What’s eating Novak Djokovic?

Novak Djokovic.   | Photo Credit: AP

Novak Djokovic’s opening-round losses at Indian Wells and the Miami Masters were mystifying at many levels. These were the courts on which the Serb once didn’t cede an inch. It was he who made the previously rare Sunshine Double — winning both back-to-back — fashionable, doing it four times, including a hat-trick between 2014 and 2016.

Going by Djokovic’s travails over the past year and a half, perhaps the defeats — both to unseeded opponents — weren’t surprising. But their manner definitely was. The revamped service action appeared a non-starter; the patented hard-court slides were mostly absent; his favourite shots — the forehand return and the double-fisted backhand — worked only sporadically.

From the impregnable champion of the past, he looked a far cry, physically compromised and mentally withdrawn. “I’m just trying everything I can,” Djokovic said after the Miami loss. “It is what it is. I’m not at the level I used to be. I’m aware of that. I just have to obviously believe in myself and the rest will come.”

What ails Novak Djokovic? Is it his mind or his body or just his game? A younger Djokovic had struggled with all three. In his initial years, a physical collapse on court was always on the cards. Once he had tied this loose end up, there was a period leading up to his 2014 Wimbledon triumph during which he made five Major finals outside of the Australian Open and lost each one, leading to questions about his mental make-up.

His game, predominantly built on stellar movement and a great return, never stood out, like say Roger Federer’s or Rafael Nadal’s, and after having secured him his first Major in 2008, stagnated for a good three years. That Djokovic spruced up his body, developed the mind of a champion and chiselled his game into one of the finest is a testament to his genius. These skills were long thought as being held in muscle memory.

So what explains his current predicament? A near two-year slump in anybody’s career is character-revealing, but in Djokovic’s case, quite bizarrely, there is still an element of speculation. But it can be safely said that at no point in the past have all three facets of his tennis — the mental, the physical and the game-specific — regressed at once, as it has now, to collectively drag him down.

Crisis of confidence

Djokovic appears to have no belief in himself. Even his astute decision-making, the kind of which led to him hiring Boris Becker in mid-2014, in spite of their vastly divergent playing styles, seems to have eluded him as the unceremonious dumping of his recently assembled coaching team shows. The legendary Andre Agassi seemed like a perfect fit. But he was a mere footnote — literally — in the statement Djokovic released to signal the end of the partnership. Coming from someone who has always wanted to be admired as the good guy, it was telling.

Neither does he seem to have the same physical presence he once had. The Serb was always wiry and elastic, but never reed-thin as he is now. The pain in his elbow isn’t to be discounted either, and his remodelled serve — with the shortening of his backswing and ball toss — should suggest that there is something seriously wrong. Players are stubborn individuals who don’t easily accept change. Nadal, in spite of “playing through pain”, still doesn’t want to alter his physically draining but highly successful style. It took Federer a five-year Slam drought to switch to a larger racquet head.

In fairness, the mind and the body do resist quantification, and we may never get to the full truth. But Djokovic’s drop in quality can definitely be quantified. The signs were there this time last year. On her blog ‘On the T’, Stephanie Kovalchik, a data scientist for the Game Intelligence Group and a Senior Sport Scientist, Tennis Australia, explained Djokovic’s fall. On clay that year, Djokovic won only 44% of the total average adjusted return points.

The term ‘adjusted’ refers to an attempt by Kovalchik to account for opponent difficulty and make the numbers more comparable across matches. Nadal in contrast won 51%. Even on serve, Djokovic dropped to 67%, his lowest average serve performance since 2010. On clay, the serve might not be as useful as it is on faster courts in winning points outright. But for someone like Djokovic who doesn’t serve as many unreturnables, it is still an effective tool to set up the third shot, which is often a put-away if one serves well.

The dominance equation

In fact, in the period from the 2014 French Open to the 2016 French Open, during which Djokovic won six of nine Majors, his dominance ratio was a whopping 1.39. From Wimbledon 2016 to now, it is down to 1.23. The ratio, which measures a player’s quality against opponents, is calculated by dividing the percentage of return points won by service points lost.

What Djokovic probably needs now is a rebirth of sorts. He may not be with Agassi anymore — Marian Vajda his long-time coach until last May is back — but what the American told the Harvard Business Review can be instructive. “I thought that getting to No. 1 was going to be the moment I made sense of my life,” Agassi said. “But it left me a little empty, and I spiralled down until something had to change.

“So I made a commitment to take ownership of my life,” Agassi went on. “It wasn’t about a destination. Getting back to No. 1 was something I was pretty convinced I’d never achieve. But that journey from rock bottom to the summit a second time was a great accomplishment for me. Without it I don’t know if I would believe in myself as much as I do when I face other challenges now.”

The clay season, which will be ushered in at Monte Carlo this weekend, may provide Djokovic his first chance to reclaim some past glory. It is the most taxing stretch of the tennis calendar and a fit-again Nadal isn’t good news. But he remains the only man to have consistently challenged and beaten the Spaniard on the red dirt. And if Djokovic, soon to be 31, succeeds in his comeback, it will be a story like none other.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 4:57:31 AM |

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