What the Future Holds for Novak Djokovic, Serena and Roger Federer

PARIS — As it is written, Wednesday is Mailbag Day. If you didn’t catch it, here are some bleary-eyed thoughts on the latest Rafael Nadal–Novak Djokovic clash from Tuesday.

And now, onward.

What’s next for Djokovic?

Novak Djokovic

Roland Garros was Djokovic’s first Grand Slam of 2022 after he missed the Australian Open due to vaccination issues.

Michel Euler/Associated Press

Jon,

It will have been a year now since Djokovic has won a major. He has changed coaches. He has the whole COVID mess, which has clearly affected him. His confidence doesn’t seem fully back. What’s next for him?

 

There was a moment during Tuesday’s quarterfinal match that crystalized Djokovic for me. Nadal brushed Djokovic in the third set to go up 2 sets to 1. The crowd was rabidly against Djokovic. He probably should have lost the one set where he prevailed. Best-case scenario, Djokovic was going to have to go five sets, a place he hasn’t been in 2022. And it’s against Nadal, with no foot injury. On clay. At Roland Garros. And still, there was a palpable sense Djokovic could easily win the match. Respect.

What’s next for Djokovic? Short answer: Wimbledon, the event he won in 2021 and for which I would still make him the favorite even if he failed to defend in Paris. In time, when we tell the Djokovic story, this will be a remarkable 12-month interregnum. When he left Wimbledon in ’21 in a three-way tie with Nadal and Roger Federer with 20 Grand Slam titles, he was the youngest of the Big Three. By every investment standard—momentum, number of remaining “draws,” head-to-head records—he was where the smart money resides. Then, he lost in the U.S. Open final and to miss out on the calendar Grand Slam. He missed this year’s Australian Open for preventable reasons, an event won by Nadal. After an initially choppy reentry into the workforce, he fell in Paris against Nadal.

 

These tennis plots …

Yet, right now, I would buy Djokovic on the dip. Like, load up on Djokovic. After dusting off the rust—or the clay-court tennis equivalent—he suddenly went back to playing celestial tennis. He won Rome and his first four matches here without dropping a set. Losing to 13-time French Open winner Nadal on clay—winning a set he should have lost and losing a set he should have won—is no shame. His timing is back. His conditioning appears to be back. He has “only” just turned 35. Look at the Wimbledon draws over the past decade and you will not find a more successful player. Then come the hard courts. Bear in mind the man who beat Djokovic in 2021, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, will have been banned from Wimbledon and contend with his own “reentering the workforce” issues.

Djokovic will be fine.

When will we see Serena, Federer return?

Serena Williams of the United States (L) speaks with Roger Federer of Switzerland (R) during a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Serena Williams and Roger Federer have yet to play a match in 2022.

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Hi, Jon,

Do you remember the man who placed a bet about Roger Federer winning 20 Grand Slams by 2020? As we all know, he was right. Do you know of a similar bet concerning Nadal? Surely somebody believed in 22 Grand Slams in 2022. It seems Rafa may match or even surpass Serena. Unbelievable.

Regards,
L. Pereira
B.C., Canada

 

Jon,

Are Serena and Fed going to announce that they’re retired? Or are they just gonna pretend that they’re still active players? It’s been at least a year. They’re not coming back.

P.

I would caution against bracketing both 40-year-olds together. Federer says he will come back. He posts videos of his workouts. We know he is rehabbing. We still do not yet know if he will return in 2022, but he is committed to making sure he has not played his last match.

Serena is more of a mystery. She is a few weeks younger than Federer. In playing best-of-three matches, she has less conditioning and durability concerns. But by all accounts she has not been playing much these past 11 months.

My take: Why should they or why would they retire? What do they have to gain by closing the window? Leaving aside that financial interests—which are not insignificant, as many deals are contingent upon players actually playing or being active—what is the incentive to announce they are done? Even if they feel like they can’t play right now but are open to the possibility they might return, why not stay active?

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