Just over a month ago, Novak Djokovic had the tennis world by the fingertips. Dominating the tour week-after-week with his record-breaking run. He was seemingly at the peak of his powers, with few true rivals, he looked absolutely unstoppable and invincible.
An early loss in Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely, wasn’t great cause for concern. After all, he had just swept Indian Wells and Miami, so he was due for a break.
Djokovic returned to take the Madrid title over Andy Murray, losing just one set, that to the Scot. Order was restored. Djokovic was back on track. But not for long.
Last week, things turned for Djokovic. He looked out of sorts for much of the Rome tournament, and that came to a head Sunday when this time he lost to Murray 6-3, 6-3 in a rather one-sided final.
The result, to me, wasn’t a great surprise. Murray had been the better player all week. But what shocked me was how tempestuous Djokovic was on court.
Something is up!
Everything seemed to bother him during that final, and not just Murray. The rain, the conditions, the umpire all led to a cavalcade of cursing, racquet throwing, fits of rage and temper tantrums.
There were moments of Good Novak, but many more moments of Bad Novak. Murray played great – went for his shots, served particularly well in the second – but Djokovic just wasn’t the same guy we’ve seen all year in terms of his demeanor. Like something was constantly bothering or nagging at him. And that was the case for much of Rome where in his very first match he was down a break to qualifier Stephane Robert, and that set the tone of “false starts” in every match thereafter through the final.
“I think you’re training your mind to tell yourself things that are very positive, and so you’re kind of deflecting and neglecting the tiredness and whatever wrong sensation you have in your body,” Djokovic admitted after losing to Murray Sunday.
“So I didn’t really think about it, even though it’s present. And it’s obvious, I mean, I had a long couple of weeks, especially last couple of days. I knew it’s going to be very hard for me, an uphill ride against Andy today, who was playing throughout the week on a very high level.”
Was it just being worn out from a tough week of matches? Or something else? I have no idea. But I have some thoughts.
1. Is Djokovic Feeling The French Open Pressure
Winning the French Open has been Djokovic’s goal not just for this year but the last several. After near misses in 2014-2015, he’ll once again be the favourite in Paris next week.
Perhaps thinking this is his last “best chance” at the title (I don’t think that is the case), maybe he’s feeling the weight of that pressure?
Compound that with the fact he just didn’t play his very best right from the first ball in Rome, and it snowballs.
Leading into Paris, you want to be on the rise, building confidence like Murray, like even Rafa. But Djokovic slipped a little last week. And knowing that, he probably wanted to come out and prove to himself he could put together a strong performance in the final, make a statement. Yet it all fell apart.
Has he overplayed recently? Djokovic played a lot of tennis the first quarter of the season, but other than one match in his home of Monte Carlo, he had about a full month before Madrid.
And I know he had some tough matches in Rome, but I don’t think playing back-to-back Madrid-Rome should knock you out or make it an impossible ask – well, just ask Rafael Nadal who on more than a few occasions has swept the entire clay lead-up and still won the French!
So I’m not buying any physical fatigue – there shouldn’t be – but perhaps there is some mental fatigue in the head from what awaits in that Paris pressure cooker.
Did going from the altitude of Madrid to Rome unsettle his game? Maybe. But he’s made the transition before winning both events in 2011, when I still think he was a better player.
This year, the weather was warm and windy at the start of Rome then cooled down by the end with rain creating heavy conditions. Conditions that I think favor someone like Murray.
The weather, though, probably didn’t help anyone’s mood for that matter, but especially Djokovic’s who seemed to be already agitated.
4. Has The Decline Begun?
My gosh, down a break to a qualifier in his first round. Getting fed a bagel by Thomaz Bellucci. Down a break to Nadal, down a set to Nishikori and getting his doors blown off by Murray? He turns 29 on Sunday! THE SKY IS FALLING, THE END IS NEAR!
Well, no. No, the end is not near, not for Djokovic. Yes, everybody hits the skids eventually, I just don’t think that time has come for Novak.
5. Off Court Factors
Maybe there is something going on at home, or with his family? If his shaky play continues without any real explanation, this could be the cause. We may never know – he’s likely not going to tell us – but personal matters can absolutely play a role in your how you do on court.
And if that’s the case and he doesn’t get those issues resolved, then he looking at a very tough summer.
But back to question, What’s wrong? Let’s be real here, Djokovic still won Madrid and made the Rome final! So what is right with Novak Djokovic!
“I needed this kind of results, winning one tournament and playing finals is great,” Djokovic said. “I got what I was looking for, a lot of matches, and confidence and, you know, I spent a lot of hours playing on the clay, which now, leading up to Roland Garros is exactly what I need. Hopefully it’s going to help me perform well in Paris.”
That said, look what’s happened to his main rivals. After long droughts both Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal have not just won again, they won Masters titles, and Murray just got a monster win over Novak. A month ago, both guys were reeling. Now, two of Djokovic’s biggest threats have to be feeling a lot better about their chances in Paris.
So not only did Djokovic miss a chance at continuing his assault on the record books this clay season, he missed the chance of continuing to crush the confidence of Nadal and Murray.
Forty-five days ago there wasn’t much doubt about Paris. Suddenly, Nadal is a threat again and so too is Murray.
The good news for Djokovic is he’ll have a week off – as Paul Annacone said after the Rome final – to hopefully disconnect emotionally from tennis for a few days. He needs to get away.
And since the Slams seed 32, Djokovic should have an easy first two rounds and six sets of tennis in Paris next week to work out the kinks. Becuase if he was finding the going rough in Rome, wait until week two in Roland Garros.
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