Why Novak Djokovic is struggling
If you look at every great tennis player, their career longevity is in direct proportion to their level of fitness. Sampras and Agassi played until their backs gave up. Nadal has been sidelined in parts of various seasons because of his knees. Federer has had to go through minor injuries in his back, stomach and ankle, but bounced back because of his effortless style.
However, these types of injuries all affect a player’s movement. Arm injuries are the most difficult to handle because the discomfort a player feels in the recovering area affects their ability to hit great shots.
Del Potro struggled for a decade because of his wrist injuries, regained the top 10 in 2013, then got hurt again and didn’t regain the top 10 for another five years.
Tommy Haas was #2 in the world and struggled with injuries to his shoulder in 2002. It took him five years to return to the top 10.
Maria Sharapova had a major shoulder injury after becoming #1 in the world in 2008. She didn’t return to the top 10 until 2011, and only regained the #1 ranking in 2012.
A severe tennis elbow can sideline a player for months, but once they recover, the stress of hitting the ball doesn’t allow players to protect an injured body part. Every shot can cause pain and reinflame the injury.
Djokovic’s elbow problem is a serious one. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have needed the surgery. The best part of Djokovic’s game is his return of serve which is one of the most stressful shots in tennis because it is totally a reactive shot. When the ball is coming at 130 mph or more, there is a higher probability of hitting the ball off center that will cause pain. The fear of that pain, or injuring it again will always weigh heavy on a player’s mind, so it may take months or even years for Djokovic to really feel comfortable again.
For the moment, he is losing matches because he has not trained long enough and doesn’t have sufficient stamina. Most of his losses have followed the same pattern of starting slowly, winning the second set, and then running out of energy in the third. If he has the desire to be the player he once was, it will take a few months for him to regain the level of conditioning he needs to play at the highest level.
Even if he can commit to the discipline of training, he will also have to contend with the aging process. Djokovic was the fastest tennis player in the world, running at a speed comparable to NFL wide receivers. (Djokovic’s top speed when sprinting more than three meters was 22.38 mph. Murray was second at 21.66 mph. Interestingly, Nadal’s top speed was 16.67 mph, and Federer was 16.17 mph.)
If the foundation of your game is playing unbelievable defense, any loss of speed or flexibility (think of how many times Djokovic hits an impossible shot while almost doing the splits) will impact your game on every point. When Federer was struggling with injuries, he could still serve big and hit a lot of winners to stay in a tight match. For Djokovic, if he can’t play amazing defense he is forced to play more offensively which is not his style of play so he will end up making more errors.
Finally, there is the issue of rankings and seedings. Djokovic stopped playing last year after Wimbledon. While he is still ranked #22, his points for 2018 only have him ranked #25 in this year’s Race to London. Over the next two months, he will have to defend 970 points earned from three tournaments. If his results don’t improve markedly, he risks dropping out of the top 50, which means he could play seeded players in the first round of every event. This reduces his margin of error, as there are far fewer easy matches where he can work into the draw and rebuild his confidence in match play. (NOTE: That’s the reason it took Del Potro so many years to get back to the top 10. Even though he was playing at a very high level, he always had to face tough draws, playing Federer in early rounds instead of the semis.)
Conclusion: When you add Djokovic’s elbow injury to his loss of work ethic (according to his coach Boris Becker) after winning the French, his desire to spend more time with his family, his inability to win a lot of quick points, and his slow physical recovery as he has aged past his prime, it’s easy to see that regaining the #1 ranking may take a long time or may never happen at all.