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“Being separated from the family hurts me more and more. That's the part I struggle with now.” Those were the words of Novak Djokovic speaking to The First Serve after his fourth-round win at the Australian Open. Placed on his couch at home in Serbia alongside the presence of his three young children watching Carlos Alcaraz and Alexander Zverev collide was shared on social media. It was a touching moment for Djokovic, having previously confessed that one side of him adores the game and is still as hungry as ever to win trophies, but on the contrary, he realises that there is more to life than tennis. Has father time caught up with the 24-time Grand Slam champion in more ways than one? Since 2024 commenced, the consistent Djokovic we have been blessed to admire over the years suddenly feels a distant memory. Glimpses of his old self have been sporadic, but a loss to Alex De Minaur in straight sets at the United Cup was the beginning of a gradual decline to the point where he hasn't reached a final, let alone won silverware. No athlete can sustain invincibility forever, even Djokovic who looks after his body with the utmost professionalism and caution possible to stay at the top of men's tennis for as long as he has. But this is arguably the greatest player ever to pick up a racquet we're discussing. It takes a brave person to write off a champion of his nature completely, and the 37-year-old exemplified that persona during Roland Garros. Practically dead and buried at two sets to one down against Lorenzo Musetti in the third round, the Serb produced a performance for the ages to demonstrate that experience matters at this level - surviving a five-set epic concluding at almost 3am in Paris. Tired? Fatigued? Loss of energy? It certainly felt that way when Djokovic found himself stuck in the same deficit after three sets to clay court specialist Francisco Cerúndolo. Somehow, someway, the former world No.1 pulled a miraculous comeback out of the fire in a show of resilience and true willpower to defy all odds.

It wasn't just any ordinary comeback though. It was later revealed after the match that Djokovic played through a torn meniscus in the knee during the latter stages, which he claimed was due to him "slipping and sliding all the time" concerning his anger toward tournament organisers for the lack of clay on the court. Time and time again we are reminded as to why you should never doubt greatness. That being said, that statement is a touch less reassuring nowadays. Currently suffering his worst vein of form since returning from injury in 2017 where he bowed out to South Korean prodigy Hyeon Chung at the Australian Open, the lethargic and unconvincing performances have somewhat been swept under the carpet with little doubt that Djokovic will return to his best. Easier said than done. We saw the amount of success he had balancing his scheduling to suit the needs of his body, entering only 13 tournaments last year, winning six trophies including one match away at Wimbledon from achieving the calendar Slam at 36. Nothing much of note has varied in 2024 in terms of his schedule, but his athleticism has dipped just enough to magnify a glaring issue. His latest injury draws scarily similar comparisons to that of the great Roger Federer who required three knee surgeries - enough to put an end to a glittering career. Djokovic's case isn't as serious, expected to miss three weeks of action in a race to be fit for the start of Wimbledon. It does pose the question as to which version will show up post-surgery. Where does it now leave him in the context of it all? Now, more than ever, decisions will be crucial in determining how long Djokovic can stay competitive with the elite. Although still the best grasscourt player in the world, perhaps it would be wise to skip the All England Club to avoid transitioning from clay to grass and back to clay for the Olympics in Paris next month - a gold medal is the only challenge left to conquer. Often the narrative over the years has been Djokovic's closest competitors in the tier below being born in the wrong generation. How quickly the tables have turned. Jannik Sinner became the first Italian male to reach the number one ranking on Monday and has broken his Grand Slam duck. Meanwhile, Carlos Alcaraz keeps evolving to the point where it is difficult to analyse significant weaknesses - already a three-time major champion. At 22 and 21 years of age, the duo are (as ranking points go) the top two best players on the planet. The future is now. Of course, that doesn't bode well for Djokovic, now forced to compete toe-to-toe with two athletic and giftedly talented gems. He's successfully adapted to the influx of new generations whether it be Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, or Stefanos Tsitsipas. But is this new rivalry a step too far? Right now, Sinner and Alcaraz are on another level in terms of form, quality, and confidence. No longer can Djokovic waltz into a big tournament with little preparation and expect to get away with it. A chance to take a break from the sport and spend quality time with family is something that he may need to rejuvenate himself out of a poor slump. On the flip side, it may sink in further that his family is more of a priority. Djokovic presumably acknowledges deep down that time is against him. How many times have we been proven wrong in the past though? Failure to add a 25th Grand Slam title would not come as a surprise, just as much as lifting another major wouldn't have us falling out of our seats


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