NEW YORK (AP) — The assumption, at least by many, was that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer would cede the stage by now and make room at the top of men's tennis for other players to begin accumulating Grand Slam titles.
Well, Federer retired, and Nadal missed nearly all of this season with a hip problem that he expects to end his career after one last hurrah in 2024. Djokovic? He just keeps on going at age 36, dominant as ever.
As of Monday, Djokovic is back at No. 1 in the ATP rankings and the owner of 24 major championships, a record for the Open era and tied with Margaret Court for the most in the history of tennis. Djokovic's U.S. Open title, which arrived Sunday via a 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Daniil Medvedev, gave him three Slam trophies this season, each by beating a much younger opponent in the final.
Before facing Medvedev, Djokovic was asked whether he finds it unusual that he is still doing what he is doing, against the new generation. The answer, essentially, was “No.” And, frankly, no one else should be shocked by it one bit, either.
“It probably sounds cocky or arrogant, but I’m not really surprised, because I know how much work and dedication and energy I put into trying to be in this position. So I know that I deserve this. I always believe in myself, in my own capabilities, in my skills, in my quality as a tennis player to be able to deliver when it matters,” Djokovic said. “So I’m not really surprised, to be honest with you. Because I feel good. Physically I have been as fit or as prepared, as strong as — I don’t want to say ‘as ever,’ but — I mean, as good as I have been in years and years.”
He went 27-1 at the majors in 2023, losing only in July's Wimbledon final in five sets against 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz (whom, it should be noted, Djokovic beat in the Cincinnati Masters final last month and just replaced at No. 1).
“So 'age is just a number’ — that phrase is resonating at the moment with me,” Djokovic said. “And I don’t want to even consider leaving tennis or thinking about an end if I’m still at the top of the game.”
Of course not. Why should he?
Over his career, Djokovic has won exactly a third of the 72 Slams in which he’s participated. After going 12-9 in Grand Slam finals during his 20s — when the losses came against Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka — he is 12-3 in his 30s, with losses against Nadal, Alcaraz and, at the 2021 U.S. Open, Medvedev.
Since the start of the 2021 season, Djokovic has won seven of the 10 majors he entered and was the runner-up at another (he was unable to participate in two because he isn't vaccinated against COVID-19).
“You need to reinvent yourself, because everyone else does," said Djokovic, who won 20 of the 22 points Sunday on which he serve-and-volleyed, not his usual style. “As a 36-year-old competing with 20-year-olds, I probably have to do it more than I have ever done it."
A question was put to his coach, 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, about whether Djokovic might walk away if he gets a 25th major trophy to surpass Court.
Ivanisevic's reply: “I don’t think so, no. No, he’s planning to play (at the) Olympic Games in Los Angeles.”
That's scheduled for 2028, by which time Djokovic will be 41.
There's no reason right now to think it's not possible, both because of Djokovic's focus on physical and mental fitness and because of his insatiable appetite for success.
“If he wins 25, he’s going to think, ‘If I win 25, why not 26?’ It’s always one more, something more,” Ivanisevic said. “He’s taking care of his body. He’s taking care of everything. Every single detail has to be perfect, prepared.”
Medvedev teased Djokovic on Sunday, telling him it's time to move on with his life.
“Players come and go. It will be the same kind of destiny for me. Eventually, one day, I will leave tennis,” Djokovic said, before delivering the punch line: “... in about 23, 24 years.”
Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Write to him at email@example.com.
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Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press