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Novak Djokovic loses in Miami — and history tells us not to be worried

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

What should one make of Novak Djokovic after his loss to Roberto Bautista Agut in Miami? I rely on history and experience to inform my judgments.

What do you think I think about Djokovic?

I take you back to August 10 of last year.

What happened in the second week of August in 2018?

This happened:

An early loss in Toronto paved the way for Novak Djokovic to win Cincinnati and complete the Golden Set of Masters 1000 titles: 9 for 9.

When one door closes, another opens. Today’s loss is tomorrow’s redemptive, transformative breakthrough. The Big 3 regularly turn frowns into smiles, losses into victories, wounds into triumphs. They do this better and longer and more reliably than any other male tennis players we have ever seen in the Open Era.

This is not hyperbole. This is why the Big 3 really are the three best tennis players since Rod Laver, in my opinion.

Pete Sampras had a weak spot on clay. That doesn’t mean he SUCKS, but it does mean he had an Achilles’ Heel at a level the Big 3 never came close to. There is no “kryptonite surface” for any of these players. Some might say “indoor hardcourt” for Nadal, and I suppose one could try to make a forceful argument there, but I am unconvinced.

Let’s briefly deal with that argument in one paragraph:

Nadal suffers at the indoor events in Bercy and London less because they are indoor, and a lot more because they are at the end of the season. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Indian Wells and Miami were indoor events and not outdoor events. Would Nadal’s results be noticeably worse? I don’t think so. If Indian Wells and Miami were moved to November, would Rafa’s result become noticeably better compared to his ATP Finals track record? Again, I don’t think so. Rafa’s body would be beaten up regardless of the surface. Might he have won a final against Djokovic or Federer which he lost indoors? Sure, I can go with that… but let’s not think the overall results from the past 10 years would be dramatically different.

Now, back to my larger point about the Big 3: They simply don’t have a huge, glaring deficit on their resumes. Bjorn Borg, as spectacular as he was when he played tennis, did not win the U.S. Open on either green clay or hardcourt. As much as he achieved, never winning in New York is a big gap on his otherwise-shimmering profile.

If Borg and Sampras had noticeable deficits, that fairly conclusively shows the Big 3 represent the “Best 3” in the Open Era of men’s tennis since The Rocket. Roy Emerson was no scrub, but in a manner akin to Margaret Court, he mopped up at the Australian Open at a time when that was clearly the fourth major and not on par with the other three. (The chief reason: The Australian Open before 1988 and its move to Melbourne Park was not a 128-player tournament.)

So, if you do buy the claim that the Big 3 are the best male Open Era tennis players since Laver, that should mean something. It should chiefly mean that these guys get the benefit of the doubt at a level other players don’t get.

You saw what I wrote about Djokovic in August of 2018 after Toronto. He won Cincinnati, as you know.

Do you think he won’t make a robust effort to turn this dreary March hardcourt swing into a clay victory tour?

Come on. What is the only logical answer here?

Remember that Djokovic spent the 2018 clay season building himself back. He hadn’t built himself fully back until grass season. He just needed some time.

I am not saying Djokovic was thinking about Roland Garros this month. I am more focused on how he didn’t have a whole lot to prove in Indian Wells or Miami. There were points to be gained, yes, and I will readily admit that I thought Djokovic was the clear favorite in these tournaments when they began. I was wrong. I didn’t see this loss to Bautista Agut coming. I was way off the mark.

Nevertheless — and without diminishing the effort of Bautista Agut in his moment of victory — I can say that Djokovic did not absorb a defining or scarring loss. I don’t see how this might damage or deflate Djokovic.

This wasn’t so much a case of looking ahead to the French Open. This is more about clay season, and it is even more about looking ahead to not just Nadal, but Dominic Thiem, who reminded the ATP Tour he can play ball by busting through in Indian Wells.

This is not revisionist history, but something the tennis world knew after the Australian Open: The clay season would be the mountaintop moment of the 2019 campaign. Wimbledon is the crown jewel of tennis, yes, but in this year, Roland Garros is the tournament with the greatest long-term historical implications and reverberations.

We know why. Djokovic can complete a SECOND Novak Slam. He can become the first and likely only man ever to beat Rafa in a Roland Garros final. Rafa could turn back Djokovic one more time, something he hasn’t had a chance to do the last few years in Paris. The 2019 clay season will also be spiced up with Roger Federer’s return to red dirt. Clay is the centerpiece of the year in men’s tennis, with long-term historical resonance.

Was Djokovic thinking about Paris? No. Was he thinking about clay season? I’m not sure he was… but what I feel comfortable in saying was that Djokovic didn’t think Miami was a defining part of his season… and he’s right if he thought that way.

This leads me to a final point: You have to be fully hungry — not somewhat hungry — to win in Indian Wells and Miami.

Djokovic — during his dominant 2015-2016 run — won IW and Miami. His tank was full, and so was his appetite. Right now, I can certainly accept that Djokovic’s immersion in ATP politics played at least a small role in his lack of elite results in the United States in March.

Does this mean I buy the notion of “distractions” as a reason Djokovic lost? No… but I DO buy the idea that Djokovic was not supremely ravenous in his desire to conquer and dominate this month.

That specific nuance — not LACKING hunger, but not being hungry at the highest possible level (there is a difference) — matters.

Ask Roger Federer.

We can all agree (I hope) that Federer, as he got older, prioritized the majors. Masters 1000s weren’t insignificant, but they became less important to a slight or moderate degree.

When looking at Djokovic, I don’t think the Masters 1000s are less important for him — not on a general level.

I DO, however, think that CERTAIN specific Masters are less important. IW and Miami are two of them, given their in-between place on the calendar.

We know that if the tennis calendar was more properly arranged, Indian Wells and Miami would be hardcourt lead-ins to the Australian Open, which would conclude the winter/early spring hardcourt season. That’s not the case. As it is now, the IW and Miami tournaments exist on an island; they are the rare Masters tournaments which mark an end to a surface-specific part of the tennis season. No other Masters 1000s share that identity.

Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome feed into Roland Garros, which ends the spring clay season. Canada and Cincinnati feed into the U.S. Open, the conclusion of the North American summer hardcourt season. Shanghai and Bercy feed into the ATP Finals, the year-end championship.

Indian Wells and Miami are “tweener” events, and so for any player who values the majors, those tournaments — as one gets older — will lose a measure of their value.

Federer didn’t win a Sunshine Double from 2007 through 2016. Obviously, guys named Djokovic and Nadal had a lot to do with this, but we can say that Federer — though still very hungry — didn’t have that 100-percent hunger it takes to thrive at those tournaments. He might have been 98-percent hungry, but that two percent matters.

That’s how I view Djokovic.

He cared. He wasn’t THAT distracted. His opponent beat him fair and square. He wasn’t good enough… but a small degree of focus or clarity or hunger definitely matters at this level.

Djokovic valued Cincinnati more than Toronto. He, I think, values Monte Carlo through Rome over Indian Wells and Miami.

I don’t think Djokovic made a mistake so much as he knew this was the time of year when he didn’t have to be at his best. That’s not a Roland Garros-centric view — at least, I don’t think it has to be seen that way.

I think it is more an acknowledgment that the pilot light won’t be fully lit at all points during a year, especially as Djokovic turns 32 in May.

We all remember the Pax Djokovic from 2015, a dominant season better than any other male tennis season in the Open Era since Laver’s 1969 masterpiece. That memory of 2015 makes some of us think the current Djokovic can still be THAT player.

Maybe he still can be… but now, it is probably wise to not expect it, at least not as much as we once did.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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