Days before the ATP Finals began in Turin last week, each of the contenders were asked by the tour’s social media staff to give a bold prediction for the week ahead. Most of the players talked about the prospect of close matches, more video reviews and high ace counts.
And then there was Novak Djokovic: “If I don’t want to be humble and [to] be honest, I’m winning the tournament,” he said, a smile spreading across his face. “If I want to be humble, I’m also winning the tournament.”
Then he won the tournament.
In recent years, Djokovic has complemented his late-career success by pronouncing his goals and expectations more explicitly than ever. He is not simply here to take things one point at a time and to see how things fall, after all. He is here to win and he knows that each time he steps on the court, he is a better player than his opponent. Once again, he fully backed up his words.
This season has not only seen Djokovic piece together one of his best campaigns at the age of 36, but it is also one of the most historically significant seasons in general. At the Australian Open, Djokovic equalled Rafael Nadal’s men’s grand slam record of 22 majors and extended his own record in Melbourne to 10 titles. He has since passed Nadal with major titles 23 and 24. Djokovic has also extended countless outlandish records: 40 Masters 1000 titles, 400 weeks at No 1, eight different years as the year-ending No 1 and he has now won every major three times. In the coming season, many age records may begin to fall to him as well.
Of all his triumphs, perhaps the most revealing moment of the Serbian player’s season came in defeat. Djokovic’s brutal, instant classic Wimbledon final with Carlos Alcaraz was a rare example of him visibly succumbing to the pressure and being completely outplayed in the most tense moments. Such losses can leave a significant mark on the psyche of older players as they are all too aware that they do not have many opportunities left.
After such a difficult defeat, though, Djokovic seemed content. He had the unwavering self-belief to immediately understand that he had won so many of those tight matches over the years, so one loss should not weigh too heavily on him. There would be more to come.
As Djokovic now celebrates, Alcaraz will undoubtedly be reflecting on how a tight race for the No 1 ranking became a procession. Still, despite a difficult final few months as the 20-year-old struggled with the mentally and physically gruelling season, this remains an incredible season for Alcaraz. After his breakthrough last year, the Spaniard was clearly struggling with his body as he missed the ATP Finals in 2022 and the Australian Open. A sophomore slump was a realistic prospect.
It was impressive enough that he immediately found his feet after the layoff and instantly began to rack up titles, and even more so to see how he learned from the few setbacks he endured.
One month Alcaraz was suffering full body cramps due to the tension of facing Djokovic at Roland Garros and then nearly losing to Arthur Rinderknech at Queen’s on grass, a surface that he could barely move on. The next month, Alcaraz pulled off an unbelievable triumph in the Wimbledon final.
The resurgence of Daniil Medvedev was another bright spark, with the former No 1 brilliantly re-establishing himself around the top of the sport after a difficult 2022 in the wake of his own breakout season in 2021. Aside from Medvedev, though, the continued dominance from Djokovic should lead to ample soul searching for much of the so-called “Next Gen” group at a time when the gap between him and his challengers only seems to be growing and, after so many defeats to him, their resistance has only weakened.
After starting the season with a run to the Australian Open final, this has been a season of stagnation for Stefanos Tsitsipas, whose year ended on a grim note as he retired with an injury in Turin. Certain weaknesses in his game, such as his return of serve, his driven backhand and his slice, are now frequently exploited by opponents.
While Alexander Zverev has recovered decently after last year’s achilles injury, his presence currently underlines a different issue in the sport. The ATP, the grand slams and the sport’s major governing body have failed to even publicly recognise the significant fact that one of the top players was issued with a penalty order for alleged domestic violence and he likely faces a public trial in Germany after contesting the order. Zverev proclaims his innocence and continues to deny all the allegations against him.
Andrey Rublev, meanwhile, made big enough strides to finally win his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, yet he still ended the year allowing his anger to get the better of him as he repeatedly smashed his knee with his racket, drawing blood, in disturbing scenes at the ATP Finals. Félix Auger-Aliassime failed to win consecutive matches for seven months between March and October. As the gap between Djokovic and the rest of the field continues to grow, next year younger players like Jannik Sinner and Holger Rune may well leapfrog their elders as they look to provide Djokovic with a true challenge.