As many times as it happens, it never ceases to amaze me – the falling out of form, of a great player. That process is generally a creeper. It starts with an inexplicable loss, the likes of which just wouldn’t happen in that great’s prime. Watching Novak Djokovic recently, I get the sense that he is entering that phase of his career. The beginnings of a long and arduous decline, that many before him have had to go through.
The match that jump-started the chain reaction, will go down as one of the biggest upsets in the history of tennis. Coming into this year’s Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic was seeking a fifth straight victory at a major. He had torched any and everyone who crossed his path since losing to Stanilas Wawrinka in the finals of the the 2015 French Open. Djokovic was in a stratosphere of his own and the level of his play left most tennis pundits with one question.
Who can stop him?
Little did we know that it wasn’t a question of ‘who’ but a question of ‘what’? It was something that should have been obvious to us all along. Time. After losing to Novak Djokovic in an epic five set final at the 2012 Australian Open, Rafael Nadal famously noted that Djokovic could not keep up that dizzying level of play for long. He was right. Djokovic lost the iron clad grip he had on the sport since 2011 and it allowed Nadal and Federer to a certain extent, reclaim pole position in tennis for a while. Djokovic regrouped and re-established his dominance over the sport, starting in 2014, and this time he didn’t let go until he had captured his most elusive title – Roland Garros. What we didn’t see was just how much playing at that level consistently, took out of the Serbian. He’d given tennis the best of him… at the cost of him.
Djokovic has since repeatedly cited fatigue and a lack of inspiration as the reason for his poor string of performances, and I do believe him. The laser sharp precision to his ground strokes have been missing for a while. Watching Djokovic play these days, I see a certain hesitancy – or is it laziness – to his movements, and a perplexing inability to expend the energy needed to pull out the best of his talents. The dogged fighter has been subdued, and the killer instinct has certainly dulled. All of these have led to embarrassing defeats, over the last three or four months. The lowest of these moments came in the recently concluded Shanghai masters, where Djokovic lost in straight sets to Spanish grinder, Robert Bautista-Agut.
The loss itself was not the most shocking thing to happen in that match. Bautista-Agut is a versatile and solid player who despite severely lacking in the size and big weapon department, has slowly built a reputation for grinding out his victories. What was surprising was the way Djokovic unraveled over the course of the match, culminating in a temper loss that cost him a racket and a shirt. It was clear the world number one was searching for something that he possessed before and not finding it was irritating him… annoying him. Just ask Carlos Bernades and the ball girls who were a part of the match.
As we head down the final stretch of the season, and look ahead to 2017, it has become clear that Djokovic needs to ask himself what he wants out of tennis. It is easy to forget that life has changed for him in a number of ways. He is now a husband. He is now a father. Even for the most focused of champions, priorities do begin to shift with the arrival of their own family. This is in no way a bad thing, but it will be frustrating for Novak if he doesn’t make that mental adjustment now, and be true to himself about where his passion for the game lies.
Who knows, he just might find his swing there too.