“Many, many, many things are not clicking these two weeks on hard courts."
This dire self-assessment was made by Novak Djokovic after his loss to Tommy Robredo in Cincinnati yesterday. That’s a lot of things that aren't clicking, especially for a world No. 1 and Wimbledon champion. But would you disagree? It’s hard to know where to begin when listing the things that Djokovic didn’t do against Robredo. He didn’t show his usual fight, desire, or aggression; worse, he didn’t look especially frustrated or seem to feel much urgency at the end. Even in the match he won this week, a three-setter over Gilles Simon, Djokovic appeared to be going through the motions.
One thing he did do yesterday was talk honestly about his performance.
“It’s unfortunate,” Djokovic said, “but it’s more than obvious I’m not playing even close to what I’m supposed to play. I have to keep working and trying to get better for the U.S. Open.”
When he lost this way to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Toronto last week, we waved it off as rust, a rust thickened by the fact that he had won Wimbledon and gotten married in the past month. But back-to-back losses like this is unusual for him, especially on his favored hard courts; he hasn’t lost before the semifinals at two consecutive hard-court Masters since 2010.
At the same time, this has been a year of bounce-backs for Djokovic. In Australia, he had his streak of Grand Slam semifinal appearances snapped by Stan Wawrinka, but two months later he was back to his very best, demolishing Rafael Nadal in the Miami final. In June, Djokovic was left deeply disappointed by his losing performance in the French Open final; in July he reached a new career peak with his Wimbledon win.
Recent history also says that winning the U.S. Open's tune-up tournaments isn't a prerequisite for winning the Open itself. In 2013, Nadal did win all three events; but in 2012, Andy Murray won the Open after going out in the round of 16 in both Toronto and Cincy.
Judging by his words, Djokovic sounds as surprised by his current form as anyone else. He says “it’s unfortunate,” as if the process is, to a degree, out of his hands. And he says, “it’s more than obvious I’m not playing even close to what I’m supposed to play,” as if he’s watching himself from the outside. Maybe Nole underestimated how much time he would need to get back into form after the extra weeks off this summer. Maybe he’s getting used to his new life situation, as married man and soon-to-be-father. Maybe, after the emotional roller coaster of the French and Wimbledon, he found it hard to get up for Toronto and Mason, Ohio.
And maybe, three weeks from now in New York, he’ll be holding the winner's trophy and no one will ever mention Toronto and Mason again. Still, the one thing you can definitely say is that the Open got a little more open with Djokovic's performances the last two weeks.
See Friday’s Order of Play here.
Stan Wawrinka vs. Julien Benneteau: I mention this 11 A.M. undercard bout only to point out two surprising facts: (1) Benneteau is still in the tournament; and (2) He has a 2-1 record against Wawrinka.
Serena Williams vs. Jelena Jankovic: One thing you can say for JJ—she doesn’t back down from Serena. But it has been awhile since she’s beaten her. Serena has won their last five matches, dating back to 2010.
Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Caroline Wozniacki: These two old friends are enjoying a co-renaissance at the moment. Once upon a time, Caro owned Aga, but Radwanska flipped the rivalry in her direction in 2012, and has won their last three matches. This one should be a battle.
Andy Murray vs. Roger Federer: The 7 P.M. show match is a tough one to call. Murray leads Federer 11-10 in their head to head, but Federer won their only meeting this year, in four sets at the Australian Open. I think it will go the other way this time; Murray looked good against Isner, and Federer has been walking the ledge the last couple of weeks.
Ana Ivanovic vs. Elina Svitolina: The late match features two players who have gotten to know each other well in 2014; this is the third meeting this year between Ana and Elina. Ivanovic won them both, but the one on U.S. hard courts, in Indian Wells, went to a third-set tiebreaker.