Djoker to Enigma

Novak Djokovic
Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Novak Djokovic, the tennis player who soared and crashed, has risen from his two-year slump

FOR THE LAST couple of years, the most captivating storyline in tennis – in a perverse, fascinated-by-aircrash-investigations sort of way – was the fall of the once indestructible Novak Djokovic. The human mind tends to better understand a decline that has spread itself over a justifiable unit of time; like a year or a season. That was not the case with Djokovic.

Just like that in mid-2016, all of three weeks after his coronation as tennis royalty (by winning the French Open, the Serb became the first man in nearly half a century to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time), Djokovic lost in the third round of Wimbledon. And just like that, akin to an alcoholic who has promised himself to stop after one drink, Djokovic’s career plunged swiftly and precisely towards the bottom.

Nobody could really put a finger on what happened. Or why; or how. Not the least Djokovic himself. Since that first slip that immediately spiralled beyond his control, Djokovic fired his incumbent coach Boris Becker, hired and fired Andre Agassi and also hired and fired, believe it or not, a ‘happiness coach’ who specialised in extremely long hugs. In 2016, when he lost in the first round of the Rio Olympics, Djokovic was asked if he was ailing physically. No, he said, “It was some other things that I was going through privately.” Talks of a troubled marriage were rife by 2017, the year he turned 30, where he won all of two ATP-250 tournaments (Doha and Eastbourne). So, to add to the confusion, he pulled out of his worst season midway and blamed it on his physical fitness.

By 2018, Djokovic had begun losing the way he used to win during his peak; inevitably. When he lost to South Korea’s Hyeon Chung and Italy’s Marco Cecchinato – players who have appeared in lesser Grand Slams than Djokokic has won – at this year’s Australian and French Opens respectively, no one, including Djokovic, seemed surprised. He would’ve once bubbled with misery. Now, he wore a glaze of quiet resignation: shrug, hug his opponent across the court, wave at the show-court crowd and disappear into whence he came. By beating Djokovic, both Chung and Cecchinato ended up making their maiden Slam semi-finals. Djokovic, who had appeared in 32 major semifinals (and beyond) all by himself, now hadn’t reached one in six consecutive Grand Slams.

Each one of those Slams, incidentally, was won by either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Alternatingly -- Federer, Nadal, Federer, Nadal, Federer, Nadal -- almost as if the returning emperors had pre-planned a neat divide of the loot in the absence of the nouveau-king. During his brief but iron-fisted reign over the sport, Djokovic had a ruthless, tyrannical love for gold. And a ruthless, tyrannical dislike for his predecessors -- both Federer and Nadal had been beaten and driven into exile by numerous losses to Djokovic; an exile that many believed the former rulers wouldn’t return from. When they did, together, their common enemy had recused himself from the throne and was back to being a forgotten hero. One of Djokovic's several garbs.

During a most turbulent career, Djokovic has affirmed different avatars at different points of time. The teen prodigy. The weakling who tanks matches. The fitness revolutionary who endures forever. The machine. The first android in a field of humans. The third wheel to Gods. It was in his effort to shake off this final avatar of being a hero no one wants and gain universal acceptance (like Federer and Nadal had) when he, rather inadvertently, poured a coat of lacquer over his legacy: the Djoker. Joker, like the class-clown who mimics the cool guys to be accepted. Joker, like the unpredictable card in an otherwise dull and uniform deck. Joker, like the ultimate nemesis to the greatest superhero.

But a few weeks ago in June and when no one was looking (quite literally, for the FIFA World Cup was on), the clown-prince had returned to Wimbledon in the role of another Batman villain: Enigma, a man with a penchant for intricate riddles. Most suddenly and wholly inexplicably, Djokovic had solved his own puzzle, appearing on Centre Court minus self-doubt and armed, ostensibly, with all the answers. Two weeks on – and with a win over his toughest question mark in Nadal in the semi-finals – Djokovic’s Slam drought had ended. Just like that.

The enigma of Djokovic’s comeback only grew in stature when he arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, last week. Of the nine Masters-series tournaments in play, Cincinnati is the only one that had eluded him. On five occasions he had made the final and on three of them he was beaten by Federer, a seven-time champion on these courts. Of course, then, they were to meet in Sunday’s final. This slick, blue surface is Federer’s favourite, to the extent that when he went up 3-2 in the first set against Djokovic, the Swiss had held his 100th straight service game in Cincinnati, an ongoing record since 2015.

What hadn’t occurred in four years with Federer occurred with regularity over the next forty minutes. Djokovic broke Federer’s serve three times over two sets, winning the match, trophy and his latest moniker – Master of Masters, or the only man to win every existing big trophy in tennis, Masters and above. And what hadn’t occurred in two years with Djokovic had now occurred within the space of four weeks. With the same suddenness as his fall into obscurity, Djokovic had mysteriously risen from it.