Fendrich on Tennis: Djokovic rejoins Federer, Nadal in Big 3

Novak Djokovic of Serbia holds the trophy after defeating Kevin Anderson of South Africa in the men's singles final match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Sunday July 15, 2018. (Neil Hall/Pool via AP)
Novak Djokovic of Serbia speaks during a press conference after winning the men's singles final against Kevin Anderson of South Africa at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Sunday July 15, 2018. (Ben Queenborough/Pool via AP)
Novak Djokovic of Serbia, right, meets Rafael Nadal of Spain at the net after defeating him in the men's singles semifinal match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, in London, Saturday July 14, 2018. (Andrew Couldridge, Pool via AP)
Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates winning a point from Kevin Anderson of South Africa during the men's singles final match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Sunday July 15, 2018. (Neil Hall/Pool via AP)

LONDON — What had gone from a Big 4 to a Big 2 is now back to a Big 3, with Novak Djokovic rejoining Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the top of men's tennis.

Each has been written off at some point. And each has won a major tournament in 2018: Djokovic's title at Wimbledon on Sunday, Nadal's at the French Open in June, and Roger Federer's at the Australian Open in January.

"It's amazing," Djokovic's coach Marian Vajda said, "that those three got back like this."

Maybe the U.S. Open, which starts in 1½ months, will break the tie for season supremacy. That trio has combined to win 10 of the past 14 championships at Flushing Meadows: Five for Federer, three for Nadal, two for Djokovic. At least one, and sometimes two, appeared in 13 of the finals in that span.

Federer, who turns 37 on Aug. 8, won that event every year from 2004-08 but not since. Nadal, 32, is the reigning champion.

Djokovic, 31, sat out the U.S. Open while missing the last half of 2017 because of an injured right elbow that he eventually had surgery on.

He announced his return to prominence and ended a Grand Slam title drought that lasted more than two years by overwhelming Kevin Anderson 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) in the final at the All England Club. While Djokovic was having his problems, Federer and Nadal combined to win six majors in a row, a streak that ended at Wimbledon.

Anderson, last year's runner-up at the U.S. Open, was impressed by the quality he's seen from Djokovic — both on Sunday and when they practiced with each other of late.

"Guys at the top can expect to see him on the other side of the net quite frequently," Anderson predicted.

And why not?

The 31-year-old Djokovic is, remember, someone in possession of 13 Grand Slam titles, the fourth-most in history for a man. He trails only contemporary rivals Federer (20) and Nadal (17), along with childhood idol Pete Sampras (14). Djokovic is also the only man since Rod Laver's second calendar-year Grand Slam of 1969 to win four consecutive majors, a run he completed at the 2016 French Open.

He hadn't won a Slam since, until Sunday.

Andy Murray, a three-time major champion and two-time Olympic singles gold medalist, is the fourth member of the Big 4, but he's been sidelined for most of the last year because of a bad hip that needed an operation. When Djokovic was out, too, the quartet was cut in half.

For the time being, it's a trio.

"I understand that people are questioning whether I can consistently play on this level. Trust me, I am, too. At the same time, I can't look too far on the road because I have to embrace and cherish this kind of accomplishment," Djokovic said.

"This is going to be a huge confidence boost and springboard for whatever is coming up," he added. "I really can't see the future. I don't know what's going to happen. But I like to play on hard courts. U.S. Open was always a successful tournament for me."

That's certainly true.

In his past 10 appearances, he never did worse than reaching the semifinals. He made the final seven times in that stretch.

And now, after a difficult period, hampered first by a painful elbow and then by self-doubt, Djokovic looks far more like his old self these days.

Vajda, the former coach who returned to Djokovic's side in April, saw something important over the past two weeks.

"Definitely, he is more relaxed. But he's also enjoying. He started enjoying," Vajda said. "This is the most important moment. ... He lost this doubting and fear and whatever, so he's able to enjoy."

Before beating Anderson, Djokovic had to get past Nadal in the semifinals. It was as enthralling and high-quality a match as any during Wimbledon, a 5-hour, 15-minute tussle between two greats that ended 10-8 in the fifth set.

Djokovic called it "the biggest test that I could have ... just to see whether I can prevail" and said he derived plenty of confidence from that victory against a man he's now faced 52 times.

Nadal's takeaway?

Djokovic, he said, is "playing at his top level again."

Anderson's coach, Brad Stine, agreed with that assessment.

"It's good for the game," Stine said. "It's great to have a guy like Novak be able to come back."

Only after collecting his fourth Wimbledon trophy can Djokovic really appreciate the hard times and understand how they helped him in the long run.

"There were several moments where I was frustrated and questioning whether I can get back (to the) desired level or not," he said. "But that makes this whole journey even more special for me."

___

Freelancer Sam Johnston contributed to this report.

___

Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich and write to him at hfendrich@ap.org

___

More AP tennis coverage: https://www.apnews.com/tag/apf-Tennis

You may also interested in

Kazuyoshi Miura breaks own record as J-League...

Mar 12, 2017

Kazuyoshi Miura scored his first goal of the season on Sunday to break his own record as the...

Japanese club Vissel Kobe has high expectations...

Jul 6, 2017

Japanese club Vissel Kobe rolled out the red carpet for German striker Lukas Podolski on Thursday,...

Honda among 27 Japan players named for World Cup...

Aug 24, 2017

Keisuke Honda was among 27 players named to Japan's squad for crucial World Cup qualifiers against...

Japan qualifies for World Cup, Syria still has a...

Aug 31, 2017

Japan will be playing at next year's World Cup, and Syria has a chance to join them

Kerber ousts local favorite Osaka at Pan-Pacific...

Sep 18, 2017

Seventh-seeded Angelique Kerber of Germany beat local favorite Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4 on Monday to...

About Us

Frontal Report is an emerging leader in all forms of media. We aim to be the leading news brand for readers around the world.

Contact us: sales[at]frontalreport.com

Subscribe Now!