Over the last twelve months, a lot has been written about Novak Djokovic, and for good reason. He’s been the undisputed best player in the world, for the better part of two years. This fact is punctuated not just by his number one ranking, but by what he has done in the past twelve months. To put it mildly, it has been downright silly. Since losing the 2015 French Open final to Stanilas Wawrinka, Djokovic had gone on a tear of colossal proportions. He swept Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open and Roland Garros in that order. That run took him to an entirely new stratosphere in tennis. Suddenly, he was not just within touching distance of Nadal and Sampras – each man has fourteen grand slam titles to his name – but he’d done something neither of them or for that matter any of his contemporary champions, could do. He’d won four grand slams in a row. The prize at the end was a career completing French Open title. Novak Djokovic was on top of the world and everyone knew it.
Coming into this year’s Wimbledon, a lot of articles, debates and videos touching on the topic of Djokovic’s invincibility, were posted online. The prevalent question became “Who could beat Djokovic?” Who could stop the juggernaut? The usual suspects were put forward as candidates. Some said Murray, others said Federer. I for one thought the title should be handed to him. I said as much in my last article – Remembering S&V at Wimbledon. Any show of hands if you looked at the draw and thought, “Yeah… Querrey will take him out.” I know I didn’t. I never saw it coming and I don’t think Djokovic did either. It’s not like Querrey was having a fantastic season, coming into this match. The hard hitting American had been the second of two hard hitting giants emerging from the U.S in the last decade. Yet it had always been John Isner, who seemed to land on the good side of history, more often than not. Querrey had become the proverbial journey man, much like Robin Soderling, before his big break through in 2009. And so it was that Querrey entered this match as the titanic underdog. I wager, the only person who believed the American could win this match, was probably Querrey himself.
It was evident from the first game that this belief wasn’t some hidden gem discovered by the underdog, over the course of the match. That script belonged to many other upsets. Djokovic was chasing a special kind of history at this tournament. If there was going to be an upset, it had to be equally special. Querrey’s belief was there from the word ‘play’. The first game was fiercely contested and though Djokovic was up to the task, I felt a light tickle of foreboding. By the time the third game rolled around, it was clear Querrey was here to play. Whatever lull the giant had been in all season, it was evident he had awakened from it. Querrey hugged the baseline in this match, serving from Sequoia-like heights, and swinging from the hips. He certainly cut an ominous figure and Djokovic sensed it. More so, the threat of Querrey visibly unnerved the Serbian champion. That is not a common sight, these days. Since Boris Becker’s arrival, Djokovic has been the picture of steely resolve. His resilience has becoming something of legend. Today, none of that mattered to Sam Querrey. He took a fiercely contested first set in the tie break, buoyed by a barrage of aces and searing forehands.
By the time the American bagged the second set – handing Djokovic a rather insulting bread stick in the process – the murmurs around the stadium could be heard, as people contemplated the improbable, if not impossible. The defending champion of all four grand slams, and two time defending Champion at Wimbledon, was in danger of being unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament in the third round. What was still unspeakable, was the looming danger of it happening in straight sets. Querrey had been good all match. Way too good. The sheer potency of his game had unraveled Djokovic. The Serbian relapsed. He began to spray balls long and mutter to himself. His footwork got unprofessionally lazy and he on more than one occasion dumped an ill advised attempt at a drop shot into the net. Meanwhile, on the other side of the net, Sam Querrey bristled with confidence and leaned into his shots with the raw power we’ve come to know big man tennis for. Rapid fire serves were quickly followed with atomic forehands and Djokovic was caught in a state of perpetual scampering. Yet few expected the champion to fizzle out without a fight. Men like Querrey were not known for their ability to sustain the zoned state Champions are recognized and respected for. The fight, came in the third set. Djokovic locked down his game and slowed the flow of errors. Yet down the finish line of the set, he faltered and almost let Querrey back in.
He ultimately won the third set, and the fourth was as hotly contested as the first. It marched on to the inevitable tie breaker. In retrospect, I believe Djokovic’s biggest mistake, was letting it get that far. I’ll rephrase. I believe Djokovic’s biggest mistake was not finding a way to stop it from getting that far. The way Querrey was serving, Djokovic – best returner or not – had no say in whether or not he could break serve. Querrey was not in a giving mood. Despite a mini lapse in the tie-break, it was the American who buckled down and took the match, 7 – 5 in the breaker.
And so it was that for the fourth year in a row, the all England club was treated to another delicious upset of a member of the fabled “big four”. It was also the second time in that four year span that the defending Champion, had failed to reach the second week at Wimbledon. Federer had been sent packing in the second round of Wimbledon 2013, by Sergiy Stakhovsky. Nadal has famously been the perennial victim at Wimbledon. However, none of them was entering Wimbledon on a four grand slam winning streak. So what gives? I highly doubt that this is the start of a Djokovic decline and I wouldn’t be disrespectful to Querrey by saying this was a flash in the pan loss brought on by a bad day at the office. Querrey won this match and in so doing, reminded us of why we watch the game. No result is ever a given. Even juggernauts, can be stopped.
Djokovic will probably shrug off this loss and regroup for the Olympic games, but the implications of the loss are clear. The quest for a calendar grand slam is gone for at least another year. His loss also increases the chances of his two closest rivals, Federer and Murray. Should they stay true to their seedings, they will meet in the final, come next Sunday. However, being the consummate professionals that they are, I’m sure they’ll take it one match at a time. Querrey’s lesson still lingers after all.