Novak Djokovic’s record-breaking longevity doesn’t surprise anyone any more – least of all him

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Holger Rune was a fitting opponent as Novak Djokovic secured his latest record. For the eighth time, the Serbian will finish the season as world No 1, a position that will see the 36-year-old rack up 400 weeks spent at the top of the rankings. He already leads that statistic by a clear margin, as well.

Even by his standards, Djokovic has been utterly dominant in 2023. His record of 27-1 at the grand slams this season illustrates how he took his major titles to a record-breaking 24 at the Australian Open, the French Open and the US Open, his sole defeat coming in the Wimbledon final against Carlos Alcaraz.

Such figures suggest a player at the peak of their powers but not Djokovic, whose 2011 and 2015 seasons stand out as even higher pinnacles. What is clear, however, is that no player in the history of men’s tennis has been so superior at this stage of their career.

At 36, Djokovic has risen again: finding motivation by defying the “younger ones”. After Alcaraz finished the 2022 season as world No 1, having won the US Open while Djokovic could not play in New York or at the Australian Open, or receive ranking points from winning Wimbledon – returning there was an obvious target for his 2023 campaign.

“For me, competing with the younger ones is an extra incentive because I know they are hungry for success and want to get to No 1 in the world,” Djokovic said before the start of the ATP Finals this week.

Djokovic’s longevity stands out even more at the season-ending tournament featuring the top eight players in the world. Within the select field, Djokovic is revealed as a true outlier, the last of his generation competing against players born up to two decades after he was.

After Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev is the next oldest player at 27, with Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev at 26 and Stefanos Tsitsipas at 25. Over the years, Djokovic has routinely beaten down this generation, those of the first new-wave, post-big three era, to the extent that he remains at the top while their successors emerge.

This year’s ATP Finals include the tournament debuts of Alcaraz, Rune and Jannik Sinner, the Gen Z challengers who have looked to attack the world No 1, unburdened by the scar tissue of defeats to Djokovic at the grand slams that has hampered many of their peers.

Alcaraz’s fearless Wimbledon final victory against Djokovic was the greatest example of this, yet the manner in which the Serbian has responded has been telling:  Djokovic has not lost since he was beaten in five sets on Centre Court. He arrived in Turin having won 17 matches in a row, including the US Open and the Paris Masters – the 24th grand slam and 40th Masters title of his career.

On Sunday night, the immediate incentive of Djokovic’s opening match of the ATP Finals was clear. Rune, the 20-year-old Dane, is a combative, feisty opponent who sparked a rivalry with Djokovic after taking the lead in their head-to-head record following victories in Paris last season and Rome this spring.

Yet in their past two meetings – Paris this season and now in Turin – Djokovic has found another level, as if something has been provoked. As he opened his tournament, Djokovic snarled and smashed rackets as he battled to a three-set win, 7-6 (4) 6-7 (1) 6-3. A further theme of Djokovic’s season has been how comfortable he now appears to take on the crowd and play the villain role.

Djokovic defeat Rune in three sets to confirm his year-end world No 1 ranking (Getty)

Djokovic defeat Rune in three sets to confirm his year-end world No 1 ranking (Getty)

Djokovic’s continued success is a triumph of mentality and physicality and the next record in sight would be to become the oldest world No 1 of all time, a feat set by Roger Federer at the age of 36 years and 10 months. Djokovic will hope to become the first player to sit at the top of the ranking at the age of 37 when he reaches his birthday in May. Certainly, he is confident he will stay there and now lives by the mantra that “age is just a number”.

He believes his body is as strong as it has been for years. “It probably sounds cocky or arrogant, but I’m not really surprised,” Djokovic said on his way to winning his 24th grand slam title at the US Open in September. “I know how much work and dedication and energy I put into trying to be in this position, so I know that I deserve this.”

There will be challenges to come this week – not least against the Italian Sinner and the home fans in Turin on Tuesday night. It will be their first meeting on a hard surface and Sinner has long been touted as having the game to succeed in this particular match-up, though the 22-year-old will need to be far more decisive than he was in his straight-sets defeat to Djokovic in this year’s Wimbledon semi-finals. Tsitsipas, a previous ATP Finals champion, also awaits in Djokovic’s group.

Should the Serbian progress, there could be the latest meeting between himself and Alcaraz, though the Spaniard has lost three times in his previous five matches coming into the ATP Finals and landed in a tough group with Medvedev – who beat him at the US Open semi-finals – and a resurgent Zverev. There are challengers as Djokovic targets another ATP Finals title, but only one favourite. Fittingly, a seventh ATP Finals crown would be a new record, as well.

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