Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon says So long to his favourite player.
Maybe Andy Murray will be next? Maybe he does it in 2018 too? God we hope not, but maybe?
The way he, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, tennis’s Big Four in this, the sport’s golden age, have been linked at every turn, it would seem only fitting.
But wait, pull what off exactly?
Well stop us if you’ve heard that one before but the headline goes a little like this: “Top player X, who’s never really seemed at ease throughout the season, uses early-ish loss at Wimbledon as excuse or reason to shut it down for the rest of the season.”
Nadal first did it, in 2012 (and almost again in 2014), and we saw Federer do the same thing last year. This year, it’s Djokovic’s turn, the Serb deciding to miss the remainder of the 2017 season due to an elbow injury.
Evidently, this is a blow for Djokovic, and tennis in general: the one man who had been a constant at the top and the centre of just about every single big match on the ATP World Tour since 2011, will miss more than five months of action.
What does this mean?
The first thing that strikes is how we don’t realize the extent of Djokovic’s dominance: consider that after winning Roland Garros last year, the Serb had just concluded a stretch where he had made 21 finals and won 17 titles at the previous 22 Grand Slams, Masters 1000’s and World Tour Finals that he had competed in. Regardless of who you are, you’re not a machine and such excellence will wear you down. Because ultimately in tennis, excellence breeds more excellence, which really just means more and more matches. You won your match? Oh congratulations, now play another match against a (likely) tougher and more difficult opponent.
Sometimes your body needs a break and in Djokovic’s case, it’s the elbow who finally gives in.
What else can we learn form this? Well, this erases what had been, really, a lost season and gives him a fresh and blank slate for 2018. There are some who believe that his elbow was an issue for some time, which explains his recent slide all the way back to No. 5 in the world because you don’t suddenly wake up one day and your elbow goes from 0 to 100% problematic.
There’s some truth to that but it’s not the end all, be all. Maybe Djokovic has had issues with his elbow for a long time, but he was still playing right? So whatever ailment might have hurt him, it wasn’t enough to prevent him from competing. If we’re ready to excuse players for non peak performances based on discomfort, we’re willing to bet that plenty of Djokovic’s competitors on Tour have issues of their own. Djokovic wasn’t at 100 per cent, but who really is?
However his elbow might have impeded him, it wasn’t enough to stop Djokovic from winning 32 of 40 matches in 2017, with two tournament titles and a little over $2 million in prize money. For plenty of players, this would be an entirely perfect and fine half season. If this kind of haul in July of a season feels disappointing for the Djoker, it’s only by comparison to how high he’s set the bar since 2011.
And however his elbow might have impeded him, it’s not what led to Djokovic basically panicking and firing his entire coaching staff not so long ago. So let’s chill a bit. He’s probably been hurt for some time, but it hadn’t been enough to stop playing. Now it is. Simple, no? He hadn’t been playing all that well recently and must have been thinking that this is the perfect time to get some well-deserved time off to regroup and recharge for 2018.
In the end, there is still hope for Djokovic: Nadal and Federer came back the following year almost better than ever.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG