, a nod to his age and need to focus energy on the biggest tournaments. But he faltered in some regular tour events and fell short at the Olympics, failing to win a medal and losing to Alexander Zverev in the semifinals in singles.

“One of the interesting things about last year was that he was more vulnerable week in and week out,” said Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst and former U.S. Davis Cup captain. “He’s obviously learned to prepare himself and peak for the majors as well as anyone, but he would normally be almost as tough to beat in the other tournaments, and that seemed to change. It’s funny: Even though he won three majors, you felt like he was kind of hanging on a bit by a thread as far as dominating.”

Medvedev and Zverev both beat him in matches that truly mattered in 2021, although only Medvedev was able to beat him in a best-of-five-set match that mattered. Unless Nadal can recapture the magic after a long layoff and generate consistent depth with his groundstrokes, the second-seeded Medvedev and third-seeded Zverev are the favorites in Djokovic’s absence in Melbourne.

Djokovic, if he plays like Djokovic, is poised to remain a step ahead on clay and grass, where neither Medvedev nor Zverev has yet found his footing at Wimbledon. But the intangibles will be decisive.

Djokovic’s emotional loss to Medvedev in New York last year seemed to mark a shift in public opinion: a deeper connection and appreciation for his enduring excellence as he failed to complete his quest. But after Melbourne, the notion that he might, in the autumnal phase of his career, match the global popularity of Federer and Nadal seems far-fetched. Djokovic, a wizard at returning serve and shooting himself in the sneaker, has long been polarizing and, it seems, will remain so.

Jinggo B Danuarta

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