As was the case with just about everyone who witnessed his performance on Sunday afternoon in a second-round loss to Taro Daniel, I was watching a Novak Djokovic who was almost unrecognizable. He never found his range off the ground. His timing was abysmal. His incomparable two-handed backhand—the best in the sport across the last decade—was alarmingly off. His serve was discombobulated. And, most surprisingly, his customary fighting spirit was missing. In the final set of this Indian Wells showdown, Djokovic was so disconsolate that he hardly seemed to be giving himself a chance; it was as if, for whatever the reasons, he did not want to win.
To be sure, Djokovic’s 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1 setback against the Japanese qualifier was disheartening for the wide range of ardent admirers who have long believed in the Serbian as a champion of the highest order. They were surely astonished by his passivity on a surreal afternoon at a tournament he has won no fewer than five times, in a setting he has always celebrated, on a surface that suits his game like no other. They must have been dismayed by his uncharacteristic lack of swagger, and his timidity in the latter stages of a desultory effort.
And yet, while making no excuses for this prideful individual who detests losing and demands an awful lot from himself, it would be foolhardy to read too much into what happened to Djokovic at Indian Wells. He had not played a match since falling in the fourth round of the Australian Open against an inspired Hyeon Chung. He had been gone from the game for six months leading up to the proceedings in Melbourne, sidelined by an ailing elbow since Wimbledon in 2017. The elbow troubled Djokovic again at the 2018 Australian Open, and undoubtedly contributed to his demise on its hard courts.
Think about it: out of the game for six months, back for one tournament, injured again, going through a surgical procedure for the elbow, and then returning to work at Indian Wells with no decent preparation. That is not a recipe for success. My feeling is that Djokovic has been so frustrated by his inactivity on the court that he came back too soon in California. He yearned to perform again on a big stage, to remind himself how it feels to play the game as only he can, to return to his office and release some more magic.
That may have been a mistake. He was clearly not ready. In the early stages, however, he was striking the ball cleanly and serving adequately despite his awkward, abbreviated motion. Djokovic should have won the first set comfortably. He moved swiftly into a 5-2 lead. In the eighth game, he missed an easy forehand down the line at set point. After the industrious Daniel escaped and held on for 3-5, Djokovic wasted a 30-0 lead when serving for the set. At deuce, a weakly-directed smash was answered aggressively by Daniel, who drove a forehand down-the-line pass with interest to take the point.
Daniel was back in business, and suddenly Djokovic’s body language deteriorated. A set that should have been over went to a tiebreaker. In that sequence, Djokovic never could get out of his own way. The backhand was misfiring badly. He could not dictate from the backcourt. Daniel realized that steadiness and a conservative game plan was all he would need. The Japanese competitor prevailed seven points to three to move out in front. He did not win that tiebreaker; Djokovic lost it.
Djokovic retaliated in the second set. More disciplined, less error prone, strategically sounder; the Serbian imposed himself as often as possible. Yet he wasted a significant opportunity. Daniel was serving at 3-5, 0-30 and Djokovic did not pounce. He could have sealed the set with a second-service break and started serving in the final set, but some careless returns cost him that opportunity. Daniel held on, but Djokovic fought hard and held on in a tough tenth game. Set to Djokovic, 6-4.
At the start of the third set, Djokovic had an opening, reaching 15-40 on the Daniel's serve. An immediate break there would have been enormously helpful to Djokovic, but once more he hurt himself with unprovoked mistakes. Daniel was very fortunate to hold on, and he never really looked back. Djokovic managed one hold, but thereafter his game collapsed. His mistakes mounted. His self-belief evaporated. He seemed resigned to defeat. Daniel swept five games in a row at the end without being required to do anything extraordinary. In terms of his game and his mentality, Djokovic was a pale imitation of himself.
He had some interesting things to say when it was over.
Clarifying that competing again after so much disruption over the past nine months was not easy, he said, “For me, it felt like the first match I ever played on the tour. Very weird. I mean, I just completely lost rhythm, everything. I just struggled a bit with the health the last couple of weeks. I was grateful to be back on the court after my surgery so quickly. But, at the same time, it didn’t feel good at all.”
With that comment, Djokovic said it all. But, in fact, it was not really that strange that he would fight in vain to find his normal rhythm from the baseline. Not only was he terribly short of match play, but he was also dealing with some health issues. That is not how he wanted to approach a match at a Masters 1000 tournament. All top players often struggle in the early rounds, especially after absences. And Djokovic is a player who has grown accustomed to playing a ton of matches year after year.
In his prime years of 2007-2016, Djokovic competed in a remarkable 821 matches. He was averaging 82 matches a year over that ten-year stretch. The fewest matches he played in that period was 69 in 2014. His highest total was 97 in 2009. Moreover, Djokovic’s consistency was unassailable. His overall record in that span was 698-123 (.850).
And yet, in 2017, he finished his shortened season with a 32-8 record. So far this year, he has played only five matches. Since the start of 2017, he has played a grand total of 45 matches. When we examine his showing against Daniel in that light, it is fully understandable why he would turn in such an uncharacteristically tame performance. He was hurting, both emotionally and, perhaps, physically.
As he said, “I made so many unforced errors that it was just one of those days when you’re not able to find the rhythm from the baseline, especially from the backhand side. That has always been a rock-solid shot throughout my career. [I made] some inexplicable errors but that, I guess, is all part of the particular circumstances I’m in at the moment.”
Well stated. The view here is that Novak Djokovic knows he has arrived at a time of uncertainty to a degree he has never experienced before. But we have not seen the last of his greatness. There has never been a player quite like him stylistically. At his best, when he is right, as long as he is healthy, Djokovic is the best return-of-serve artist ever. He has a blend of offense and defense from the baseline that is as masterful a combination as the game has yet seen. When he is not ailing, Djokovic is an outstanding competitor, the best I have seen in his generation with the exception of Rafael Nadal.
I refuse to believe that his days of realizing phenomenal feats are over. Sooner or later, his elbow will heal and his mind will mend. Once that occurs, Djokovic will collect more prestigious prizes and captivate the public once more with his unique brand of speed, athleticism and shot making. In my view, that is his destiny.