On March 24 this year, after his latest loss to a player ranked well below him, Novak Djokovic made a startling confession.
"I seem to have run out of gas," he said, of his loss to 47th ranked Frenchman Benot Paire, his 15th loss since the 2016 Paris Open.
Not long after, in Monte Carlo, 30-year-old Djokovic lost to the Austrian upstart Dominic Thiem and then on April 25 in Barcelona, he lost to the 140th ranked Martin Klizan - a player he had beaten in five previous encounters - suggesting that his slide in form seems irretrievable.
"I feel I haven't lived up to your expectations, not even my own," Djokovic said in an interview after the match with Klizan. "It's hard to deal with these types of games and defeats. I will try to continue and see where it takes me."
The match against Klizan epitomized Djokovic's current predicament: Despite getting in 94 percent of his first serves in the second set which he won, Djokovic looked under-confident and unsure of his winners and on two occasions did not even chase down drop shots, which is crucial in the clay game.
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The swing through the clay courts of Europe should have buttressed Djoko's game and bolstered his confidence. Instead, he has slipped.
Djokovic tried to keep his confidence up when he said at Monte Carlo, "I've played some great tennis in the last couple of matches. Still some ups and downs but every match has some periods of brilliance."
Brilliance is becoming an increasingly difficult word to tag on to the great Serb as he struggles to retain his top form. The truth is he is on a downward slide that has happened to many players: First the injury, then the game withering away at the edges, then the mind losing its sharpness and erosion of the desire to win at any cost.
I feel I haven't lived up to your expectations, not even my own.
The slide was on vivid display in January this year, when the South Korean Hyeon Chung, ranked 58th in the world, blasted Djokovic out the Australian Open, as this reporter watched with absolute dismay and shock.
The massive straight sets defeat (7-6, 7-5, 7-5) in the cavernous Rod Laver arena, was a clear red flag in Djokovic's downward spiral.
The surrender in Australia was in keeping with a clearly discernible pattern of defeats.
Why are the flaws showing up with such frequency? Could his loss of form be a consequence of his elbow injury? For a tennis player, the tennis elbow is a debilitating injury which cannot be cured completely and it makes backhands a difficult proposition.
Against Chung, Djokovic's weakest points were his second serve points won, which were only 39 percent; Chung won 47 percent of his. Djokovic lost 57 percent of his points to unforced errors, compared to only 37 percent in Chung's case; and had 9 double faults, compared to only two by Chung.
For reporters watching the game at the Arena, like this one, it was nothing but complete domination by the Korean who grew up adoring Novak.
...it was nothing but complete domination by the Korean who grew up adoring Novak.
Chung started well going into a 4-0 lead , something which completely shocked Djokovic and he never really could dominate the match as he should have, even though he came back in all three sets to level scores.
Chung's blazing forehands had more power and sense of purpose which helped him push Djoko on the defensive most of the time.
What the late novelist and tennis writer David Foster Wallace said of his tennis playing partner Joyce is true of Chung's forehand as well:
"Joyce's strongest shot is his forehand, a weapon of near Wagnerain aggression and power. Joyce's forehand is particularly lovely to watch.
It's more spare and textbook than Lendl's whip-crack forehand or Borg's great swooping loop; by way of decoration there's only a small loop of flourish on the backswing. The stroke itself is completely horizontal, so Joyce can hit through the ball while it is still well out in front of him."
Such aggression could not be seen in Djokovic who was struggling to get the ball back into play. The desperate yelps and groans that could be heard from Djoko proved that the effort of hitting back Chung's horizontal bazookas was a bit too much for him.
Chung has powerful legs with rippling thigh muscles and could have easily lasted 5 sets. But Djokovic would not have. When his final backhand the net, Djokovic appeared relieved to be put out his misery by the unpredictable Korean.
...Djokovic appeared relieved to be put out his misery by the unpredictable Korean.
When he looks back at the last two years, the great Serb will see the rising curve of defeat.
Perhaps the beginning of the end was first visible in 2017 when Djokovic lost twice to Nick Krygios in one week at the ATP 1000 masters event in Indian Wells (6-4, 7-6).
Why did a player of Djokovic calibre lost twice to a player in a week? Was it a sign of decline coming after his early exit at the Australian Open?
Paul Annacone, former coach of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, tried to look at Djokovic's play during that week.
"I just think there's something not quite there. His top level is still amazing, but there are gaps now," Annacone said. "And the gaps are so small, an occasional missed return he wouldn't have missed, an occasional groundstroke four inches long instead of four inches inside the baseline."
Annacone also hinted at a deeper malaise.
"He also seems a little more dejected now when these sort of things happen. He's not quite resolute."
Annacone comments illustrate a vicious cyclical unravelling of both mind and body, where a body weakened by injury preys on the mind, and an exhausted mind is no long able to draw upon the reserves of the body.
He also seems a little more dejected now when these sort of things happen. He's not quite resolute.
Back to the Future
Djokovich has sought to arrest the decline by changing coaches. This week, he has brought back Marian Vajda after sacking a series of coaches in the last year including Andre Agassi, Radek Stepanek and Ivan Lujubic.
At this stage in a top player's career, there is little a coach or manager can do other than to work on his mind.
Such low points are not a rarity in the career of any athlete. By in a team game, like say cricket, other players in the team form a cushion against adversities and failure.
In an individual sport like tennis, you are out there on your own.
In an interview to Times of India in Dubai in February 2016, Djokovic offered a prescient analysis of his game.
"My game is based from the baseline, from the back of the court, so I try to work the defence and the offence and the transition from one to the other as well," he said. "Not so much just power but accuracy, efficiency and precision is what I am strong at."
Accuracy, efficiency and precision: That's a tough ask; particularly if when you are running out of gas.
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