Novak Djokovic’s latest comments confirm the clock is ticking on his career
Vulnerability is not a word that has been associated with Novak Djokovic in recent years, but he is displaying it in abundance right now.
Djokovic surpassed Rafael Nadal’s all-time record by reaching his 17th French Open quarter-final, with his polished performance to beat Juan Pablo Varillas 6-3 6-2 6-2 setting up a clash with 11th seed Karen Khachanov.
This win also allowed Djokovic surpass Rafael Nadal’s all-time record by reaching his 17th French Open quarter-final, even though he is a 12 title wins behind the great Spaniard at Roland Garros.
Yet the Djokovic we are seeing in Paris this year is portraying a very different aura than the winning machine who has dominated the sport in the last 10 years and more.
The 22-time Grand Slam champion has often managed injuries during tournaments, with his Australian Open win last January achieved as he nursed a hamstring problem.
Yet the words he has been offering in his press conferences in Paris confirm his body is not longer responding in the way he would like at the age of 36.
Wear and tear after so many titanic battles on the court means Djokovic is now getting used to a new reality at the back end of his remarkable sporting story.
“We don’t have much time to start to name the many injuries I have, and the list is quite long,” he said after his win against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Friday.
“I still kept on playing. These are the circumstances that you, as a professional athlete, have to deal with. Accept it.
“Sometimes you need help from a physio during the match. Sometimes you need pills. Sometimes you need help from the god or angels, or whoever.
“The reality for me nowadays is that my body is responding differently than it did a few years ago. I managed to finish the match.
“I don’t know how long I will continue to play, to be honest. I have asked this question also, but it’s not like I think about it all the time.
“The desire is still there, but things can change quickly – I am 36, I’ve been a pro for 20 years. I don’t like to look at age as a decisive factor, I pay attention to what my general state is like and whether I enjoy it.
“History is on the line, and it’s been like that for more than five years now. Almost any tournament there is something like ’oh, now you can achieve this or break this record’. I think I’ve broken a lot of records, but that still pushes me to keep going.”
While Djokovic will have an aura that intimidates his opponents every time he takes to the court, the image that he is an invincible winning machine is diluted by comments like those he has been uttering in recent days.
Opponents will now think they have a chance to beat the living legend and as Andy Murray has found in recent years, that demonised presence on a tennis court takes away one of your biggest weapons.
There is no suggestion that Djokovic is at the stage of his career comparable to that of Nadal, who faces a battle to get back on court as he battles a worrying hip problem and continues to fight with a chronic foot issue.
Yet there are clearly signs emerging, perfectly naturally, that Djokovic is also reaching the final chapters of his career.
With only for Grand Slam events each season, the great Serbian champion may only have 10 more chances to win the 23rd Grand Slam title that could ensure he is etched into tennis folklore as the greatest there has ever been.
Yet with Carlos Alcaraz rising impressively to the top of the ATP rankings and other young guns starting to see signs that Djokovic may be beatable at last, the next few months will be crucial to Novak’s hopes of winning his 23rd Slam.
Wimbledon may be the moment for him to seal that crowning glory as he will be the red-hot favourite when he gets back on grass courts once more next month.
Yet if he beaten in the final round of the French Open – possibly by Alcaraz at the semi-final stage – and then saw his enduring winning run at Wimbledon brought to an end, what appeared to be an inevitable march towards Grand Slam titles for Djokovic may suddenly become elusive.
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