Alexander Zverev’s ominous Novak Djokovic warning is about to be tested to the full

Kevin Palmer
Novak Djokovic at the Italian Open
Novak Djokovic on court at the Italian Open in Rome

The tennis world trying to comprehend a new reality building around Novak Djokovic and the next few weeks will confirm whether the most successful player of them all has, in fact, finished his reign as a winner.

The last two decades have been dominated by three great champions winning most of the top prizes, yet with Roger Federer retired and Rafael Nadal battling physical issues in what will be the final few months of his career, only Novak Djokovic remains standing proud from the ‘Big 3’.

When you have grown up in Zverev’s era, the notion that the door could be open to win a Grand Slam is hard to envisage as every time the next generation came knocking, Federer, Nadal or Djokovic refused to let them join their winners club.

Wins at Masters 1000 tournaments have been the crumbs offered up by the ‘Big 3’ as they hogged the Grand Slam titles for themselves, yet it feels very different heading into this major.

With Zverev now up to No 4 in the ATP Rankings and showing the kind of form that will make him a strong contender at the French Open, his hopes of lifting his first Grand Slam title in Paris appear to be on track.

The curiously uncertain form of world No 1 Djokovic and injury concerns for Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz also appear to be playing into Zverev’s hands, but he has made a bold prediction that the three players ahead of him in the ATP Rankings could all be threatening in at Roland Garros.

He has also suggested Djokovic’s poor form in 2024 can be reversed quickly when he gets back into a Grand Slam arena, while he also backed 14-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal to shine at a venue where he has enjoyed so much glory.

READ MORE: Alexander Zverev makes Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal predictions as he analyses French Open rivals

“Nole is going to be at his best, you’ll see. It’s just the way it is,” said Zverev.

“Rafa is going to play a lot better than he did in Madrid and Rome. I’m certain about that.

“The other two (Sinner and Alcaraz), they just depend on health. If they’re healthy, they’re two of the best players in the world, for sure, and there’s no question about it.

“Whether or not they are healthy, I cannot answer because I don’t know. I’m not inside their body. I saw Jannik posted a picture of him practicing again, so I’m assuming he’s fine and feeling good on the tennis court.

“Look, it’s all about health. When they’re healthy, they’re two of the best players in the world.”

Zverev’s comments would not have looked misplaced in the middle of last year, when Djokovic was sweeping all before him on any surface and yet the mood has changed.

Djokovic’s straight sets loss against Chile’s Alejandro Tabilo at the Rome Masters was alarming on a number of levels, with the Serbian admitting he didn’t feel good on court and questioning whether the accidental strike he took on the head from a fan’s water bottle had caused him to turn in one of his worst performances in two decades.

Medical checks confirmed there was nothing wrong with Djokovic, yet his decision to play in this week’s Geneva Open confirms he is searching for form heading into the key phase of his season.

If he can find his best tennis again, the injury concerns around world No 2 Jannik Sinner and No 3 Carlos Alcaraz appear to play into Djokovic’s hands, but this is a new era of tennis laced with uncertainty.

The Djokovic we have seen in the opening half of 2024 will not reach the latter stages at Roland Garros and while history tells us the greatest champions find a way to peak when it matters most, his appearance in Geneva this week confirms he is concerned about his form ahead of Paris.

The sands of time have never been beaten and while Djokovic appears to be fit physically ahead of his 37th birthday this Wednesday, the curious events on and off the court in 2024 leave questions over whether his desire to win remains strong enough to continue his success.

Even the greatest champions don’t know when their powers of recovery have tipped over an edge that makes it tough for them to be the best and while Zverev may expect the Djokovic of old to show up in Paris, the truth is not even Nole knows whether that ultimate warrior will be unleashed again.

Tennis has not had a Grand Slam as open as the upcoming French Open on the men’s side in two decades and it should make for compelling viewing.