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Novak Djokovic Australian Open trophy - now just two Slams behind Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

OPINION: Novak Djokovic return in 2023 crucial to credibility of young ATP talents


As the ATP Tour looks ahead to 2023, it’s never been more apparent that Novak Djokovic is still the man to beat – and that means opportunity for the youngsters to earn a legacy.


After a season of unusual unpredictability, the ATP Tour finished with a sense of reassuring, or crushing, normality. Your perception on that will be dictated by your views on Novak Djokovic and, if there was one thing almost everyone in tennis had in 2022, it was an opinion on the Serbian.

Djokovic started the year labelled as a danger to public health, deported in disgrace, and exiled from one of the biggest tournaments in the world. He finished it by reminding everyone he is still very much the most dominant player on the planet.

The style in which Djokovic won what was a record equalling sixth ATP Finals was on the face of it at least, terrifying. He turned up in Turin, lined up against some of the best players in the world, and dominated them all. In fact, Daniil Medvedev was the only player he played who could even take a set from him, never mind a match, and even that required a tiebreaker. What was even more ominous was how little a surprise it was given his form in the second half of the year.

Since losing to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in May, Djokovic has played 26 matches and lost just one of them. That has seen him win four of his five tournaments, including a Grand Slam and the end of season finals. Even the one match he did lose, against Holger Rune at the Paris Masters, was a final. Regardless of your view on Djokovic, and there has always been a wide spectrum, you have to concede it was a stunning tour de force.

The real question, though, is what it means for the ATP Tour moving into 2023. There is no question that men’s tennis is in a period of transition. Roger Federer retired this year after essentially two years of inactivity, and we are seeing young talent of an almost unprecedented collective level emerge at pace.

Djokovic’s enforced reduced schedule has definitely helped them, but it also helped him as well. He arrived at the latter part of the year physically fresh and playing against players at the end of a long and arduous season. For context, the other seven players arrived in Turin having played, on average, 21 tournaments in 2022 – Djokovic had played 13.

World number one Carlos Alcaraz was also missing from the ATP Finals with injury, as was Alexander Zverev, and Nadal was a mere shadow of the player we know he is as he worked his way back from two abdominal tears. I think it’s fair to say that Medvedev has been well short of his best too.

That all points to a far more competitive 2023 on the ATP Tour than Djokovic’s late-season form would appear to allow, and that can only be a good thing. The same can probably be said of the decision by the Australian government to allow him to compete at the Australian Open again in January.

That decision will certainly split opinion from political and moral standpoints, but the truth is that the ATP needs Djokovic on the court right now. Love him or loathe him, and his views on vaccination, he remains the benchmark and his presence validates everything that happens on Tour.

We need only look at the 2022 season to see evidence of that. We watched Carlos Alcaraz become the youngest world number one in history – but can’t help but ask if he would have, had Djokovic played more. We watched Rafael Nadal pull ahead in the Grand Slam race – but were all left wondering if that was just because Djokovic wasn’t allowed to play the hardcourt majors. No one is saying for one moment that Alcaraz and Nadal couldn’t have achieved what they did regardless, but the questions would be gone.

While Djokovic’s rivalry with Nadal is a legendary one that still delivers, the rivalry we really need to see emerge in 2023 is with Alcaraz. Just as Djokovic earned his legacy by wrestling dominance from Nadal and Federer when they were at their best, Alcaraz must now earn his by going toe-to-toe with the Serbian. Greatness, after all, isn’t given.

We talk about the ‘big three’ era a lot, but in reality it has been more like two ‘big two’ eras. Nadal emerged to battle Federer, then Djokovic emerged to battle Nadal, and tennis as a whole was better after each one. We are at the stage now where men’s tennis needs a new superstar and a new benchmark for the next generation that follows.

We are all hoping Alcaraz is that man, but it doesn’t happen without Djokovic. To be the man you have to beat the man – not just wait for him to get out of your way.

We need not look far to see what happens when players can’t beat the man. For years, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas have been trying and failing. They were once the NextGen – now they are in danger of becoming the LostGen.

Rightly or wrongly, none of us are heading into 2023 talking about them. The question of whether they can make a meaningful and lasting breakthrough is old and tired, dulled by years of hope being raised and crushed in almost rhythmic repetition.

Now they are the hunted, not the hunters. They go into 2023 not ambitiously looking up at Djokovic and Nadal with optimistic ambition, but nervously over their shoulders. They were unable to prevent Alcaraz from surpassing them and achieving what they couldn’t, and now the likes of Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Casper Ruud and Holger Rune are coming up on the rail too.

Will the challenge inspire them to new heights or break their spirit entirely, condemning them to decline? Stan Wawrinka or Grigor Dimitrov? 2023 will go a long way to answering that.

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