Novak Djokovic Must Regain Mental Fire to Take Back the No. 1 Ranking

Joe KennardFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2016

Djokovic's struggles continued in Paris during a quarterfinal loss to Marin Cilic.
Djokovic's struggles continued in Paris during a quarterfinal loss to Marin Cilic.Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

It’s a development few would’ve imagined possible several short months ago.

No, we’re not referring to the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election, but rather Novak Djokovic’s stunning free fall and relinquishment of the No. 1 ranking. 

The first man to win both the Australian Open and French Open in the same season since Jim Courier did so in 1992—the latter of which also completed his chase for the career Grand Slam—Djokovic held a massive 8,035-point lead over Andy Murray in early June. It didn't look like he'd give up his crown anytime soon.

With each passing week and disappointing result, the gap—and his momentum—shrunk. From winning Roland Garros to crashing out of Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics in the early rounds, an alarming summer turned into an equally head-scratching fall. 

Granted, physical problems contributed to his stunning loss in the U.S. Open final to Stan Wawrinka, but it's the emotional rut he's in that's more concerning. He even admitted that nerves got the best of him during the Wawrinka match.

Confidence and a sense of peace with himself seem to be lacking these days. That theme continued in Shanghai and Paris with semifinal and quarterfinal defeats to Roberto Bautista Agut and Marin Cilic (whom he had been 14-0 against), respectively.

With a 61-8 record, two Grand Slams and five other titles, Djokovic doesn't need to sound the panic alarms. He's having the type of season 99 percent of players could only dream about. By his standards, however, Djokovic has taken a step backward during the second half of this year.

He's spoken frequently since Wimbledon about feeling a sense of burnout, hinting that all the matches he's played the last few seasons began to wear on his mind and body.

Just before the Shanghai Rolex Masters, Djokovic told the Associated Press (h/t Tennis.com): "The last three months were up and down a little bit with oscillations, but generally I didn't find that kind of satisfaction on the court. I do really feel like I'm already getting better because I changed my mindset. … I think I'm a different person than I was maybe three months ago, maybe six months ago."

Djokovic wept after his loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the first round of the Olympics.
Djokovic wept after his loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the first round of the Olympics.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Finding that inner peace on the court still seems to be an issue. When things haven't gone his way in recent tournaments, we've seen him toss rackets, rip shirts and argue with chair umpires. The old Djokovic, while obviously still a fiery competitor, could compartmentalize things better. As the losses pile up, there's been a crack in his facade of cool. We can visibly see his doubt and pain.

Aware his emotional stability was drifting, Djokovic eschewed bringing his coaches with him to Paris. Instead, he turned to Pepe Imaz, a former player and current self-help guru, for support. More power to Djokovic for thinking outside the box and exhausting every resource, but the move didn't pay off with an immediate result. 

In a listless BNP Paribas Masters quarterfinal performance, Djokovic fell behind Cilic early and wasted an opportunity to force a decider after hitting two double-faults at 5-4 up in the second set. The No. 1 ranking was up for grabs, and Murray happily took it away.

So that's where we are. But how did we get here?

As Jon Wertheim wrote for ATPWorldTour.com, the target that weighs so heavily on his back may have finally dragged Djokovic down: 

The top spot comes with a level of scrutiny that can be uncomfortable or, at a minimum, takes getting used to. There’s the pressure that comes from knowing that, as the top seed at each tournament, the best you can do is to fulfill expectation, to ‘hold court’ as it were. Everyone else in the draw can ascend; if all goes according to plan, you will uphold the status quo. Otherwise you will be upset, a term of art, but also one to be taken literally. Perhaps, above all, it’s easy to fall prey to the dizzyingly high expectation you yourself have set, easy to fall victim to your own standards of success.

With Murray breathing down his neck for that No. 1 ranking, Djokovic was in survival mode. Because he ultimately lost that battle (even if only briefly), it's as good a time as ever for reflection.

Djokovic has to be thinking: What I am doing differently now than what I did in the past? How do I get back to the player I used to be?

The world isn't ending, and he shouldn't mess with things only for the sake of change. Djokovic has the right formula in place; it's just a matter of setting everything back into motion.

His problems aren't related to technical or strategic errors, but rather an uncertainty in himself. His once-pristine game has become plagued with costly errors in the most inopportune moments, a far cry from the player who used to dominate a majority of big points. That goes to show the critical role confidence plays at this level. 

If you've ever seen Batman Begins, this quote stands out: "Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up."

That kind of mentality is exactly what Djokovic needs. Knocked on his back, he should embrace the challenge of finding solutions and igniting the flame that not too long ago burned so brightly within him.

And despite all those struggles, he can become No. 1 again fairly soon.

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 04:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia makes his way onto court for his Mens Singles quarter final match against Marin Cilic of Croatia on day five of the BNP Paribas Masters at Palais Omnisports de Bercy on November 4, 2016 in Paris, Fran
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Should he run the table at the World Tour Finals and win all of his matches, he can finish ahead of Murray in the year-end rankings.

Based off his current level of play, it's something of a reach to see him going undefeated in London, but hey, he is the four-time defending champion there. The courts suit his game perfectly, and he'll have the advantage of being in the group that features a banged-up Milos Raonic, slumping Dominic Thiem and unpredictable Gael Monfils.

Coasting through the round-robin stage would move him one step closer to a potential final showdown with Murray, where the No. 1 ranking could well be on the line. Against the Scot, he's 13-2 the last three years. So while he's staring up at Murray right now, that record should imbue him with hope if they meet.

He can make a huge statement with a win over Murray. Not only would it allow him to regain his throne, but he'd silence a lot of the skepticism and wrap a bow around a productive (albeit unusual) year.

The heat will be on Djokovic, because if he doesn't take back the No. 1 ranking after London, he could have to wait a while to reclaim it based on the points he'll be defending in the first half of 2017.

To get back on top, whether it's this year or next, Djokovic will have to rediscover what landed him there in the first place: his mental fortitude and vigor.

      

All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.

Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.