A year ago, Novak Djokovic was just another 23-year-old.
The self-proclaimed “last of a dying breed” of players who might have taken it a few extra years to reach the top of the tennis ranks, Djokovic’s style appealed to new and old fans, and he reigned as tennis’s biggest star. But when he lost in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals — to Andy Murray — everything changed. He spent two months nursing an injured elbow and was physically fragile for much of the year. From Wimbledon on, he waned in success — suffering early exits in his final eight tournaments of 2016 and, at age 30, being eliminated from the draw at the Australian Open at the start of the year.
After a win over Kei Nishikori at the China Open, Djokovic is heading to Japan. But after being off the tour for 12 weeks, he will not return to the No. 1 ranking.
“I always said that if I was not fit to give my best, I was not going to be in the rankings,” he said after winning in Beijing. “I have gone through that phase that I was not able to give my best for the most part. … It will always be disappointing in my career, mentally and physically, to go through that after so many years on the top of the ranking.”
Nigel Sears, Djokovic’s coach and father figure, and Carlos Rodriguez, his coach and long-time father figure, left the player’s camp for personal reasons and will not return this year. Their departures left a gap in the team that was evident as Djokovic struggled to regain his fitness and time off contributed to his loss of form.
“It was tough to get ready,” he said after beating Nishikori in Beijing. “This is probably the first year in my career when I didn’t play a lot of events. So it was tough. But, look, I tried.”
Djokovic has said he does not know what went wrong with his 2016 season. There was no need to research or delve deeply into why his body shut down. He was still an “elite player” and his ranking would have enough protection that there would be no massive drop in his total ranking. But a player of his stature is judged by his accomplishments over a long period of time, and that dovetailed with his declining results last year.
But Djokovic always makes it seem like he is seeking the assistance of a third party in his life. “I appreciate the love I have from the fans and the positive messages I’ve had the past weeks,” he said after his win in Beijing.
“One of the reasons I can appreciate it so much is because it took so long to reach this level of tennis and I did not play enough matches last year. So I’m grateful. I’m grateful for that sentiment and I appreciate it from beginning to end.”
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