Novak Djokovic returns to clay, but plays little like himself
By Christopher Clarey
Novak Djokovic’s tennis season like no other resumed earlier this week on home clay.
The setbacks keep coming.
Deported from Australia in January because he was unvaccinated against COVID-19 and thus did not fulfill entry requirements, beaten early in Dubai in February and unable to enter the United States for tournaments in March, Djokovic returned to the court at the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday after a seven-week break from competition. Off target from the start, he scrapped valiantly before fading to lose his opening match against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-1.
Davidovich, a 22-year-old Spaniard, broke Djokovic’s serve nine times, the most Djokovic has been broken on tour in any best-of-three-set match.
“I collapsed,” Djokovic told reporters in Monaco. “I was hanging on the ropes the entire match. I was really chasing the result constantly.”
It was of course an upset. Djokovic, despite his latest hiatus, is still ranked No. 1 on the men’s tour. He has won 20 major singles titles, nearly completed the Grand Slam last season and has been the second-best men’s player on clay for the past decade behind Rafael Nadal.
Davidovich, despite reaching the quarterfinals of last year’s French Open, is ranked No. 46 and had lost in the opening round of his last two tournaments. Until Tuesday, he had beaten only one top-10 player.
But in truth, his victory over Djokovic was only a lowercase surprise. Djokovic, who remains unvaccinated against COVID-19, is rusty for obvious reasons and soon turns 35. Men’s tennis is bristling with depth and young stars on the rise like Davidovich’s 18-year-old compatriot Carlos Alcaraz, who recently won the Miami Open.
Although there was buzz around a possible Djokovic-Alcaraz quarterfinal match, Djokovic got more than he could handle from the game’s second-most-promising next-generation Spaniard.
“I knew Nole doesn’t have that confidence, because he didn’t play a lot,” Davidovich said, using Djokovic’s nickname. “I had to focus on every point because I had my chances from the beginning, and I just did it.”
Davidovich looks like a Viking prepared to make mayhem with his head closely shaven on the sides and his fair hair pulled back into a knot. His father, Eduard Mark Davidovich, a former boxer, is originally from Sweden, and his mother, Tatiana Fokina, is from Russia. But he was born in Malaga, Spain, and raised, as his accent makes clear, in the Andalusia region of southern Spain. He started playing tennis at age 2 — even younger than Djokovic did — and has become one of the flashiest, fastest men in the game under the tutelage of his longtime coach, Jorge Aguirre.
He has a tattoo of a breaking wave on his arm, and he plays tennis with aggression and invention, deploying the drop shot and the underhand serve. He often plays like a goalkeeper: flinging himself into the air to pursue a wide shot or a serve down the T. Against Djokovic, he was soon covered in red clay, which remains his best surface despite winning the Wimbledon boys title on grass in 2017.
The mental game has been the main stumbling block for Davidovich, and he has collaborated with a performance psychologist for several years in the quest to control his temper and maintain his concentration and belief.
“Taming everything inside himself is not easy,” Aguirre told Spanish publication ABC last year. “There are moments when he starts to have doubts whether he is really prepared. Those lapses in concentration come from insecurity. We have managed to reduce them. Before, they could last months, then weeks and now we are working so they last just a game or a point and then in a year or so that they disappear altogether.”
They are not gone yet. Twice up a break in the second set, Davidovich lost his way, surrendering the momentum to Djokovic. Although Djokovic failed to serve out the second set at 5-4 — making four unforced errors — he managed to win the tiebreaker with a forehand passing shot.
Eyes wide, Djokovic put a finger to his ear and nodded his head confidently as he stared at the crowd before howling with relief. It was a familiar scene for those who have followed the resilient Serbian star, but there would be no comeback this time, in part because he has played so little lately and because the second set had required 1 hour 23 minutes of effort.
After a 10-minute break, Djokovic returned to the clay standing tall, but he was soon emitting negative energy, talking to himself as he again lost his serve despite jumping out to a 40-15 lead. This time, Davidovich did not flinch, finishing off a champion who had beaten him soundly in their two previous matches and who has long been his tennis role model (they practiced together in Spain during the pandemic).
But Djokovic’s game and attitude were close to unrecognizable down the stretch as he raced through his service games and missed shot after shot. He finished with 51 unforced errors at the club where, as a Monaco resident, he trains regularly.
“I didn’t like the way I felt physically in the third,” Djokovic said. “I just ran out of gas completely. Just couldn’t really stay in the rally with him. I mean, if you can’t stay in the rally, not feeling your legs on the clay, it’s mission impossible.”
The concern for him is why he was so spent. Djokovic has long been supremely fit, but he has also had the coronavirus at least twice, although he has given no indication that this has affected his endurance.
“I’m going to look with my team into the reasons,” he said of his third-set fade.
It is a smaller team now. He is no longer working with Marian Vajda, his longtime friend and coach, which leaves Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion, as his primary coach. Ivanisevic was with Djokovic in January in Australia, where he arrived to defend his Australian Open title only to have his visa revoked because of his vaccination status. He spent time in detention as his appeal was adjudicated and was deported on the eve of the Australian Open. After also missing U.S. tournaments in Indian Wells, California, and Miami, he has played just four singles matches in 2022.
His record is an unsettling 2-2, but it bears remembering that Djokovic is one of sport’s supreme fighters and that he has lost early in Monte Carlo before, only to find his footing and thrive at the French Open, his primary goal in May.
Next stop in his strangest season: more home clay next week at a tournament in Belgrade, the Serbian capital where he was born.