Ranked number 22 in June, Novak Djokovic has an excellent chance to be back at number one by November. No man has made it to the top from so far back in the same season since the ATP rankings began in 1973, and Djokovic has put himself on the brink by recovering his precision, his swagger and his longtime coach and mentor Marian Vajda.
Djokovic was an unforced-error machine as recently as March, losing in his opening round in Indian Wells, California, and in Miami. But he is an unstoppable force now. After rehiring Vajda in April and bouncing back from a demoralizing quarter-final defeat at the French Open to outsider Marco Cecchinato, Djokovic has triumphed at Wimbledon, the Cincinnati Masters, the US Open and the Shanghai Masters.
He has steadied his baseline game, shored up his serve and won 18 consecutive official singles matches and 27 of his past 28. He has won 26 straight official sets, with only two of those requiring a tie breaker.
He is well within reach of the top ranking again at this week's Paris Masters. Rafael Nadal, who is in Paris and expected to return to action, still holds the top spot by little more than 200 points. He has not played since retiring against Juan Martín del Potro in the semi-finals of the US Open.
Some 1,000 points will go to the champion in Paris, and Djokovic does not have a single point to defend for the rest of the season, which, if he stays healthy, will also include the World Tour Finals in London in mid-November. Unless Nadal returns in very rare form indoors in what has traditionally been his weakest phase of the season, Djokovic will be the year-end number one, just as he was in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015.
"It's amazing in two ways," said Paul Annacone, former coach of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. "It's amazing to be that good and let it drop, and amazing to come back in the way that Novak has come back."
Djokovic is 31, which was once twilight time for tennis stars, but no longer: Seven of this week’s top 10 are in their 30s. Sampras was 31 when he emerged from a funk to win his 14th and final Grand Slam singles title at the 2002 US Open. He never played another official match, announcing his retirement the next year.
Before winning the 2002 Open, Sampras experienced one of the most humiliating setbacks of his career, falling to George Bastl, a lucky loser from Switzerland, in the second round of Wimbledon.
“I always felt and still feel that you can’t take away greatness,” Annacone said. “In other words, you’re not all of a sudden not great anymore. But what happens, I’ve seen, is that you can’t sustain it for long periods of time, so when I talked to Pete after he lost to George Bastl, I knew he could win another major. That’s what he wanted, not number one but another major.”
But, he added, “that was one major. What Novak has done by winning two majors and dominating the second half of the year has been another level in terms of consistency.”
Djokovic had no wins over top 10 players in the first five months of 2018. He has nine since June, defeating Federer, Nadal, Del Potro and Alexander Zverev, and beating Kevin Anderson twice.
"The key to everything has been Novak bringing back his old team, including Marian," said Brad Stine, Anderson's coach. "I've known Marian a long time, and he's always been the stable factor. Novak's been a guy who historically over the course of his career has brought in a lot of quote-unquote specialists to work on different aspects of his game, but Marian's always been the guy there day in and day out."
Luckily for Djokovic, Vajda, whom he had fired in May 2017, was still available. Vajda said he had rejected offers to coach other players and to become Slovakia's Davis Cup captain. "I had the feeling that I am still empty and I have no energy to start really working. I didn't feel it somehow that I really have to go back to tennis, so I was still postponing, postponing, postponing."
But in late March, Vajda said he finally began to feel that it was time. “The next day he called me,” Vajda said of Djokovic. “It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it.”
Since rejoining forces with Vajda in Marbella, Spain, on April 5th, they have shored up Djokovic’s groundstrokes and his serve, which has intermittently been an area of concern and had resumed being so with the right elbow problems that required outpatient surgery in February.
Above all, Djokovic, one of the greatest returners in history, is back to attacking serves with his fast-twitch accuracy of yore. “He knows it, and believe me, what’s more important is that the guys on the other side of the net know it,” Annacone said. “They know that if they miss a target with a serve by four inches, they in all likelihood will be in a defensive position in one or two shots. It’s just relentless pressure.”
And a very quick climb back from the valley – with just a few steps left until the summit.
– New York Times