Steve Flink: Djokovic Loss to Thiem Reveals Lingering Insecurity

PARIS, FRANCE— Watching Novak Djokovic drifting through the latter stages of a desultory and devastating 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 loss at the hands of Dominic Thiem on the Suzanne Lenglen court in the quarterfinals of this French Open was almost surreal. We knew he has had some serious motivational issues over the last year. We realized that his vulnerability had grown considerably during this dismal span. We understood that his psyche has been deeply wounded, that his state of mind had been sadly disrupted by his litany of losses and probably his private life.

But no one could have been anticipating anything quite like this. After dropping a hard fought first set and a respectable second that was settled on just one service break, Djokovic simply went through the motions in the third set. He was barely competing. Across the last five games, he collected no more than four points against 20 for the earnest and hard working Thiem. This was not the way for a defending champion to concede his crown. He looked down the stretch like a man who wanted to be anywhere else but in his office on the tennis court. He played with no passion. He seemed resigned to defeat. His mood was dark.

To fully appreciate how out of character this was for Djokovic to be beaten in a love set, consider the facts: this was only the ninth time in his illustrious career that the Serbian has dropped a 6-0 set and it was the first time at a major since the 2005 U.S. Open. It happened first to Djokovic when he was only 17 at the 2005 Australian Open against Marat Safin, the eventual champion. The other instances were against Gael Monfils later that same year at Flushing Meadows, versus Richard Gasquet at Estoril in 2007, facing Nikolay Davydenko at the Tennis Masters Cup in 2008, confronting Mardy Fish at Indian Wells in 2010, bowing against Kei Nishikori at Basel in 2011, losing to Roger Federer in the opening set of the Cincinnati final of 2012, and most recently when dropping the first set in 2016 at Rome against the streaky yet brilliant Thomaz Bellucci.

Add it all up, and this is what emerges: Only nine players over a thirteen year span have ever done this to the prideful Djokovic. It had not occurred at a Grand Slam championship since he was just discovering his talent and potential 12 years ago. That tells us three instructive things—that Djokovic maintains high competitive standards year in and year out; that he has such a solid framework to his game it is almost unfathomable to finish him off in that fashion; and, lastly, it reveals a lingering insecurity and almost utter confusion in a fellow who had been an overwhelmingly dominant force in the game from the beginning of 2015 into the middle of the following season, capturing five of the six majors in that sterling stretch, amassing four in a row from Wimbledon in 2015 through the French Open of 2016, becoming the first man since Rodney George Laver in 1969 to sweep four straight men's Grand Slam championships.

No one, not even Djokovic himself, fully understands what has led to such a sharp decline for this 30-year-old. Consistency has been the hallmark of his game all through his golden career. But now he has landed in that world of uncertainty where he can't count on himself. The game's keenest observers don't know what to expect from the 30-year-old, but, even worse, he seems to have little idea day in and day out, or match to match, how he is going to perform. In the past, ever since he moved into the forefront of tennis in 2007 and established himself at No. 3 in the world, Djokovic was a pillar of reliability for the most part. He stood firmly as the third best player in the world behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for four years in a row, climbed to the top in 2011 and 2012, finished second behind Nadal in 2013 and then reclaimed the top spot in 2014 and 2015.

During the first half of last year, Djokovic was unassailably the finest in his profession, taking the first two majors, claiming six titles altogether, setting the pace with high aims, clear purposefulness, and an unshakable faith in himself and his propensity to control the climate of the game. Since the French Open of 2016, however, it has largely gone south for Djokovic, who was narrowly nosed out for the No. 1 year end ranking in 2016 by Andy Murray. Djokovic, of course, finished at No. 2. He won only one more tournament last year, took his first tournament of 2017 in Doha, but has not been victorious in any event since. Moreover, he has played some inexplicably bad matches.

This one today against Thiem was one of those. Djokovic took the court against the steadily evolving Austrian with a 5-0 career head to head record against his adversary. He had lost only one set to Thiem in all of those contests. Most importantly, the Serbian had played his best match of the year to beat Thiem 6-1, 6-0 recently in the semifinals of Rome. Right here in the penultimate round of the 2016 French Open on the same Lenglen court, Djokovic had destroyed Thiem 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 with another signature performance.

Given the nature of the career series, Djokovic—despite an uneven showing overall at Roland Garros this year—seemed poised to succeed. After the Rome setback, Thiem had lamented that he did not think the matchup for him against the Serbian was a good one. But it was Thiem who started the proceedings with more self assurance than his renowned opponent. After Djokovic rallied from 0-40 to deuce at 1-1,Thiem laced a forehand winner behind Djokovic and secured the first break of the match when Djokovic sliced a backhand approach long.

Thiem had the break but lost his momentum swiftly. Djokovic broke back easily for 2-2, survived a strenuous six deuce game to hold for 3-2, and then broke Thiem for 4-2 at 15 as the 23-year-old played one of his few loose games of the encounter, making four unforced errors off the forehand. Three of those mistakes were from the baseline and one was a badly executed swing volley. Djokovic was rolling, leading 4-2, seemingly set to take control of the match. There is no better front runner in tennis, and even his slump over the last year has not changed that fundamental fact; allow Djokovic the luxury of success in the first set of any match, and he is nearly impossible to stop.

His career match record after claiming the first set is almost unimaginable: 675 wins and only 28 losses. That puts Djokovic alone at the top on that category with a winning percentage of .960. Bjorn Borg is No. 2 at .955, Nadal No. 3 at .946, Jimmy Connors No. 4 at .943 and John McEnroe rounds out the top five, also at .943. The reason I point this out now is that Djokovic was so well positioned to take the first set from Thiem and then almost certainly would have moved inexorably toward victory.

But he played an abysmal game when he served at 4-2. He started strongly, slicing his first serve wide in the deuce court to open up the court, then forcing Djokovic into a forehand error on the run. But he double faulted the next two points away to make it 15-30. A heavy looped forehand down the line from Thiem coaxed an error from Djokovic:15-40. The Serbian got back to 30-40 but then was broken on a forehand error as Thiem rolled a backhand deep down the middle. Falling back, Djokovic missed off the forehand.

Thiem was back on serve at 3-4 and held easily for 4-4, but Djokovic remained confident at this stage. He held at love for 5-4 and surged to 15-40 and double set point on Thiem's serve in the tenth game. The Austrian handled this critical situation terrifically, sending a backhand down the line into the corner to get Djokovic off balance, and then coming forward to put away a forehand volley. On the second set point against him, Thiem's first serve kicker in the ad court was too good, drawing a netted backhand return on the stretch from Djokovic. Thiem gamely held on for 5-5. Both men took care of their service games to make it 6-6, and it was time for a tie-break.

What a bizarre sequence it was. Not until Thiem served at 2-3 did either player win a point on serve. Soon they were locked at 4-4, when Djokovic missed wide with a two-hander down the line. Another backhand unforced error from the Serbian made it 6-4 for the Austrian, but a beautifully played backhand inside in return off a second serve from Djokovic forced an error, and kept the No. 2 seed in the set. Djokovic now served at 5-6, but made another routine mistake off his backhand side. Not only had he lost a set he had excellent chances to win, but he gave away three of the last four points with errors off a shot that has long been regarded as the best in the sport and the most stable part of his arsenal.

The loss of that set under those circumstances clearly did not sit well with Djokovic. Thiem held at 30 for 1-0 in the second set and then Djokovic had two game points when he served in the second game. But an overly restrained Djokovic was broken in the end as Thiem got an early read on a Djokovic backhand drop shot and sliced a backhand passing shot crosscourt into the clear. The Austrian was ascendant while Djokovic was passive emotionally and with his game plan. Thiem held at love for 3-0. He shaped a different strategy for this match than what I have seen from him before against Djokovic, defending more resolutely, waiting for his openings before blasting away, and implementing the first serve kicker high and wide to the Djokovic backhand persistently and effectively.

After Djokovic got on the board with a hold in the fourth game of that second set, Thiem held at love again for 4-1. Djokovic held in the sixth game comfortably and then tried to negotiate a break in the seventh game. Thiem found himself down break point and wisely went to the wavering Djokovic backhand. The return from the Serbian was inches long. Thiem held on steadfastly for 5-2. Two games later, he served for a two sets to love lead. At 30-15 he kicked the first serve to the backhand and followed with a forehand inside in winner. That strategic play lifted Thiem to double set point at 40-15, but he double faulted. No matter. On his second set point, Thiem stuck with his winning formula, stymying Djokovic again with the ad court kick serve. The second set went to Thiem, 6-3.

In the opening game of the third set, Djokovic fought hard but to no avail. He saved two break points, but Thiem garnered a third with a heavy topspin forehand winner down the line that landed in the corner, much to the surprise and dismay of Djokovic. Down break point for the third time, Djokovic faltered off the forehand. Now the collapse began. Thiem held at 15 with an ace for 2-0, and broke at love for 3-0 on a stream of errors from the flagging Serbian. Thiem held at love for 4-0, closing that game with an ace down the T and a forehand winner set up by another excellent kicker to the backhand.

Djokovic was forlorn, and the fight in this great champion was gone. He was broken at 30 to make it 5-0 for Thiem, who was not hard pressed to close it out in the sixth game, holding at 15 on his second match point with a routine backhand passing shot winner as Djokovic found himself entirely vulnerable and uncommitted up at the net. Thiem had finished off the 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 triumph under no duress as Djokovic essentially surrendered. It was awfully difficult to watch an all time great lose in this fashion.

And so Thiem moves on to his second straight Roland Garros semifinal and a fourth appointment against Rafael Nadal this season on the clay. Nadal won the first two meetings in the finals of Barcelona and Madrid before Thiem retaliated against the Spaniard, winning a quarterfinal in Rome. Their Friday duel will be fascinating to watch. Nadal is the clear favorite and I firmly believe he will prevail, but Thiem will test him more thoroughly than anyone has thus far in the tournament. He will make a go of it, and yet who can stop Nadal when he is playing his smothering brand of clay court tennis?

Meanwhile, where is Djokovic going? He gave a thoughtful press conference after his defeat. "For me," he said, "it's a whole new situation that I'm facing, you know, especially in the last seven or eight months, not winning any tournament, which hasn't happened in many years. It's not something that hasn't happened before for any player. All the top players have been through that. So I guess you've got to go through it, learn your lessons and figure out the way and how to get out of it stronger. It's a big challenge, but I'm up for it."

Asked about the notion of taking a break from tennis if he could right now, Djokovic was not defensive. He replied, "Well, trust me, I'm thinking about many things, especially in the last couple of months. I'm just trying to sense what's the best thing for me now. Obviously there has been a lot of changes with the team and so forth. I'm excited to work with Andre [Agassi] and the new team. At the same time, I have responsibility to the game itself, towards others. We'll see. Obviously it's not an easy decision to make, but I will see how I feel anyway after Roland Garros and then decide what to do next."

My guess is that Djokovic will try to play through his problems until the U.S. Open is over and then reassess. In the last four majors since winning the French Open and completing a career Grand Slam last year, he was beaten by Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon, ousted by Stan Wawrinka in the U.S. Open final, taken out in the second round of the Australian Open by Denis Istomin, and now this quarterfinal defeat against Thiem.

That is not the Novak Djokovic we have known over the last decade. The last year he did not make it to at least one semifinal at a Grand Slam tournament was way back in 2006. In a 24 tournament stretch at the majors from 2010 until he lost to Querrey last year at the All England Club, Djokovic failed to reach the semifinals just once, and that was a quarterfinal setback at the 2014 Australian Open. He has been a remarkably good big tournament player, ever present when it counts, always ready to lift his game at momentous times. For the past six years, from 2011 through 2016, he has taken at least one major every season; that streak could and probably will end in 2017.

I am confident we will see Djokovic reemerge, but, as he concedes, it will take time. Perhaps he will be prepared for a serious run at the U.S. Open late in the summer, but maybe not. If he fares poorly in the next two majors and does not accomplish much anywhere else, the time for him to take a prolonged break would be after he is finished with his business in New York. At 30, Djokovic still has a sustained stretch of extraordinary tennis ahead of him, and of us. I look forward to seeing the essential Novak Djokovic back among us again.


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