World No.1 Novak Djokovic came into the US Open this year the defending champion, and as of the semi-finals, has played only two full matches. Despite this finish, he is playing on the back of one of the lowest seasons he has had in a while. Of course, that ‘low season’ is relative to the standard Djokovic has set for himself – and for fans. After good wins at the Australian Open and then, his bete noire, the French Open, Novak Djokovic looked to be on top of the world. In between those two Grand Slams, the Serb won three ATP Masters titles.
But he also saw some inexplicable losses, especially for a player of his caliber and form. Perhaps the signs for his downswing should have been there, too.
Signs (2016) dir. Novak Djokovic
After a retirement – from being down a set at the Dubai Duty Free tennis championships, Djokovic was surprisingly troubled by Kazakh player Mikhail Kukushkin at the countries’ Davis Cup tie. The highest ranking the 28-year-old has held on the ATP World Tour is 46, which means not many would have expected Djokovic to be taxed much.
Kukushkin was knocked out of the US Open this year in the first round by French wunderkind Lucas Pouille in fairly straightforward fashion, but at the Davis Cup tie, the World No. 1 took five sets – the first two of them tiebreaks, to take victory over Kukushkin.
Perhaps this could have been put down to his consistently high standard of play and number of tournaments – but that argument could come into play later, given the Davis Cup tie was played very early into the 2016 season.
Then came the biggest shocker upto then – Djokovic was wrapped up in a straightfoward three-set match by 55th ranked Czech Jiri Vesely, knocking the Serb out of the Monte-Carlo Masters and effectively paving a now ceaseless path for Rafael Nadal, who went on to win the title.
The Rome Masters perhaps truly showed that there were major chinks in Djokovic’s armour, and they showed early on, as early as the Round of 16. Brazilian ace Thomaz Bellucci should have been easy work for Djokovic – but Bellucci not only took the first set off Djokovic, he bageled him, with the Serb not netting a single game in that set. Then, he had three successively difficult matches, but perhaps none more so than his semi-final against Kei Nishikori.
Nishikori ‘aces’ his way through
That Nishikori has been finding a renewed consistency this year is evident, but this time it was almost the Japanese player who made the finals at the Internazional BNL d’Italia as he made Djokovic search deep to make shots.
26-year-old Nishikori made Djokovic race across court for most of his returns, and having won the first set in an absolute rout, Nishikori looked, even in the final set, to be in a seriously winning position as he took the Serb to a tiebreak – which was also incredibly close. Perhaps Lady Luck was just a little bit more on one side that night.
But perhaps the surprise of the year came at Wimbledon, where Djokovic was the defending champion. He was taken to tiebreak by two unseeded players in his first two matches – one of them just about in the top-200, and then, in the Round of 32, Novak Djokovic bid the tournament goodbye. Big-serving American Sam Querrey, who has made more of a name for himself in the doubles with partner Steve Johnson, took two sets off the Serb before rain interrupted play for the day.
One could believe a day’s rest may have helped Djokovic; it did not. With the match continuing the next day, Johnson, leading two sets to love, held on for a fight that went on for a further two sets, the final of which the American clinched in a tiebreak, with a flagging, tired Djokovic walking off court in disappointment.
His poor form continued into the Olympics, where he was ousted in the first round by a returning Juan Martin del Potro. The Gentle Giant polished off his Serbian rival in straight sets, a loss that finally prompted Djokovic to, on his return from Rio, reveal the cause of his worries.
On the real cause of his losses
“It’s not just my wrist,” he had said at the time, speaking of a wrist injury that had hampered his play all year. The 28-year-old revealed he had been having some “serious personal issues that have affected [my] game,” leading to serious speculation about the state of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Jelena, with whom he shares son Stefan.
It was no wonder, then, that Djokovic had not been the ebullient, outgoing, amusing and still all-powerful tennis force we are used to seeing on court, but a shadow of his former self.
After having taken a break, Djokovic has returned to Flushing Meadows – and in perhaps a reward for his hard work, his patience and a helping of good karma, has had a simple, straightforward road to the semi-finals.
US Open 2016 and where Djokovic stands
Surprisingly, he has played only two full matches en route to the semi-finals, with a number of his rivals having retired from the tournament with injury. He first played – and was taken a set off – by Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz, and was up against old foe Jiri Vesely in the next round. As luck would have it, Vesely, who played a difficult five-setter against India’s Saketh Myneni in the previous round, was unable to play with injury, giving Djokovic a free run to Round 3.
There he played all of 6 games against Russian former top-10 Mikhail Youzhny as the Russian retired too. He played his next full match against Kyle Edmund, and made short work of the Briton to play the tall Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the next round.
If anyone may have been able to trouble Djokovic at that point, it could have been Tsonga; unfortunately, he was sidelined with a knee injury.
It’s funny to think, really, that a player in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam is playing only his third full match – but that is in fact the case. Tomorrow, he’ll have another big-serving Frenchman to face off against – the athletic Gael Monfils, who has been in tip-top form this Open.
One may give that win to Djokovic given that he is, even within the US Open, now well-rested, but it promises to be a good contest.