Matt Zemek

There are many points to ponder in the wake of Novak Djokovic’s loss to Kyle Edmund on Wednesday at the Madrid Open.

How concerned should Djokovic be about the velocity of his second serves and his ability to win second-serve points? How close is Djokovic to restoring his game? He did not play that poorly against Edmund, but in a reversal of the natural order of tennis relative to when he dominated the tour two years ago, he didn’t win the points he needed to win, chiefly a 30-40 point on Edmund’s serve at 2-2 in the third set. As soon as Edmund escaped a love-40 hole to somehow stay on serve, he never encountered another moment of great difficulty for the remainder of the match.

Purely in terms of tactics, Djokovic didn’t trust the shot which reveals him at his best: the down-the-line backhand which opens up the court and forces opponents to reconsider crosscourt backhand exchanges, forcing them to worry a lot more about their court positioning. Trusting that shot is a cornerstone of Djokovic’s game. The overall form is better, but complete confidence is not something which comes back immediately. Building it to the 2015-2016 height is a process which was always going to take time. Nothing has fundamentally changed in that regard as Nole leaves Madrid.

There is no reason for Djokovic to panic. He knows better than anyone that a full restoration of his game — a complete rediscovery of the fluid mind-body dualism all great athletes need — is not a fast-food meal. This is exactly the opposite, slowly cooking barbecued meat over the course of multiple days so that at the end of the elongated process, the meat falls off the bone, juicy and tender. Patience is the central ingredient in this project. This was never going to be a quick fix. Djokovic should enjoy the reality of being pain-free on the court. Relishing the simple experience of playing tennis without physical discomfort will do wonders for him in the course of time.

Djokovic’s main problem is not his game itself. A bigger problem is the relative lack of match play in Barcelona and Madrid. Djokovic needs tournaments with at least three or four matches to fine-tune the body and regain a sense of timing. Yet, even more than that lack of match play, Djokovic’s foremost problem — in one person’s opinion — is his place in the ATP rankings. Let’s realize what Djokovic is up against in light of his inability to defend Madrid’s 2017 semifinal points.

Djokovic is defending 600 points in Rome. Even if he gets a good draw, making the final will be a challenge simply because of where Djokovic’s game is right now. Even a relatively solid result such as a semifinal would result in a loss of 240 points. Under that circumstance — should it occur — Djokovic will not be a top-16 seed at the French Open, and very likely outside the top 20.

Djokovic’s ranking and subsequent Roland Garros seeding obviously put him at risk of playing Rafael Nadal or Dominic Thiem at a relatively early stage of the French Open, but let’s say for the sake of argument that Djokovic steers clear of those two players and falls in a different half and/or quarter of the draw. His Roland Garros campaign could still be a rousing success if the draw falls in his favor (which it hasn’t in recent months at various tournaments). Like Stan Wawrinka, Djokovic can use the five-set format to get more time on court and play his way into form. A good draw would enable him to chase a title — not just a second-week result — in Paris.

The problem? If he doesn’t get that good draw, it will then become hard for him to quickly climb back up the rankings.

If Djokovic can’t gain points in Paris — he will need a semifinal result to achieve that goal — he will go to Wimbledon having to defend quarterfinalist points with another mid-level seeding. Remember: Djokovic didn’t go deep at Wimbledon in 2016, so the adjusted grass formula won’t help him this year the way it did last year, when he had a 2015 title as part of the formula.

Djokovic — if he doesn’t get a good draw and a subsequently strong result at the French Open — will find it hard to substantially increase his point total through Wimbledon. Maybe his game will be on the verge of full restoration by then, but if he doesn’t win either Canada or Cincinnati, he will not have enough time (or tournaments) to get a very favorable seeding slot for the U.S. Open.

Djokovic could become the foremost player of the 2019 ATP season. A year from now, he might be able to match Rafael Nadal on clay again. Great champions should not ever surprise us when they rise again, overcoming great hardships in the process. Yet, with all of that having been said, Djokovic’s 2018 outlook at the major tournaments is not becoming brighter. Djokovic should be patient with his game as he heads to Rome, but the looming problem of ATP rankings points means that even if his game improves, his draws and results might not.

Djokovic, if he loses points in Rome, will need Roland Garros to be the draw where the chips fall in his favor.


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