After such a promising start and end to 2008, it seems that the chinks in Novak Djokovic's armour are beginning to be found out by his opponents. After being so close to capturing the world No. 2 ranking from Roger Federer just a month ago, Djokovic now finds himself a distant third in the ATP rankings.
Djokovic was only 10 ranking points behind Federer at the beginning of 2009, after having won the season-ending ATP Masters Cup. But now he finds himself a massive 1990 ranking points behind Federer, and it seems that this is a mountain that he may only be able to climb once Federer decides to hang up his tennis racquet for good.
So where has Djokovic gone wrong? Was last season's Australian Open win a minor speedbump for the Rafa-Roger rivalry, or is Djokovic really good enough to compete at the top level consistently?
We have seen that talent alone is not enough in today's demanding game, which finds arguably the two best-ever tennis players sitting in the top two spots in the men's game. For Djokovic, his fitness has always come into question.
His capitulation against Federer in his first grand slam final at the 2007 U.S. Open, after a grueling journey through the earlier rounds, spoke volumes.
He seems to "run out of gas" quicker than some of the other players on the tour. His game remains solid overall, and it seems that he is built more for the best-of-three-set ATP tennis tournaments as opposed to the grand slams.
His journey to the 2008 Aussie Open title was achieved by dropping only one set, and that too came in the final.
But since then, he has retired prematurely in the Wimbledon semifinal against Nadal and now in the Australian Open quarterfinal match against Andy Roddick.
In the meantime, his 2008 Australian Open final opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the player ranked one spot below him, Andy Murray, have both dominated matches against him, especially on his favored hard courts.
It seems that he still hasn't recovered from his daydream about being world No. 1 by the end of last year, and being overtaken by an in-form and supremely fit Rafael Nadal.
When Djokovic is on song, he plays some sublime tennis, but he does have weaknesses that opponents are now beginning to exploit. It seems that even though he favors a baseline battle, long rallies tire him out, resulting in several unforced errors at crucial times.
His net game is not that strong either, with his suspect volleying ability exploited by players like Nadal, Federer, and now Murray and Tsonga as well.
If Djokovic is serious about competing at the very highest level, and does not want to become a perennial top five player with no threat (like Nikolay Davydenko), he would need to work on two aspects of his game with unforgiving resolution.
He needs to realize that Rafael Nadal is going to be around as long as he is and Nadal's game is based on his ability to chase down almost everything an opponent can throw at him.
He needs to be able to play the long points without regressing into making unforced errors. A stamina-building trainer is something he desperately needs.
2) Net Game
This is key if he wants to change things around. Right now he comes across as a "one-trick pony."
If his two-handed backhand is working, then he is nearly unbeatable. Otherwise, he will continue to blow hot and cold.
He should know that he cannot develop the type of game that Nadal has, so he needs to counter with a Federer-like ability to close down points at the net by either volleying or drawing the errors from his opponent.
In all reality, it seems that 2009 will be yet another sequel of Federer vs. Nadal, and maybe early 2010 as well. But if Djokovic is to crash the party once again, he needs to be motivated enough to build up on-court stamina and improve his game.
After all, the signs are there that he could drift out of the top three by the end of the year. He also needs to make the semifinals of all the grand slams this year in order to retain ranking points from last year.
This will be the year that will decide whether Nole' is destined for greatness or destined for underachievement.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!