Novak Djokovic comes into the Paris Masters as if he’s slipping into the house after curfew, while Andy Murray has become the ATP's favorite son. Fortunes change like autumn leaves, and bandwagons are filling up behind the streaking Scotsman.
Meanwhile, Djokovic, with the most dominant reign since Kublai Khan, has watched his empire shrink with Murray’s summer conquest that has come to a standoff at Paris. Will this be the Serb’s Waterloo, or will it be the road back to dominance?
"I feel good right now," Djokovic said, per ATP World Tour. "The last couple of months were not easy. Mentally I’ve had to redefine my goals and things that are happening on and off the court and just make sure that I'm in a good place and that I can perform as well as I expect from myself. Everything is clearer, and I’m going in the right direction. I'm just focused right now on Paris.”
Why shouldn’t Djokovic feel confident? Despite a summer swoon, injuries, mental exhaustion and other personal battles, he’s still the king and perhaps the greatest, most well-rounded player who has ever lived. If anyone can turn on the championship switch, it’s the mighty Djokovic, who has proved himself a winner through nearly every conceivable triumph and setback over the past decade.
Five months ago, Djokovic reached his career peak in becoming the first male player to hold the Grand Slam on four different surfaces. (Note: Wimbledon grass and French Open clay are still traditional venues, but the U.S. Open’s faster hard courts and the Australian Open’s Plexicushion—slower hard courts—certainly qualify as separate and distinct playing fields.) King Novak is back in Paris, and perhaps he has come full circle to launch another epic streak.
Silver Lining Around the Slump
After holding up the Musketeers' Cup at Roland Garros in early June, Djokovic’s No. 1-ranking points (16,950) were nearly double that of Murray’s (8,915). Most of the legacy discussions evaluated how soon Djokovic could win six more major titles and surpass Roger Federer’s record of 17. Murray was an afterthought.
But Djokovic was upset at Wimbledon and the Olympics. He slowed down as injuries, lesser form and demotivation all factored in a slump that was so un-Djokovesque.
"Winning the French Open this year has brought a lot of joy to me but on the other hand has taken away a lot from me, as well," Djokovic admitted to Sky Sports. "I felt a little bit exhausted, I must say, and maybe less motivated."
Tennis fans should also take a step back and breathe. It’s not like Djokovic fell off the face of the Earth. He still netted the Rogers Cup and a runner-up at the U.S. Open. That’s a better summer result than anyone on the ATP World Tour not named Murray or Stan Wawrinka.
For 2016, Djokovic is 59-7 with seven titles, including the Australian and French Opens and four Masters 1000 crowns.
For 2016, Murray is 69-9 with seven titles, but only one major—Wimbledon. He has two Masters 1000 crowns and the Olympic gold medal in singles. Even if he adds Paris and the World Tour Finals, it could be argued Djokovic has still accumulated the better resume in 2016, however the year-end rankings battle turns out.
Djokovic has also been the No. 1 player since July 7, 2014, a streak of 122 consecutive weeks, and a fighting chance to topple 300 weeks sometime in 2018.
So here is Djokovic clinging to a 415-point lead in the rankings—a margin that requires at least a final’s appearance at Paris this weekend if he is to hold onto No. 1 before marching to London’s World Tour Finals.
The Talented and Relentless Djokovic
For years, some of the subtle and not-so-kind criticisms toward Djokovic have portrayed him as a robotic champion. He strikes tennis balls with "machine-like precision," "mechanical efficiency" and "boring, risk-free tennis."
Nevermind that Djokovic has become the most complete champion of the modern era with an unparalleled return game and offensive attack on both wings. He has fewer fatal weaknesses than rival legends Federer and Nadal, and the expectations are he wins or he fails. He has no luxury to be dubbed an underdog, and there is rarely an opportunity to rise up and impress the tennis-fandom establishment.
Along comes Murray who has been picking off titles like they were apples hanging from the lower branches. It’s no wonder he is the new trendy (hopeful) pick for many tennis followers who have been clamoring for a fruitful rivalry.
While Murray has earned his stripes, some are missing that point about Djokovic, that he is after all a human champion with a big heart, engaging personality and prone to the mortalities of injuries and losses like anyone else.
He bravely congratulated Wawrinka’s U.S. Open title rather than make excuses about a sore wrist, shoulder and other difficulties.
He took time off from most of the Far East tour to heal and rediscover his priority to enjoy his tennis success.
He insisted he would step back from his obsession to win championships, telling Agence France-Presse (via the Hindustan Times), "I don’t think about any trophies or number ones in the world, rankings, anything like that. It’s completely different."
Perhaps Djokovic was still soul-searching, and skeptics were not buying that mindset before he melted down with tempestuous behavior in his last match—a semifinal loss to Roberto Bautista Agut at Shanghai.
It’s never easy to win, even for the biggest champion in tennis, so there are understandably armchair doubters who question if he can wake up from his cryogenic condition with the immediate charge to beat back alien invaders and save Planet Earth.
Is Djokovic ready for the battle?
The Case for King Novak
While Murray has continued his fierce drive to the top, winning 42 of 45 matches (including Davis Cup) after the French Open, Djokovic has needed the time to decompress—mentally and physically. But maybe this malaise of playing only 20 matches (losing four times) and recovering is absolutely necessary for another surge.
This could be the echo that will tear through Paris and London. This could be the renaissance when he roars into 2017 with another reign something along the lines of 2015.
Djokovic is certainly more grounded with his back-to-basics optimism to compete, judging from his comments, per ATP World Tour:
It gives me a lot of great emotions and butterflies in the stomach when I think of the last time I was in Paris and what has happened. I'm hoping that I can finish the season as well as I did the last couple of years.
It's exciting to get on the court and battle for every point, because there is always something on the line.
But at the end of the day, it's the quality that I put on the court that counts for me….I know what to do, and I’ll just try to be on the level that I want to be on.
Djokovic has earned his all-time legacy as one of the great kings of tennis history, but history shows that he has been through this war before. He has a brick in one hand and a sword in the other, always rebuilding his game and fighting off new challenges:
In 2012-13, Djokovic dipped, while Federer, Murray and Nadal knocked him back from his epic 2011 run that culminated with the 2012 Australian Open title. He knocked off Nadal from No. 1 in 2014, fought off Federer through 2015 and is fully aware of Murray’s hot tennis in late 2016.
"I had to kind of rediscover that feeling of being on the court and keep pushing myself," he told Sky Sports. "I guess it took a little bit of time, more time, and I'm in a better state of mind at the moment than I was some months ago."
For those lining up to proclaim Murray as the new No. 1, give it at least a few more days. Djokovic might not be ready to take off his crown. Rather, he might be ready to carve out another mini dynasty.