At Tennis’ Summit, Novak Stands Alone

By Greg Garber

On match point, the backhand volley from a charging Hubert Hurkacz sliced just wide. Knowing there would be a replay challenge, Novak Djokovic showed no emotion.

When the out call was confirmed in the Rolex Paris Masters semi-final a couple of weeks ago, Djokovic simply raised his arms, racquet in his right hand, a ball in his left. Head down, jaw firmly set, he strode stoically to net. Still, there was no sign of the euphoria that the moment signified.

Finally, after congratulating his opponent and acknowledging the chair umpire, Djokovic thumped his chest three times with his fist and loosed a roar, terrifying in its intensity, a primal scream that seemed to release all the agony and, ultimately, the exquisite ecstasy the 2021 season has brought him.

For a record seventh time, Djokovic was officially the year-end No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. Previously, the mark belonged to him and Pete Sampras, who finished as the year-end No. 1 six successive seasons, from 1993-98. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Jimmy Connors each finished on top five times.

“Obviously, it’s a thrilling sensation breaking the record of Pete Sampras, who was my childhood hero growing up,” Djokovic said. “He was the one I looked up to the most, the one that got me going with tennis. At times it seems surreal to really be where I am, and I’m blessed and grateful to be in this position.”

"He’s at the top of Mount Everest, taking the sunshine in a swimming suit." 
Goran Ivanisevic

In 49 years, only 26 players have risen to No. 1. The constellation of year-end No. 1s is only 17. Djokovic has logged the most weeks at No. 1 in ATP history, 347 and counting, followed by Federer (310) and Sampras (286).

“I was `The Man’ for those number of years, and he’s been `The Man’ even more so,” Sampras said recently from his home in southern California. “I think he’s been more consistent, he’s won more events, he’s got more majors. I could go on and on talking about his career. I don’t think you will see [seven year-end No. 1s] again.”

Tennis was once the sport of nobles and the aristocracy. As recently as the 20th century, the sport was associated with high-end clubs that had an English-speaking clientele. Growing up in Belgrade, in the country once known as Yugoslavia, Djokovic did not fit that lofty profile. Four years after he was born in 1987, after Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence, the Yugoslav Wars began. Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, was a frequent target of NATO bombers.

Djokovic spent his formative years practising tennis in a converted Olympic swimming pool – you can see vestiges of that cramped circumstance in his efficient strokes and compulsion to play on top of the baseline. Sometimes the bomb sirens sent him scrambling off that makeshift court and into the shelters. For a period of several months, when the raids intensified, bombs fell every night. Djokovic tried to take it as a positive; when school was cancelled, there was more time for tennis.

Nine years ago, Djokovic accompanied a CBS 60 Minutes crew for a visit to his old haunts in Belgrade. The war, he said, “made us more hungry, more hungry for the success”.

His coach, Goran Ivanisevic, also grew up in Yugoslavia.

“Generally, all East Bloc players, they’re more hungry – I was more hungry,” he said. “Especially the players from the Balkans. They are very proud. Even with all this fighting, Novak still found a way out.

“That’s what’s pushing him forward. That’s why he became hungry, why he became better. He wanted to do unbelievable things. Look at him now. He’s at the top of Mount Everest, taking the sunshine in a swimming suit.”

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A year ago, on the verge of tying Sampras’ record of six year-end No. 1 finishes, Djokovic said in Vienna that finishing No. 1 at the end of the year was one of the hardest things to do in the sport of tennis. It might be one of the most difficult feats in all of sport.

A singles player has no teammates and must defend a space 78 feet by 27 feet, a total of 2,106 square feet (642 square meters). Physically, the three-dimensional playing area requires extraordinary hand-eye coordination, speed and lateral quickness, strength and stamina. Mentally, the game rewards intelligence, toughness, creativity and subtlety.

Talent, consistency, good health – and the ability to rise above injuries both minor and major – are all critical for success in tennis, but you typically can find those qualities in the world’s Top 100 players. To be No. 1 for an entire 11-month season, to weather the exhausting global travel, the vastly different surfaces, the climates and conditions offered in Australia, Europe, North America and Asia, that requires an extraordinary skill set.

Sampras, now 50, says tennis players, as opposed to say, NBA players, don’t get the credit they deserve.

“Unlike those team sports,” Sampras said, “you’re on your own. Mentally, if you’re down in a match, you don’t have anyone to bail you out. Coach can’t tell you what to do. Tennis players have to have the whole package. I also think you need an attitude to stay No. 1. You wanted it, and it bothered you when someone else got it. I think Novak has that.”   

And Djokovic has done it seven times in the past 11 seasons – a period when arguably the three best players in the history of men’s tennis populated the game. And while advances in medicine and nutrition have helped to extend the careers of players, it’s worth noting that a 33-year-old Djokovic became the oldest-ever year-end No. 1 in 2020. Now, at the age of 34, he’s extended that standard again.

"You need an attitude to stay No. 1. You wanted it, and it bothered you when someone else got it." 
Pete Sampras

After Djokovic tied Sampras with his sixth year-end No. 1 in 2020, ATPTour.com arranged an enlightening conversation between Djokovic and Sampras, moderated by Tim Henman.

“It wasn’t fun, I’ll be honest with you,” Sampras said. “Staying on top of the game, year after year after year, as Novak can understand, it’s very hard to stay No. 1. And to do it six years in a row was, for me, I think was my biggest achievement.”

Djokovic said he believes finishing No. 1 is a paramount achievement.

“The amount of dedication that you need to undergo in your life and the way you have to organise yourself, not just on the court but off the court is tremendous,” he said. “I understand when Pete is talking about not eating well, not sleeping well, having a funny stomach and just maybe a little more difficult relationship with your people who are surrounding you. Sometimes being unbearable to yourself, with the amount of nervousness, stress, butterflies, whatever you want to call them – all the positive, negative emotions, the tornado that is happening inside – and you care so much about it.

“Six years in a row, I don’t know how you did it Pete, but huge, huge respect for that.”

Sampras congratulated Djokovic and slyly left him with this challenging thought: It’s one thing to get there, but it’s twice as hard to stay there.

“I will also keep striving to be a better player,” Djokovic told Sampras, “hopefully have more success and break more records in a sport I love with all my heart.”

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And true to his word, that’s precisely what Djokovic did this year, eclipsing Sampras’ record.

For striving is what Djokovic does best. From the beginning of his career, he has relentlessly attacked his weaknesses, turning them into strengths. His second serve is no longer a liability, the forehand, which sometimes broke down under pressure, is nearly infallible, the questionable fitness level that once caused him to bail out of some notable matches might be his greatest asset today. Djokovic’s eating, sleeping and resting habits, honed by experience and research, are the model for a professional athlete. Perhaps his overhead is a little dicey, but it just means he’s actually human.

“Novak was really concentrated, he was always motivated,” Ivanisevic said. “He always finds some kind of motivation. He wants to be better every day. Something was working today, tomorrow this is not good enough – has to be perfect. Those kind of guys, when they step on the court they just want to win, simple as that.”

Like his strategic on-court approach – no one hits his spots like Djokovic – there is a pattern to his No. 1 finishes. Unlike Sampras, when he did it six straight times, Djokovic historically sustains the immense effort for two years at a time. He’s gone back-to-back three times now, in 2011-12, 2014-15 and 2020-21.

After Federer and Nadal combined for seven straight year-end No. 1s, Djokovic broke through in 2011. He won three majors that year, which, since the FedEx ATP Rankings originated in 1973, has been a 100-per cent indicator for finishing on top. Connors, Mats Wilander, Nadal, Federer (3), and Djokovic (3) were 9-for-9 in that respect. Focusing increasingly on majors, as Federer and Nadal have later in their careers, has been the critical factor in Djokovic’s success.

In the seven seasons Djokovic finished No. 1, he won 47 titles, including 14 of his 20 majors and produced a 430-56 win-loss record.

“When you start with an Australian Open win at the beginning of the year, which I’ve been very fortunate to do for nine years, that puts you already in the driver’s seat for the year-end No. 1,” Djokovic said in his interview with the ATP Tour. “Accumulating the most points at the Grand Slams and the Masters 1000 events – that’s what counts the most, so to say. I’ve been lucky to really play my best tennis at the events where I could collect the most points that actually enabled me to be in this position.”   

"When you start with an Australian Open win at the beginning of the year...that puts you already in the driver’s seat for the year-end No. 1.
Novak Djokovic

And Djokovic wasn’t far from a few more year-end No. 1 finishes over the past decade. This statistic underlines his incredible consistency: In the four seasons since 2011 that Djokovic didn’t finish No. 1, he placed No. 2 three times.

In 2013, he lost two major semi-finals to Nadal, at Roland Garros and the US Open. In Paris, Rafa closed out a wild match 9-7 in the fifth set. Djokovic lost to Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final, another match that would have been enough capture the year-end No. 1. Three years later, Murray beat Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 in the Nitto ATP Finals – the only time in ATP history that year-end No. 1 was on the line for both players in the year-end championship’s last match. In 2019, Djokovic finished only 840 points behind Nadal; falling to Rafa in the Rome final, to Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals of Roland Garros and to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round of the US Open were all significant defeats.

The only one of the past 11 years when Djokovic didn’t finish inside the Top 2 was 2017, when he wound up at No. 12 – but that year he missed every tournament after Wimbledon because of a right elbow injury.

Sampras is impressed that Djokovic beat Federer and Nadal on their favourite surfaces, on which they are considered the best ever. On the grass at Wimbledon, Djokovic took down Federer in 2014, 2015 and 2019. Similarly, Djokovic won over Nadal in 2015 and 2021 on the red clay at Roland Garros.

“What Novak’s done over the past 10 years – I could give you all the adjectives, I mean, I don’t know what to say,” Sampras said. “He’s willing to change, he’s willing to learn about himself. He’s always looking to get better.

“I’ve been so impressed with his transformation. From being a very talented young athlete, mentally a little fragile, to being where he is today is just pretty cool to see it, just sitting and watching him from the couch.”

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The pursuit of the calendar-year Grand Slam in 2021 left Djokovic exhausted, physically and emotionally. After winning his first 27 matches in majors, he lost the 28th, to Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final. Spending quality time with his family, rejuvenating body and soul for nearly two months without competitive tennis, helped him recharge for one last push for No. 1.

“The Grand Slam season I had – three wins and a final – that’s a lot of points, even though I have not played as many tournaments as most of my other rivals,” Djokovic said. “But Medvedev winning the US Open, he was close. I wanted to end the season strong. Historically, I had plenty of success indoors, won the title here in Paris five times. World Tour Finals, as well. So I kind of liked my chances coming into the indoor season finale.”

Ivanisevic, a distinguished former professional himself, played Sampras 18 times in his career. “Going ahead of Pete, he was an amazing tennis player,” Ivanisevic said. “And in this era with Nole chasing those records with the three of them [Federer and Nadal], it’s an unbelievable achievement. I’m proud to be a part of the team and see this from the front row.”   

“I’m very pleased with the way I managed to hold everything together and to focus myself only on the next match,” Djokovic said. “Reaching this milestone is something I’ll definitely cherish forever.

“It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of all the achievements while you’re still an active player, because you always have to look for the next challenge, the next tournament, so you keep going. I guess that I will be able to enjoy this success a bit more once I stop playing.”

"What Novak’s done over the past 10 years...to me it’s a clear sign that he is the greatest of all time.
Pete Sampras

Sampras’ involvement with the sport today consists of watching televised matches and rallying with his 16-year-old son, Ryan Nikolaos.

“For fun,” Sampras said. “I still enjoy hitting tennis balls. But it comes down to the movement and serving, the body doesn’t quite want to do it.”

He believes Djokovic will wind up with the most majors. That Djokovic came within one win of a Grand Slam – in this age of the Internet, with social media pressure and global coverage – impressed Sampras deeply.

“Seven years, for him, I’m sure he sees it as a bonus to all the majors that he’s won,” Sampras said. “But I think he’ll appreciate it more as he gets older. He did it at a time where he dominated two of the greats, in Roger and Rafa, and he handled the next generation of players very well – all at the same time.

“I do think what Novak’s done over the past 10 years, winning the majors, being consistent, finishing No. 1 for seven years, to me it’s a clear sign that he is the greatest of all time.”

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Novak Djokovic at the 2021 Rolex Paris Masters

No. 1 Highlights

Novak Djokovic serves at the 2021 Rolex Paris Masters
Novak Djokovic

2011

The Serbian’s first season as year-end No. 1 remains one of the greatest in tennis history. Djokovic began the year with his second career major when he dropped just nine games against Andy Murray in the Australian Open final. It was part of a remarkable 41-match winning streak, which was not broken until a semi-final defeat to Roger Federer at Roland Garros. Djokovic collected 10 trophies, including Dubai and Belgrade, and a then-record five at ATP Masters 1000 level. The 24-year-old first ascended to the World No. 1 and held it for the remainder of the year following victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Wimbledon semi-finals en route to the title. He later added the US Open for his third major of the season and finished with a 70-6 mark, including a 10-1 record against Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer combined.

Novak Djokovic celebrates with his team at the 2021 ATP Finals

2012

Djokovic picked up where he left off at Melbourne Park as he defended a Grand Slam title for the first time. He needed almost five hours to subdue Andy Murray before he denied Rafael Nadal in just under six hours in the longest major final in the Open Era. The Serbian defended his ATP Masters 1000 titles in Miami over Murray and Toronto against Richard Gasquet, before he added a third for the year in Shanghai at Murray’s expense. An ATP 500 title in Beijing made it a clean sweep in China. Federer defeated Djokovic at Wimbledon en route to reclaiming No. 1 but the Serb regained top spot in Paris and capped his 75-12 season with an unbeaten run to his second Nitto ATP Finals title, defeating Federer in the final.

Novak Djokovic at the 2014 Internazional BNL d'Italia in Rome

2014

Stan Wawrinka snapped the defending champion’s 25-match winning streak in the Australian Open quarter-finals on his way to a maiden major, but the Serbian rediscovered his best on hard courts in March, when he completed the Sunshine Double for the second time with finals victories over Federer in Indian Wells and Nadal in Miami. The Swiss ended Djokovic’s shot at a fifth straight ATP Masters 1000 title with victory in the Monte-Carlo semi-finals. The Serbian rebounded to land his 19th Masters 1000 trophy over Nadal in Rome before the Spaniard exacted revenge in the Roland Garros final – his first win in the pair’s ATP Head2Head rivalry in five matches. Djokovic’s first triumph over Federer in a major final soon followed as he picked up a seventh Grand Slam title at the All England and displaced Nadal from World No. 1. His fifth title in six years in Beijing preceded victory over Milos Raonic for his 20th Masters 1000 trophy in Paris before the Serbian blitzed all before him for his fourth Nitto ATP Finals triumph.

Novak Djokovic at the 2015 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells

2015

If Djokovic’s 2011 season was hailed one of the greatest, his 2015 run surely surpassed it. He compiled an 82-6 record and won 11 titles, which included three majors, the Nitto ATP Finals and a record six ATP Masters 1000 triumphs. For the first time, the Serbian ruled as World No. 1 for the entire season as he reached 15 straight finals and notched 31 Top 10 victories. A loss to Stan Wawrinka in the Roland Garros final was his lone defeat on the Grand Slam stages as he claimed a fifth Australian Open in the final against Murray, a third Wimbledon over Federer and his second US Open, also against Federer for his 10th major. It made him only the third man after Rod Laver and Federer to reach all four Slam finals in a season. After a successful defence of the Sunshine Double – against Federer in Indian Wells and Murray in Miami – Djokovic defeated Tomas Berdych in Monte-Carlo, which tied Federer for a 23rd Masters 1000 title. He surpassed his Swiss rival’s haul with a fourth trophy in Rome and added further silverware in Beijing, Shanghai and Paris, but fell one win shy of completing a career Golden Masters against Federer in Cincinnati.

Novak Djokovic

2018

Following a horror year by Djokovic’s standards, the Serbian’s slump continued into 2018. At the Australian Open he succumbed in the fourth round to Korean Hyeon Chung, an early exit that prompted right elbow surgery. Djokovic fell to No. 22 heading into the grass season but at Wimbledon he edged Nadal in a five-set match over two days before a defeat of Kevin Anderson landed him his first title of 2018. Djokovic finally secured the career Golden Masters with victory over seven-time champion Federer in Cincinnati and rode his confidence to a third US Open trophy. Victory against Juan Martin del Potro drew him level with Pete Sampras on 14 majors. A serving masterclass carried him to a second Masters 1000 title of the season in Shanghai over Borna Coric and soon after he returned to World No. 1. It had been two years since he last held the top ranking and he finished with a 53-13 mark.

Novak Djokovic

2020

Djokovic ensured he would finish a season with at least one major for the 10th time in the past 11 years with his record-extending eighth Australian Open title against Dominic Thiem. It capped a return to World No. 1 and an unbeaten run of 13 singles matches Down Under after guiding Serbia to the inaugural ATP Cup. Djokovic added a fifth title in Dubai, where he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final, before the ATP Tour’s hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Upon the resumption, Djokovic created more history with victory over Milos Raonic in the Cincinnati final, where he secured his second career Golden Masters and tied Rafael Nadal’s 35 Masters 1000 trophies. In September, the Serbian surpassed Sampras for second most weeks as World No. 1 before he collected a record 36th Masters 1000 title in Rome over Diego Schwartzman. Despite defeat to Nadal in the subsequent Roland Garros final, Djokovic rounded out the season with 41-5 record. He spent his 300th week at No. 1 in December.

Novak Djokovic at the 2021 Rolex Paris Masters

2021

An 18th Grand Slam singles title came at the Australian Open – Djokovic’s ninth at Melbourne Park – following a convincing victory over Daniil Medvedev. Eight days later, he tied Federer’s Open Era record of 310 weeks as World No. 1. Despite a more limited schedule in 2021, it was a mark he held for the entire season. The Serbian fell one victory shy of becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to achieve the Grand Slam at the US Open, when Medvedev avenged his Australian Open defeat. Djokovic matched Laver as the second man to have won each of the four majors twice when he surged back from two sets down against Tsitsipas in the Roland Garros final. He defeated Matteo Berrettini for his sixth Wimbledon singles title a month later, a feat which drew him level with Federer and Nadal on a record 20 majors. The Serb claimed a record-break 37th Masters 1000 title when he won a sixth Rolex Paris Masters crown on the eve of the Nitto ATP Finals, where he will attempt to match Federer’s feat of six titles at the season finale.

Novak Djokovic celebrates with his children after winning the 2021 Rolex Paris Masters