Since winning last year’s French Open to complete a career grand slam, the last twelve months have been rough, relatively speaking, for Novak Djokovic. He’s now been upset in each of the past four majors after sixth-seeded Dominic Thiem notched the biggest win of his career yesterday in a three-set destruction (7-6, 6-3, 6-0) of the twelve-time major champion.
Given how badly he was beaten by Thiem, particularly in the third set, it’s natural to think that this loss is a new low for Djokovic. But that’s not necessarily true. It was only a few months ago that, after seceding the world number one ranking to Andy Murray, he was bounced in the second round of the Australian by 80th ranked Denis Istomin. Yeah, I had never heard of Istomin, either. You could even say that Djokovic’s loss to Sam Querrey in the third round of last year’s Wimbledon was far more surprising than his loss to the emerging Thiem.
In the words of Vince Lombardi…
But seriously, what the hell has happened to Djokovic? From the start of 2015 to last year’s French Open, Djokovic appeared in every major final, winning five of them. And if we go back to 2011, Djokovic claimed eleven out of tennis’ 22 majors and made it to at least the semifinals in all but one. Now he’s not a safe bet to make it to the Round of 16.
Let’s look first at the numbers. Unsurprisingly, they’re all down. According to Tennis Abstract…
- His Ace Percentage (Ace%) is down 28.8% from 7.3 in 2015 to 5.2 in 2017
- His Dominance Ratio (DR), which is a percentage of return points won over percentage of service points lost, is down to 1.18 after a career-high 1.42 mark in 2015
- And he’s serving and returning the ball far less effectively: his Service Points Won Percentage (SPW%) and Return Points Won Percentage (RP%) have declined by 6.0% and 8.1% respectively since 2015
But the question is why. Why has Djokovic declined? Well, it’s hard to answer. Here’s how puzzling his downturn has been in a nutshell: two weeks ago, at the Rome Open, Djokovic annihilated Dominic Thiem 6-1, 6-0; Thiem, of course, is the same person that Djokovic just lost to in straight sets.
Since he hasn’t been sidelined by a recent injury, many pundits seem to think that Djokovic has simply lost his edge. A recent Guardian article noted that he was passive in his post-match press conference after losing to the 80th-ranked Istomin in Melbourne. The same article notes that there have been rumblings about Djokovic losing his stamina, as well. Yet with regard to his conditioning, it’s not like Djokovic, 30, is that old. Sure, he has a lot of mileage on his tires considering he turned pro in 2003. But since it’s well-documented that he’s been ahead of the curve in terms of fitness and nutritional regimens, it’s doubtful that Djokovic would suddenly break down physically.
The most revealing takes regarding his motivation, however, have been courtesy of Boris Becker, Djokovic’s former coach. He also has noted a lack of inspiration, saying after Djokovic’s loss to Istomin, “He always was very nonchalant about it [the Istomin match], and that is not the Novak that I know. I’d rather see him break a racket or pull the shirt or something, for him to get emotional. I thought it was very even keel the whole match through, and that was unusual, and I don’t know what to make of that.”
Commenting on his general downturn, Becker also hinted at other issues taking Djokovic’s mind off tennis: “Obviously the second half of last year, there was a different priority,” Becker said. “Novak was the first one to admit that, and I think that was the main reason for me to stop this because I thought my job isn’t that important anymore obviously [referring to why he stepped aside as Djokovic’s coach].”
As it turns out, Novak was the first to admit that tennis is no longer his top priority, saying to Reuters in September 2016, “I don’t want to think about winning titles and being the number one any more in order to avoid putting pressure on myself. After all, tennis is not the only thing in the world.”
What exactly is that other “priority” that Becker and Djokovic have referred to, though? There seems to be only one plausible answer. At last year’s US Open, Djokovic referenced “private issues” impacting his recent play, which, according to unconfirmed tabloid rumors, may have had to due with Djokovic having an extramarital affair. But since there hasn’t been any huge public expose regarding his private life similar to, say, Tiger Woods, I’m skeptical that a marital issue that may or may not be as contentious as one might think could have such a sudden effect on Djokovic’s performance. Or maybe I’m wrong, and that’s the best explanation for the former world #1’s downturn.
Either way, Djokovic’s decline is shrouded in mystery. And perhaps the only way he can return to his former glory is by using his recent losses to rekindle an old fire that motivated him to become a twelve-time major champion.
Djokovic photo courtesy of Reuters.