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.
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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.