There was Novak Djokovic at a changeover just five games into Round 1 at the 2016 U.S. Open. The trainer vigorously massaged his upper right arm. Was this good news? It wasn’t his left wrist, at least, the one that had the world No. 1 concerned heading into the year’s final major.
He went right back to work, got his first break and closed out the first set 6-3. Easy, right?
Except Djokovic is not playing like King Novak, the near-invincible champion who held the Grand Slam following his French Open title nearly three months ago. His first serve was weaker, his backhand tentative, and he was feeling his way into the match against Jerzy Janowicz—a big, talented (and underachieving) player who can be downright dangerous on his better days.
Howard Fendrich for the AP (via Yahoo Sports) reported the drop-off:
During the match, Djokovic hit first serves around 100 mph, sometimes slower — 25 mph or so below what's normal for him. He hit second serves in the low 80s mph. He flexed that right arm, the one he has used to wield a racket on the way to 12 Grand Slam titles, and appeared generally unhappy.
No, this was not the genuine Djokovic. He didn’t lay into high backhands with his eyes blazing the way they do when he has murdered Rafael Nadal’s forehand the past two years. Instead, he poked around for the appropriate shots and angles in hopes of guiding the mercurial Janowicz to self-destruction.
Nearly two hours into the match, Janowicz had leveled things at one set apiece. It seemed to anger Djokovic, who promptly went out and beat up Janowicz by winning 12 of the final 15 games to turn the final box score into some deceptively crooked numbers.
The win was a relief, but Djokovic’s nagging injuries are a factor. Unless he suddenly plays with his usual blend of aggressiveness and patience, unless he is fully confident to swing away, well, even his championship mettle won’t be enough to survive six top-level opponents, let alone the grueling demands to power through a second weekend.
At this point, Djokovic looks like a long shot to win the U.S. Open.
Djokovic has been so dominant since 2015 in winning five of six major titles that too many observers and fans talked about him racking up many more like he was plucking peaches off a tree. He was at his pinnacle following that French Open championship, but our Bleacher Report post-analysis also warned about the difficulties of assuming Djokovic could continue to roll through the ATP without adversity:
There’s a long way to go, even until Wimbledon when misfortunes can turn as quickly as a misstep on slick grass. Will he stay healthy and fresh? Can he escape poor matches and hot opponents? Will he be playing pantheon tennis by 2017 or even by September’s U.S. Open?
Today it’s easy to say “yes,” but tomorrow can be a paradigm shift.
The tender left wrist was the story and concern coming into the U.S. Open, but now his right arm is questionable, something sportswriter Adam Zagoria tweeted out during the match:
Producer and reporter John Horn surmised that Djokovic is unlikely to be around for long at the U.S. Open:
Nick McCarvel for USA Today also tweeted out that Djokovic is ailing:
While Djokovic has often been machine-like with his precision in being the best player in the world, he’s often had to battle back from the aches and limitations of being human:
- Switched to a gluten-free diet before ascending to the top of the world in 2011.
- Came back from a twisted ankle during opening round at Davis Cup 2013 to win Monte Carlo a couple of weeks later.
- Endured a right-wrist injury during the clay-court season in 2014, and regained his form, but was ultimately undone by the flu in the French Open final.
- Now the left wrist and right arm are acting up, threatening to shut him down when he would otherwise be the strong favorite to win his third major for the second consecutive year.
Djokovic will turn 30 next spring, and there’s just no guarantee he can keep up the unsurpassed physical speed and strength to dominate through grinding and attrition. There’s a lot more of Nadal (or Murray) in him than Federer, whose body has generally cooperated well into his mid-30s with serious setbacks only in 2013 and 2016.
By the numbers, there is an interesting and cautionary trend with the Big Three. Nadal won the 2014 French Open and had accumulated 834 career matches in about 10 years. Federer hit his 850th career match early in 2010—the last of his prime dominance. Djokovic has logged 889 matches. It will be an extreme challenge to stay on top for another year or two. If so, he will try to take a page from Federer’s 2012 season, when the Swiss won his last major and returned for one final, brief stint at No. 1.
Tennis is taking a toll on Djokovic, and he needs to be healthy. He’s not 100 percent, but his post-match remarks kept his cards close to his chest, telling the media at the U.S. Open, according to its website:
To be honest, I take it day by day. That's what I feel at the moment. It's good, as I said, just to finish the match. I'm pleased that as the match progressed I was feeling better and better.
Tomorrow is a new day. I hope that I'll feel overall good so I'm able to perform at my best for the next match.
Meanwhile, Murray is at the bottom of the bracket, healthy and playing some of the best tennis of his career. Many might deem him the favorite with Djokovic’s health in question. All this means is that it’s a long road and six or seven more wins for the remaining players to get a title. There will be tough matches, physical demands and hopes that they can be fresh for their chances to win the title.
Djokovic, through all his greatness, just wants to be healthy to compete at his best. He can take care of his nerves, the strategic adjustments, the pressure and all else that will come his way. He’s seen it all, won it all and felt excruciating losses.
The one thing he cannot control is having guaranteed health and vigor to play full-out—all systems on go. He needs his best serve and forehand, his biting backhand and the confidence to play aggressive offense. He must be able to utilize all his weapons.
We’ll see what Round 2 brings against another physical, young talent in Jiri Vesely, who defeated Djokovic at Monte Carlo last April.