Looking at the current tennis landscape makes it pretty easy to spot that two of the game’s greats, possibly the best two players to have ever picked up a racket, are enjoying a very successful stretch in their careers. It is basically Fedal stealing the show once again in 2017, and who – in their right mind – would have thought it possible to have a carbon copy of the 2006 season 11 years later? Both are in their 30s, Federer is deep into his 30s actually, but neither seem to be bothered by aging. They keep reassuring their fans that the show is not over, and that the future always has something good to offer.
Fedal won The Channel Slam with neither of the two dropping a set
All focus being on them, it could be forgotten quite easily (at times even by me as a fan) that there is a third guy out there, one who undoubtedly contributed to tennis being one of the most competitive sports in recent times, by taking over where Federer and Nadal left off with their rivalry at the beginning of 2011 – creating his own identity and putting his name on several select lists of players who did remarkable things.
One thing is certain regarding Novak Djokovic, and I am just going to come out and say it out loud, as if it wasn’t already well known: “he has declined”. Of course people have mixed feelings about this. Some expected it to happen just like it has for various reasons (age, style of play), some others think it is just a temporary happening, while some others are just truly rattled by how it has all unfolded.
It surely has had many implications, not only because Djokovic is one of the best players out there, but because he used to be a gatekeeper, an obstacle for anyone trying to win Slams. His absolute domination culminated with a nearly flawless win in the Roland Garros final in 2016 over his good friend, Andy Murray, who also has an interesting story to tell.
Was Novak’s fall from grace unexpected to such a degree? Let add some context, shall we?
Decline is something normal, something that occurs in every player’s career, and there are multiple examples of players who went through the same thing as Djokovic, experiencing a steep decline when they thought they were on top of the world. To list a few:
Jim Courier: The American is considered the best player not on the all-time greats list, alongside the current world #1, Andy Murray. He had spectacular results during his prime years, winning no less than 4 Slams in just 3 years, which is unusual for a player with his kind of game. After 1993 however, he suffered a burnout and never really recovered, only managing to have a few deep runs at the Australian Open and Roland Garros.
Mats Wilander: Considered to be a special player in his own way, a genuine human ‘backboard’, Mats Wilander is acknowledged to be one of the greatest players to have ever played the game; he is also one of the few to have had a 3-Slam season, which happened in 1988 at the tail-end of his prime, because afterwards he declined to such an extent that it never allowed him to have any good slam run for the remainder of his career.
John McEnroe: Perhaps one of the most controversial figures in the tennis world, Mac was undeniably one of the most talented men to ever pick up a racket. He was so good at his peak that some people still think his ‘84 season is the best season ever – and for good reason, as he only lost 3 matches, one of those in epic fashion against Ivan Lendl in an infamous 5 set Roland Garros final. Had that match gone his way, he could have been regarded as a greater player than Ivan today, and perhaps the most dominant player ever at his peak given the circumstances.
His decline in ‘85 was instant, but it was the US Open final that put the last nail in the coffin. McEnroe, who was still supremely confident against Lendl, was up 5-3 on serve in the 1st set, but choked serving for the set, and after Lendl won that opening set he started playing like a monster, feeling that way like never before – and he was now on his way to his peak career years.
Rafael Nadal: There is still hesitation as to whether Nadal deserves to be on this list given his current resurgence, but he surely went through a tough stretch in his career, caused by a combination of injuries (2nd half of 2014) and a lack of confidence. His intensity was very low during 2015, as he lost a step in terms of speed, and his ground game lacked penetration. Under Carlos Moya he has managed to improve every aspect of his game – his forehand, backhand (hugely), serve, and is probably moving better than before, as unnatural as that may sound
But coming back to Djokovic, it is surely not the first time he is going through a slump, so let’s just follow his career timeline.
Ever since he broke through back in 2007, Djokovic has amazed the tennis world with his talent and how much stability he has from the baseline. He strikes a brilliant balance between his strong rally backhand that can cause serious harm to the opponent – at its best it is simply an unbreakable shot, one that Djokovic uses to send back countless balls – and a powerful, well struck forehand, which unfortunately comes with the downside of letting him down at those times when he is not confident, but one which can be a killer shot when on.
Did I miss anything? Surely it has to be his serve – that powerful, flat bomb that comes off his racket, and is often clocked at 125+ mph, even though in his earlier years it was being struck by a skinny 20 year old.
A solid foundation to build on, and early in his career it brought him the AO crown in dominant fashion and made him the 2nd best hardcourt player out there after Roger at the time.
Then something happened and Djokovic didn’t feel happy with himself, simply thinking that he would never progress further, which made him hire Todd Martin to polish his service motion and hopefully help him improve his weak 2nd serve, which truth be told was pretty much the only major flaw in his game. The results weren’t nearly as good as expected as Djokovic totally lost his confidence and began going downhill; at first he still had a respectable level in the non-Slam events, particularly in the Masters 1000 events during 2009, but 2010 was one of his weakest seasons to date, totally forgettable except for the US Open – although that tournament reminded everyone that Djokovic was still a top player, capable of beating the best, after his dramatic win over Roger in the semifinals proved, where he saved match points.
Some of his old traits, like his ruthlessness and winner’s mentality, then came back to Djokovic, which may be the reason why his sublime 2011 season happened, alongside the obvious improvements he had made in terms of fitness and shot mechanics. His ground game became more compact, and his serve reached an honorable level for the first time in over two years.
With the Djokovic brand freshly on the ‘market’, the tennis world had a new face, a new player that could stand up to ‘all that came before’ and challenge their place in the tennis realm.
It was relatively smooth sailing for him in those first 9 golden months of 2011, when only a monster performance from Roger in the French Open semis took him down. But such a sustained effort leaves scars, and Djokovic’s body started to fall apart when he retired against Murray in the Cincinnati final and then injured his shoulder in the US Open final.
He called it a season after the US Open final of 2011 and began rebuilding for another run in 2012, which culminated in dramatic fashion with another Slam victory in Australia in one of the most exciting tournaments of the last two decades, where he beat Murray and Nadal in back to back epics that lasted for more than 11 hours combined.
But unfortunately for Novak, it was also the moment when he realized that some of his old problems were back. He began doubting himself and started to believe that his 2011 results were a product of his hunger and raw talent rather than his destiny – something he could sustain for the rest of his career.
Of course he was still able to reproduce the incredible level of play he displayed in 2011 – but only in stretches, as he made no adjustments to his game, trying to play exactly like he did in his best year. The consequences were severe.
It would be an understatement to claim that 2013 was a disappointment. Not only did he miss a chance at a multiple-Slam year, but he surrendered his mental edge to his arch rival Nadal, who wasted no time in using the momentum to his favour by winning 2 Slams of his own.
Out of solutions and realizing his own limitations, Djokovic hired Boris Becker to help him. And it looked like it would be a short-lived partnership when Djokovic crashed out early at his favourite Slam, losing to Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open in strange fashion, with two terrible misses in a row to give the match away.
But somehow, the mental stability that Djokovic always possessed started to resurface. Under Becker, Djokovic not only improved his serve and net game, but also managed to moderate his level of aggression when hitting his shots. Flat, risky ball hitting is what brought him to ruin in the first place, and was the reason why he was so lackluster in big matches during 2013. But make no mistake, Djokovic was still able to be an offensive beast out there when on song, as he blasted no less than 46 winners in 3 sets on the slow clay of Rome to beat Rafael Nadal.
Finally, we have reached the interesting part.
When enough fans expected Djokovic to decline all of a sudden, based on his relatively subpar 2014 (for his very high standards of course), 2015 came into existence for him. It is when he finally regained his inner peace and understood that his place is at the very top, and that he should get a good grip on it once and for all. No one is perfect, and while he absolutely swept the tour, it was his nemesis Wawrinka that inflicted a very painful loss in the Roland Garros final – and wasn’t far off beating him in Australia either. That made Djokovic even hungrier for success, and as cliché as it sounds, “the rest is history”.
New question arising:
In mid-2016, Djokovic’s journey came full circle. He had finally fulfilled his dream of winning Roland Garros – and indeed he held all 4 Slams at once, the first man to have done this since Rod Laver. The question now was – what next? His career had reached the highest of peaks, and any person could be forgiven for not worrying if a tough loss or two occurred in the following months. Djokovic surely didn’t seem to be upset in any way when he shook hands with Sam Querrey after relinquishing his Wimbledon crown – he even hugged him to boot. The loss to Del Potro at the Olympics wasn’t devastating for objective reasons, but it was rather Novak’s inability to fulfil his ambition of winning the Gold Medal for his country that made him cry his eyes out.
What part of his game keeps him at bay?
The technical aspect of every player’s game is the one that deteriorates when he declines, and Djokovic is no exception.
First and foremost though, the mental aspect: a low level of confidence and no hunger to go out there and chase big titles again. It is comforting to think about what happened less than a year and a half ago, when everything was going your way, but to win more NOW, you need to stop living in the past and accept that your current self is worse than the one dominating not too long ago.
Decline manages to expose players’ flaws, the ones they tried to hide their whole career.
Djokovic’s strongest shot relative to his fellows, his backhand is considered to be one of the reasons he was able to be so successful on such a consistent basis. His signature shot is the backhand down the line, but that shot has almost vanished from his arsenal.
Not only has he become much more conservative when it comes to going down the line, but his backhand itself has become a relatively powerless shot – one that is not only weak on offence, but also unreliable, which was unheard of up until this point.
With his best weapon not being a real weapon anymore, Djokovic is left with a massive hole in his arsenal.
Secondly, yet not one bit less important, is his serve – that one shot which should theoretically give a male tennis player a good advantage over his opponent. This is another shot that has really let Djokovic down.
It was a shoulder injury, sustained around the time Wimbledon started, that forced Djokovic to play a few rounds on grass without a proper serve, before being taken out by American Sam Querrey in a match where Djokovic looked nervous and choked the 4th set away.
It reached a low point during the North American swing, where Djokovic was genuinely injured and just rolling in his serves for the most part.
The shoulder injury reoccurred just recently when he was forced to retire at Wimbledon against Tomas Berdych, putting an end to his grass season in the worst possible way.
What is the ‘sand castle’ effect?
It is time to analyze some of Novak’s losses in the last year, as they give us a clear perspective as to how events have unfolded for Djokovic. There are striking similarities and patterns that reveal everything about Novak’s decline, and why he can’t overcome the tough period he is going through.
To make it easier I will follow the timeline again.
It all started with his loss to Sam Querrey in Wimbledon last year. He came into the tournament as the freshly crowned King of Tennis after winning 4 Slams in a row, which meant he had little motivation and somehow not much to mourn over if a loss occurred. And that was exactly what transpired. He got the job done in the first two rounds before an on-song Querrey got out to a 2-0 set lead quickly in their match. As darkness set in, Djokovic had time to settle down and allow his legendary fighting spirit to come into play. He nearly made it after serving for the 4th set, but then he played a poor game to give away his chance to push the match into a 5th set, playing a lackluster tiebreak to register only his 2nd Slam loss in the last six Majors.
Some people saw it as a ‘cooldown loss’, as no one can have it all, and a disappointing loss is bound to happen at some point.
Everything seemed to be back on track for Djokovic after winning Toronto; the loss to Del Potro in the Olympics was put down to the Argentine playing out of his mind, with Djokovic being far from bad in that match.
And then the US Open final happened; Djokovic was there, seemingly ready to win another Slam, and people thought he was back as expected.
But after a well fought 1st set, won in a tiebreaker, Djokovic started to fade away. He was rather aggressive from the baseline in general, but his offence lacked efficiency as he made more errors than expected and lost momentum each time he came back from a break down in sets 2 and 3. After Wawrinka took yet another Slam away from him, Djokovic started to look in the rear mirror, as Murray was threatening his supremacy as world #1.
During the indoor season, traditionally one of Djokovic’s most successful periods, he was forced to withdraw from Beijing, the tournament he was yet to lose a match at.
Novak did not look rejuvenated in Shanghai and Paris either where Bautista Agut and Cilic both scored their first ever wins over him. Murray capitalized and took the #1 ranking away from Djokovic after winning 4 tournaments out of a possible 4.
The last big moment of the year arrived, and with the World Tour Finals underway Djokovic had an opportunity to prove his worth and reaffirm himself as the best player in the world. The stage was set and Djokovic looked to play well finally, displaying a high level in his last 2 matches before the final.
But then he looked about as tense as ever against Murray in the final, who was very tired after an epic encounter with Milos Raonic, yet somehow proved to be stronger mentally and lasted long enough physically to beat a lackluster Djokovic 6-3 6-4.
Being stripped of the world #1 position, Djokovic looked forward to a fresh start in 2017. He won Doha against none other than Murray, and then with the Australian Open coming up and with no Fedal in sight (nothing before the tourney began suggested that what was to happen with Federer and Nadal in that tournament was a real possibility), Djokovic was ready to finally rid himself of his curse. But instead fate sent Denis Istomin, an out of shape player ranked outside of the world’s top 100, into history as he played his heart out in a gruesome 5 setter, shocking the tennis world by upsetting Djokovic in only the second round.
What followed next? It was Kyrgios time. Djokovic looked to regain form on slow hardcourt, but the uprising Nick Kyrgios decided it was his time to shine as he knocked out Djokovic with two superb displays of serving and mental toughness. Then Novak skipped Miami, one of his favourite tournaments, citing an injury.
With the clay season coming along, Djokovic had yet another chance to repeat the famous words uttered by Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back”.
He really was back, but only for a few matches, because after he beat Del Potro and Thiem on the same day, young Zverev had his first win over Djokovic. Thiem was the last among young players to have never beaten Djokovic, but he looked to be in great shape when Roland Garros came along. He took the Serbian to the woodshed, inflicting a genuine beatdown on him in straight sets.
Finally, we have arrived at our destination. Djokovic is still here, fighting to regain his form, but grass didn’t help his cause either. Despite being his weakest surface traditionally, he still managed to win a small 250-level tourney and looked to be in fine form before injuring his shoulder against Mannarino at Wimbledon and being forced to pull out just a day later against Tomas Berdych, who only had 2 wins over him after so many attempts.
Using an analogy, Djokovic’s losses in the past year reveal vital details that help us understand what it must be like to be in Novak’s shoes right now.
Everything about him makes me think of his decline as being similar to a sand castle.
In order to build a sand castle you need to gather enough material to make something substantial, you need to wet it as the sand particles have to stay glued once they dry out. It looks gorgeous if it is well done, but nonetheless it is extremely fragile and even a gasp of wind can make it collapse.
In simple terms, in order for Djokovic to regain his former glory, he has to work hard to gather materials, he need a solid foundation, which means he needs to improve his game or simply to fix the existing issues.
Once everything falls into place, like it did during that one night against Thiem in the Rome semifinal this year, it looks gorgeous, but in the end it is just unsustainable. Every time Djokovic tries to build momentum, it is always that one loss which makes the sand castle collapse.
It was Wawrinka who stopped him from adding to his Slam tally, it was Murray who took the number one ranking away from him, and now the young guns are starting to take over in their match-up against the former #1.