He is renowned as the iron man of tennis, the warrior who simply doesn’t know how to give up. Ferociously flexible and dauntingly fit, Novak Djokovic (Bio) could well be the best-conditioned athlete on the planet. Since he overhauled his diet and training regimen a few years ago, the Serb has reached the top of the rankings and built a reputation for being the toughest “out” in tennis. Time and again, he has fought back from perilous situations to emerge an indefatigable, shirt-ripping champion.
Yet as the world number one gears up for the North American hard court season, there is a sense that he is more vulnerable than he was this time last year. No one could accuse Djokovic of slumping in 2013: he has won three titles including the Australian Open, and lost only a half-dozen matches. But the man famed for his resolve and ability to wear down rivals has come up short in several high-profile contests this season.
The first glimpse of Djokovic mortality came in Indian Wells in March. Facing Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarter-finals, he produced some of his best tennis in the first set before the Argentine levelled the match in the second. Del Potro is the rare player who can hit through Djokovic, as he proved in the London Olympics bronze medal match last summer. But on a slower, higher-bouncing court, Djokovic had the advantage, and he looked set to romp to victory when he took a 3-0 lead in the decider. To the surprise of almost everyone, however, he failed to pull the trigger, and Del Potro won six of the next seven games. Always a savvy reader of the sport, Djokovic diagnosed the problem with his performance.
“I made a lot of unforced errors and spent too much time at the back of the court; I was too passive.”
Two weeks later came the Serb’s most head-scratching result of the year, a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Tommy Haas in Miami. Although the cold playing conditions didn’t help, Djokovic was curiously flat and out-of-sorts all match, and was, at times, simply outclassed by the 35-year-old Haas. He said it was “definitely the worst match I’ve played in a long time,” and it certainly looked like it.
Touted as the only player capable of stopping Rafael Nadal from winning an eighth French Open title, Monte Carlo saw Djokovic at his very best. He calmly recovered from opening set losses to Mikhail Youzhny and Juan Monaco early in the tournament, and in the final, put on a masterclass to defeat the Matador in straight sets. Defeating Nadal on clay is one of the toughest feats in tennis – Djokovic had never stood taller.
Yet the next two clay court events ended in disappointment. At the Madrid Masters, Djokovic dropped the first set of his opening match to Grigor Dimitrov despite holding set point. And after battling hard to sneak the second in a tense tie-break, he failed to carry the momentum into the decider, and lost it 6-3. Again, the circumstances were difficult for Djokovic – the crowd was openly hostile and he was facing a zoning newcomer with nothing to lose – but he had the cramping Dimitrov on the ropes and failed to put him away.
Djokovic hasn’t suffered consecutive losses in years, and he appeared to be back on track in Rome the following week. But in the quarter-finals against Tomas Berdych, he froze. Leading 6-2, 5-2 and within two points of triumph, he allowed his opponent breathing space, and lost the second set 7-5. Aggrieved by troublesome patches of the court, Djokovic started playing the conditions, not the ball, and a steadier Berdych wrapped up his first ever victory over the top seed.
Djokovic didn’t let himself get unduly downbeat. “I’m fine. I just lost my rhythm. It was a very strange situation.”
He and his fans hoped that such a collapse wouldn’t happen in Paris, and his status as co-favourite for the Roland Garros title was confirmed as he breezed into the semi-finals for the loss of only one set. Djokovic was on the back foot for the majority of his clash with Nadal, the most hyped match of the year so far. Short of his best form and playing a man hellbent of defending his French Open crown, he nevertheless hung tough, the full spectrum of his tenacious fighting spirit on glorious display.
He broke Nadal when the Spaniard served for the match in the fourth set, and established a 4-2 lead in the decider. Yet just when it seemed as though we were about to witness one of the truly great comebacks, Djokovic buckled. A combination of tentative play and some howling misses allowed Nadal to break back, and he went on to take the fifth set 9-7. Of course, Nadal is an equally renowned fighter and deserved full credit for holding firm during the biggest points, but there was no escaping the fact that Djokovic, yet again, had failed to ram home his advantage.
The most recent example of Djokovic failing to be Djokovic was in the Wimbledon final against Andy Murray. It wasn’t a classic match, and he was never close to winning, but the world number one still let commanding 4-1 and 4-2 leads slip in the second and third sets respectively. Usually able to shut out external distractions on the biggest stages, Djokovic seemed overawed by the occasion, and played with an uncharacteristic lack of focus. The loss was his second to Murray in the last three Grand Slams, and led to murmurings that the Scot might be overtaking him.
It’s unfair to highlight only the losses in a player’s season. Anyone who gets to the US hard courts with 39 wins and only six defeats is obviously a supreme performer. But for a man regarded as almost unbreakable, Djokovic has been decidedly fragile at crucial moments in 2013. It could even be argued that there hasn’t been a truly Djokovician result all year, on a par with his Australian Open 2012 win over Nadal or his defeat of Murray in Shanghai last October. Even his memorable five-set victories over Stanislas Wawrinka in Melbourne and Juan Martin Del Potro at Wimbledon only went the distance because the usually clinical Djokovic failed to close out those matches in fourth set tie-breaks.
To suggest that Djokovic has had a disappointing year is to hold him to a ridiculously high standard. But that high standard is what we have come to expect from the 26-year-old. His 2011 was one of the all-time great tennis seasons, a breathless whirlwind of dominance that only the Roger Federer of 2004 – 2007 could match. Djokovic can’t be expected to reach those heights every year, but he would have expected to reach them more often than he has done of late.
Next week, Djokovic begins his US Open build-up. He has a lot to gain. Victory in Montreal and Cincinnati would make him the first player in history to win all nine ATP Masters events; it would also do a lot to assuage the on-court heartache he suffered in Paris and London. Perhaps most importantly, however, it would help him repair the aura of invincibility that has suffered some damage in the first half of the year.