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Can Novak Djokovic return to the top?

Novak Djokovic’s misfortunes in 2017 don’t seem to have an end. Following a below average performance in the year so far, his recent elbow injury will eventually keep him away from the pro tour for the rest of the season. He announced the news himself in a Facebook live video today, from Belgrade, Serbia.

Announcement

Gepostet von Novak Djokovic am Mittwoch, 26. Juli 2017

That doesn’t only mean he is going to miss the 2017 US Open next month and end July at his worst ATP ranking position in 10 years (5th). His absense from the courts has made 2017 an unbelievable year for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It also means his highly anticipated come back to top level tennis won’t be possible until next year. That is if he manages to fight off all his personal demons until then as well. And that makes for a far better story than overcoming an injury.

From Invincible to Fallen hero

Just a bit over a year ago, Novak Djokovic was winning the Roland Garros in Paris, the only Grand Slam missing from his collection, to reach the peak of his career. In June 2016, Nole was World number 1, the first tennis player in years to win 4 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments and only 5 titles away from surpassing Roger Federer’s 17 at that time. At 29 years of age Djokovic seemed invincible in his conquest to become the most successful tennis player of all time. With a winning rate of over 82% , the highest in the Open Era and his tactically sound game even under extreme pressure, what could possibly go wrong?

With the first signs of a declining form appearing right after the 2016 Roland Garros, several rumors started to fly across the media. Most were spicy speculation about Nole’s personal life, some claimed there were problems with his coaching team and the rest blamed his fitness levels or focus, due to out-of-court activities. Although all that might do for a great cover story in a pop/gossip magazine, the truth (or part of it) might lie elsewhere.

So what went wrong with Djokovic?

In his final interview after winning the Roland Garros in Paris, Djokovic himself singled out a particular moment in 2015, which defined the following months. It was what he experienced after his previous final in Paris against Stan Wawrinka. A final he lost, but which -in his own words- sparked feelings he had never felt before. That particular match became his motivation for the next 12 months, with the single goal of returning to win the Roland Garros in 2016.

In the process he elevated his game to a nearly flawless level, winning all 3 Grand Slams leading up to the French. But the end goal remained the same: to win the only great trophy missing from his collection, in front of the French crowd, which had graced him with a standing ovation despite his loss a year before. During that same press conference, after the Roland Garros final in 2016, he admitted that being the first male player after Rod Laver to hold all 4 Grand Slam titles at the same time was the ultimate challenge. And he had successfully overcome that challenge too. It’s as if at that moment in Paris, he ran out of challenges.

See also: What went wrong for Novak Djokovic in retrospect, in his own words.

What is next for Novak?

Being a professional athlete can be a cruel thing. Aside from the sacrifices, the mental challenges and the constant pain, it can be a monotonous tune, away from the normal lives us mortals lead. Moreso in tennis and the pro tour, where the same flights take you to the same cities, to play at the same tournaments, against the same opponents, year after year. It must be exhausting and not for the faint-hearted. And the allure of a “normal” life, especially when you’re about to grow your family, like Novak is, must be great. What kind of motivation can keep you focused on your game and eager for the next tournament?

Patrick Mouratoglou, one of the sport’s most successful coaches, recently shared his idea on what separates a good athlete from a real champion. The coach of Serena Williams said:

When Serena achieves something, the second after she achieves it, she forgets. This ability that they have, those champions, to forget whatever has been achieved and to set up a new goal, is the big difference. They’re in a situation of constant non-satisfaction. They’re not happy with having a trophy. They’re happy with the process of having a goal.

It’s the first time in a while that Novak Djokovic won’t be one of the top 4, at least as far as the ATP rankings are concerned. Only time will tell if he is hungry enough to set his return there as his next goal, the next challenge worth fighting for.

Also check out the most anticipated comebacks in tennis for 2018.

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