Novak Djokovic recently spent a long and stressful period reshaping his life and game. Now his rivals are paying the price because the reinvented champion is dominating once again.
"I think you're seeing the new Novak," Djokovic told reporters Sunday after winning the Shanghai Masters 1000 without dropping a service game, much less a set. "I don't need to describe him. That's all I can say.
"I had to reinvent myself and find the proper formula for success. I found it and I'm just trying to hold onto it as long as I can."
Djokovic should have no trouble holding onto his "formula" long enough to wrest the No. 1 ranking away from idle, still-injured Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard is due to return to the fray at the Paris Masters. It might be too late for Nadal by then, as Djokovic trails him by a measly 35 rankings points in the annual race standings that determine the year-end No. 1 ranking.
If Djokovic decides to take a wild card into a tournament before Paris, he could pull ahead of Nadal before a potential showdown in the City of Lights.
Masters events don't always get adequate credit for the way they shape the game and rankings. True, Djokovic's comeback win at Wimbledon created an international sensation. His victory at the US Open suggested he was back for good. But while focus on the Grand Slam events is ferocious, they aren't the end-all, be-all. Besides, there are just four of them.
The taxing grunt work of domination -- the endgame for players of Djokovic's ilk -- is largely done at the nine ATP Masters 1000 events that knit together the tennis year. The two most recent ones were key drivers in Djokovic's return to the top.
This past August, in his 12th attempt in Cincinnati, Djokovic finally won the title, becoming the only man to complete a career Masters Series. The accomplishment, capped by a win over Cincy nemesis Roger Federer in the final, sent Djokovic's confidence skyrocketing just in time for the US Open. It also launched his current 18-match winning streak.
Shanghai was seen as a key battleground for the No. 1 ranking. Federer, still ranked No. 3, was penciled in as Djokovic's final opponent in Shanghai. But the Swiss champion is 37 now and subject to greater ups and downs. Federer barely survived his first two matches and was beaten in the semis by Borna Coric. As other contenders fell by the wayside, Djokovic bowled over everyone in his path.
The takeaway is that Djokovic's older rivals are either unreliable (in the case of someone like Marin Cilic) or depleted. Andy Murray abruptly ended his post-surgical comeback effort at the end of September, while Nadal hasn't hit a ball in competition since he withdrew from his semifinal at the US Open. Meanwhile, Djokovic crushed a pair of gifted 21-year-olds, Alexander Zverev and Coric, in successive matches to win in Shanghai, losing just 10 games in the two matches.
"He's, for sure, the best player in the world," No 5 ranked Alexander Zverev said in his postmatch news conference following the semifinal blowout. "He's definitely at the highest level he's maybe ever been or maybe equal to it."
Coric chimed in: "I couldn't play much better today, so there is nothing much I can do."
The Masters are an even better gauge of a player's ability to dominate than the four widely spaced Grand Slam events. They are played almost exclusively on the most popular surfaces (five hard court, three clay, one indoor), and with nine tournaments, the results yield an accurate sample size of a player's overall impact on the game and his consistency -- or lack thereof.
Djokovic has burned a lot of career fuel trying to find a place in the spotlight alongside Federer and Nadal. With 14 major singles titles, Djokovic trails Nadal by three and Federer by six. But Djokovic has won 32 Masters, just one short of Nadal's record 33. Federer has 27 of them.
Djokovic appears set to dominate in the coming year the way he did in 2011 and once again between 2014 and mid-2016. He feels his reinvention has created a wiser, more highly "evolved" person. His rivals probably think he's created a tennis Frankenstein.