Novak Djokovic will return to action next week in Dubai, returning to the quest of cementing his legacy as the greatest of all time.
Djokovic trained in front of a small crowd on Wednesday in Belgrade, without strapping on the left hamstring that blighted his Australian Open campaign.
The 35-year-old of course won the title anyway, almost proving that he really could win a grand slam on one leg, and said he is “close to 100 per cent intensity”.
He added: “The injury is good.”
His future beyond that is uncertain though. He has applied for special permission to circumvent the US government’s vaccine requirement on entry, which at present will prevent him from playing Indian Wells and Miami, the so-called “Sunshine Swing” which encapsulates arguably the two biggest tournaments outside of the slams.
“Here we go again,” I hear you cry as we find ourselves wondering whether a government will grant Djokovic an exemption. Hopefully, we don’t end up with the kind of farce that played out in Australia 12 months ago. I’m not sure anyone could take it, Djokovic included.
Assuming there is no intervention from the US government, we will have another high-profile tournament where we don’t have – arguably – the top four players in the world all participating: in Australia, Carlos Alcaraz was injured; at last year’s US Open, Djokovic was absent; Daniil Medvedev was banned from Wimbledon. In fact, given grass is only really favoured by Djokovic and Medvedev’s clay game leaves something to be desired, it is really only the hard-court slams where we have a chance of a real Royal Rumble in the men’s draw, and recently that has been denied us for any number of reasons.
There is plenty of hope though. Medvedev’s apparent return to form last week, beating opponents ranked 31, 35, 8, 28 and 14 en route to the Rotterdam title, could be seen as a message sent to the tour that the Russian, still the only player born after 1990 to beat Djokovic in a slam final, is back in business. So too Alcaraz, who has hardly played since winning the US Open due to injury but dropped just one set in winning the title in Buenos Aires, suggesting he has lost nothing in his time on the sidelines.
The reemergence of these two “Next Gen” and “Next Next Gen” players is important for Djokovic, even though either of them may scoop up Masters 1000 titles in his absence in the United States. It would be easy for the Serb to drift through the next few years, with Nadal’s career surely nearly over and the rest seemingly unable to overcome the mental barrier of playing Djokovic in a final. Medvedev went through a significant dip last year and lost something of his power and indefatigability – perhaps it was the ban from Wimbledon, perhaps it was becoming a father, perhaps it was just reversion to the mean – but whatever it was it removed a main Djokovic rival from circulation. Meanwhile Alcaraz beat Djokovic in a physical encounter in Madrid nine months ago to announce himself but, despite winning a slam, has not played him since.
Now Djokovic rarely lacks for motivation, but he will surely go past Nadal, perhaps Serena Williams and maybe Margaret Court too this year in terms of grand slam titles. On Monday, he will break Steffi Graf’s record for all-time weeks spent at world No 1. By the end of the year, he may not have any records left to break and Nadal may well have retired.
“I think we would both agree he is definitely the biggest rival in my career,” Djokovic said of Nadal this week.
“We are generationally close as well, although he started to achieve more success on a professional level earlier than me.”
Alexander the Great cried salt tears at 33 because there was no more world to conquer. Djokovic will be 36 at the end of the season and could have precious little else to achieve.
But that is where Alcaraz and Medvedev come in. They give Djokovic a reason to drive on, to push harder. It reminds me of Lewis Hamilton, who when the new generation of wildly different Formula One cars was due to arrive on the scene was already well into his 30s and one of the most dominant racing drivers of all time. He has plenty of outside interests, is a millionaire 40 times a year and often mooted hanging up his gloves. When someone suggested the younger generation were ready to take over though, he railed against it.
Hamilton said: “There are a lot of young drivers now. I am the second oldest driver now in F1 and my target is to continue to find new levels, new heights and raise the bar.”
Just when Alcaraz and Medvedev think they have got over the bar, Djokovic will raise it. This is his next step.