What next for tennis ‘gods’ Djokovic, Serena?
Future looks gloom for the duo as the 2016 season draws to a close
Last weekend, struggling former world no1, Serena Williams confirmed what many tennis faithful had suspected for the last month: She wont be playing the season ending WTA Finals in Singapore, which begin today.
The reasons are almost too numerous to count. She had been hampered by a shoulder problem since after losing at the semis in the US Open. She has played just eight tournaments all season, and only three of those were WTA events.
This is the second year in a row she is missing the season’s finals and has featured in it a mere nine times in her nearly two-decade career. And over the last two weeks, Serena was spotted not on a tennis court, but a recreation ground in Disneyland, Florida.
“My doctor insists that I stay home and heal my shoulder,” she said last Monday. “So I have a chance to play next year.”
That marks the end of a poor season that saw Serena winning just a single slam, albeit, she made two slam finals. She has long since relinquished the no 1 spot to German Angelique Kerber and a win in Singapore would’ve given Serena the no 1 ranking back. That is not going to happen.
ATP World No 1 and the biggest earner in recent times, Novak Djokovic hasn’t fared any better in the latter part of the year. Struggling with injuries, form and confidence, the Serbian powerhouse lost to Roberto Bautista Agut in the Shanghai Masters semifinals last week.
What made the defeat even worse was the fact that Djokovic not only lost to a player that has never beaten him in his career, he lost in shocking straight sets that stunned the tennis world. He never looked like himself through out the match, leaving people to wonder if his problems were more than just physical.
Afterwards, Djokovic re-echoed a statement he made earlier in the month about being exhausted with the tour grind at the moment. At the same time, he confirmed that he would play the last two events on his schedule, Paris Masters and London finals. If he wants to finish the year ranked No. 1, Djokovic doesn’t have a choice. He is the defending champion at both tournaments, and Andy Murray, fresh off his wins in Beijing and Shanghai, looms.
Djokovic would need to win in Paris and get to the finals in London to hold on to his top spot. The gap was over 9, 000 points in May, but has been reduced to about 2, 000 points now.
Since 2011, Djokovic has held the No.1 ranking for 221 weeks, while Serena tied Steffi Graf’s 30-year-old WTA record for most consecutive weeks at the top with 186.
In 2014-15, Serena won four major titles in a row for the second time. The next year, Djokovic became the first man to do it since Rod Laver in 1969. During a highly competitive era, the Serb and the American have made themselves into two of the sport’s most consistently dominant champions.
Is there something about winning four Slams in a row that changes a player, mentally and physically, or leaves him or her wondering what’s left to achieve? Of the five majors that Serena has played since then, she has won one; that qualifies as a dry spell for the 22-time Slam champion.
Djokovic, by his own admission, hasn’t been the same since completing his career Slam at the French Open in June. And as for Rod Laver, he won all four in ‘69, and never won another.
It’s safe to say that neither Serena nor Djokovic are likely to suffer a rocket-like flameout in the coming years. Djokovic is still No. 1, and the fact that Serena is still No. 2 after playing just eight events is, in a way, one more measure of her dominance.
But neither of them is getting any younger. Djokovic is 29; while the men’s game has grown older, that age remains a difficult point for greatest players. Since turning 29, Roger Federer has won just one Slam, while Rafael Nadal hasn’t won any. Serena is 35, which is already uncharted territory for major champs; even Martina Navratilova, who played on tour in her late 40s, won her last Slam at 33.
So, is this late year dip a sign of bigger declines to come for Serena and Djokovic? It’s possible, especially for a player of Serena’s age. She has said that as soon as she doesn’t feel like playing anymore, she’s would not play again.
But her desire to win her 23rd major and pass Graf on that all time list will keep her competing for the time being, whether she reaches Margaret Court’s record of 24 slams still remains to be seen.
Hopefully, Djokovic and Serena will learn from this down period and find new ways to get the best out of themselves in the future. The ATP and WTA would desperately need it as finals attendance has started suffering already.
Serena might need to focus exclusively on slams now and maybe, some mandatory WTA events to conserve energy. As for Djokovic, he has talked about wanting to change his approach to the game. He says he put too much pressure on himself in the tournaments after the French Open, and that he didn’t enjoy the competition the way he always had.
This may or may not be true because as his last few matches have revealed, he is not just playing like himself. He used to be the best returner in the business with one of the best foot works on tour, but all those are now looking like a thing of the past.
Djokovic my need to make a lot of tough decisions with his game, especially as there are talks that he might drop his head coach, Boris Becker by next season. Neither has denied nor confirmed it.
In sports generally, staying on top as world best player is a difficult one. If the duo of Serena and Djokovic wish to remain the best, tough decisions have to be made quickly. Maybe a new attitude toward the sport, and a reassessment of what he hopes to achieve in it, is exactly what Djokovic can use at 29.