At the time of writing this piece (Friday), World Number 2 Novak Djokovic is set to take on Kei Nishikori in the first quarter-final of the ongoing Madrid Masters. The defending champion is scheduled to meet Rafael Nadal in the semis, should the Spaniard overcome David Goffin in back-to-back Masters 1000 contest, after winning the Monte Carlo semi-final.
Djokovic and Nadal had also been on course to play the semi-final in Monte Carlo before Goffin took the Serb out in the quarter-final. The semifinal in question is scheduled for Saturday and would’ve been played out by the time you read this. While both Nishikori and Goffin have the arsenal to do the damage to their respective opponents, one feels that a first Djokovic-Nadal match in 12 months would have been played out on Saturday. And the outcome of that match would give us an idea of what might transpire in Rome, and more importantly Roland Garros starting later this month.
Rafael Nadal is currently on his customary clay cruise this time of the year, something we did not witness over the past couple of seasons. After a decent start to the season, where he played three hard court finals – including Australian Open and the Miami Masters – Nadal looks comfortable on his preferred turf and is easily the man to beat till the clay season culminates.
What has further aided Nadal’s surge is that everyone else seems to be out of sort. After his impeccable start to the season, Roger Federer has opted out of clay court tournaments, and would only participate at Roland Garros. World Number 1 Andy Murray was dumped out by lucky loser Borna Coric 6-3, 6-3 in Madrid, and he still is yet to make the quarterfinal of an ATP 1000 event or a major this season.
Djokovic hasn’t made the semi-final of any of the top-tier tournaments this season either, after winning Qatar Open before the Australian Open. And with Stan Wawrinka sans any wins under his belt, and Goffin and Dominic Thiem the only others to make any sort of mark in the clay court season so far, is it now time for Djokovic to turn his season around and stop Rafael Nadal from sweeping the silverware on the dirt?
As mentioned above, a glimpse into that possibility should’ve already transpired yesterday in the expected Nadal-Djokovic semi. If Djokovic has defeated Nadal, it might give him the edge heading into Rome and Paris, considering Rafa hasn’t beaten him for three years. While Nadal’s win over Djokovic would firmly put him in the driving seat for Roland Garros, leaving the World Number 2 with a lot of hard work in Rome in the coming week.
This time last year Djokovic was on top of the tennis world, not only in the present, but ticking all-time great achievements. Following Roland Garros 2016, Djokovic held all four tennis majors after winning Wimbledon and the US Open in 2015, and Australian Open 2016. It was an achievement that even Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal couldn’t accomplish.
Firmly placed as the World Number 1, after having completed the career Grand Slam, holding all four majors, and winning six of the previous eight Grand Slam trophies, Djokovic’s season plunged after the French Open, and the hangover seems to have penetrated 2017. Andy Murray’s virtually flawless second half to 2016, eventually allowed the Scott to become the World Number 1, after beating Djokovic in the season ending World Tour Finals in London.
Being the World Number 2 would be no disaster for virtually anyone else on the tour, especially when the man on the top is arguably having an even worse season, but Djokovic has set the bar so high that there is urgency on him to turn things around.
In this regard, he has already parted ways with his entire team including coach Marian Vajda, fitness coach Gebhard Phil Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic, who have been with him from the get-go. While Djokovic is yet to announce the replacement — although Andre Agassi is being mentioned in the press — it is unlikely that he’d have anyone on board till after the clay court season. Even so, the change itself highlights the Serb’s desire to be where he was last year.
Given Nadal’s resurgence, it would need an immediate rebound from the Serb to start winning silverware right away. However, what Djokovic does indeed have going on for him is the mental edge that he would have over Nadal.
Along with Nadal, Federer’s masterful return has further heightened the challenge for Djokovic, especially heading into Wimbledon. It was Boris Becker who completely transformed his game on grass, but it still remains the three-time Wimbledon champion’s least preferred surface. The challenge for Djokovic to get back to winning ways, with Nadal dominant on clay, and Federer expected to go full-throttle on the grass, is that much bigger.
But the return to contention of Federer and Nadal is also probably what has pushed Djokovic to make the changes needed to overcome the latest challenge in his career. The trio with a combined 44 major titles between them have redefined tennis and made the past decade and a half the most exciting time for the sport. It would be interesting to see what they have in store for us in the 30s, with hopefully many years to come from all of them.