So much for Novak Djokovic continuing his rampage of dominance all the way to his first French Open Crown next month.
Entering this week’s Madrid Open looking for his second consecutive Roland Garros primer victory, Djokovic shockingly lost to unseeded Grigor Dimitrov on Tuesday. The 21-year-old Bulgarian broke Djokovic multiple times and seemingly relished in the moment as he came away with a 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (8-10), 6-3 victory.
It was one of the stranger matches of Djokovic's career. He was openly jeered by fans for most of the match, as the underdog Dimitrov became the most obvious fan favorite on the planet. Obviously flustered by the taunting and catcalls of the fans, Djokovic was reportedly heard spewing four-letter words at fans in his native Serbian, per the New York Times' Ben Rothenberg:
Ben Rothenberg @BenRothenberg
Djokovic looked to be screaming vulgarities at crowd between sets in Serbian. Can't imagine last time he played in atmosphere so hostile.2013-5-7 20:45:19
The match itself doesn't have many takeaways long-term. Sure, it's a shock because it was Djokovic—the world's greatest player. But seeing a favorite lose in semi-embarrassing fashion is nothing new in the tennis world, and Djokovic has long been prone to these shocking defeats that few see coming (e.g. Djoker losing to Tommy Haas at this year's Sony Open).
One of the overarching reasons for Djokovic’s defeat, though, may have some fans worried. As TennisTV’s Twitter feed pointed out, the second set of Tuesday’s match had to be postponed for a medical timeout after Djokovic hurt his ankle:
Tennis TV @TennisTV
Medical time-out for Djokovic, who may have re-injured the ankle he hurt in the Davis Cup last month http://t.co/L7jOR9JMJi2013-5-7 19:59:28
The reaction, well, Sports Illustrated’s Beyond the Baseline simplicity perhaps put it best:
SI Tennis @SI_Tennis
Oh no. Djokovic rolls his ankle again.2013-5-7 19:56:29
Djokovic obviously stayed in the match and even stormed back to recover from a 4-2 deficit in the second set. Though he wound up getting essentially taken to the woodshed in the third, that didn’t seem to be due to the ankle. Dimitrov was by and large the more motivated, fresher player on Tuesday, and it showed from the first serve.
What’s more, Djokovic spoke after the match and said that the ankle did “not really [get] hurt,” per Chiara Gambuzza of TennisWorldItalia.com:
chiara gambuzza @ChiaraGamTWI
#Djokovic:"My ankle was well protected so I was scared at the time but fortunately I did not really hurt."2013-5-7 21:41:42
That’s an obvious sigh of relief—at least initially. This is the same ankle Djokovic injured at the Davis Cup last month, which should lead to some cause for concern. Ankle injuries are notoriously tricky at first, as athletes often feel perfectly fine before suffering some tightness with rest.
The old adage “keep it loose” doesn’t exactly work when you’re eliminated from a tournament.
Luckily, Djokovic says he’s fine and is recovering from an injury that didn’t seem all that threatening to begin with. He released a statement back in April upon the initial injury and said there was no structural damage to his joints or ligaments:
The world's top player has undergone an MRI examination this morning which revealed no structural damage to the joint capsule and ligaments. A joint structures strain requires therapy and strict rest in the following days.
So even if there was a tweak to this initial injury, it doesn’t look to be a long-term ailment. He captured the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters right after going down with an injury, even as the tennis world was shocked to see him play. Considering Djokovic took down Rafael Nadal in straight sets on clay to win at Monte Carlo, it’s pretty safe to say he’s pretty good even below 100 percent.
Still, monitoring his condition over the next couple of days will be key to assessing how he feels. Next week’s Italian Open is another litmus test for Djokovic, and if he doesn’t withdraw, everything should be fine going forward. And even if Djokovic winds up withdrawing—and there’s no indication he will—it will likely be for precautionary measures.
At Monte Carlo, Djokovic noted the difficulties he had mentally and physically playing after injuring his ankle, per Tennis.com. With the French Open in the offing, it’s possible that he takes the Italian Open off for a physical and mental break. Exerting “three times” the effort isn’t worth it for a mid-tier tournament.
But assuming everything checks out, Djokovic’s injury should play no bearing on his contention at Roland Garros. Instead, the Serbian’s draw should be much more of his concern than anything else.
The looming shadow of Rafael Nadal lingers over everything at the French Open. Tournament officials announced earlier this week that Nadal, currently ranked fifth in the world, will not get any special seeding treatment, per TennisNow.com. That means that Djokovic-Nadal—the 2012 final—could happen much sooner than anyone pictured, depending on the draw.
Nadal is the favorite at Roland Garros, per Bovada, coming in at 1-1 odds. And with Andy Murray and Roger Federer also looming, the field facing Djokovic will be as deep as ever—even if he doesn’t take on Nadal until the final.
It’s possible that Djokovic loses at the French Open—perhaps even before facing off against Nadal. But based on what we know, it won’t be because his ankle wasn’t 100 percent.