One setback won't take away from Novak Djokovic's comeback to stardom

Sunday marked just the third loss for Novak Djokovic since the start of Wimbledon. Julian Finney/Getty Images

LONDON -- After a year of self-discovery, Novak Djokovic paused to reflect on the most remarkable of comebacks, even as he pondered his straight-sets loss at the ATP World Tour Finals against Alexander Zverev.

The setback hurt, and he was processing that. But amid the disappointment were half-smiles as memories of how he climbed from 22nd in the world to No. 1 in the space of five months and added two Grand Slams to his collection played back.

The nadir in Djokovic's career is hard to pinpoint, but from Wimbledon 2016 through to this year's edition, he went on a journey of self-discovery, patched his aching body back together and refound his love for the sport. Age does that -- fatherhood, too -- but so also do perspective and a trip to the mountains.

After his quarterfinal exit at Roland Garros, Djokovic ran to the hills. He climbed the Mount Sainte-Victoire ridge in the south of France with his wife, Jelena. He reflected on the experiences of the previous couple of years -- the injuries, the coaching changes, the difficulties in his personal life and his lowest world ranking in 12 years -- and then parked them. It allowed him to refocus and arrow in the bits that had made him the world's best player.

There's something in that French mountain ridge. It inspired Paul Cezanne's work and prompted Pablo Picasso to purchase a property just to the north of the mountain. It lit a flame for Djokovic, too, but not necessarily as inspiration. Instead, he refocused of his own ability, which triggered the start of a remarkable few months that ended Sunday in London.

As he fielded questions about the future of the sport, there was also time to recognize the state of Djokovic now that this wild journey has come to a close, at least for 2018.

He was asked whether, when he sat atop those hills, he would have believed someone had they mapped out the rest of the year for him. "Yes, I would have believed them because I always believe in myself," Djokovic said. "But at the same time, I would have signed it right away if someone told me [he would end as No. 1] because at that time, it was also looking quite improbable that that's going to happen considering where I was ranking-wise and also game-wise. I wasn't playing even close to where I wanted to be at in terms of level of tennis.

"When you get out of this feeling of a little bit disappointment that you lost, I mean, all the positive things that I have to reflect on and also take from this season, especially last six months."

Having missed the second half of last year, Djokovic started 2018 with a fourth-round loss at the Australian Open and then elbow surgery. "I knew it was going to be a different season because [surgery] had never happened before. Whatever the outcome in the end of the year, I knew that I'm going to learn a lot from this season."

Then came false starts. Djokovic lost in the first round at both Indian Wells and Miami, events he dominated in the past. Then he fell to 140th-ranked Martin Klizan in the round of 32 in Barcelona in April.

Djokovic had enough of the losing and experimenting with coaches. He reunited with Marian Vajda in June. That's when we first saw signs of the old Djokovic returning.

His French Open finished at the quarterfinal stage. That's when he headed to the French hills. He said it gave him a "new breath for the sport" and "new inspiration, new motivation." The weight on his shoulders was lifted, and over the next handful of months, Djokovic scooped up Wimbledon and the US Open titles and became the first player to secure all nine Masters 1000 series titles with his victory at the Cincinnati Masters. He added the Shanghai Masters championship for good measure. He strung together a 22-match win streak, which came to an end in Paris earlier this month. And with all that, he earned a return to world No. 1.

But this is a different Djokovic from the one we saw from 2011 to 2016. Instead of chest-thumping, there was a quieter, more self-contained personality. Perhaps it was because his son now watches his matches at an age when behaviors are formed. That was the overarching memory of Djokovic's Wimbledon, in which he went from playing on court No. 2 and getting booed for slow play to receiving a standing ovation as champion and crying as his son, Stefan, shouted, "Daddy, Daddy."

At New York, Djokovic was looking forward to taking Stefan around the Natural History Museum because of his love for dinosaurs. Whenever family is mentioned, an involuntary smile breaks out across Djokovic's face.

Zverev won the tour finals, but he remains the apprentice until further notice. The master is still at the top of the tennis tree.

As you approached The O2 for the week's ATP Finals, there were pictures of Djokovic everywhere. In a tournament without injured Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, Djokovic and Roger Federer were the lead voices in the awkward prematch fan-facing video about phone usage and social media hashtags. The hoardings were Djokovic and Federer, with Zverev the third wheel.

Djokovic -- along with Federer and Serena Williams -- has become one of the sport's go-to spokespeople. He was fielding questions this week on player burnout and breakout players.

The draw is still Federer, despite Djokovic's sitting atop the rankings. Federer's cardboard cutout mask was the first to sell out in the newsagent at The O2. Djokovic's became popular only once the Swiss great's charge came to an end Saturday.

Tennis is perhaps coming to terms with this comeback. The sport has at times found Djokovic hard to love. Even as recently as Wimbledon in July, he was cast as the pantomime villain, but surely now, this is a world No. 1 tennis can be proud of.

Djokovic is still readjusting. He worked with a member of his camp, analyst Craig O'Shannessy, on how he could contain John Isner's serve. Still, he struggled with Zverev's. Djokovic will look to the moments Sunday in which he was caught wrong-footed. He will fine-tune his serve again with Vajda after it was uncharacteristically off in this final.

But one day, when he sits down and tells his children about his career, this year will be right at the top. From surgery to weighing whether he was going to miss the grass season to finishing atop the rankings, there's gold in those French hills for those keen to refind their best tennis form.

"I really trusted the process, even though it was frustrating at times," Djokovic said. "But in the end, the self-belief prevailed, and of course, the support of the team that created this long-term plan, strategy with me. We had objectives and goals.

"The run is phenomenal. I'm very grateful that I managed to turn things around that drastically in a way because I was 22 in the world, and I wasn't playing even close to my best. To know that I ended the year at No. 1, of course also due to Nadal's injury ... but the way I played in the last five, six months, just makes me very proud."

The season did not end with his sixth ATP year-end title, but next generation or not, like the inevitability of the sun rising, Djokovic will be the man to beat next season.

"I've had most success in my life in Australia out of all the four Slams," Djokovic said, signing off 2018. "Hopefully I can keep that going."