Not many people can storm back from a Grand Slam final defeat with a run of 24 consecutive wins to close out a long and gruelling season of tennis. But Novak Djokovic is not many people.
In fact his animalistic hunger for success was only eclipsed by one man this year. A man whose explosive season meant that Djokovic’s 74 match wins, seven titles and current winning streak still confined the Serb to second best.
Still, not even world No1 Rafael Nadal himself can discourage Djokovic, who responded to his three straight losses to the Spaniard at Roland Garros, Montreal and the US Open, with back-to-back wins over Nadal in Beijing and the ATP World Tour Finals in London. Both were in straight sets and with identical score lines.
The pair finish the year 3-3 head-to-head and with a mere 770 points separating them in the rankings.
From Djokovic’s point of view, the season has been a good one, despite his losses to Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final and Nadal in the French Open semi-finals and the US Open final.
“I think this year was very successful overall. I played consistently well throughout the year so that’s something that makes me happy,” Djokovic told Sport360°.
“I had three tough losses this year in Grand Slams, so I will take my lessons from there and work on getting better.”
Of those three losses, the 26-year-old admits that one particularly stood out.
“Losing to Rafa in the semis of the French Open was the hardest for me. I really wanted that one but it was not to be,” he added.
It was a match that prevented Djokovic from pursuing the career Grand Slam, and even though he was up a break in the final set, the Serb eventually succumbed to the ‘King of Clay’ 9-7 in the fifth.
Facing off six times in one year and pushing each other to their limits, one would think Nadal and Djokovic would have had enough of each other for one season.
But the world’s top two players spent the last few days in Chile and Argentina, playing exhibition matches, joking around like they were BFFs, and not the rivals who spent the better part of the season ripping each other apart on court.
Branding Djokovic and Nadal friends remains a stretch but the Serb does have the utmost respect for his nemesis, particularly this year, where Nadal returned from a seven-month injury layoff to regain control of the world rankings.
“Coming back from being injured is not easy at all, so I was impressed with how well he managed to bounce back,” Djokovic said.
Murray is another opponent who poses a special threat to Djokovic. They also have a unique relationship, having played through their junior years together and with them being born one week apart.
This year Murray lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open final but got the better of the Serb at Wimbledon. It is yet another thriving rivalry that promises to continue in the new season.
When asked which rivalry he feels is more special to him, Djokovic said: “Of late I have met Rafa and Andy most so they have become rivals if you like. I guess the matches we play are very special because beating them means I get to take home the trophy.”
The trio will reunite four weeks from now in Abu Dhabi for the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, which can provide a compelling teaser for the 2014 season.
The forecast for next year indicates that Nadal, Djokovic and Murray will once again contend for the big titles but the world No2 predicts one more player can squeeze himself in and shake the order.
“Delpo (Juan Martin Del Potro) played excellent tennis this year and he can definitely surprise us next season – he’s the one to watch out for,” he opined.
A prediction that comes as no surprise considering four of their five matches this year have gone to the final set.
Roger Federer is another opponent who has given Djokovic a run for his money in the final two weeks of the season. The Swiss 17-time Grand Slam champion had a year to forget but stepped up in the final stretch, showing glimpses of his former magic in his two tight losses to Djokovic in Paris and London.
Of Federer’s chances in 2014, Djokovic said: “He can probably win a Grand Slam next year, but there are many players out there who will be motivated to beat him. So it’s not entirely up to him, but also up to other players.”
Looking ahead, Djokovic says his top priority remains to win more Grand Slams. As the three-time defending champion at the Australian Open – the opening major of the season – Djokovic has a chance to produce the kind of monopoly in Melbourne that resembles Nadal’s stronghold on Roland Garros.
But the Belgrade-born star says ruling Melbourne Park is not his main aspiration: “I hope to do many great things, but I aspire to stay healthy and injury free, and then the rest will follow.”
Off the court, Djokovic wishes to pursue other battles. The Serb may be the funny and diplomatic character in the press room, but one topic that brings out the serious side in him is the troubles players face with the ATP and the changes he would like to see.
On what he would change about the current system, Djokovic said: “First thing that I would tackle would be the relationship between players and the ATP. I wish they would take our interest in front of others. It makes no sense to have them represent both players and tournaments when our interests conflict so much. It should be separated or at the very least, handled better.”
He also aspires to bring upon change in his home country, Serbia, and has constantly stated his mission of trying to improve the poor reputation that has accompanied the nation since the 1990s.
His influence in Serbia is beyond that of any regular tennis player and many have joked that he could be the future president of his country. But Djokovic says he does not wish to pursue a career in politics.
“I wish to help my country in many ways, but not as a politician,” he stated. “Novak Djokovic Foundation is helping Serbia quite a lot by taking care of disadvantaged children and helping them access quality education.
"We are opening kindergartens, playgrounds, training teachers and helping institutions, and that means a lot to my country.”
BACK IN ABU DHABI
How important is the MWTC for your preparation for Australia?
Very important since that is the only event I will play before going to Melbourne. The conditions are great and I get to have a couple of good matches under my belt before the first Grand Slam of the season.
You’ve won four times in Dubai and three times in Abu Dhabi. How do you explain your great record here?
I feel good playing there. I feel at home. That makes a difference for sure.
What kind of memories do you have from playing here?
I have many great memories from the UAE. I love to see how it grows year after year, conditions are great. Hotels, food, climate, hospitality, fans, organisation of the event… everything is absolutely perfect for a player. I really appreciate coming here year after year, and I have great results too.