“I don’t think he answered any of the questions people had about him coming into this tournament,” Tennis Channel commentator Lindsay Davenport said as Novak Djokovic walked off the court after his 6-4, 7-6 (2) loss to Marin Cilic at the BNP Paribas Masters on Friday.
Davenport’s words, and her tone, were the right ones: Judging from what we’ve seen from Djokovic during his three matches in Paris, it’s difficult to know exactly where the world No. 1’s head and game are as 2016 winds to a close. For the first time in three years, we don’t even know if he’ll finish the season No. 1.
After his three-set win over Grigor Dimitrov on Thursday, I lauded Djokovic’s back-against-the-wall fighting ability. While he didn’t play all that well, he did compete more calmly, and with greater focus, than he has in recent months. That seemed to be a direct result of the fact that he could lose out on the top ranking to Andy Murray. Djokovic had said before the tournament that the competition from Murray had given him new energy after a lackluster summer and fall.
But that’s not how Djokovic looked on Friday against Cilic. The Serb appeared to be a step slower than normal at the start, and it was the Croat who won the battle of court position. Cilic hit more winners (27 to 15) and more aces (eight to three). He attacked the net more boldly, and he did what Djokovic usually does on his second-serve returns: He pounded them deep and down the middle and pushed his opponent back. Cilic won 53 percent of Djokovic’s second-serve points and earned eight break points.
Djokovic never looked sure of himself, his game or how to approach the match. At one level, he must have believed that he would turn it around eventually: Before Friday, he was 14-0 against Cilic, which was his longest win streak without a defeat against any opponent. And when Djokovic saved two match points while serving at 5-6 in the second, most people watching surely believed he would extend that record to 15-0. Here, finally, was the old Djokovic, the back-from-the-brink Djokovic, the one who swings his way out of trouble at the eleventh hour. Here, finally, was Djokovic the showman, urging the crowd to get up and show him some love. Here, finally, was the Djokovic who was desperate to keep his No. 1 ranking.
And then, in the tiebreaker, that Djokovic vanished as quickly as he had appeared. He missed a backhand into the net and hung his head. He blocked a return of serve long and slumped his shoulders. He watched as Cilic played the more proactive, positive tennis and ran away with the breaker.
That last fact is a big part of the story of this match: Cilic was due. He’s a Grand Slam champ and a Top 10 player who has wins over Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and he pushed Djokovic to a fifth set at Wimbledon two years ago. Cilic is also finishing up the best overall season of his career on a high note; on Thursday, he clinched a spot in the year-end World Tour Finals for just the second time. The court in Paris—indoors, low-bouncing, quicker than normal—suited him, and Djokovic has also been dealing with an elbow injury.
So a loss to Cilic was going to happen eventually, and maybe a late-season event was the best time and place for it to happen. But it’s never a good sign when a top player begins to lose to players he has never lost to before. It started for Federer in 2010, when he was 28, and for Nadal when he was about the same age, in 2014.
Djokovic is 29; we don’t know whether this loss, or this current phase of uncertainty, will mean anything over the long run. But this is the first time since 2011 that he hasn’t dominated down the fall homestretch. It’s looking like the first Djokovic season since he became No. 1 that will end with more questions than answers.