“Limits are the ones you set for yourself”

Among the slightly crazy stats that escorted Novak Djokovic’s victory in the ATP Finals, there is this one: the Serb is the only player in history to have won the “Masters” in three different decades. Between his first success in Shanghai in 2008 and that of Turin in 2022, fourteen years have passed. And nothing says that the story will end there. At 35, Djokovic appeared hungrier than ever in his quest for titles and records following his final against Casper Ruud. He has every reason in the world to appreciate how lucky he is to play tennis at this level and never give up.

In bulk: he is inhabited by this game and its history, he was deprived of 40% of the season because of his vaccination status, his children love to follow him on the Tour, and even the money (he has just won the biggest prize money in the history of tennis at more than 4 million euros) is not a neutral factor for someone “whose family has known moments with zero on the table, given the context (of war in Serbia, editor’s note) in which (he) grew up”.

The idea that the end of his and Nadal’s dominance of men’s tennis will come to an end because of their age took a hit this week in Turin. Certainly, the competition is denser than it has ever been. The bar has been set very high by teenagers Carlos Alcaraz (last Grand Slam winner) and Holger Rune (the only player to have deprived Djokovic of a trophy since Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros), and the peloton chasing them rare density. Certainly, the two men will not get any younger. But, each in their own way, they invited us to distance ourselves from old habits as requested by the over 35s who are rapidly approaching competitions for veterans.

Novak Djokovic – Turin 2022 © AI/Reuters/Panoramic

Djokovic and Nadal in the footsteps of Federer

Until this fall, the standard of the “comment does he make” was worn by Roger Federer. The Swiss at 20 Grand Slams retired at 41, he was competitive at the top until 39, he was in the Wimbledon final at 38 and world number one at 36. Unheard of passing times in history professional tennis, in the 21st century where winning Grand Slams at 32 (like Sampras) or 33 (like Agassi) was rarer than retiring at 30 or 31.

Roger Federer’s coach told Tennis Majors in September: “Roger wanted to play tennis until he was 100 years old. No one was going to get him to quit on his own. Therefore, all that could happen was that he played until an injury prevented him. »

Everything indicates that the same will happen for Nadal and Djokovic. Federer has pushed the bar to a height that they do not refrain from exceeding in turn. Nadal, who is thirteen months older than Djokovic, 36 years and 5 months at the time of writing, is the one of the two who is more aware of the limits that his body can impose on him, due to his recurring injuries, in particular in the second half of the season. “I don’t know if I can get back to my (best level), but I’m ready to die for it,” he said on the evening of his elimination against Félix Auger-Aliassime in the pools.

I am convinced that the limits are those that your mind

Novak Djokovic

Nadal is more aware of playing against the clock than Djokovic, but his attitude has never deviated from an “absolute” line, which led him in 2022 to achieve his best season since 2019: as long as he is competitive at the highest level, he will play. A line that could lead the current world number two to start Roland-Garros 2023 as a likely candidate for a fifteenth title, at 37 years old. Older than Roger Federer at Melbourne in 2018. Barely younger than Ken Rosewall at the 1972 Australian Open – record of its kind.

Djokovic does not validate this idea. The Serb has been loyal to questions about his physical condition in recent Masters matches. But the obvious wear and tear in which Daniil Medvedev placed him in the group stage, his lack of speed against Taylor Fritz in the semi-finals, his gasping more often than usual in the final against Casper Ruud, all this worried more those who saw him with shaky hands at side changes than Djokovic himself.

“You can’t say that I drew from every game. We can say that it was not easy to recover after the match (3:20) against Medvedev, yes. I have my routines to recover well, a good physio, I am well surrounded and I believe that the only limits are those that we set ourselves. It’s kind of an internal dialogue between your bad guy and your good guy. The bad guy who tells you that you’re in pain, that it’s really hard to get up that morning; and the right guy to be driven to take over the other. Easy to say and harder to do, I say. But I am convinced that the limits are those that your mind, your heart, your life instinct sets for you. »

Djokovic has no intention of quitting anytime soon

Without the slightest question being asked about his age, Djokovic said, when asked about the overall vision he had of his career and his vocation in tennis, considering that there was “no end on paper » for him, translation that we suggest for « no end zone ». “No idea crosses my mind that is directly or indirectly related to the end of my career, end of career expressed in terms of when I would like it to end. If I had in mind something like ‘here is the goal, and when I have reached it, I will put the racket down’, I would tell you. But I don’t have that. »

Djokovic has made only two departures from this rule in his recent declarations. First to see that Federer’s exit from the stage had given him ideas about the big day of his retirement. “I too would like to be surrounded by my greatest rivals,” he said in September, a phrase that alarmed the first rank of his fans, accustomed to Djokovic never talking about retirement.

Then, Sunday after the final, in reference to his family. “You never know what the future holds of course. I have two children aged eight and five. Maybe at some point they will express new expectations to my expectation, to which I will have to respond with time, to support them in times of their lives that may call for less tennis at home. But at this point, even though we all have our bad days and our bad weeks, my feeling is excellent. »

Goran Ivanisevic welcomed as almost pointless a question about the arrangement of the training he had to carry out to keep an athlete who is no longer 22 years old at the top. “Novak trained even harder when he was 22, which is precisely why he is so competitive. He takes care of his body in an incredible way and he is incredibly fresh. Djokovic has just broken the record for the oldest winner in the history of the tournament, which brings together the eight players in the world, by five years. We should not be surprised if he duplicates this kind of discs in the future, those of Federer, those of Nadal, or his own.

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