TURIN, Italy — He has been detained and then deported from one country and barred from entering two others that are major stops on the tennis circuit.
His steadfast refusal to get vaccinated against Covid-19 has forced him to miss large chunks of the season and to figure out how to stay sharp as he waited by the phone for calls that never came telling him that travel rules had changed. He was ailing and forced to go the distance in a largely meaningless match Friday against Daniil Medvedev of Russia.
For Novak Djokovic, it’s been a year. He stubbornly surrendered a chance to defend his Australian Open title, fell at the French Open in a quarterfinal thriller to his rival Rafael Nadal, hoisted the trophy at Wimbledon and gave up a chance to play in the U.S. Open.
But as the 2022 tennis season grinds mercifully to a close at the ATP Finals, men’s tennis remains much the same. Djokovic, despite his year as a part-time superstar, plays the sport at one level, especially on indoor hardcourts, while competitors try to figure out how to catch up or wonder if Djokovic will ever end their misery and quit.
For the time being, betting on either of those outcomes would seem ill-advised. And so, resignation, even at the end of a year that might have crushed so many others.
Listen to Casper Ruud, the world’s fourth-ranked player and a two-time Grand Slam finalist this year, including on the hardcourts of the U.S. Open. If his life depended on the outcome of a match on an indoor hard court, he would turn over his racket to someone else.
“I would choose Novak,” Ruud, a soft-spoken Norwegian, said this week.
Or Andrey Rublev, a 25-year-old Russian with a forehand that so many pros lust after.
“Every tournament that he plays, he’s the favorite,” Rublev said not long after enduring a 6-4, 6-1 drubbing from Djokovic on Wednesday.
Rublev appeared dazed as he spoke, his flowing, strawberry blond hair pushed in every direction, as though instead of playing Djokovic he’d spent an hour spinning in a clothes drier. The two experiences may feel frighteningly similar, especially when Djokovic enters his zone, which he most certainly had.
Djokovic called it one of the best matches he has played all year.
“Everything was flowing fantastically well,” he said Wednesday. It’s worth noting Djokovic is 35. Pete Sampras, the winner of 14-Grand slam titles, retired at 32.
Medvedev, who earlier this year ended Djokovic’s latest two-year run atop the world rankings, had the Serbian gasping for air and ingesting energy drinks during their physical, three-hour duel that was as intense as a quasi practice match gets. Medvedev lost his first two matches of the tournament’s round robin, ending his hopes of advancing to Saturday’s semifinals. Despite not feeling his best, Djokovic prevailed, 6-3, 6-7(5), 7-6(2), even though Medvedev served for the match in the third set. He pounded his heart with his fist after a laser forehand down the line clinched it. He will face Taylor Fritz on Saturday in a semifinal.
Power, touch, speed, aggression: Djokovic has shown it all this week. His impressive run at this tournament — wins against the third-, fifth- and seventh-ranked players already — has coincided with the best news he has gotten all year. Earlier this week, Australia cleared the way for him to seek his 22nd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, lifting a three-year ban from the country that the previous government imposed when he was deported over his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid.
Djokovic remained unvaccinated through late summer but has said little about his status since then. He has said that vaccination should be a personal decision and not something that a government should impose on anyone.
Nevertheless, Australian officials confirmed on Tuesday that the cancellation of his visa had been revoked by Immigration Minister Andrew Giles. Djokovic can now apply for a new visa, which is expected to be quickly approved.
“A relief, obviously, knowing what I and people closest to me in my life have been through this year with what happened in Australia and post-Australia obviously,” he said. “I could not receive better news.”
After so much tumult — all of it self-inflicted — life is good for Djokovic, at least for now.
During his matches on Wednesday and Friday, his wife and children sat courtside. Their home in Monaco is just a three-hour drive from Turin. His 5-year-old daughter, Tara, chewed on a fuzzy pair of ear muffs as she watched. His 8-year-old son, Stefan, imitated his father’s signature roars on his best shots.
Djokovic said that Wednesday marked the first match that both his children were able to sit through from start to finish. Having them around brings him “harmony,” he said — not a word often associated with one of the sport’s most intense and polarizing players. That effect is especially profound on match days, when their presence eases him. Stefan, who is already showing promise, likes to assist Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, during his practice sessions, helping to pick up balls and giving his father the occasional pointer.
Whether the joy and peace that the presence of his family brings have contributed to a near flawless level of tennis is anyone’s guess. In addition to being nearly untouchable during his career indoors on hardcourts, Djokovic also arrived at this tournament with a distinct advantage.
After the slog of an 11-month season, his competition is playing on fumes. Not Djokovic. His stance on vaccination cost him a month in Australia in January, two important tournaments in March and April in California and Florida, and the North American summer hardcourt swing that concluded at the U.S. Open. He has roughly three fewer months of matches on his aging legs than most of his opponents, and it has shown. He is 24-2 since the start of Wimbledon in late June.
“Very unusual year for me,” he said this week. “I missed some big tournaments, two out of four slams. To be able to play as well I am playing in the last few months is something I’m very thankful for and I worked hard for, because I had more time to train, to practice.”
In other words, instead of spending the lulls on the beach, Djokovic kept practicing, trying to stay sharp, “trying to perfect my game,” as he put it, to show the world that no matter what his ranking is (8) or who now holds the titles he won last year, he is the best player in the world.
Moving forward, his toughest challenge may be controlling his impetuous nature that every so often makes life difficult, either by staging a tennis exhibition in the early months of the pandemic, or inadvertently hitting a line judge with a ball, or starting a rival players association to challenge sport’s status quo.
But then, maybe he would not be Novak Djokovic.