Novak Djokovic heads to the US Open for the first time since 2021 with his world number one ranking gone and a new rival intent on denying him a 24th Grand Slam title, but only the brave would write off his chances at Flushing Meadows.
The 36-year-old’s bid for a calendar year Grand Slam ended with a five-sets loss to Carlos Alcaraz in last month’s Wimbledon final, with fans, pundits and former players saying the result heralded a changing of the guard in men’s tennis.
Returning to the United States after his enforced absence in 2022 and the early part of this year due to his Covid-19 vaccination status, a refreshed Djokovic says his appetite for success has not diminished.
“I like the feeling that I have after 20-plus years of professional tennis. There’s still a fire going,” said Djokovic, who won the Australian Open and French Open titles to leapfrog Rafa Nadal into top spot in the list of men’s major champions.
“There’s still that drive and motivation to really come at the biggest events in sport and try to win, try to win titles and try to bring some good sensation to the crowds.”
Djokovic, who said he had “zero regrets” missing tournaments in America due to his vaccination stance, ramped up his preparations for Flushing Meadows by winning the Cincinnati crown after a draining final against world number one Alcaraz.
“This rivalry just gets better and better,” Djokovic said.
“Amazing player. Tons of respect. For such a young player to show so much poise in important moments is impressive.
“The feeling I have on the court reminds me a little bit when I was facing Nadal when we were at our prime of our careers.
“Each point is a hustle. Each point is a battle.”
If the chasing pack feel Djokovic’s days of dominance are numbered, the three-time US Open champion’s record on hardcourts should give them pause for thought.
The Serb’s willingness to push his body to its limits has not faded, as his younger rivals found out at this year’s Australian Open when he battled to the title playing with a torn hamstring.
Top coach Patrick Mouratoglou says Alcaraz, who won last year’s US Open in Djokovic’s absence and has a 2-2 record against the Serb, will be a threat at Flushing Meadows but does not have the edge.
“I think both players are very close in terms of level. I think Novak can play much better than he did in the Wimbledon final. He was very nervous,” Mouratoglou said in his video series ‘Eye of the Coach’ recently.
“I feel that being this ultimate favourite all the time and playing for history, it has to be a burden. So now in a way that Carlos is a favourite as well, Novak will feel more free the next time he plays him.”
Mouratoglou said he had no doubts that Djokovic would eventually surpass Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slams but that Alcaraz would also win his share of the sport’s biggest prizes.
“Will he prevent Novak from winning any more Grand Slams? I don’t think so,” Mouratoglou added. “Will he take some and Novak take some? I think so.”
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