The Djokovic loss: Making sense of the 6'6"-sized hole that Querrey just punched in the tennis universe
Analyzing Novak Djokovic's shock loss to Sam Querrey in the 3rd round of Wimbledon 2016: what went wrong for the Serb?
When people talk about the 2016 Wimbledon Championships years from now, maybe even decades, they will ponder over one question more than any other: How did Sam Querrey do it?
Defeating Novak Djokovic at a Grand Slam was considered impossible. Heck, the mere thought of it was considered downright hilarious. And that wasn’t just for the journeymen and the unseeded lesser mortals; even the Roger Federers, Rafael Nadals and Andy Murrays of the world had fallen by the wayside in their attempt to make a dent in the Serb’s reign.
30 consecutive Slam wins, four consecutive Major titles, an unchallenged run as World No. 1 since two years – these are just some of the more obvious stats that had started making Djokovic look like the second coming of Jesus. But there’s more – 28 consecutive Slam quarterfinals, nine consecutive Slam semifinals, six consecutive Slam finals, and the prospect of winning the mythical Calendar Grand Slam this year. The Serb was giving new meaning to the word ‘invincible’.
So how did Querrey do it? if you watched just the first two sets, and are fully aware of the superpowers that grass seems to give tall players, it would be easy to answer that the American simply overpowered Djokovic with his imposing game. Big serve + big forehand: that’s been the no-fuss recipe for success for many an upset specialist at Wimbledon over the years. And Querrey, standing 6’6” tall and the holder of the record of having once hit 10 aces in a row, fit that bill perfectly.
The American served from a tree against Djokovic – that was utterly obvious both from the stats and from the way the Serb struggled to time the ball on the return. Querrey hit 31 aces in just four sets, won 79% of his first serve points, and somehow seemed able to conjure a big serve every time he was under pressure. It was textbook serving, especially in the first and fourth sets – even Goran Ivanisevic would’ve been proud of a display like that.
But the other element of that hallowed grasscourt blueprint – the big forehand – wasn’t quite as much a factor in Querrey’s win as you’d have expected. He was excellent at putting away the short ball off practically every mammoth serve that he thundered down, but he didn’t exactly push Djokovic too far off the baseline during the rallies. By the end of the match, he was almost pushing the ball back into the court, which is an almost unthinkable strategy for a player of his size.
But one look at the pattern of play in the decisive fourth tiebreaker would tell you that getting the ball back in the court was exactly the strategy that Querrey needed to adopt today. Djokovic didn’t just struggle to time the ball off the return; he was also completely off his game from the baseline. By ‘completely off’ I only speak in relative terms, of course; even a badly faltering Djokovic is 10 times better than most players from the back of the court.
Fortunately for Querrey though, many of Djokovic’s inexplicable groundstroke errors came on crucial points. The Serb missed a routine backhand while serving for the fourth set at 5-4, dumped more than his fair share of backhand slices into the net, and most fatally of all, made two basic forehand errors in the all-important fourth set tiebreak. In fact, I don’t recollect Querrey hitting a single winner in that breaker; aside from the serve, almost everything in those 12 points was on Djokovic’s racquet. And he stumbled precisely at the moment we didn’t expect him to, losing two of the last three points through unforced errors.
Most shockingly of all though, the Serb looked listless and disinterested for vast portions of the match. The second set was possibly the worst tennis I’ve seen him play in the last five years, and his body language through it made Andy Murray look like a smiling, carefree clown in comparison. By the fourth set he started to go into ‘beast mode’, trying to pump himself up after every big point, but it was too late. After one point he let out a particularly loud and long yell in the direction of his guest box, and for once even Boris Becker looked unsettled.
Why did Djokovic play so poorly (by his standards)? There could be a lot of reasons – and he said after the match that he wasn’t 100% fit – but I think there’s a simpler explanation: he was spent. Winning the French Open was his lifelong dream, and something that had been held back from him five years in a row. The effort – both physical and mental – that he put into conquering that last dreaded obstacle would have left any player drained. It’s hard not to suffer a let-down after accomplishing something of that magnitude; in hindsight, maybe we should’ve expected Djokovic to be a slightly lesser player this Wimbledon.
That said, posterity will not consider any of these mitigating factors while evaluating the position of today’s result in the list of the biggest upsets of all time. Serena Williams’ loss to Roberta Vinci at last year’s US Open was widely declared to be the biggest upset of this century, and I’m guessing there will be quite a bit of to-and-fro in determining whether Djokovic’s loss was an even bigger shock. There are certainly a lot of parallels – both Serena and Djokovic were on a four-Slam winning streak, both were aiming to complete the Calendar Slam, and both had elevated themselves so far above the rest of the field that it wasn’t even funny.
Let’s just say that Serena’s loss was the biggest women’s upset of the century, while Djokovic’s is tops on the men’s side. But more importantly, let’s also raise our glasses to the two players who managed to do the impossible – Vinci last year, and Querrey today.
The American’s name will likely be spoken of in hushed notes whenever we look back at this momentous day years from now, and he fully deserves that place in history. He was courageous, patient and confident all at the same time, and the manner in which he shook off not one, not two, but three rain delays to finally get the job done should serve as a lesson to every athlete in the world.
At the first rain delay there were knowing murmurs of “Remember Kevin Anderson? Djokovic will come storming back to win in five.” At the second rain delay, with Djokovic halfway through his comeback run, we exclaimed, “The seed of doubt has been firmly planted in Querrey’s mind!”. At the third and final rain delay, with Querrey having just held and Djokovic about to serve to stay in the match at 5-6 in the fourth, there were exasperated cries of “Even Mother Nature doesn’t want Djokovic to lose!”.
But what did Querrey think of during all the interruptions? Just get one more big serve in, hit one more ball back in play, take it one point at a time, think of one shot at a time. It was a mantra that was starkly evident in his play, and thoroughly impressive for its simplicity. Ultimately, Querrey held on long enough to allow Djokovic to self-destruct, and in the process accomplished the one thing that Federer, Nadal and Murray had failed to do for over a year.
Djokovic still completed the non-Calendar Slam – a feat that may be even greater than Rod Laver’s Calendar Grand Slam – and is still firmly in the running for the GOAT title. But on the 2nd of July 2016, he had to concede the spotlight to Sam Querrey of USA, and he had to finish as the second-best player on the court.
Now isn’t that a story to tell our grandchildren.