Six months ago, Novak Djokovic suffered his third consecutive loss on the ATP Tour and looked utterly lost.
A loss of form and fitness saw him lose a grip on all four of his Grand Slam titles – amassed in a remarkable run that started at Wimbledon 2015 and ended at the French Open 2016 – with some questioning whether this was the end of the Serb’s time at the top of the sport.
How foolish they look now.
Djokovic has won the most Grand Slam titles of any player in 2018. There’s a very strong possibility he will end the year on top of the rankings, too.
Little over 1,000 points separate him and Rafael Nadal in the Race to London.
The Spaniard is suffering with a knee problem and heading into a section of the season where he traditionally struggles. Djokovic – who usually thrives in those surroundings – has a great opportunity to return to top spot.
Race to London rankings (top-eight qualify)
1. Nadal – 7480
2. Djokovic – 6445
3. Del Potro – 4910
4. Federer – 4800
5. Zverev – 4365
6. Cilic – 3815
7. Anderson – 3450
8. Thiem – 3365
9. Isner – 2930
10. Nishikori – 2475
He’s already at No. 3 in the ATP rankings – with zero points to defend for the rest of the year – but while a rise in the leaderboard will be at the forefront of his mind, should he also be targeting his two greatest rivals in the all-time Grand Slam charts?
Over the past year or so, there’s been plenty of debate over whether Nadal will surpass Federer. Three Grand Slams split them at the moment.
Three Grand Slams now separate Djokovic and Nadal, too.
Nadal and Djokovic are significantly younger than Federer so, in theory, they will have several years to close the gap beyond the Swiss’ retirement. Though the Spaniard’s ongoing injury problems perhaps leave room for concern over how long he will continue to play.
Most Grand Slam titles (ATP)
20 – Federer
17 – Nadal
14 – Sampras
14 – Djokovic
If we assume Federer won’t win another Grand Slam (a very dangerous assumption, I know), then Djokovic would be able to equal his total of majors over a three-year period if he won two Slams a year.
That doesn’t sound that inconceivable, right? Djokovic has shown in the past that he’s capable of going on huge Slam-winning sprees. Indeed, he won that number between Wimbledon 2014 and the French Open in 2016. At his highest level, he’s almost untouchable.
His beaten US Open final opponent Juan Martin del Potro is under no illusions of what Djokovic is capable of.
When asked if the Serb can move ahead of Federer and Nadal in terms of majors won, he replied: ‘ Of course he can.
‘He has 14 already. He won two Grand Slam in one year. He’s healthy. He has a great team working with him.
‘Hopefully him, Rafa, Roger is still fighting for Grand Slam, because is so nice to watch them fighting for the history.
‘I mean, we just do what we can against them. But Novak has everything to make records in this sport.’
It’s hard to argue with him – Djokovic seems well placed to launch an attack on the benchmarks set by his rivals.
But there are, of course, a number of mitigating factors that could get in his way…
1. Federer and Nadal’s ability to add majors to their collection
If the pair of them decided to retire this second, the logical conclusion is Djokovic would surpass them both.
But you sense Nadal – who gears his seasons up to perform at his best on clay – has another French Open or two, at least, in him. Federer, despite his below par performances in recent months, is still capable of winning in Australia or at Wimbledon.
Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka’s returns are also worth keeping an eye out for, while Juan Martin del Potro can keep on getting better and better – it’s not guaranteed Djokovic will have it all his own way.
Looking at Djokovic right now, he’s among the most flexible athletes on the planet and he takes such good care of his body that it’s hard to see him being hit by too many severe injuries.
But injuries can come out of nowhere for even the healthiest man, which we simply can’t predict at this stage.
As he gets older, he will inevitably lose speed as well – will his body be able to keep producing the remarkable defensive displays we’ve become accustomed to?
You’d think that catching Federer and Nadal’s totals would be enough motivation. What more could he desire than to be crowned as the greatest tennis player of all time?
Right now that may be his focus, but situations change. Goals shift. Things happen.
Life events can often be unplanned and have serious effects on our outlook or approach to any given task, there’s any number of external factors that could knock Djokovic off course.
Arguably the most intriguing factor – how will the young guys of today develop over the next couple of years?
Will Ivan Lendl inspire Alexander Zverev to bring his Masters 1000 form onto the Grand Slam stage? Can Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas fulfill their potential?
It’s hard to predict how the younger generations will develop but there will surely come a stage where they feel physically and mentally comfortable to challenge the old guard.
Dominic Thiem may well have just seen the switch flick during his defeat to Nadal at the US Open. It can often take one moment to realise you’re good enough to go toe-to-toe with the best.
If that happens to one, two or even three of the younger stars over the next three years then Djokovic’s task will become even tougher.
It’s clear there are an awful lot of things that can go wrong for the 14-time Grand Slam champion. But the signs are positive heading forwards.
He is still an awfully long way off Federer, though you have to expect Djokovic to win the most Slams of the ‘Big Three’ from now until the end of their careers.
How many that will be remains to be seen – but don’t be surprised if he does somehow find himself at the top of the all-time Grand Slam list.