The Scottish Mail on Sunday
THE GREAT FALL
Can Djokovic arrest slide and be a winner again?
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.