That Jiri Feeling

by: Steve Tignor | April 16, 2016

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Until Djokovic has a French Open title in his pocket, the spring clay swing is never going to be an easy road for him. (AP)

Who, exactly, was ever going to beat Novak Djokovic again, and what was it going to take? 

Many of us, after watching the world No. 1 follow up his sixth Australian Open title with his third straight Indian Wells-Miami double last month, had begun to wonder. In his 12 matches in the U.S. this spring, Djokovic had never really looked his best; everything appeared to be a struggle. Everything, that is, except winning: In those 12 matches, Djokovic dropped just one set. 

If nobody could make any inroads at those two hard-court events, which were essentially meaningless to Djokovic, how was anyone going to do it once he reached the tune-up events for the French Open, a tournament that means more to him than any other? Coming into the first of those events, in Monte Carlo, Djokovic was 28-1 on the season and hadn’t lost a completed match since Roger Federer beat him in London last November.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone guessed the name of the player who would break that streak: On Wednesday, 55th-ranked Jiri Vesely, a hulking, bearded left-hander from the Czech Republic, did the seemingly impossible and upset Djokovic, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. The 22-year-old Vesely was a much-touted talent when he first turned pro, but so far in 2016 he had been the anti-Djokovic: Vesely lost seven of his first eight matches this season, and in Monte Carlo he had been two points from defeat in his opening-round contest against Teymuraz Gabashvili.

It’s also hard to imagine anyone would have guessed how Vesely went about beating Djokovic. The 6’6” giant did it, in large part, with gentle touch. He broke up the rallies, and Djokovic’s rhythm, with his drop shot, and won a surprising share of the cat-and-mouse points that the two engaged in at the net. Vesely even saved his very best dropper for the most nerve-racking moment of the match. 

Serving at 5-4 in the third set, Vesely went down 0-15 on an anxious error. On the next point, the two began to rally, and it appeared that Djokovic had finally begun to do what he should have done all match: Go into lockdown mode and pound Vesely’s low-margin backhand.  Vesely seemed to understand that this was a losing proposition for him. So he threw caution—in the form of a backhand drop from behind the baseline—to the wind. The risk paid off. Vesely carved under the ball beautifully and measured it perfectly; even Djokovic couldn’t get near it.

“I don’t know if I should cry or smile,” Vesely said after Djokovic’s final forehand landed just wide on match point. 

Of course, Vesely didn’t beat the world No. 1 by dropper alone. He has a strong, flat first serve and a biting slice on his second. Djokovic, who had never faced the Czech before, never found a returning rhythm on either. Vesely is typically inconsistent, but he hits a heavy ball, and he more than held his own in the neutral rallies; Djokovic won just 41 percent of points on his second serve. Most important, I thought, was Vesely’s attitude. Early in the third set he broke serve, but was quickly broken back after flubbing an easy overhead. Rather than hanging his head or throwing his arms in the air, Vesely looked thoughtful as he walked back to the baseline. It appeared that he knew he had more time and knew he was still playing well, and there was no reason to panic. This sense of calm served him well in the final game.

If Vesely was properly cool and collected to finish, Djokovic was a little too cool to start. He looked casual on some shots in the first set; winning every match can do that to you. By the start of the second, though, he was much more alert and proactive; when Djokovic won it 6-2, the match had begun to resemble his opening-round win over Bjorn Fratangelo in Indian Wells: a sluggish start that would end in an inevitable, but never pretty, victory. But Vesely was too good to let Djokovic get away with that on Wednesday. 

Afterward, Djokovic said, “It was a really poor performance. Poor footwork.”

He said that over the last 10 days, he had trouble finding his clay legs in practice, and that the unscheduled rest he’ll get this week is just what he needs.

“Last four, five months have been tough,” Djokovic said. “In the last week I didn’t feel that freshness for the entire time ... I need time to recharge.”

There were worse losses that Djokovic could have taken. Losing to Vesely is not the same as losing to a fellow Top 5 player, someone he might face in the later rounds of the French Open, and who would gain confidence from a win like this. If he had gone out to, say, Stan Wawrinka in the final here, the whole complexion of the clay season would have changed; that doesn’t happen with a loss to Vesely.

And as Djokovic said, taking some time off from competition could help; the transition from IW-Miami asphalt to Monte Carlo clay is quick and jarring, especially for someone who went the distance in both U.S. events. Last year Djokovic took that time off during Madrid; this loss would seem to make it more likely he’ll enter that event this time around.

But this loss also shows us again that, until Djokovic has a French Open title in his pocket, the spring clay swing is never going to be an easy road for him. Even for such a dominant No. 1, it’s never going to be business as usual. The pressure and the chatter immediately descends on him when he shifts to clay, and stays with him for two months. Djokovic has tried different ways of dealing with that pressure in the past. One year he tried to build momentum slowly and peak in Paris; another year he tried simply to play each event as if it were a separate, equally important tournament that he wanted to win. Perhaps now, with his 29th birthday approaching, after enduring his share of long clay seasons, his focus will be on staying as fresh as possible for Paris.

As for the rest of us, we learned again on Wednesday that Djokovic—like anyone else—can indeed be beaten, and we know who can do it. All it takes is a towering lefty with a little ice in his veins, and a perfect drop shot in his racquet.

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