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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Djokovic's challenge against Federer and Nadal will make for exciting 2018

It will be intriguing to see if fit-again 12-time grand slam champion can return to best next season

Novak Djokovic headlines the 2017 Mubadala World Tennis Championship line-up. Paul White / AP Photo
Novak Djokovic headlines the 2017 Mubadala World Tennis Championship line-up. Paul White / AP Photo

Monday will be a rather strange experience for Novak Djokovic.

For the first time in more than a decade, going back to March 2007, his name will not be in the top 10 men's players in the ATP rankings when the latest list is published in the morning.

The news is not that shocking, given it was known it was going to happen once the Serbian had announced in July that he would not be playing competitively again in 2017 to deal with an elbow injury that had been troubling him.

He was ranked fourth at the time, but unable to defend his ranking points from winning the Canadian Open and being runner-up at the US Open in 2016, his position in the list was always going to tumble.

He is set to be ranked at No 11 on Monday on current estimates following the Paris Masters, which concludes on Sunday.

Djokovic's on-court charm

It sets up one of the exciting narratives to come in 2018 on whether Djokovic can come back and not only return to the top 10, but also get back to the top of the game.

The Mubadala World Tennis Championship in December in Abu Dhabi will be the first time Djokovic will be back on court since he retired hurt against Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. It will also be the first chance to see what kind of shape he is in before the 2018 season commences.

To say that Djokovic had endured a disappointing 2017 prior to his injury would be an understatement.

His game looked well short of the one that had seen him dominate the sport in recent years, and helped him rack up 12 grand slam titles and 68 career titles.

In his period as a top 10 player, only Rafael Nadal with 14 has won more majors than Djokovic.

How much of Djokovic's form, which saw him win only two titles this year in Qatar and Eastbourne and fail to get beyond the last eight at any of the three majors he competed in, was down to injury problems, or personal issues away from the court, only he will know.

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But the results speak for themselves.

In 2011, the year he truly broke through as a major winner with three grand slam titles after a gap following his first one in Australia in 2008, he won 10 ATP titles in total.

In 2012 he won six. In 2013 and 2014 he won seven both years and in 2015 he won 11. In 2016 he won seven titles, but only one of those came after he had completed his career grand slam at the French Open in June.

It has been a puzzling slump since June 2016. At that stage he was champion at all four majors, not all won in the same calendar year, but still a great achievement and something neither Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can claim to have done.

Federer and Nadal have both shown this year that it is possible to come back from long spells out and reestablish yourself at the top.

The successes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer could provide Novak Djokovic with inspiration. Martin Divisek / EPA
The successes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer could provide Novak Djokovic with inspiration. Martin Divisek / EPA

Nadal started the year at No 9 and is now No 1 and Federer was down as low as No 17 and is now at No 2, so if Djokovic can find even a semblance of his form in early 2016 then a rapid return and more majors should be possible.

All we have seen of Djokovic in recent years is a man at the top of the game. Between March 2011 and June this year he had not been outside the top two in the rankings.

But now, at least for the Australian Open in January he will face seriously tough opposition from at least the fourth round, and how he handles that will be fascinating.

Djokovic's hunger to get back to No 1, a position he last held 12 months ago, will also be telling.

If he did fail to go on and win another major, or even a title in his career, he would still go down as one of the greats of the game for all that he has already accomplished.

But like Federer and Nadal, he now has the chance to add more chapters of success to his story.

Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka will also be making their comebacks from injury next year, but they have never commanded the sport in the way Djokovic has.

It is a fired up and focused Djokovic who Nadal and Federer and the rest of the men's game will fear, and that is why watching to see if the Serbian still has it in him to reach the past heights he has achieved will be so intriguing.