It should have been the year of Novak Djokovic. Perhaps it still was, but not quite in the way it looked like it was going to be.
From unbeatable, to disqualified to… disappointing? The Djokovic that finished 2020 was far from the same player that started it.
So where is the world No 1 ahead of the 2021 season? And will he dominate again?
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The way that Djokovic rounded out last year doesn't suggest it's going to be as smooth for him as it has been in the past.
His shock defeat to lucky loser Lorenzo Sonego in Vienna was somewhat surprisingly brushed off with the admission that he had “already done what I came here for, securing the number one [year-end world No 1 ranking]”.
But he failed to hit top form again at the ATP Finals, producing a flat display against Daniil Medvedev in the group stages and then losing to Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals. Djokovic hasn’t won the finals since 2015 and his form towards the end of 2020 may have given the chasing pack hope of catching him at the top of the rankings.
They may also see the potential for Djokovic to be distracted by his off-court involvements.
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What will happen with the Professional Tennis Players Association – formed by Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil in September as a breakaway from the ATP Player Council – remains to be seen, but the world No 1 cannot be too thrilled with the way things have gone so far. He and Pospisil were reportedly asked by players to rejoin the ATP Player Council, but then withdrew from the elections because of their involvement with the PTPA. Now the Player Council board has been set with Djokovic’s main rivals, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, all on it.
Will Djokovic continue to press ahead with the PTPA in 2021 and might it take his mind away from what happens on the court?
He might be helped in that regard by the potential of soon breaking a long-standing record.
He is just nine weeks away from surpassing Federer’s record of 310 weeks as world No 1, needing to stay at the top until March 8 to get to 311. Speaking in November, Djokovic, who leads world No 2 Nadal by 2,180 points, confirmed this is a major goal of his.
“Goals are clear – I want to end the year as No 1 and I want to have as big an advantage as possible for the first three months of 2021, which would allow me the historic No 1, one of the two biggest goals in my career.”
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Further in the distance there’s also the year-end No 1 ranking record – which he is currently tied with Pete Sampras on six – and the potentially career-defining overall Grand Slam record.
Djokovic is three behind Nadal and Federer, who are both on 20, but seems further behind than he has in recent years. Perhaps it was the expectation that after his strong start in 2020 he would get closer, or the fact at 33 his chances may now be running out as some of his rivals appear to be narrowing the gap.
Thiem in particular looks as though he could be a major threat at majors in 2021. Having taken Djokovic to five sets in the Australian Open final last year, Thiem then produced some superb tennis to win his maiden major in New York and may well have beaten the world No 1 if they had met in the final. Medvedev also looks as though he will be a regular contender and dispatched Djokovic with surprising ease at the ATP Finals.
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World No 10 Matteo Berrettini has said he expects to see “more balance” at the top of the men’s game in 2021. “They [Djokovic, Nadal and Federer] still have a little more in the Grand Slams, but the others are getting closer,” he told La Stampa.
Former world No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero feels the same. “I still consider them favourites, but not as much as before. I think people see that players like Thiem, [Stefanos] Tsitsipas or [Alexander] Zverev already have good chances of winning against them as well,” he told Tennis Majors.
But if the chasing pack is closing, can Djokovic pull away?
The early part of the season will be telling. If he comes up short at the Australian Open – his most successful Slam – then alarm bells might be ringing. But if he wins his 18th major in Melbourne then it’s his rivals who might be worried.
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