What on earth has happened to Novak Djokovic?
It’s probably the most baffling question — a real head scratcher — in tennis right now. Two years ago, Djokovic had essentially transcended the men’s game and became arguably the most outstanding athlete in the world.
Having won a coveted maiden French Open crown, Djokovic became the first men’s player since Rod Laver to hold all four majors at once – the type of rarefied realm that had left fellow current legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in his wake.
Having owned those two greats — the Serb handed out an eye-opening thrashing to Nadal at Roland-Garros and continually beat Federer in majors — Djokovic was mounting a genuine case as the GOAT (greatest of all time).
He had suddenly chalked up 12 majors — incredibly winning six of the previous eight slams — and was hot on the heels of Federer (17) and Nadal (14). At 29, Djokovic was comfortably nestled in his peak and there was no sign of his purple patch abating.
During that scorching 24-month period, Djokovic had mastered the sport about as well as anyone ever — perhaps even more than Federer’s zenith (2004-07) and Nadal’s prime (2008-10). He had become almost akin to a human wall in his canny ability to retrieve every shot and he absolutely had no weakness. Djokovic had an unparalleled ability to hit shots with unnerving accuracy and his airtight defence was marked by relentless hustle and a contorting of the body that made him capable of moonlighting as a trapeze performer.
A far cry from the days when he was mocked with the moniker ‘the Djoker”, Djokovic was as mentally tough as they came — he had reached the point where opponents, even legendary ones, essentially felt hapless before the match had even started. Undoubtedly, Djokovic had an aura, a sheen of invincibility about him reserved for only the absolute all-timers.
Two years later, as he prepares for Wimbledon, Djokovic has become tennis’ biggest question mark. Since those heady days, Djokovic has not won another slam — while Federer and Nadal have traded majors like rallies — and spent much of the past 18 months on the sidelines, but there is innuendo his struggles extend beyond just merely a battered body.
Undoubtedly an elbow injury has troubled him greatly, testament to a weakening first serve, but some luminaries are questioning Djokovic’s hunger — a suggestion that would have seemed ludicrous previously for such a single-minded player.
“He’s lost that fire, the look in his eye, I don’t see it any more. I hope it hasn’t been extinguished,” tennis great John McEnroe said in the aftermath of Djokovic’s defeat to Marin Cilic in Queens last week.
During this difficult period, Djokovic has gone through upheaval and ended a fruitful partnership with coach Boris Becker and shed long-time backers before engaging with fleeting and unsuccessful unions with controversial tennis coach Pepe Imaz and Andre Agassi.
The 31-year-old hit a nadir earlier this month after another humiliating grand slam exit when he was stunned by Italy’s Marco Cecchinato in the quarter-finals of the French Open. In the aftermath, a despondent Djokovic gave a forlorn press conference where he admitted that he was reconsidering his grass court campaign – placing Wimbledon, which he has won three times, in jeopardy.
However, fortunately, Djokovic has seemingly snapped out of that malaise and strung together some of his most impressive performances for some time at Queens to suggest the worst might finally be behind him.
There were flashes of his trademark brilliance with his redoubtable defending particularly on show. Encouragingly, his serve looked to be in full flow and he will need to rely on it if he wants to make a deep run on the quick courts of the All England Club.
One feels the time is right for Djokovic to regain his place back on the throne and the world number 17 has been seeded 12th for Wimbledon. We’ve seen Federer and Nadal. Each have notable flat spots this decade, although neither’s slump was quite as mystifying as Djokovic’s malaise.
It is entirely possible for him to regroup, as his great rivals have shown, and Djokovic still has time on his side — he recently turned 31 which is no longer a geriatric age in tennis. Fans have been spoilt by the renaissance of Federer and Nadal, but it has still felt somewhat hallow without Djokovic’s presence.
After all, his individual rivalries with both Federer and Nadal arguably trump any we’ve seen in modern times and have perhaps produced more consistently epic matches than the revered Federer-Nadal and Sampras-Agassi duels.
The grand stage of Wimbledon seems like a fitting place for the belated re-emergence of Djokovic, who will be striving to finally put his troubles behind him for good.
Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 19:51 PM