Not many people can storm back from a Grand Slam final defeat with a run of 24 consecutive wins to close out a long and gruelling season of tennis. But Novak Djokovic is not many people.
In fact his animalistic hunger for success was only eclipsed by one man this year. A man whose explosive season meant that Djokovic’s 74 match wins, seven titles and current winning streak still confined the Serb to second best.
Still, not even world No1 Rafael Nadal himself can discourage Djokovic, who responded to his three straight losses to the Spaniard at Roland Garros, Montreal and the US Open, with back-to-back wins over Nadal in Beijing and the ATP World Tour Finals in London. Both were in straight sets and with identical score lines.
The pair finish the year 3-3 head-to-head and with a mere 770 points separating them in the rankings.
From Djokovic’s point of view, the season has been a good one, despite his losses to Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final and Nadal in the French Open semi-finals and the US Open final.
“I think this year was very successful overall. I played consistently well throughout the year so that’s something that makes me happy,” Djokovic told Sport360°.
“I had three tough losses this year in Grand Slams, so I will take my lessons from there and work on getting better.”
Of those three losses, the 26-year-old admits that one particularly stood out.
“Losing to Rafa in the semis of the French Open was the hardest for me. I really wanted that one but it was not to be,” he added.
It was a match that prevented Djokovic from pursuing the career Grand Slam, and even though he was up a break in the final set, the Serb eventually succumbed to the ‘King of Clay’ 9-7 in the fifth.
Facing off six times in one year and pushing each other to their limits, one would think Nadal and Djokovic would have had enough of each other for one season.
But the world’s top two players spent the last few days in Chile and Argentina, playing exhibition matches, joking around like they were BFFs, and not the rivals who spent the better part of the season ripping each other apart on court.
Branding Djokovic and Nadal friends remains a stretch but the Serb does have the utmost respect for his nemesis, particularly this year, where Nadal returned from a seven-month injury layoff to regain control of the world rankings.
“Coming back from being injured is not easy at all, so I was impressed with how well he managed to bounce back,” Djokovic said.
Murray is another opponent who poses a special threat to Djokovic. They also have a unique relationship, having played through their junior years together and with them being born one week apart.
This year Murray lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open final but got the better of the Serb at Wimbledon. It is yet another thriving rivalry that promises to continue in the new season.
When asked which rivalry he feels is more special to him, Djokovic said: “Of late I have met Rafa and Andy most so they have become rivals if you like. I guess the matches we play are very special because beating them means I get to take home the trophy.”
The trio will reunite four weeks from now in Abu Dhabi for the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, which can provide a compelling teaser for the 2014 season.
The forecast for next year indicates that Nadal, Djokovic and Murray will once again contend for the big titles but the world No2 predicts one more player can squeeze himself in and shake the order.
“Delpo (Juan Martin Del Potro) played excellent tennis this year and he can definitely surprise us next season – he’s the one to watch out for,” he opined.
A prediction that comes as no surprise considering four of their five matches this year have gone to the final set.
Roger Federer is another opponent who has given Djokovic a run for his money in the final two weeks of the season. The Swiss 17-time Grand Slam champion had a year to forget but stepped up in the final stretch, showing glimpses of his former magic in his two tight losses to Djokovic in Paris and London.
Of Federer’s chances in 2014, Djokovic said: “He can probably win a Grand Slam next year, but there are many players out there who will be motivated to beat him. So it’s not entirely up to him, but also up to other players.”
Looking ahead, Djokovic says his top priority remains to win more Grand Slams. As the three-time defending champion at the Australian Open – the opening major of the season – Djokovic has a chance to produce the kind of monopoly in Melbourne that resembles Nadal’s stronghold on Roland Garros.
But the Belgrade-born star says ruling Melbourne Park is not his main aspiration: “I hope to do many great things, but I aspire to stay healthy and injury free, and then the rest will follow.”
Off the court, Djokovic wishes to pursue other battles. The Serb may be the funny and diplomatic character in the press room, but one topic that brings out the serious side in him is the troubles players face with the ATP and the changes he would like to see.
On what he would change about the current system, Djokovic said: “First thing that I would tackle would be the relationship between players and the ATP. I wish they would take our interest in front of others. It makes no sense to have them represent both players and tournaments when our interests conflict so much. It should be separated or at the very least, handled better.”
He also aspires to bring upon change in his home country, Serbia, and has constantly stated his mission of trying to improve the poor reputation that has accompanied the nation since the 1990s.
His influence in Serbia is beyond that of any regular tennis player and many have joked that he could be the future president of his country. But Djokovic says he does not wish to pursue a career in politics.
“I wish to help my country in many ways, but not as a politician,” he stated. “Novak Djokovic Foundation is helping Serbia quite a lot by taking care of disadvantaged children and helping them access quality education.
"We are opening kindergartens, playgrounds, training teachers and helping institutions, and that means a lot to my country.”
BACK IN ABU DHABI
How important is the MWTC for your preparation for Australia?
Very important since that is the only event I will play before going to Melbourne. The conditions are great and I get to have a couple of good matches under my belt before the first Grand Slam of the season.
You’ve won four times in Dubai and three times in Abu Dhabi. How do you explain your great record here?
I feel good playing there. I feel at home. That makes a difference for sure.
What kind of memories do you have from playing here?
I have many great memories from the UAE. I love to see how it grows year after year, conditions are great. Hotels, food, climate, hospitality, fans, organisation of the event… everything is absolutely perfect for a player. I really appreciate coming here year after year, and I have great results too.
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He had a career that spanned 18 years where he won nine Grand Slam doubles titles. A former world No1 in doubles and No4 in singles, Jonas Bjorkman quit tennis aged 36 back in 2008.
The Swede made a surprise appearance on tour last month in Stockholm, where he briefly stepped out of retirement to partner his countryman Robert Lindstedt in the doubles draw of a tournament, of which he is also the Marketing Director.
We caught up with him in Dubai at the Jebel Ali Golf Resort where he was giving tennis lessons.
Q You playing Stockholm was quite a surprise considering you’re retired and haven’t played in five years…
A It was a surprise for me as well – I didn’t expect it at all. I’m a good friend of Robert Lindstedt – he’s the best doubles player in Sweden right now – and I’m a little bit of a mentor for him.
This year has been very tough for him. He played with (Nenad) Zimonjic first, didn’t work out. Then he played with Daniel Nestor, didn’t work out.
And after the Open, he lost the inspiration and fun to be on the court. So he asked me if I can start training and maybe just play Stockholm because he didn’t have anyone to play with for the rest of the season.
The best part was that my son was able to see it. He was travelling on tour with me for five years but he was too young to realise when he said hello to Roger Federer, he didn’t really know Roger (the player), it was more that he was a friend of dad.
So for him to be watching, I could see how excited he was. In the end it turned out to be a much better week than I expected, us being in the final. But it was only one shot, there will not be a repeat that’s for sure. I told Robert, this was truly a favour for him as a friend.
It’s quite a coincidence that Joachim Johansson also stepped out of retirement and qualified for the singles draw and even made it to the second round…
I think he saw that I did it then he felt that he had to do it. He felt ‘Jonas is getting all the attention now, so maybe I have to do it as well’ (laughs).
It was very surprising, we didn’t even know. The owners of the tournament wanted to give him a wildcard. It was a big issue back home because he took a wildcard from the junior that he’s coaching. So good things and bad things. It was good for us as a tournament because he drew the attention and maybe more people coming because he was doing well. For Swedish tennis maybe it wasn’t that good because some of the juniors didn’t get the possibility to play.
I think for Joachim, it was a strange decision when he tried to come back and then once he started to play one or two tournaments he stopped and said he’d retired. I think mentally he wasn’t ready to stop but he still stopped, I don’t know why, nobody knows why, and I think it’s a shame because he could have done so much more with his tennis and I think maybe he regrets that he stopped and maybe that’s why he came back now.
I think yes, he could have done something more out of it. To come back now, most likely he could but it depends how far up. He might be able to get to top 50 but it’s a long way to do it week by week and I’m not if he’s mentally ready to do that and it’s unfortunate because I think he should’ve done that four, five years ago.
How do you explain this bizarre decline in Swedish tennis, your highest ranked player is No409 in the world?
Starting with Bjorn Borg we had such a great run in the 1980s and ‘90s with Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and all of them. People took for granted that Swedish players would dominate. We were almost too good to be true in a way.
Joakim Nystrom was No11 in the world but he was not good enough to be on the Swedish Davis Cup team. We are suffering a little bit because of that because everyone expects it to be like it was in the ‘80s.
Tennis has changed, many more countries are playing, so it’s a much wider sport than before.
We have dropped also because we lost all our great coaches. All the great coaches that we had got great offers from international sides. Peter Lundgren was coaching Roger Federer, my coach was coaching Mario Ancic and we had some in the English federation. So our juniors haven’t been able to get the coaching level they should have.
Any news on Robin Soderling, have you seen him recently?
He wants to be back, there’s no doubt. Every time we come to Bastad or Stockholm, he more or less disappears because he doesn’t want to be too close. But I practised with him two weeks before the tournament.
He plays maybe twice a week but very very slow. Maybe five, 10 minutes then he rests for 10 minutes. So he’s still suffering from his illness and it’s a shame. Because the way he hits the ball, if he’s able to be completely healthy, it’s no doubt that he’ll be top 20 in six to eight months because he hits the ball so well.
He has to do a lot of work obviously because he’s dropped so many kilos because he has no muscles left. His physique is not there, he has to do a lot, but once he gets to that stage he can be top 20, I think even top 10.
You’re someone who was ranked No4 in singles and also made it to No1 in doubles, do you think it’s hard now for players to be able to play both consistently?
I disagree that it’s tougher now to play singles and doubles. It’s just a question of how strong you are mentally.
I think it’s a shame that more players aren’t playing more doubles because I think they can benefit from it. You have four guys who are winning almost all the Grand Slams, Masters 1000 and even the 500s. You have Berdych who is a solid top 10 and he still hasn’t won a tournament this year. So obviously he’s missing something to challenge the top guys.
I think players should definitely work on their volleys and the best way to improve your volley is match practice – that’s doubles. It would be like homework, how to challenge the top four. That all comes to volley.
Looking back at your career, which moments stand out that you’re most proud of?
Most proud of would be Davis Cup. As a Swede it’s the biggest achievement to represent your country. That was a dream I had since I was 12 years old when Mats Wilander, Henrik Sundstrom and Anders Jarryd and Stefan Edberg beat the US, who had the No1 and No2 John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Peter Fleming and McEnroe had never lost a doubles match so beating them was almost impossible. And Sweden won. And from that time I already felt that that was something I always wanted to do. It was a big goal. And once I got to play for Sweden, there was nothing better, to hear the national anthem, to be standing there with a Swedish jersey, that stands out. And to be able to win three times was phenomenal, I’m so happy with that.
I would also say Wimbledon stands out because for me it’s the biggest event you can ever play in tennis. So winning Wimbledon with Todd Woodbridge that’s something that I also feel very proud of and also winning the Stockholm Open. Because winning at home is something you always want to do.
You reached your first Grand Slam semifinal in singles in 1997 at the US Open, then nine years later you reached another one at Wimbledon at 34. Not a typical pattern for a tennis career…
I had my best time in 1997, ranking-wise, when I reached No4 in the world and made the US Open semis. If you come to one match that I regret, it’s that I lost to Greg Rusedski in those semi-finals, because I think I was 8-1 head-to-head going into that match. It was a match I felt very comfortable with because I beat him so many times and then I let myself down.
In 2006, that year I only won two matches going into Nottingham and that was the first time I thought maybe it’s time to stop. I remember I asked Todd Martin in the locker room in Queen’s about how I would know when to stop and he said since I’m still enjoying practising and playing then I’m not ready to stop yet.
So I changed my approach. Going into Nottingham was just about enjoying it, having fun and trying to win the match. And all of a sudden I made the final.
What are your memories from the 2006 Wimbledon and your semi-final with Roger Federer?
The best part is that at 34 I could enjoy it much more than I did in 1997. I would walk from the house over to Wimbledon meeting many people on the way who congratulated me and I enjoyed that.
Everything around that great run was something I can remember and appreciate much more because I was more experienced. Even though I was beaten badly by Roger, I couldn’t be disappointed because he was hitting the ball so well.
I felt that I just had the best seat in the house watching him playing at his best. I asked him afterwards, ‘how did you see the ball, it must have been this big?’ (gestures to something big with his hands) and he said ‘no, maybe more like a basketball’. I still remember it.
You also had a unique experience playing doubles with John McEnroe when he made a sudden comeback in San Jose in 2006…
That was phenomenal. When I got that call I was like ‘why me?’ It was the easiest decision I ever made. Him and Borg are still the two icons in tennis I think and it was such a great honour.
He’s such a fantastic character. There was one call, I hit a volley and the umpire called it out. I was about to object and then I’ve never seen someone so quick getting from the baseline, I was at the net, and he was pushing me away saying ‘I got this’. It was so funny.
How do you spend most of your time now?
When I stopped and got the opportunity to be involved with Swedish tournaments, first Bastad and now the same group runs Stockholm, I never expected it to be that much work. If I had known I wouldn’t have complained as much as a player. It’s been a great experience, I’ve done it now for four years as a marketing director of the tournament. I also do commentating from Sweden and also Bastad and Wimbledon live, which is more fun than sitting in a box in Stockholm when they’re playing in Cincinnati.
Thomas Johansson and myself started a tennis academy in Sweden but we run it in Portugal, it’s called Peak Tennis Academy. It’s for happy amateurs, passionate about tennis and they get four and a half days to live like a pro. They play tennis in the morning, then massage, lunch, tennis in the afternoon, massage and then presentations every night, how to play against a pusher, how to play doubles, equipment… we have a personal trainer as well that can give them programmes to do at home and we film them as well so they can see themselves playing. It’s a lot of fun.
Serena Williams wrapped up her bulldozing season on Sunday with her 11th title of the year, 78th win, a record prize money in 2013, and a hardly believable statement: “Honestly, did I really win?”
Williams said she was tired and that she couldn’t believe she won but considering she’s lost only four times this year, I’m not sure how she’s still pretending to be surprised when she wins.
Granted Li Na started strong to take a one set lead but the second the Chinese failed to convert any of her break point chances in the opening game of the second set, it was all over.
False modesty or not, what Williams has done this season has been nothing short of mind-blowing and to put 2013 into perspective, the 11 titles the 32-year-old has won this year amount to 20 per cent of the total number of titles she’s won in her entire career. That’s a lot to ask of a mere 10 months in a career that started 18 years ago.
Victoria Azarenka, Sabine Lisicki and Sloane Stephens are the only three women to beat Williams this year and considering how historic this year has been for the American, we’d better remember those three names because they will likely be answers to a trivia question in the near future.
The question is, can anyone other than Serena stop Serena next season?
THUMBS UP – Juan Martin del Potro The Argentine has now beaten Roger Federer in their last three meetings, two of which have come in the Swiss’ hometown, Basel.
Del Potro has won 14 of his last 15 matches and it’s great to see him make three straight finals and respond to his loss to Djokovic in Shanghai with a title run in Switzerland. Now it’s time he keeps up this form through the World Tour Finals in London.
THUMBS DOWN – Roger Federer He was doing so well before he blinked early in the decider to hand del Potro the break and it was game over after that. For someone who is still trying to qualify to London, a lapse in concentration like that is not acceptable.
Federer now has a must-win match against either Mikhail Youzhny or Kevin Anderson in the second round in Paris to secure his place in London.
WEEK AHEAD Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be battling it out in Paris to book their tickets to London. Rafael Nadal is the top seed and has defending champion David Ferrer in his half of the draw, while Novak Djokovic is seeded second.