You can be concerned with Novak Djokovic after a bumpy three-set win over Philipp Kohlschreiber on Tuesday at the Monte Carlo Masters. I won’t stop you. However, I can’t find enough reasons to be genuinely worried about Djokovic. He has time on his side.
True, he will turn 32 years old in one month. From that vantage point, Djokovic and time are not complete allies, but within the context of 2019, yes, Nole has time and space to achieve what he truly wants to achieve.
This leads us into one of the fundamental tension points of the 2019 ATP clay season, which begins in earnest (not officially, but in a more profound sense) this week in Monte Carlo: This year, the lead-up events before Roland Garros don’t feel like hugely pivotal occasions before the big show in Paris.
I say this partly because of the past, but mostly about the present-tense status of the foremost contenders at the French Open.
I will address the other main players in other pieces here at Tennis With An Accent, but let me make one general statement: I don’t think that Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, or Alexander Zverev will view a Masters clay title as an absolutely essential component of top preparation for Roland Garros. Thiem might rate as the slight exception, given that he hasn’t yet won a Masters clay title. Yet, I don’t think there is anything he can do in Monte Carlo, Madrid or Rome to change the outlook in France. Thiem has seen how different a beast a five-set match is against Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier. Nothing he does in Madrid or Rome will change that. (Nadal would need to get injured or show signs of unique physical strain to alter the equation.)
Let’s focus specifically on Djokovic in this context.
It took a LOT of hard work for Djokovic to win his first Roland Garros title and complete the Novak Slam in June of 2016. As Nole tries to duplicate that feat in 2019, let’s realize he is three years older and has undergone all sorts of transformations. Expecting Djokovic to continue to win major titles? Yes, that’s quite reasonable. Being completely unsurprised when he wins a Masters? Yes, that’s a good mindset to have.
Yet, the one area in which tennis analysts and commentators should generally downgrade expectations of Djokovic is in the realm of uninterrupted dominance. The standard he threw down in 2015 and the first half of 2016 is very probably not coming back. A three- or four-month run of supremacy? Sure, but not a seven- or eight-month triumph tour. I wouldn’t rule it out entirely — he’s Novak Djokovic after all! — but the idea that a “new 2015” is just around the corner seems unrealistic at this point. That’s where Djokovic can’t quite be expected to do what he once did.
But win Roland Garros? Of course he can. More precisely, he can win Roland Garros even if he doesn’t win any of these upcoming Masters events.
Keep in mind that the work Djokovic performed to win Roland Garros and the Novak Slam in 2016 led to a diminished body which caught up with him in the second half of 2016 and led to the disruptions which persisted in 2017 and crept into the start of 2018.
This doesn’t mean Djokovic will say to himself, “You know, I shouldn’t try to go the distance in these Masters tournaments in 2019.” Of course he won’t. Of course he will try to solve every problem and surmount every obstacle.
Yet, as I wrote in Miami after his loss to Roberto Bautista Agut, will Djokovic not merely WANT to win, but feel the absolute NEED to win? He is hungry and will always be hungry, but will he want to eat a six-course meal instead of a four-course meal? Will those extra few ounces of hunger — the difference between 98-percent and 103-percent hunger, which DOES matter at the highest levels of competition — be there for Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Madrid or Rome?
I’m not focused on the answer so much as the reality that in Paris, you KNOW 103-percent hunger will be there. Hence, that will be the true measure of where Djokovic stands in two months. What happens in late April and the middle of May? Your mileage may vary, but I am having a hard time assigning supreme meaning or consequence to what Djokovic does. He will be seeded 1 or 2, so it’s not as though these tournaments will profoundly reshape his place in the Roland Garros draw. The battle between Dominic Thiem and Roger Federer for the No. 4 seed? That’s a big question regarding the draw.
This 2019 clay season is a mystery, and with time being on his side, Novak Djokovic doesn’t have to worry about the current state of his game.
He has been known to lift his game when it really counts — you might have seen an example… or 372,995 of them… over the years.