ATP season review: Novak Djokovic leads old world order despite definite inroads by Alexander Zverev-led Next Gen
Despite Djokovic, Nadal and Federer splitting the four majors between themselves, the youngsters have started to make serious headway in terms of ranking and skill, and have started to challenge the best in the game.
Atop the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, one of Europe's most popular hiking destinations, Novak Djokovic, accompanied by his wife Jelena, sought refuge from yet another unexpected loss. In the quarter-finals of the French Open, just when it seemed that the injury-hit Serbian was getting back to his dominating best, he was upset in four sets by World No 72 Marco Cecchinato of Italy.
And so his stint at Paris was followed by the one to the south of France where he tried to get away from it all and get some peace of mind.
"We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective," he said months later at the US Open. "I breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation. I thought of tennis, thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me. It was all positives. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport. I guess we'll be hiking some more very soon."
The next time Djokovic would compete in a tournament, he'd reach the final, of the ATP 500 event at Queens. A few weeks later, he'd reach the final of a Grand Slam for the first time in two years. And despite being the lower ranked player, 21 compared to the then World No 8 Kevin Anderson, the rejuvenated and mentally fresh Djokovic rewrote his fortunes, won two Grand Slams and earned the World No 1 rank.
Return of Djokovic
After Djokovic's semi-final victory over Anderson at the ATP World Tour Finals in London last week, former doubles World No 1 Peter Fleming told Tennis World USA: "The question I often hear these days is, 'is Djokovic playing as well as he ever has?' Maybe the answer is not yet, but boy is he close."
The last time Djokovic was at his daunting best was in the 2015-2016 season, a time when he became the first male player since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time when he won the 2016 French Open. It was his 12th major, till it all went downhill.
A drop in form coincided with an elbow injury that saw him miss the second half of 2017. When he returned to the tour this season, he came back with a tweaked service motion, but not quite the form he had hoped for. It required surgery in February, right after the shock loss to Hyeon Chung in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
Though Djokovic worked hard during the clay season, his reward came on Wimbledon's slick grass. A win over Rafael Nadal, and an epic semi-final win at that, was just what a restored Djokovic needed to point him in the right direction.
"It is hard to pick the words," he said after beating Rafael Nadal to make it to the Wimbledon final. "I am just going through things, flashbacks to the last 15 months and everything I've done to get here, to the final against one of the best players in the world, one of the longest matches of my career. I am overwhelmed."
Djokovic won Wimbledon, his first major since the 2016 French Open victory, but wouldn't stop there. He followed it up by winning the only Masters event that had eluded him, at Cincinnati – thereby making him the only player to win all 9 ATP 1000 events. Then he became only the third person to equal Pete Sampras' mammoth 14 Grand Slam title tally when he won a second consecutive major of the year at Flushing Meadows.
"Pete Sampras is one of the biggest legends ever to play the game. He was my childhood idol," the 31-year-old said after the final. "He was someone I was looking up to. The first actual thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was his first or second Wimbledon championship. That inspired me to start playing tennis. There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder to shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with him."
That title earned him the ATP Player of the Year Award, for the fifth time in his career.
Djokovic was easily the best player when the tour shifted to Wimbledon and the US Open. But the months preceding the grass season were dominated by two other members of the illustrious Big Four, Roger Federer and Nadal.
The Swiss maestro picked up his 20th Grand Slam title when he defended his crown at Melbourne after he had to fight off the challenge of Marin Cilic in the final.
And a few weeks later, he became the oldest player ever, man or woman, to reach the World No 1 spot. At Rotterdam, aged 36 years and 195 days, he beat Andre Agassi who was 33 when he reached the top, and Serena Williams who was 35.
As the season shifted to clay, Federer characteristically decided to skip, and Nadal began to flourish. An 11th Roland Garros title was captured, but not as easily as he has done so in the past. In the final, he came up against another clay-court specialist, Dominic Thiem, who matched the southpaw and stretched him to five sets.
Meanwhile, there were a few players steadily finding their form.
Comebacks and late bloomers
In the first Masters event of the year, there was a first-time winner in the form of Juan Martin Del Potro. The 6-foot-6 Argentine got the better of defending champion Federer in the final of Indian Wells for his biggest title since winning the 2009 US Open. At that time, the 30-year-old promised a bright future until four wrist surgeries threatened to force him into an early retirement.
But the 2018 season proved to be a year where he'd significantly return to form. The current World No 4 would later reach the semi-final at the French Open, before facing Djokovic in the summit clash at Flushing Meadows.
His wasn't the only comeback story of the season though. Kei Nishikori, the former World No 4 had a severe wrist injury shortly before the US Open last year. His return to form was slow, but he did begin to pick up the pace once the clay season started. A finals appearance at the Monte Carlo Masters was followed by a fourth-round finish in Paris, followed by a decent quarter-final finish at Wimbledon. It was, however, at the US Open where the Japanese found some good rhythm, as outplayed the likes of Diego Schwartzman and Cilic to reach the semi-finals. After falling to as low as 39 in April, he had climbed back up to 9 in November.
Also making their mark this season were gentle giants John Isner and Kevin Anderson.
In March, John Isner stormed through a Miami Masters bracket that included Cilic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Alexander Zverev – all top 10 players – to became the first American since Andy Roddick in 2010 (Miami) to win an ATP 1000 event on home soil. It was the first Masters title altogether in fact for the towering 33-year-old.
It was a significant rise for the 6-foot-10 American who had constantly been knocking on the doors of the top 10 but had now successfully broken through, later reaching as high as 8th in the world. Later on at Wimbledon, he'd be embroiled in the longest ever Grand Slam semi-final when he took on Anderson in a marathon that lasted six hours and 35 minutes, only to lose out 26-24 in the fifth set.
Anderson himself had a solid season this year. A former World No 10 who had been plagued with knee problems, the South African reached the final of the 2017 US Open. At Wimbledon, he proved the feat from last year was no one-off, beating Federer in the quarter-finals before losing in the final to Djokovic.
Future is here
A certain Alexander Zverev, still only 21, was eligible to compete at the Next Gen ATP Finals, a tournament designed in the image of the ATP World Tour Finals, but meant strictly for the best U-21 talent that the tour has witnessed.
But as the World No 5, Zverev opted to play at the senior Finals. And in the week that went by in London, the German became the youngest player to win the title since 2008, when his vanquished opponent on the night, Djokovic, was a budding 21-year-old himself.
With the biggest title of his career, the youngster has made clear what was already known, that he is one of the biggest names on the tour currently. This is despite his comparatively poor run at the majors.
Till date, the quarter-final finish at Roland Garros this year is the furthest he's gone at a Slam. Only Chung, who reached the semi-final of the Australian Open this year, has managed to get as far at a major. Yet the title in London may just be the springboard that propels Zverev into what is expected of him.
Those expectations of a strong future, however, aren't reserved only for the German.
In the 2018 season, 21-year-old Croat Borna Coric beat Federer twice – in the final at Halle and the semi-final at the Shanghai Masters. Long touted by the great Goran Ivanisevic to be a future No 1, Coric has taken steady strides to the top, currently sitting on his career-best 12.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Karen Khachanov recently became the second person to beat an in-form Djokovic since the Serb won Wimbledon. The current World No 11's big win came in the final of the Paris Masters.
The first person to beat Djokovic since he made a successful return to form however was 20-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas. The World No 15 had actually delayed his entry to the Next Gen Finals as he was hoping for a chance to make it to the senior Finals. The opportunity didn't come, so instead, he took on and beat the talented 19-year-old Alex De Minaur in the final in Milan.
The youngsters on the tour have started to make serious headway in terms of ranking and skill, and have started to challenge the best in the game.
So strong has their presence been, that to put matters into perspective, it's been only the Next Gen sensations that have managed to get the better of Djokovic since Wimbledon. Tsitsipas was the first, then Khachanov, and now at the ATP Finals in London, Zverev.
Even though the future is quickly dawning, men's tennis continued to revel in the familiar warmth of its golden generation. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer not only split the four majors between themselves but have also finished the year ranked No 1, 2 and 3 respectively.
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