Immersive Feature: At Tennis’ Summit, Djokovic Stands Alone | ATP Tour

And true to his word, that’s precisely what Djokovic did this year, eclipsing Sampras’ record.

For striving is what Djokovic does best. From the beginning of his career, he has relentlessly attacked his weaknesses, turning them into strengths. His second serve is no longer a liability, the forehand, which sometimes broke down under pressure, is nearly infallible, the questionable fitness level that once caused him to bail out of some notable matches might be his greatest asset today. Djokovic’s eating, sleeping and resting habits, honed by experience and research, are the model for a professional athlete. Perhaps his overhead is a little dicey, but it just means he’s actually human.

“Novak was really concentrated, he was always motivated,” Ivanisevic said. “He always finds some kind of motivation. He wants to be better every day. Something was working today, tomorrow this is not good enough – has to be perfect. Those kind of guys, when they step on the court they just want to win, simple as that.”

Like his strategic on-court approach – no one hits his spots like Djokovic – there is a pattern to his No. 1 finishes. Unlike Sampras, when he did it six straight times, Djokovic historically sustains the immense effort for two years at a time. He’s gone back-to-back three times now, in 2011-12, 2014-15 and 2020-21.

After Federer and Nadal combined for seven straight year-end No. 1s, Djokovic broke through in 2011. He won three majors that year, which, since the FedEx ATP Rankings originated in 1973, has been a 100-per cent indicator for finishing on top. Connors, Mats Wilander, Nadal, Federer (3), and Djokovic (3) were 9-for-9 in that respect. Focusing increasingly on majors, as Federer and Nadal have later in their careers, has been the critical factor in Djokovic’s success.

In the seven seasons Djokovic finished No. 1, he won 47 titles, including 14 of his 20 majors and produced a 430-56 win-loss record.

“When you start with an Australian Open win at the beginning of the year, which I’ve been very fortunate to do for nine years, that puts you already in the driver’s seat for the year-end No. 1,” Djokovic said in his interview with the ATP Tour. “Accumulating the most points at the Grand Slams and the Masters 1000 events – that’s what counts the most, so to say. I’ve been lucky to really play my best tennis at the events where I could collect the most points that actually enabled me to be in this position.”   

When you start with an Australian Open win at the beginning of the year…that puts you already in the driver’s seat for the year-end No. 1.” 

Novak Djokovic

And Djokovic wasn’t far from a few more year-end No. 1 finishes over the past decade. This statistic underlines his incredible consistency: In the four seasons since 2011 that Djokovic didn’t finish No. 1, he placed No. 2 three times.

In 2013, he lost two major semi-finals to Nadal, at Roland Garros and the US Open. In Paris, Rafa closed out a wild match 9-7 in the fifth set. Djokovic lost to Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final, another match that would have been enough capture the year-end No. 1. Three years later, Murray beat Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 in the Nitto ATP Finals – the only time in ATP history that year-end No. 1 was on the line for both players in the year-end championship’s last match. In 2019, Djokovic finished only 840 points behind Nadal; falling to Rafa in the Rome final, to Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals of Roland Garros and to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round of the US Open were all significant defeats.

The only one of the past 11 years when Djokovic didn’t finish inside the Top 2 was 2017, when he wound up at No. 12 – but that year he missed every tournament after Wimbledon because of a right elbow injury.

Sampras is impressed that Djokovic beat Federer and Nadal on their favourite surfaces, on which they are considered the best ever. On the grass at Wimbledon, Djokovic took down Federer in 2014, 2015 and 2019. Similarly, Djokovic won over Nadal in 2015 and 2021 on the red clay at Roland Garros.

“What Novak’s done over the past 10 years – I could give you all the adjectives, I mean, I don’t know what to say,” Sampras said. “He’s willing to change, he’s willing to learn about himself. He’s always looking to get better.

“I’ve been so impressed with his transformation. From being a very talented young athlete, mentally a little fragile, to being where he is today is just pretty cool to see it, just sitting and watching him from the couch.”

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