Falling into conversation this month with a former ATP Tour top-10 player, the subject came on to the current strength around the top of the men’s game.
What was the view of this (non-British) player, who had a successful career either side of this century’s turn, about the prevailing standards of today’s elite outside Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz?
The exact term used in his reply was not suitable for print, and let us just say it was far from positive.
He added that Rafael Nadal may be looking on during his lengthy convalescence, encouraged that he can come back in his valedictory year and do serious damage, even with the 37-year-old Spaniard well beyond the peak of his physical powers.
Most of the tour has returned to China after the Covid-induced hiatus, and Djokovic has decided to sit out this swing.
Novak Djokovic remains the best player in men’s tennis, despite being 36 years of age
The Serb won a record 24th Grand Slam title as he won the US Open earlier this month
This is hardly a surprise as he knows he can still achieve what he does while barely appearing at ATP Tour events.
He has, after all, only played six all year outside the Grand Slams.
While this is a difficult state of affairs for the tour commercially – imagine trying to maximise TV rights and sponsorships when your best player rarely turns up – there is no question it has been working for the world No 1.
So there are titles to be scooped up by the rest of the locker room during Djokovic’s latest absence, before he returns to action in November at the Paris Masters.
While acknowledging Djokovic’s brilliance, my former top-10 friend also made the point that the Serb will soon be nearer to 37 than 36, and that there really ought to be more genuine challengers to his superiority than there are now.
However, the figures suggest that, if anything, he is getting further away from a chasing pack that is only becoming more intimidated by his aura.
Djokovic’s record against fellow top-10 players over the last 12 months stands at 19-3. The most celebrated of the defeats came in the Wimbledon final by Alcaraz, a result he reversed at the next time of asking in Cincinnati.
The others were against Holger Rune at the Italian Open, and Daniil Medvedev in February’s Dubai semi-finals.
Carlos Alcaraz beat Djokovic in an epic Wimbledon final, but the Spaniard is one of the few players to have been able to halt the Serb’s march
Given his post-Wimbledon slump in form, there seems little prospect of Rune repeating that feat any time soon. And in recent times, with no Grand Slam in sight to prepare for, Djokovic’s results in Dubai have been lacklustre for his stratospheric standards.
Moreover, his record against the top 10 is improving in most cases. Djokovic’s strategic masterclass in the US Open final showed he has worked out how to defeat Medvedev, taking advantage of the far-back court position he prefers.
In the first phase of their rivalry Medvedev had a 4-5 record against him – now it is 5-10.
Stefanos Tsitsipas won two of his first three meetings with Djokovic, but has now lost 10 on the bounce. Alexander Zverev won two of their first four matches but now stands at 4-8.
As for Andrey Rublev, Jannik Sinner and Taylor Fritz, they are no nearer to solving the Djokovic conundrum, having amassed a collective 1-15 record against him. Building up any body of work against the Serb remains the hardest task in tennis, trying to eke out weaknesses that barely exist even at his advanced age.
Stefanos Tsitsipas won two of his first three meetings with Djokovic, but then lost 10 in a row
Daniil Medvedev has lost five of his last six meetings against Djokovic, including the US Open final at Flushing Meadows two weeks ago
Despite his present struggles Rune can still boast a 2-1 record, and Nick Kyrgios – who is on course to return in Australia in January – has the same figure.
It remains a curiosity that the active player with the best record against Djokovic is the Czech left-hander Jiri Vesely, who stands at 2-0 despite a ranking of 300.
Perhaps it will take a gradual cracking of his aura for the current dominance to be broken, or a spate of injuries in someone edging towards middle age. Or maybe it would require the winning of an Olympic gold medal – the one thing that has proved elusive – to see Djokovic’s insatiable appetite wane.
Something, perhaps, for the rest of the locker room to discuss as they trawl around China, while the cat’s away.
Broady’s rise a win for the good guys
Maintaining a hard-headed detachment in this job is sometimes difficult. One such occasion was Liam Broady’s arrival inside the top 100 for the first time – and not just because Liam is a cheerful, authentic character interested in an array of subjects beyond the range of most athletes.
Aside from his persona, it has been a tale of perseverance on a grand scale, as he was marked out as an excellent prospect early in his teens and has taken until 29 to have cracked it.
A look at the various outposts where he has accrued most of his points – Vilnius, Winnipeg, Doha, Canberra, Koblenz – tells of a relentless willingness to travel to wherever it takes, and is an example to others. His achievement has also come with the help of a loyal coach in Dave Sammel, who has shown remarkable dedication to the cause.
It is not every week that British tennis gains a new member of the singles top 100, though Jodie Burrage notched it recently as well. This is a significant landmark, and hopefully now direct entry into Grand Slams becomes a fixture for both.
Liam Broady has cracked the ATP’s top-100 for the first time in his career
Postcard from a life on tour
What will be your abiding memory of the 2023 Laver Cup? You probably do not have one, given its lacklustre field and the Vancouver time difference. Certainly there will be nothing like the enduring image from London 2022 of Rafael Nadal comforting a weeping Roger Federer as he bowed out of the sport.
The nearest thing to a memory I took from this year’s event – a one-sided affair in which ‘Team World’ smashed a hopelessly weakened European team – was the sight of Roger sitting watching Hubert Hurkacz and Andrey Rublev play doubles, and making a good fist of looking interested.
No wonder Federer is making noises about taking over the European captaincy. Him up against Andy Roddick, perhaps, might add some pep to an event which looks like it needs it.