The ATP Tour needs Djokovic back

May 30 5 min read

10:56 am

Djokovic’s struggles for the past few months

At the end of the 2016 season, Djokovic parted ways with his coach of three years, Boris Becker, after a series of poor results just months after setting a new world record for the biggest points haul for a men's singles player since the current rankings system came into effect. After reaching the pinnacle of the sport at the start of 2016, Novak’s disastrous form from then on wiped out all the momentum that the Serb had been gathering until that point.

In January 2017, Djokovic defended his title at Doha, defeating new world No. 1 Andy Murray in three sets, and it seemed like all was well again for the Serb. However, a month later at the Australian Open, Novak was upset in the second round by world no. 117 Denis Istomin - the first time since 2007 that Djokovic had failed to reach the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park, and the first time in his career that he had lost to a player ranked outside of the top 100 in a Grand Slam tournament.

Early exits at the Mexican Open, Indian Wells Masters and Monte-Carlo Masters ensued, which led to his split from long-time coach Marián Vajda, fitness specialist Gebhard Phil-Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanović. For a while, his form seemed to be getting better; a semi-final showing at the Madrid Masters, losing to Nadal in straight sets before a finals appearance at the Rome Masters indicated solid improvements in his form.

At the end of May 2017, the defending French Open champion announced that Andre Agassi would become his new coach. However, early exits at Roland Garros and Wimbledon due to a nagging elbow injury, meant that Djokovic would miss the the rest of the 2017 season in order to fully recover from it.

To start off 2018, the Serbian bowed out in straight sets against South Korean Hyeon Chung during the Australian Open Round of 16, before undergoing another elbow surgery. More early exits followed at Indian Wells and Miami, before deciding to reunite with coach Marián Vajda at the Monte-Carlo Masters, where he lost to world no. 7 Dominic Thiem.

Another early exit, this time in Barcelona was followed by a gradual return to form for the Serb at the Madrid Masters, where he scored his first win over a top 20 player in 10 months, defeating Monte-Carlo runner-up Kei Nishikori in straight sets, but the Serb ended up losing in the second round. Having gone into the Rome Masters with a 6-6 season record, a run to the semi-finals ended with a tight defeat to Nadal was a positive sign for the Serb.

Federer and Nadal have been left unchallenged

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have taken full advantage of the Serb’s absence from the tour, trading blows for grand slam titles and the coveted world no.1 spot. Nadal was rejuvenated by his only rival on the clay courts being out of contention, sweeping the 2017 clay season, whereas Federer took three grand slams victories during this period, ending a five-year drought since Wimbledon 2012.

Coincidentally, other top 10 players like Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic also suffered from injuries in the same time period, which has opened the door for the likes of Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, Juan Martin Del Potro and Kevin Anderson. The second-tier of the ATP have been able to make deep runs into all the major tournaments and Masters 1000 series events, scoring valuable Tour level points, with Zverev winning an unprecedented three Masters 1000 titles for a player outside of the Big Four player during this period.

With Novak out of the picture, the only resistance to Federer’s charge on the faster courts these days seems to be the trio of Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and Juan Martin Del Potro. This has allowed Federer to play more freely and manage his schedule carefully without compromising his charge towards the world no.1 ranking.

Nadal, on the other hand, has been in cruise control at the clay tournaments and some hard court events where he doesn’t face Federer en route to the title. The Spaniard has been showing renewed confidence in his footwork, court positioning and his groundstrokes, being able to exert his game on his opponents after suffering a slump not too dissimilar to the one Novak has been undergoing.

Signs are promising

At the Rome Masters last week, Djokovic found a way to grind out a marathon victory against Kei Nishikori to set-up a semi-final showdown with Nadal, fighting back from a set down to win 2-6 6-1 6-1 in a high-quality match that lasted two hours and 21 minutes.

"I just hung in there. We went toe-to-toe up until the very last point basically. It really could have gone either way. It was just tough. I enjoyed the battle." said Djokovic following the win.

The 11th-seeded Djokovic then took on seven-time Rome champion Nadal for a place in the final, in what was their 51st career meeting, pushing the Spaniard as far as he has been all clay season long. Novak displayed some of his trademark fighting spirit and never let himself get bogged down, despite being down on the scoreboard throughout the match.

The fact that Novak has been able to challenge Nadal on clay bodes well for the Serb, who will be hoping to have a better chance on the hard courts later in the season. As tennis fans, we can only hope that the former world no.1 and 12-time Grand Slam champion gets back to a level where he’s a consistent fixture at every tournament he participates in.