Novak Djokovic hasn’t won a Grand Slam title for two years. In a couple of months, it will be two years since he last won an ATP Masters 1000 event — unless he wins Rome in the coming week. This week, the Serb lost to Kyle Edmund, in the latest of a series of first time wins by players against him in the second round of the Madrid Masters.
The past two years, by far the last prolific for Djokovic over the past decade, can be categorised into two segments. The first being the year between Roland Garros 2016 and Wimbledon 2017, with the second one currently ongoing.
Both of these time periods saw slumps — especially by Djokovic’s unprecedentedly high standards in the lead up to them — of varying degrees.
The first came immediately after he won his first ever French Open, finally completing the career Grand Slam, and holding all four majors at the same time going into Wimbledon 2016 — a feat that even Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal haven’t achieved.
The third round defeat to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon 2016, which was his first major loss before the quarters for seven years, could hence be interpreted as an offshoot of finally achieving a career goal, and the fatigue — both mental and physical — that would’ve set in after being the dominant force in the sport from 2014 to 2016.
Losing the 2016 US Open final was, similarly, could’ve been a case of the lack of a similar level of hunger — and indeed of Stan Wawrinka outplaying his opponent to bag his third major.
With Andy Murray finishing 2016 as the World No 1, in an absolutely flawless second half of the season, and Murray and Djokovic contesting the Doha Open final as the 2017 opener — which the latter one — it was expected to be another year where the Scott and the Serb would be vying for the highest orders.
Instead, it was Nadal and Federer who scripted their own, now historic, respective resurgences in 2017, beginning with the Australian Open whose final the two contested, and in the second round of which Djokovic lost to Denis Istomin.
It was evident that Djokovic was playing at a level significantly below his peak, but it hadn’t quite plunged into crisis level in the first half of 2017. He played the Rome Masters final in May last year, where he was outplayed by Alexander Zverev, and even reached the quarters of Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
After an elbow injury forced him to withdraw in the Wimbledon quarter-final against Tomas Berdych, Djokovic then sat out the remainder of 2017 bidding to rehabilitate physically.
The segment of the above mentioned segments began with his return in the Australian Open. There were natural comparisons with the comebacks of Nadal and Federer in 2017 — especially the latter, for whom it had similarly been a case of returning from an unprecedented absence.
What has happened instead is the worst ever start of the season for Djokovic since the year he turned pro.
Following a fourth round defeat at the Australian Open against Hyeon Chung, Djokovic had two straight first round exits at Indian Wells and Miami, against Taro Daniels and Benoit Paire respectively — all of these on his preferred hard courts.
While Djokovic looked like finding his feet on clay after two impressive wins at the Monte Carlo — the second a particularly impressive win against Borna Coric — after losing to Dominic Thiem in the Round of 16. Another first round loss against Martin Klizan at Barcelona followed, before Wednesday’s defeat against Edmund.
Currently ranked No 12, Djokovic faces a serious ranking plunge over the next couple of months, with a runners-up finish at Rome, and quarter-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon to defend.
What the Serb is currently going through has been a completely new experience for him on two fronts: having to remould his game after injury, and serious shortage of confidence.
It is true that he has the comeback examples of Nadal and Federer, but neither quite went through a patch like Djokovic’s. In Nadal’s case, returning from a layoff has become a recurring cycle in his career, making comebacks a natural habitat for him. Even when he experienced a complete slump in form in 2015 and 2016, there was never a string of first round exits, even if he wasn’t making deep runs at the top events.
Federer, meanwhile, went five years without a major before winning the 2017 Australian Open. And even though the first time return from a long absence owing to injury was parallel to what Djokovic experienced a year later, what helped the Swiss last year — at least initially — was the complete lack of expectations engulfing his return, in complete contrast to what Djokovic has had to go through.
But what Nadal and Federer have showed that it is never a great idea to write off an all-time great. Before 2017, there had been question marks over whether or not the two would ever win a major again, before they went on to collect the next five Grand Slam titles — looking good to make it six at Roland Garros next month.
Similarly, with the same questions hovering over Djokovic, it would be naive to suggest the same for the 12-time major winner.
Will we ever see Djokovic at his best? Probably not, especially since his best is probably the best that anyone has ever played at a given time, and a particular season — most notably 2011 and 2015-16.
But will he be challenging for a major silverware again? You can bet that he will.
The turnaround is likeliest to come after Wimbledon, at the start of the North American hard court season, with no points to defend for the Serb and a completely fresh start.