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Novak Djokovic's Return To The Elite

In the spring, he was in the worst slump of his career. Two grand slams later, he’s back to No. 1. Writer Michael Steinberger takes us inside Djokovic’s return to the elite.

Michael Steinberger

Novak Djokovic and I are discussing dinosaurs. It’s a Sunday afternoon in August, and we’re talking velociraptors and sauropods in a darkened room underneath the Aviva Centre, outside Toronto. The 31-year-old Serb is in Canada for his first tournament since winning Wimbledon three weeks earlier, a victory that snapped a bizarre two-year slump. Virtually overnight, he’d gone from being arguably the most dominant player the men’s game had ever seen to a guy on the verge of, well, extinction.

Djokovic tells me that his now-4-year-old son, Stefan, who stole the spotlight during the Wimbledon trophy ceremony with his beaming smile and exuberant clapping, is obsessed with dinosaurs. Which is why when his family—in addition to Stefan, there’s his wife, Jelena, and the couple’s 1-year old daughter, Tara—joins him in New York for the U.S. Open, dinosaur tourism will be atop the agenda. I mention that I’ve spent many hours in the American Museum of Natural History with my kids, and Djokovic leans forward. “I’ve heard that they have, like, sleepovers and stuff?” It’s unclear whether he’s inquiring for Stefan or for himself. A moment later, he says, “I’ll have to try to get a dinosaur outfit.”

Adventures with his family do not distract Djokovic from his business on the court. Five weeks after he and I meet in Toronto, he adds the U.S. Open to his Wimbledon crown. (For the record, he did not wear a dinosaur suit.) Not content with back-to-back majors, Djokovic sets his sights on ending the year ranked No. 1. By November, he completes the swiftest surge to the top in men’s tennis history—21 spots in five months—to cap a resurrection nearly as swift as his downfall.

When we speak during the Nitto ATP Finals in London in November, he tells me it has all happened sooner than expected. “The U.S. Open was the target, but it arrived earlier, at Wimbledon, and we were more than happy to welcome it,” he says brightly after a straight-set win over Marin Cilic. While making no predictions about 2019, he says he’s now playing as well as he ever has, if not better. “Looking solely from a technical standpoint and where my game is at, I do feel like I’m at times even better than I was during my best days in 2015 and ’16, when I was probably playing the best tennis of my career.”

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December 2018/January 2019

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