Next thing you know, Djokovic was the one acting rashly. In May he fired long-time coach Marián Vajda (who’d been with Djokovic since he turned pro in 2003), fitness specialist Gebhard Phil-Gritsch (the man who made Djokovic so elastic), and physiotherapist Miljan Amanović (the man who made Djokovic so durable). Then Djokovic hired Andre Agassi to coach him, which was nothing short of a coup, given that the eight-time slam champion and former world No. 1 had never coached before. But the partnership didn’t provide Djokovic much positive momentum. He suffered massive setbacks in the quarterfinals of the French Open and Wimbledon in 2017, then shut himself down for the season (just prior to the U.S. Open) to recover from a right elbow injury that had hampered his groundstrokes and his on-again-off-again-serve. Djokovic said the joint had been bothering him for “over a year and a half.”
And yet: He played in January’s Australian Open, lasting until the round of 16 before having surgery on his tennis elbow—“a small medical intervention,” he called it. It seemed to cure the soreness (“After two years finally I can play without pain,” Djokovic said), but not the slump. After dropping opening matches on the hardcourts of Indian Wells, California (to 109th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan), and Miami (to 47th-ranked Benoît Paire of France), Djokovic hired Vajda back on and cut ties with Agassi—who, on his way out, mentioned that “we far too often found ourselves agreeing to disagree.” Also hanging over Djokovic were tabloid reports of marital strife. (Never one to hold his tongue, John McEnroe, tennis’s self-appointed conscience, was quickest to jump into the fray, comparing Djokovic’s alleged infidelities to the ones that chastened Tiger Woods while intimating that the Serb may have lost all competitive motivation.) And then in the quarterfinals of this year’s French Open, Djokovic was upset by 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy; he entered that tournament ranked 22nd, a new low.
As Djokovic falters, Federer and Nadal’s battle for eternal supremacy intensifies. Nadal’s most recent triumph at Roland Garros wasn’t just historic for him; it marked the third time in 13 years that Federer and Nadal have combined to win at least six straight major titles. After taking off the entire clay court season, Federer made his return earlier in June on the grass court in Stuttgart, Germany, and swiftly raised his 98th ATP tour trophy—an unfathomable distinction that also made him the oldest player to hold the No. 1 ranking. Of course he’d taken that spot over from Nadal, who’s since taken it right back.
Meanwhile, the game’s other great players play for pride and little else. Andy Murray, a three-time slam champion who matches up well with Federer and Nadal, has been out of commission since last year’s Wimbledon with a bad hip. Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka, another three-time slam champion who’s exasperated Federer and Nadal, is still playing his way back to form after a pair of surgeries on his left knee. Croatia’s Marin Cilic and Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro are the only other players to swipe a major from Federer and Nadal while those greats were in their primes but haven’t consistently threatened them since. Austria’s Dominic Thiem looked like he was ready for primetime. And then Nadal wiped him off the red clay in Paris in May in straight sets.