The Scottish Mail on Sunday

THE GREAT FALL

Can Djokovic ar­rest slide and be a win­ner again?

- By Oliver Holt

THE thrill of some of the ten­nis that Stan Wawrinka and Andy Mur­ray served up in the first semi-fi­nal of the French Open on Fri­day af­ter­noon is still fresh in the mem­ory. As so of­ten has been the case in the last 10 years or so of men’s ten­nis, watch­ing a match like this is sim­i­lar to wit­ness­ing two peo­ple per­form­ing mir­a­cles game af­ter game af­ter game.

One rally to­wards the end of the fourth set was leap-off-the-sofa un­be­liev­able. It ended with Wawrinka, un­der pres­sure on the base­line, some­how con­jur­ing a drop-shot of stag­ger­ing ge­nius. It took me a re­play to re­alise he meant it. And oh, he meant it.

There was plenty more of that kind of stuff, not to men­tion the phys­i­cal or­deal Wawrinka and Mur­ray en­dured in a five-set epic that lasted four hours, 34 min­utes. Four hours and 34 min­utes of play­ing like that makes men’s ten­nis play­ers about the most im­pres­sive ath­letes in the world right now.

But it still felt as if there was some­thing miss­ing about the last four at Roland Gar­ros this year. Not be­cause Roger Fed­erer wasn’t there, be­cause clay has never been his best sur­face any­way and this year ev­ery­one knows he gave the tour­na­ment a miss so he could save it all up for another big crack at Wim­ble­don.

The ab­sence of No­vak Djokovic from the clos­ing stages of the tour­na­ment, though, was al­to­gether dif­fer­ent. It was the first time for seven years he had not made the semi-fi­nals in Paris and his exit in the quar­ters com­pleted one of sport’s strangest nar­ra­tives.

A year ago, Djokovic held all four of the Grand Slams si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Now he holds none. There is a hor­ri­ble com­pul­sion about watch­ing the greats age and fail, but their de­cline is nor­mally ex­plained by the ad­vance of the years or the rav­ages of in­jury. See Tiger Woods and Wayne Rooney. Not so with Djokovic. His re­treat is mired in sad mys­tery.

It is not quite the same as an old fighter get­ting beaten by a jour­ney­man month af­ter month, but it is get­ting there. Djokovic is reel­ing. The men­tal and phys­i­cal supremacy he once en­joyed has gone and younger, con­fi­dent, less tal­ented men are pick­ing him off.

Djokovic only turned 30 last month. He is still in his prime. He should be, any­way. But things have been go­ing wrong since Wim­ble­don last sum­mer.

It felt odd wit­ness­ing what we now know was the be­gin­ning of the fall. In his round-of-32 match against Sam Quer­rey at the All Eng­land Club, it soon be­came clear some­thing was wrong.

His ten­nis and his be­hav­iour were er­ratic. When he lost the sec­ond set 6-1 to fall two sets be­hind, the am­bu­lance chasers among us rushed to the Press seats on Court No1, in­trigued by the prospect of a huge up­set.

Djokovic was the undis­puted king of the sport back then. The mere fact he had fallen be­hind in a match was wor­thy of note.

A few weeks ear­lier, he had be­come the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Slams at the same time when he won the French Open at Roland Gar­ros. That was his 12th Grand Slam vic­tory.

Peo­ple had started to won­der whether we might be watch­ing the great­est. It seemed then that Djokovic was un­stop­pable and that the marks set by Fed­erer and Rafael Nadal might be within his reach. He was on a roll which seemed to be gath­er­ing mo­men­tum.

Djokovic won the third set against Quer­rey and it seemed that the alarm was over and it had just been a blip. Some of the am­bu­lance chasers melted away. But Djokovic was not right. He looked in turns haunted and list­less.

Some of his re­turns looked al­most like tank­ing, the term be­stowed on a se­ries of shots that are so care­lessly and reck­lessly played they give the im­pres­sion a player has ei­ther lost in­ter­est in the match or is so dispir­ited he just wants to get off court.

Djokovic still pro­duced some mo­ments of bril­liance but he lost the fourth-set tie-break and with it the match. His golden run was over. His hopes of win­ning the cal­en­dar Grand Slam had been dashed. Less than 12 months on, all Djokovic’s ti­tles are gone.

The last of his Slams was stripped away from him on the red clay in Paris last week when he was hu­mil­i­ated in straight sets 7-6, 6-3, 6-0 by the bril­liant young Aus­trian Do­minic Thiem.

It was the man­ner of the de­feat too. John McEn­roe was shocked by the reign­ing champ’s de­port­ment. ‘I don’t re­mem­ber see­ing a time in the last six to eight years when No­vak mailed it in,’ said McEn­roe. ‘He ba­si­cally gave up. It looked in the third set like he just didn’t want to be out there.’

Djokovic was so good so re­cently that his de­feats are still met with stunned sur­prise. We search for ex­pla­na­tions and some­times word comes back in the form of ei­ther in­nu­endo or ru­mour. But no one has a con­vinc­ing an­swer for why the Serb has fallen from the pin­na­cle and is still tum­bling. This week, for the first time in eight years, he will slip out­side the top three in the world rank­ings.

The ten­nis court is an un­for­giv­ing theatre when things start to go wrong. There is no hid­ing place like there might be on a foot­ball pitch. The sport de­mands such high lev­els of fit­ness and con­cen­tra­tion that if ei­ther is lack­ing, a player can get badly ex­posed.

It has been hard to watch Djokovic as he flails but there is al­ways hope of re­cov­ery. He is too good for there not to be.

Later to­day, his old ad­ver­sary, Nadal, will try to claim his 15th Grand Slam ti­tle when he takes on Wawrinka on the red clay.

Djokovic would be three be­hind him then and six be­hind Fed­erer, but age is on his side.

He has al­ways been the third man, al­ways in the shadow of the two great­est play­ers the game has ever seen.

Be­fore that loss to Quer­rey at Wim­ble­don, he had started to change that and, if he gets his mojo back, he can change it again.

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