Editor’s note: This article was originally published after Novak Djokovic’s win at the Shanghai Masters in October. He claimed the ATP world No 1 on 5 November, assured of the spot after Rafael Nadal withdrew from the Paris Masters. Djokovic was the runner-up in Bercy after going down 7-5, 6-4 to unseeded Russian Karen Khachanov.
After the first two Grand Slams of the year, the “Fedal” era continued, as it had been in 2017 with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal sharing a Major apiece, as they alternated the world No 1 spot between them. Meanwhile, Hyeon Chung made the Australian Open semi-finals, Dominic Thiem reached French Open finals, and Alexander Zverev won his third Masters title, the only non-Big Four player to have three titles at the 1000 event.
But after the last two Grand Slams of the year, the most dominant duopoly in men’s tennis was broken, or rather shattered, by the same man who had done back in 2011 as a 24-year-old. Novak Djokovic, the unstoppable, clinical, machine-like precise and Duracell bunny-like energetic player we have seen for most part of this decade was back, he was hungry and was snapping at the heels of the two top-ranked players.
In a matter of four months, he has won two Grand Slams and two Masters 1000 titles. With his Shanghai Masters title, he has overtaken Federer as world No 2 and needs only 215 points to become world No 1 again.
In June, his win-loss record in 2018 was a shoddy 18-9. Since then, he is 27-1 with the only loss coming to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Roger Cup in August. (Unless one counts the Laver Cup, but why would one when talking about the only man who has won a Career Masters?)
And while we are talking numbers, here’s just a few of the records in his extraordinary return to the top of men’s tennis.
- His 18-match winning streak is longest of the season by any male player. Federer and Nadal both had 17-match winning streaks during the year.
- This was his fourth Shanghai Rolex Masters title, the most by any player.
- He is 20-6 at Masters 1000 tournaments this year, second only to Zverev’s 22-7 for most number of match wins. This is especially important considering he lost in the first round at both Indian Wells and Miami to much lower ranked players Taro Daniel and Benoit Paire, after returning from a small surgery troublesome elbow that had forced him to remodel his serve and compromise on power.
But here’s the most telling statistic... the number that tells why 2018 is the year of Novak Djokovic:
Djokovic was ranked 22nd in the world in May with 1,665 points. Now he is the world No 2, has 7,445 points and a very realistic chance of ending the year as world No 1, for the fifth time after 2011-12 and 2014-15. He is just 35 points behind Nadal in the year-end race, and has nothing to defend over the last three weeks after finishing his season early in 2017 because of injury.
No player has climbed from as low as Djokovic was earlier to No. 1 in the same year. The closest was Andre Agassi, the Serbian’s one-time coach, who had climbed from No 14 in May 1999 to the top spot later that season.
Can Djokovic can become world No 1 in 2018?
Anyone who has seen him play at the Shanghai Masters will have little doubt. And the players who were up against, well, they would hope they don’t run into him at the season’s last Masters in Paris.
Why Shanghai, and not the US Open where he dominated the draw, not dropping a set in his last five matches? Or Cincinnati, the only Masters title missing from his trophy cabinet, where he dethroned Federer to get the monkey off his back. Or Wimbledon, where his comeback finally clicked together in a moving display of emotion and tennis.
Because it is in Shanghai that we saw the 31-year-old as he was during his peak – impenetrable, but also unperturbed.
Djokovic’s his game has been defined by efficiency, accuracy and endurance. Occasionally, when he finds himself down and claws right back, he lets out a roar that shows the animal instinct that athletes need to succeed. It’s a show of raw emotion that the Serb doesn’t shy from.
But in Shanghai he didn’t really need to channel the beast mode. He wasn’t broken in the whole week, he didn’t drop a set and no one seemed to trouble him at all in the 47 service games he won. And the playing field was by no means poor.
Borna Coric, who has beaten Federer twice this year, went down 3-6, 4-6 in the final, Kevin Anderson was beaten 6-7(1), 3-6, Zverev managed to win only three games in what was only their second meeting – the rising star had beaten the Serb in the Rome final last year to win his first Masters title. But perhaps the most satisfying win for the 31-year-old was the rout of Marco Cecchinato, who was “bagel-ed.”
Their epic French Open quarter-final, which might go down as one of the greatest Grand Slam matches of all times, was the rock bottom for Djokovic. His agony was visible as he made strange unforced errors at crucial times, his despair evident in how he dealt with the media, suggesting that he might actually skip the grass season.
But from that low, the Serbian went on to build one of his best seasons, not measured merely by success, but by the resilience and ethic and mentality that sets champions apart. He was a powerful force of nature in 2011 and 2015, in 2018 he virtually has the Force, a la Star Wars: it’s everywhere and Djokovic can channel is at any time now.
He could play the ATP 500 events in Vienna or Basel in the last week of October, or focus on Paris Masters or just the ATP Finals in London to end his season. Any one of these events is enough to give him that elusive No 1 rank, especially with Nadal still recuperating from injury and Federer’s form dipping.
But Djokovic won’t just aim for the No 1 rank, he will aim for a 33rd Masters that would tie him with Nadal and a sixth ATP Final trophy that will tie him with Federer. But irrespective of whether he gets all or none of it, Djokovic’s see-saw but sensational season will go down in tennis history.
(Stats from ATPWorldTour.com)