Pablo Cuevas is by no means a bad tennis player. The 31-year-old from Uruguay is a doubles specialist, best-known for his 2008 French Open Doubles title with Luis Horna. He’s recently hit his stride on the singles circuit, breaking into the top-20 for the first time in 2016 and winning the Brasil Open in March. That said, he has yet to prove himself as more than an ATP journeyman, and has never made it past the third round in any Grand Slam. Currently, Cuevas has the 17th-most ranking points from matches played in 2017. Novak Djokovic is 18th.
The twelve-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic has had a down few months, to say the least. After beginning the year with a title in Qatar, he was notably upset in the second round of the Australian Open by relative unknown Denis Istomin. Since then, he’s won one Davis Cup match and lost in two third round matches, both to young upstart Nick Kyrgios. That’s it. The best player of the past five years has spent the first quarter of 2017 in complete mediocrity.
If anyone just read these first two paragraphs, checked the current rankings, and saw Novak still in second, let me explain: The ATP ranks players using all results from the past twelve months. Up until the 2017 Miami Open is complete, a player’s outcome in the 2016 Miami Open is still counted in his overall ranking. Since April 2016, Djokovic has won his only French Open and made the finals in New York, among other things. He’s undoubtedly still a top player. However, his performance as of late is raising questions, like how much longer the Serb has at the top of his game.
When he won the French Open last June, Djokovic was officially elevated into the upper echelon of tennis greats. He had finally won all four of the most important tournaments, and had done it back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Entering Wimbledon, oddsmakers had bet that he was more likely to win the tournament than not. That never happens in tennis, by the way. Novak answered these lofty expectations with a third-round loss to American disappointment Sam Querrey, and it’s been downhill ever since. He shocked the world with a first round defeat in the Olympics, and lost the number one ranking he’d held for two and a half years in November. Now, if the ATP Race to London ended today, he wouldn’t even qualify as one of the best players of the year.
Maybe he’s injured. Djokovic withdrew from the Miami Open this year to nurse an elbow injury, so perhaps once that heals he can return to his peak. But as much as tennis fans hope for that scenario, we must also entertain the possibility that he’s just slowing down. Novak turns 30 in May, an age that used to resemble a death-sentence in the tennis world. These days, players can stay healthy and dominant well into their early thirties, but that doesn’t mean they will. Djokovic could potentially be a top player for many years to come, but he can’t remain number one forever.
It’s also very possible that he’s lost some of his drive. Though he’s known as the most dedicated player on tour, Djokovic has now won almost every tournament worth winning. He’s also made enough money to last a few lifetimes and is happily married with one kid and another on the way. Maybe he’s just decided to stop making his job his first priority.
Of course, this is all speculation. Novak could very easily win his next three tournaments and any whispers of his decline would be emphatically silenced. As we’ve seen with the recent resurgence of Roger Federer, a career on the decline does not imply that a career is finished. Hopefully Djokovic can find his form in the coming months and continue his reign for a few more years. He’ll just have to beat the Pablo Cuevases of the world along the way.