Novak Djokovic has not choked in a decade so will his Davis Cup meltdown leave a lasting scar?
The tennis world did not see this coming.
This last 12 months have cemented Novak Djokovic’s legacy as the greatest player of all-time, with his ability to find a way to win against all-comers only challenged by Carlos Alcaraz in a wonderful Wimbledon final last July.
Djokovic bounced back from that defeat on the Centre Court grass by winning the Cincinnati Masters, US Open, Paris Masters and ATP Finals as he confirmed his dominance over his rivals was complete.
Jannik Sinner’s win against Djokovic in the group stages of the ATP Finals was the only blot on that glorious winning, yet his ultimate win against the young Italian in the final of the end-of-season championships ensured the memory was quickly erased.
The same redemption will not be coming so quickly for Djokovic after his latest run-in with Sinner.
Djokovic’s majestic display in the decisive match of ATP Finals in Turin suggested he solved the Sinner problem for now, with the young Italian well beaten by the world No 1 in front of his home fans.
Yet this story had one final chapter to add in 2023 and this match will be remembered for a long time to come.
First, there was Sinner’s comprehensive 6-2 in the first set, with the crowd in Malaga stunned by what was being presented to them.
There was an air of inevitability around Djokovic’s fightback and as he held a 0-40 lead on Sinner’s serve that gave him three match points at 5-4 in the third set, the phones were raised around the area to capture the moment of victory for the great champion.
Miormir Kecmanovic’s impressive win against Lorenzo Musetti in the opening match of Serbia’s Davis Cup semi-final against Italy appeared to be a decisive blow with Djokovic heading into his latest battle with Sinner.
Novak had not lost a live Davis Cup match since 2009 and there was no reason to believe this was the moment it was about to happen.
As Djokovic failed to convert any of the match points and then surrendered his own serve in the next game that included a curious serve and volley second serve on break point, Sinner was suddenly on the brink of victory.
READ MORE: WATCH: Jannik Sinner shows there is no quit in him in incredible double Davis Cup win over Novak Djokovic
This felt like Mike Tyson being knocked out when he was the invincible heavyweight champion of the world or Tiger Woods missing a putt on the 18th green at Augusta with a Masters green jacket in his grasp.
And then it happened, with the noise around the area more of shock and awe than it was celebration.
The loud choir of Serbian fans were stunned to see their idol downed in a manner we have not seen for a long time as this looked like Djokovic choking at the point of victory.
The words ‘Djokovic’ and ‘choking’ have not set alongside each other too often in the last decade, but they were apt here.
That he then went out and lost the decisive doubles with Kecmanovic to hand Italy a famous win rubbed salt in Djokovic’s wounds. He will now have the unfamiliar experience of spending the next month away from the court wondering how it all happened.
Novak’s personality means he will feel he let his country down, but that barb can never be thrown at him.
No, this may have been one match too far for Djokovic at the end of a long hard season and that is certainly how he will want to view it as he quickly turns his thoughts to winning a remarkable 11th Australian Open title in January.
Yet for the rest of the ATP Tour’s leading contenders, the sight of Djokovic crumbling under pressure will give them real hope that 2024 could provide a different narrative in the men’s game.
Great champions have often suggested the nerves are harder to deal with at the back end of their career as they don’t know how many more chances they will have to win the big prizes.
Djokovic may never be in a position to add a Davis Cup win to his record which already includes a glorious victory back in 2010, but the bigger picture must be what happens next.
When Sinner plays Djokovic next, he will know this great champion is capable of faltering when the winning line in in sight, with Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev equally aware that the great man is beatable.
Time catches up on every sporting legend and while one defeat does not signal the end of the Djokovic era in men’s tennis, the script played out in this latest meeting with Sinner had an ending that could leave a lasting scar.
Djokovic has spoken about the aura he feels he brings onto a tennis court, but that was shaken against Sinner in Malaga and you wonder whether it will rattle his unshakable belief when he return to Melbourne.
In addition, the chasing pack may dare to believe there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel Novak had them locked in.
Let’s see if they can turn it on in 2024.
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