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Why Novak Djokovic will crumble

The Roar logo The Roar 18-03-2016 Daisy Cousens
Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, runs down a shot from Philipp Kohlschreiber, of Germany, at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Indian Wells, Calif. © AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, runs down a shot from Philipp Kohlschreiber, of Germany, at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Indian Wells, Calif.

For the last year, men’s tennis has had a shadow cast over it by Novak Djokovic. His 2015 season was legendary: 17 finals in a row, winning three out of four grand slams.

He extended his lead as world No. 1 to roughly double the ranking points of world No.2 Andy Murray. There is no question he is one of the greatest of all time.

Over the past few years, Djokovic has turned himself into a lethal weapon. His serve is infallibly precise. His return game is unparalleled. He cuts seemingly impossible angles with his ground strokes, and puts balls back into play you’d think were long gone.

On top of this rigidly workshopped array of skills, he is unbelievably fit, flexible, and moves like lightning.

But above all else, Djokovic genuinely believes he is going to win every tournament he enters.

It goes beyond confidence; it’s a sort of existential certainty. There’s not much you can do against him. He has every key ingredient.

After his 6-1, 6-2 defeat of Rafael Nadal at Doha in January, it seemed inevitable Djokovic would repeat last year’s dominance easily.

However, of late, although you have to look very closely, there has been a very uncharacteristic fraying around the edges.

The fraying of Djokovic

After Doha came the Australian Open. Djokovic whizzed through the first three rounds, and there seemed to be nobody strong enough to challenge another lethal run to the final. But along came fourth round opponent Gilles Simon, then world No.15; a small-in-stature Frenchman with a surprisingly big game.

The match began with Djokovic easily taking the opening set 6-3, as expected. Set two, however, was a different story.

People are still scratching their heads as to what Simon’s game plan actually was (he declined with a grin to reveal it in the press conference), but the strategy seemed to involve, among other things, taking all the pace off the ball. This prevented Djokovic from using his terrifying baseline defence, causing his returns to fall short, most notably his usually foolproof drop shots.

Simon pushed Djokovic to a five set thriller in which the Serbian made 100 unforced errors and was broken while serving for the match. Yes, it proves just how skilled Djokovic is to win in five while giving away 100 free points, but the fact of the matter is he was completely flummoxed by the Frenchman.

Why? Because he was presented with someone who refused to adhere to the usual script.

This is the difference between Djokovic and the Federer-Nadal duo; Djokovic does not handle anything that deviates from an expected game plan.

Take the 2015 French Open final, when Djokovic expected Federer but got Stan Wawrinka. He played like a demon with nothing to lose; hitting Djokovic off the court with his extraordinary backhand. Rather than react as Nadal and Federer would, by adapting to the situation and (usually) finding another way to win, Djokovic came undone.

He kept looking to his coaching team for guidance, not knowing how to fight back. Even the commentators were in disbelief, saying they had never seen a number one player so completely bamboozled.

Djokovic couldn’t handle the Stanimal, and lost in four.

Although Djokovic pummelled through the rest of 2015, this year has been a slightly different story. After the Australian Open, he was pushed to five sets in the Davis Cup against Mikhail Kukushkin, world No.90.

In the second round of Indian Wells, he suffered a first set thrashing at 6-2 by 22 year-old American Bjorn Fratangelo, world No.149. He expected no resistance, but got a keen competitor with a clear game plan, no fear, and nothing to lose.

This strange collapse in form continued in round three. Djokovic squandered four match points on his own serve against world No.30 Phillip Kohlschreiber. He came through in straight sets, but needed 7-5, 7-5 to do it. Although these may seem like minor hiccups, the standard Djokovic set in 2015 makes them stick out. More to the point, they’ve been quite consistent.

Could it be simply a wobble? Maybe. However, while Djokovic is brilliant, he does not have superpowers.

Last year’s phenomenal run of 17 finals in a row saw him play more tennis than anyone else. His training regime is punishing, and his work ethic is second to none. But there is only so much the body and mind can take.

Djokovic will crack. Probably soon. His opponents are figuring out in order to beat him you have to confuse him.

In addition, it’s simply not humanly possible to continue pushing such physical and mental extremes. The chinks in the armour are there, and soon enough, somebody is going to exploit them. It’s only a matter of time.

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