Just when we all thought Novak Djokovic was on an upwards trend these last few weeks and a good bet to make at least the semifinals of Roland Garros, he disappoints in the quarters–losing to unseeded Italian Marco Cecchinato. Although the 25-year-old no doubt played the match of his career, it’s not a match that the Novak Djokovic of a few years ago would have lost. The fact is while Novak Djokovic is getting better with each event there’s still a lot wrong with his game, and by “a lot” I truly mean just that.
Backhand Down The Line
Whenever you think of Novak Djokovic at his best, one of the first things that comes to mind is his backhand down the line. The way he generates power, changes direction, and hits clean winners again and again is unmatched in the sport. Since his comeback, however, the backhand down the line simply doesn’t exist–not only is it not winning him points outright or even allowing him to take control of points, it’s missing the court altogether and it’s worrying. If he goes for it more often than not he’s losing the point outright, and if he doesn’t his opponents can easy cover their left side. Just look at the Italian today–whenever the Serbian had a backhand he was able to cover his opposite side in anticipation, allowing him to get far more balls back with better pace and length not allowing Djokovic to gain the upper hand. It was almost far too easy at times.
Aside from the backhand down the line, his serve isn’t a weapon anymore. From being one of the most underrated shots in the game and a serve which set up so many points for Djokovic to gain the upper hand on early, it’s just neutrally starting rallies these days. Off the ground he’s still fairly good so this isn’t the biggest cause of concern since he’s still holding serve more times than not.
Where the issue really begins is in tiebreaks, as shown today with Djokovic losing two. To be effective and win tiebreaks you need to put pressure on your opponent’s serve; the best way to do that is by holding your own easily and quickly and gaining leads. The former world number one today he wasn’t able to do that. Every point was a tussle with him losing nine of seventeen points on serve in both tiebreaks combined–that’s right, he didn’t even win half the points on his own serve in the tiebreaks!
Novak Djokovic has seemingly always played the right shot at the right time. Even today he showed us a glimpse of that, with some spectacular plays to create set points and save match points in the fourth set. However, the other half of the time his shot selection has not only been poor, it’s been disastrous. Just look at when *4-3 up in the second set breaker and on top of the rally, instead of keeping on top of the rally, he tried a drop shot which missed. Even had he pulled it off Cecchinato was on the baseline ready and waiting, not only was the miss bad but the shot selection itself was. Even more shocking though were the forehands he hit.
With Cecchinato serving to stay in the second set at 0-30 Novak Djokovic missed a short forehand cross court into the net. Given his opponent was out wide, why go so near to the net? Any top spin forehand cross court with a good margin of error (just look at how Rafael Nadal plays in a similar position) would have won him the point 9 times out of 10.
It only got worse and worse as the match went on, with break points for 5-1 in the fourth set, the 20th seed just went against everything that was working. The Italian was missing non-stop but instead the Serb felt like it was time to take matter into his own hands. Ultimately, the break points were wasted and he paid the price as Cecchinato eventually got back on serve. Even then, in the game Cecchinato broke back Djokovic led 30-0 and the Italian hit a great forehand out wide and while it was no doubt a hard shot to get back Djokovic looked to drive the ball more than just get it back into play, not playing the percentages.
Even more noticeably, the shot selection played up massively in the fourth set tiebreak. With set point at 9-8, he shanked a sitter forehand which just needed to be put into court, then at 10-10 and 11-11 he found himself missing short routine forehands he would usually put away. Given the situation and how he was missing so many forehands you would have thought it would be best to just put the ball back into play to a good length and pace instead of going for the lines given he was still more likely to win the point than not.
Djokovic lost in three sets to Taro Daniel at Indian Wells, lost in three sets to Dominic Thiem in Monte-Carlo, lost in three sets to Kyle Edmund, and lost a long match to Rafael Nadal in Rome. Spot a pattern? There’s a reason all of these are happening–the longer the matches are going on the far worse his level is getting. He’s just not as fit as he used to be and it allows his opponents to take the upper hand with the Serb fading away with the movement slowing down and unforced error count increasing the longer a match goes on.
That’s what happened in the fourth set against Marco Cecchinato. When in complete control, out of nowhere the movement looked a little slow and the shots started missing more and more. His unforced errors gave the first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist an opportunity, and he made the most of it upping his own game in return. It would have been interesting to see how the 12-time Grand Slam champion would have held up if we did go into a fifth, especially as the match ended at three and a half hours, but I can’t say I was too optimistic.
Remember Rafael Nadal against Novak Djokovic in Rome just a few weeks ago? The first set was some of the highest quality tennis seen in years. Even here at Roland Garros, Djokovic looked great in the second and third rounds against Jaume Munar of Spain and World #13 Roberto Bautista Agut, despite some small slip ups which relate to my previous points. Either way, Djokovic looked somewhat like the player we used to know years ago.
Then out of nowhere today we get a Djokovic who’s simply not the same player to put it politely. If you look at his level for the first set and a half it’s as if it’s one of his brothers playing and not him. Djokovic simply can’t string good matches together right now and it’s hurting him, especially as a good level of tennis does exist within him.
We all know to win and contend for these Slams you can’t afford to be poor, you have to keep a good level throughout and even up it in the latter rounds as the opponents get better. There’s a reason Djokovic used to dominate the sport, because he was the best of anyone at it.
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