Djokovic: Slide, Slump or The End Of An Era?

Happy Birthday Novak

Novak Djokovic has just celebrated his 30th birthday but what does the magic number mean for ‘Nole’. Historically it has meant the beginning of the end for veteran tennis players who by this age have been grinding their body into the ground on the tour for well over a decade. There is always an exception to the rule and the opening half of the season is evidence that 35 is the new 30 on the tour. At the age of 35 Federer was able to return from a long lay off and open the season with a 19-1 record – highlighted by his 18th Grand Slam win at the Australian Open. He beat Nadal, a man also in his 30’s, who has since gone on to win titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid.

Meanwhile, where is Novak…

Twelve months ago he was celebrating the highest of highs when he was finally able to capture that elusive French Open title and a career Grand Slam. After having won Wimbledon, the US Open and Australian open leading into it, it also meant that Novak was the first man to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time since the great Rod Laver. There was no understating his dominance at the top of men’s tennis and he had was seemed an insurmountable lead in excess of 8,000 points over Andy Murray at the top of the rankings.

There really was no stopping him…

Someone forgot to tell Andy Murray as he closed the season with 25 consecutive match wins and 5 titles: Beijing, Shanghai Masters, Vienna, Paris Masters and the Tour Finals. With the world number 1 ranking on the line in the final match of the season it was Murray who showed the aggression and hunger. It would end Novak’s 122 consecutive week reign at the top – the 4th longest behind Federer, Connors and Lendl.

The tide is turning…

Djokovic opened the season with a win in Doha but his loss in the second round of the Australian Open to Dennis Istomin was an even bigger shock than his defeat to Querrey at Wimbledon a few months earlier. Things would get worse. Back to back losses at the hands of Kyrgios at Acapulco and Indian Wells before a early exit in Monte Carlo with Goffin beating him for the first time in 6 meetings. Novak was clearly lacking confidence and his subsequent move was to part company  with three of his longtime coaching staff – his fitness coach Gebhard Phil Gritsch included. The need for change was evident. Few players have the same team and support network throughout their entire career and just like a business a tennis players career goes through certain cycles.

Is Novak’s current decline a recession or a depression…

The Wolf says we should know better than to write off a champion. Federer went almost 5 years and 15 Grand Slam appearances between his 17th and 18th major victories, Sampras won the 2002 US Open as the 17th seed and Agassi returned to number 1 at age 33 after his ranking dropped to as low as 141. With 12 Grand Slams and a record 30 Masters Series titles surely there is a path back to the top for Novak and his form slump is a mere recession.

The Wolf thinks otherwise…

Let’s rewind a fortnight to the Madrid Masters. Novak struggled in the early rounds against Almagro and Feliciano Lopez but would eventually meet Nadal in the semi’s after Nishikori withdrew from their quarter final clash. Djokovic headed into that match having won his last 7 against Nadal and 11 of their last 12 meetings. It would not end well. The Spaniard crushed him 6-2 6-4 in a match that highlighted just how much Novak’s game had dropped. The Serbian had built his game on consistency but his unforced error count has continued to rise – rapidly. Next up, Rome.

The search for confidence continues…

Positive wins over Bautista-Agut and Del Potro were followed by what Novak described as his “best performance of the year”, a 6-1 6-0 thrashing over high flying Dominic Thiem. It was a great performance against an in-form player but it must be noted that he was a perfect 4-0 against Thiem leading into that match and had registered a bagel set over him in their prior encounter. Nevertheless, he would meet Alexander Zverev in the final – a young man on the rise, a raw talent and an inexperienced 20 year old appearing in his first Masters Series Final.

Djokovic crushed in more ways than one…

Following his performance against Thiem many were quick to say that Novak was back to his best, but the reality is he is far from it and will never get back there. Djokovic had 27 unforced errors in just 19 games of tennis – unheard of for a man who would play 5 sets of brutal tennis with just half of those errors. What is more concerning is his increased struggles when it comes to winning shorter points. Zverev held a 42-27 advantage in points won when there were under 5 shots. It is a stat that he has been losing more and more often.

Greatest returner ever – MYTH!!!

We’ve heard it time and time again, that Novak is the greatest returner of all time but The Wolf says he doesn’t even come close to the likes of Andre Agassi. Most of Novak’s losses over the last 12 months have come to men who possess very similar game styles – a big serve followed by a heavy forehand. It is this one-two punch style that he has been vulnerable to. Zverev used it to perfection in Rome and didn’t face a single break point, Kyrgios blew him off the court in back to back weeks and Cilic won in straight sets in Paris last year – all after Querrey thundered down 31 aces against him at Wimbledon. Great returners don’t struggle like that against big servers.

Defending not returning…

Novak’s rise to the top came on the back of his ability to be a brick wall that could turn defence into attack like no other. His diet and training regime allowed him to physically wear down and dominate his opponents – even Nadal. This was most evident in the 2012 Australian Open Final in which Novak beat Nadal 7-5 in the 5th. Djokovic tearing his shirt and pounding his heart symbolised him taking over Nadal as the best athlete on the tour and from what we have seen so far this year there is no way that Djokovic will be able to return to that physical condition. It means that more and more opponents will be able to dominate him from the baseline and he hardly has a weapon from the back of the court. The Serbian’s consistency and point construction were key in his success but he has never been a man that can overpower his opponents with brute force from the back of the court. With unforced errors also creeping into his game the road back to the top is a lot longer and further than many suggest.

Where to now…

The Serbian is completely aware of his struggles hence the departure of long term coaching staff and the appointment of Andre Agassi as his new coach – a clear indication that he is searching for a personality that has been through it all before. Agassi has experienced the high and lows more that anybody else in the history of tennis and insight is definitely something that Novak will get. One thing he will not get is a change in game style – in particularly his serve. If you look at the rankings for players on the tour aged at least 31 you will see men that posses very big games. Wawrinka, Federer, Tsonga, Berdych, Karlovic, Cuevas, Isner and Muller are the first names on the list. Over the last 12 months all of them bar Cuevas rank in the top 18 in serve rating (Djokovic outside top 20) and they also make up 6 of the top 8 in terms of % 1st serve points won (Djokovic 42nd). It leaves Novak in a vulnerable spot as he gets older.

Depression not recession!!!

The Wolf expects Novak’s decline to continue and has him finishing outside the top 5 at the end of 2017. He has a stack of points to defend including wins at the French Open, Tour Finals and the Canadian Masters. He sits 7th in the points race with names like Murray, Raonic, Tsonga and Nishikori close behind him. Djokovic will not be winning a slam in 2017 ($1.80) and The Wolf will go as far as to say that he will not be adding to his haul of 12 Grand Slam title. His current slump means he will continue to slide in the rankings and for Novak the number 30 ultimately means the end of an era!

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