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Australian Open 2017: With Novak Djokovic on the decline, tennis may finally see beyond the 'big four'

Tennis is quickly turning into a world full of hyper active seismic waves. Melbourne was the latest site for the tremors – as an unheralded Denis Istomin, playing the match of his life, eliminated six time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic in a five-set epic.

The shifting tectonic plates of tennis are clearly unseating Djokovic from his long held perch, paving the way for a new era in the sport.

Djokovic seems to be suffering from a plight very similar to that experienced by climbers. The perilous journey past the Hillary Step and up the summit of Everest and down is a race against time. Ed Viesturs, the celebrated mountaineer said, "getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory."

Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - 19/1/17 Serbia's Novak Djokovic falls onto the court during his Men's singles second round match against Uzbekistan's Denis Istomin. REUTERS/Jason Reed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Serbia's Novak Djokovic falls onto the court during his match against Denis Istomin. REUTERS

Mountaineers can barely afford a few minutes at the top of the summit, after spending hours reaching there. It is a predicament that Djokovic could perhaps identify with after his recent struggles on the ATP World Tour. Ever since winning the French Open to complete his collection of major trophies, Djokovic has been dealing with a loss of appetite and vigour.

Paradoxically, the genesis of Djokovic’s descent may lay in the very moments that crafted him into a champion player. Frustrated by the pain of defeat and his own fickle health, Djokovic discovered the diet and discipline needed to end the dominance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The Serbian went gluten free and embraced a brutally monstrous work ethic in his bid to ambush the reigning kings of tennis.

Just last summer, it felt as though it was nearly impossible to stop Djokovic. He had won four grand slams in a row, the first man since Rod Laver to do so. Albeit over two different seasons, unlike the great Australian.

Something gave away in the great Serbian’s mind soon after he completed his amazing run in Paris. "I'm as astounded as anyone else," analysed former coach Boris Becker. "Novak was a bit too defensive, he never took the initiative and stayed too far behind the baseline.”

"He looked good in Doha, so I think he's done his homework, but obviously for him losing in the second round of the Australian Open is a big shock and has probably changed his year," Becker said.

Rewind back to January 2011 – Djokovic began a steep journey that helped him collect an amazing eleven grand slam titles through the French Open in 2016. During that time, he also featured in 17 of 22 major finals. Djokovic was also victor in 53 of 55 grand slam matches as he dominated tennis with a fascinating combination of power and purpose.

“I do not wish to be imprisoned inside the expectations of others,” Novak told Serbian journalists, when asked about his chances of catching up with Federer’s haul of 17 grand slam titles. “I will be the master of my own destiny.”

It is educating now to compare the efforts of Djokovic with that of Federer. The genial Swiss won 16 of his 17 grand slam titles over a seven year stretch that left fans gasping for more. But since winning the Wimbledon in 2012, as a 30-year-old, Federer is dealing with a drought that may never end.

Interestingly, Djokovic will be thirty when he reaches Paris to defend his French Open title. There will be questions between now and then about whether Novak can regain his focus, intensity and determination.

"Djokovic is not the same Djokovic we saw this time last year, who was at the peak of his career," explained Pat Cash to the BBC. "It's clearly the mental edge. He's done so much and worked so hard to grab those four Grand Slams, I think he's just lost the edge."

The tide has clearly turned. It is more than unlikely that Djokovic might regain the heights of dominance that we have witnessed over the past few years. Even more importantly, the Serbian may not even wish to play at that level ever again.

After a few personal problems at the time of Wimbledon last year, Djokovic seems to have worked extra hard to set his home right. He is in a happy place with his wife Jelena and son Stefan by his side. The Instagram post just before his Wimbledon defeat to Sam Querrey in 2016 was a peek into Djokovic’s mind.

The man that sacrificed everything in the quest for greatness finally found his peace and quiet. The peak had been achieved, a dream realised when he became only the eighth man to complete the full set of tennis majors.

"Parents of the world, I hear you!" the Serbian underlined. "This is the most beautiful and the hardest but the most important job we have in life. Grateful that I can treasure these moments forever." Djokovic slipped quietly away from a tennis-centric world, as he allowed a new perspective to take hold of his life.

In the short term, Djokovic’s decline is playing into the hands of Andy Murray. The Scot is being rewarded for his perseverance as he fills the void left behind by the Serbian. But Murray’s reign is unlikely to last very long, as he too slides into his 30s.

Tennis - Croatia v Argentina - Davis Cup Final - Arena Zagreb, Croatia - 27/11/16 Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro reacts after his victory against Croatia's Marin Cilic. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

File photo of Juan Martin del Potro. REUTERS

It might finally open the door for the pirates. A generation of tennis players that have been denied the intoxicating scent of success as the Big Four kept tennis in their greedy clutches. Among them are players like Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro and recently Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori.

Then there is the young brigade – men such as Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric who are knocking on the doors. With a bit of persistence and a handy draw, it will not be long before they announce themselves with a big stage victory.

We could not be too far away from a new breed of champions, from the weary lot of waiting warriors. As for Djokovic, grand slam success will be hard to come by. Even if he were to rediscover his mojo, it appears that the numbers of Nadal and Pete Sampras (14 majors each) might be a more realistic target.


Updated Date: Jan 20, 2017 11:11 AM

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