By In Stuff

What Happened to Novak?

“If Djokovic doesn’t get bored or injured, he could reign supreme in tennis’ greatest era. And that will make him the greatest tennis player of all time.”

— Me, a little more than a year ago.

* * *

No, it’s not really cool to quote yourself at the top of a story, but there is a point: Novak Djokovic no longer looks like the greatest tennis player of all time. On Wednesday, at Indian Wells, Australia’s Nick Kyrgios blew Djokovic off the court in two bludgeoning sets. It was the second time in the last two weeks that Djokovic lost to Kyrgios but, more to the point, it was the second time in two weeks that Djoker — by almost all accounts the greatest returner of serve in the history of tennis — did not break Kyrgios’s serve even once.

On Wednesday, Djokovic never came CLOSE to breaking Kyrgios’ serve. He did not have a single break point the entire match. If I remember right, he only forced one deuce the entire match.

This sort of lifeless performance from Djokovic has become less and less shocking over the last year. In June of last year, Djokovic rolled to his first French Open championship after years of heartbreak in Paris. He became the first man since Rod Laver to win four Grand Slam events in a row. He was No. 1 in the world by a million points. He had just won his 12th major, moving him ahead of Laver and pulling him within five of Roger Federer’s all-time record. He seemed invincible.

And then … something happened to Novak Djokovic.

What happened? It’s one of the great mysteries in sports today. It isn’t like Djokovic suddenly forgot how to play tennis. There are times when he looks just the same. He went to the Rogers Cup last August, for instance, and won going away; it was his 30th Masters 1000 title, a record. He made it to his seventh U.S. Open final in September. Even this year, in January, he went to Qatar and beat Andy Murray in the final.

But there is definitely something missing. Djokovic was shocked at Wimbledon. He was knocked out of the Olympics in his first match (though to be fair he caught a terrible draw and happened to face an inspired Juan Martin del Potro, who hit forehands that day like none I have ever seen). In the U.S. Open final, he looked a bit numb and was never quite able to make any impression on Stan Wawrinka.

Then, bizarrely, this year he flamed out at the Australian Open, losing to a wildcard named Denis Istomin.

And now, in the last couple of weeks, he’s had the talented but mercurial Kyrgios overpower him twice. He didn’t just lose those matches. Djoker looked entirely overmatched.

There has been a lot of talk in tennis circles about personal issues in Djokovic’s life, some of which he has acknowledged. And even beyond that, he is now a husband and a father and that obviously is life changing. Only Djokovic himself knows what’s really going on, if even he understands it. He has spent much of his career talking about balance — he deeply believes that to play his best tennis he needs balance, not only on the court but off of it, not only physical balance but mental balance too. It’s clear that right now, for whatever reason, Novak Djokovic is out of balance.

The Wednesday match against Kyrgios was instructive.This was a tough setup for Djokovic, no question about it. He had played a grueling three-set match against del Potro on Tuesday night, and so to come out less than 18 or so hours later to face the whirlwind game of Kyrgios was asking a lot. And Kyrgios’ game is such that he can, on the right day, beat anybody. It’s also true that, on the wrong day, Kyrgios can lose to anybody and lose spectacularly, without trying, goofing off, hitting shots between his legs for no reason, all the while throwing F bombs and trash talk and rackets.

It was clear from the moment this match started, though, that the good Kyrgios had shown up. The good Kyrgios bombs 140 mph first serves into the corners of the service boxes and 125 mph second serves into those same corners. The good Krygios runs down everything, absolutely everything, and enjoys frustrating the heck out of opponents with floaty soft shots that say “You will never get one by me, mate. The good Kyrgios finishes off points with his insane up-the-line backhand and his wicked angled forehand. There are people who think he’s the most talented tennis player on earth. This was always going to be a challenge for Djokovic, even at this best.

But what was so striking on Wednesday was that Djokovic so clearly was not up to that challenge. The beauty of Novak Djokovic’s game for his five years of dominance was that you couldn’t break him. He would do whatever he had to do, become whatever kind of player he needed to become, to win the match. There were 23 grand slam finals from the 2010 U.S. Open to the 2016 French. Djokovic won 11 of them, just about half. He reached the final in seven more of them. He reached the semifinal in three more.

That means only once in those years did Djoker fail to reach a semifinal. And that one time was at the 2014 Australian Open when he lost a five-set bloodbath with the unpredictable Stan Wawrinka, who was on for that tournament and went on to win it.

Djokovic accomplished the staggering consistency with his unique talent for problem solving. Unlike Roger Federer or Pete Sampras, he doesn’t have the serve to help him ace his way out of trouble. Unlike Rafael Nadal, he doesn’t play with the brute force that can overwhelm an opponent. Djokovic, when he’s at his peak, wins by transforming himself into your worst nightmare. If you have a gigantic serve, he neutralizes it, blasting back your serve the way mirrors return laser beams in the movies. If you rely on consistency, he becomes a backboard, seemingly never missing a shot, seemingly never get tired. If you are an attacking player with big groundstrokes, he chases down your shots again and again, making you hit four, five, six winners in one point, and even that might not be enough.

Watching Djokovic mutate into whatever he needed to be time and again has been one of the singular sports joys of my life. And so the last year or so has been a bit shocking, and it was downright shocking to watch him flail helplessly against Kyrgios. He had no answers. It wasn’t entirely clear that he was even looking for answers. Post-match tennis statistics are terrible (I would love to become a satermatrician) but at last update during the broadcast Djokovic was not getting back two-thirds of Kyrgios’ first serves, and failing to return almost 30% of his SECOND serves. This, as mentioned, from the all-time returner of serve.

I kept waiting for the fury to kick in, for Djokovic to make some adjustments, for him to dig in. No, it wasn’t going to be easy. Kyrgios was serving lights out. But Djokovic didn’t become the greatest player on earth by shrinking from the challenge. And yet that’s EXACTLY how he looked, like he was shrinking. He managed to hold his own serve for the most part, sometimes with some drama, and that kept the match theoretically close. But at no point did Djokovic look like he would actually win the match. He smashed a racket, yelled at himself now and again, shouted out a couple of times. But even that seemed rote, mechanical. Long before he lost the tiebreaker 7-3, he seemed like he had already lost.

There was one particularly galling tendency. For at least half the match, Djokovic consistently cheated to the middle on Kyrgios’ serve to the ad-court (the right side of the server). And Kyrgrios beat him time after time by serving wide. After this went on for far too long, Djokovic turned to his box of coaches and seemed to blame them for giving him a poor scouting report on Kyrgios. He seemed to be saying something like:  ‘Hey, I thought this guy was supposed to hit his serves down the middle.”

That made me sad. Was Novak Djokovic really just falling back on a scouting report? I have never seen anybody on a tennis court who worked so hard to unravel an opponent and to solve the puzzle than Novak Djokovic. That always struck me as his greatest weapon. Djokovic is breathtakingly fast, his hand-eye reflexes are absurd, his ground strokes are the best in the world, his competitive spirit is there with anyone’s — Nadal’s, Joe Frazier, Tom Brady, you name it.

But it was his tennis mind, his talent for coming up with a solution when the opponent seemed too good, when the match was getting away, when time seemed to be running out that marked Novak Djokovic’s marvelous career. And somehow that has gone away. Maybe it comes back for Paris. Maybe not. A year ago, I wrote that if he didn’t get bored or injured, Djoker had every chance to become the greatest player in the history of the game.

Well, I don’t think Novak Djokovic is injured.







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18 Responses to What Happened to Novak?

  1. Mike V. says:

    He needs to admit defeat and reconnect with Becker. I’m surprised you did not mention his coaching change and the obvious disruption it has caused.

  2. Katarina says:

    Beautiful article Joe, but you left us, Nolefans, who love your writing very much, very sad and worrying. We were literary in love with that last article abt NOle and his greatness. A now this one, who really saying very realistically how Nole became what he become.
    Hope stays, that he will find his balance once more, and that he will not go down in history books in this way, with slump shoulders.
    Cheers Joe. :((

  3. heaveecee says:

    This is about the same age (29)when Federer seemed to lose a step and Nadal was being upset more often. Novak plays a physically demanding and defensive style of play and I don’t see him aging particularly well, certainly not as well as Federer, but then who does. Though not as demanding on the body as Rafa, his strength has always been to prolong rallies by chasing down balls and playing defensive until an opportunity presented itself. Youth and quickness are vital to that approach and losing a step makes a player like Novak more vulnerable as he ages. He has one of the great service return games, but otherwise lacks that great weapon or 2 that has helps Federer remain competitive for so long. Novak is still up there as one of the top handful and perhaps this is just a blip or lack of focus, but he has a lot of work to do to be considered GOAT.

    • Govind chettiar says:

      But the point Joe is making is the oddness and the abruptness of the fall off. UP till FO 2016 he was well nigh untouchable and then it all disappeared. Not gradually, but almost overnight the aura of invincibility was gone. Thee were talks about personal problems, shoulder and arm injuries, but nothing explains what has happened.
      No, I don’t think even when he won that FO I really expected him to get another 5 more but I also didn’t expect this.

      • heaveecee says:

        True he has fallen off a cliff this season, but we had to expect a fall of some kind, especially with number of big serve players out there who get their day in the sun somedays and the level of competition rising as the old guard ages Wawrinka in particular. Nadal in part due to injury had fallen off a cliff, not doing much beyond the FO and perhaps unable to keep up anymore on fast surfaces.
        Not sure if there has any carry over to tennis, but I feel like the aura of invincibility in sports was broken in a lot of ways in 2016. We had the the World Series, NBA Western Final and Finals all won on 3-1 comebacks and especially in the case of the NBA a seemingly invincible machine was taken apart. Same goes for Kluber and Miller in the WS. Seemingly invincible, then suddenly not. If you want to stretch that to early 2017 there was the Superbowl comeback for the ages. Perhaps player mentality is now more than ever one of no lead is safe and no player is unbreakable.
        I realize as a career trajectory it is more abrupt for Novak, but I also thought the GOAT talk was a little early as well and it is not just about Slam wins.

    • Brian Reznick says:

      I think the age issue, while not the most interesting issue to write about, needs more consideration. From Wimbledon 2004 to the Australian Open 2010, 23 Grand Slam finals (or the same size window that Joe explored for Novak) were played. During that time, Roger Federer won 14 of them, was the runner up 6 times, and lost in the semis 3 times. Following the 2010 Aussie Open, Federer lost in the French Open quarters (his first time not making a slam semi since the French in 2004) to Robin Soderling, a man who Federer had beaten in all 10 of their previous meetings. He lost in the Wimbledon quarters (Berdych) and the US Open semis (Djokovic). He made one major final in 2011 (losing in the French to Nadal) and won Wimbledon in 2012. He’s only made more than one major final in a calendar year once since 2009, in 2015 where he lost in the Wimbledon and US Open finals to Djokovic. Now, I get that Djokovic rise to ridiculousness played a big part in Fed’s “downfall” (relatively speaking), but no small part of it was Fed becoming old within the context of being a top level tennis player. Fed turned 28 in August of 2009, and it’s really hard to win at the highest levels of tennis when you hit your late 20s. This isn’t unique to Federer and isn’t some amazing discovery that I made either:

      I’m sure there is plenty going on in Djokovic’s life. Maybe he did just get bored after winning the French and just needs to refocus. And I hope that happens, Djokovic as unstoppable tennis killing machine is a joy to watch. But until we have compelling evidence otherwise, hasn’t history told us that a great athletes downfall is always due to the inevitable, inexorable, and stupid march of time? Heck, some day a year might come when Serena doesn’t win a major (I’m assuming the records are wrong about 2011). Briefly on the subject of Serena, she’s starting to have a compelling case as the greatest athlete of all-time, right?

      • invitro says:

        “Serena, she’s starting to have a compelling case as the greatest athlete of all-time, right?” — Maybe the top woman tennis player of all time. She wouldn’t rank in the top, oh, hundred or two million athletes of all time.

      • Hamster Huey says:

        I couldn’t agree more with this (Brian Reznick and heaveecee). For someone who writes so often about how age always surprises people in sports, it’s, well, surprising to see Joe seem to underestimate it here. (Further, Joe seems to romanticize tennis in a way that he doesn’t for other sports; I still remember an article after the Mahut-Isner ultramarathon at Wimbledon where a main conceit of the article was that Mahut had no chance to win… the closest match of all time. The incisive analysis he brings to baseball, the disdain for the convenient narrative, just isn’t applied to tennis.) The Federer comp is the obvious parallel. 29 is old for absolutely top-tier tennis; we saw it with Fed, then Nadal, and now Djoker; before that Sampras, and Agassi, and…. (Btw, this really underscores how remarkable Serena’s run is.)

        That said… there was something undeniably weird about Djokovic’s interview after losing to Querrey at Wimbledon. Something about how it was in some ways a relief to have the Grand Slam streak behind him, and how he needed to get away from tennis for a while… I distinctly remember feeling at the time that if that moment heralded the beginning of the end for him, I didn’t understand why, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised. (Now who’s mysticizing tennis?) Anyway, it sure didn’t sound like boredom was the problem… I can’t find a clip of that interview but I wish I could – it was truly remarkable.

        It will be fascinating to watch how his career goes from here. In some ways, I think what Federer has done with the last 5 years is one of the most unique things I’ve ever seen in sports. His peak was as high as anyone’s has ever been (in any sport), then he got caught by the very top of the pack, but he stuck it out and was content to be top-4, clearly no longer the best, but not to slip beyond that… Whereas contemporaries like Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick are gone and long gone, respectively. Remarkable combination of mental and physical resolve. Fed is hands-down my favorite tennis player of all time, but Djokovic has been an interesting foil and I am eager to see where he goes from here.

        • moviegoer74 says:

          We didn’t see this with Agassi, precisely. He began the greatest stretch of his career after he turned 29 in April 1999. He won the 1999 French Open, lost the Wimbledon final to Sampras, won the 99 US Open, then won the 2000 Australian. So, he made all 4 finals at the age of 29, winning 3 of them. Then things turned after he turned 30, although he still won 2 more Australians (including at age 32) and made 2 more US Open finals (including at the age of 35, when he lost to Federer).

          • Hamster Huey says:

            Huh, I had forgotten how late in Agassi’s life the “Steffi renaissance” came! That is an impressive year at 29, and an impressive run in his early 30s.

  4. MikeN says:

    Little confusing on your description of the ad court. When serving to the ad court, he is serving to the right side. When the server is on the right, he is serving to the deuce court.

  5. Marc Schneider says:

    First, I do think guys get bored. It’s just hard to be hungry forever. And he has other things in his life; maybe tennis just isn’t as important anymore. Second, I think Djokovic’s style of play has limitations; if you lose a step you are in trouble until you can adjust. It’s somewhat like a power pitcher who loses a mile or two off his fastball; in many cases, he can adjust and regain his form but it can be ugly until he does. But I agree it’s inexplicable how Djokovic could have declined so quickly; he was far, far ahead of everyone else until after the French Open. But maybe Kyrgios is to Djokovic what Rafa was to Federer (until recently).

    • Hamster Huey says:

      I don’t think it’s just a specific matchup problem with Kyrgios; Djokovic has lost an edge from where he was the few years prior. I mostly agree with your “lose a step” thesis, though – as essentially a counterpuncher, his margin is razor-thin. Really, it’s harder to explain the several-year period of dominance than it is the now nearly-year-long stretch of “merely” really good results. He doesn’t have a weakness, sure, but nor does he have one dominant shot that an opponent can’t handle. Instead, he really has to be “on” all the time to do what he does, and that is hard to sustain. So if he’s a step slower approaching 30, and maybe was hiding an injury early on that made the initial descent more steep than it otherwise would have been… I don’t think you need more than that. And, especially in an individual sport, I do believe there’s a mental aspect to tennis that has probably changed for both Djokovic and his opponents – even if that’s maybe not the most SABR (SATR?) thing to say.

  6. Marco says:

    I know it’s gauche to say this but I’m going to anyway.

    My theory is drugs.

    In January of 2016, several performance enhancers that were legal got added to the not legal anymore list. (Sharapova was famously caught voilating this.) The drug Meldonium is very commonly used in eastern Europe, and aids endurance.

    When Sharapova got caught, I predicted to my wife: We’re going to see the landscape of tennis change. We’re in an era where players are inexplicably extending their careers in an unprecedented fashion. Just like baseball in the 90’s, we made up all sorts of reasons like better training etc. In the end, once they enhanced drug testing, we saw the game get much younger. I think we’ll see the same in tennis.

    Note for the people about to scream at me: Even if what I’m saying is true (and it’s just speculation, nothing more) DJOKOVIC DID NOTHING WRONG. He was completely within the rules. I’m just looking for a reason that he declined, and the timing fits. It’s far from proof, but it makes more send to me than “he got bored”.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Well, are people going to start attributing Federer’s resurgence to drugs? I mean, that’s really unusual (although, in fairness, he has benefitted from Nadal’s decline as much as anything). If Federer wins another major this year, will the rumors start? Is it all due to the new racket?

      And before people get upset, I’m not suggesting that Federer is doing drugs but that people will start talking. I suspect that Federer’s game is more suited to aging well than Nadal and Djokovic.

  7. Mtortolero says:

    In the last six months I am missing Nole s better shot in his game, that agressive laser parallel backhand. His game now has becoming more in someone playing trying to ping pong their opponents with crossing shots without poison and not the surprise that shot had.

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