Novak Djokovic wasn’t happy. The ballpersons weren’t getting him the balls quickly enough. The fans—as they will in Rome—were strolling around in between points. The chair umpire had just slapped him with a warning for taking too much time between serves. Worst of all, Djokovic’s opponent, Roberto Bautista Agut, had found a groove and ridden it back into contention. After losing the first set, Bautista Agut had bounced back from 1-3 down to take a 4-3 lead with an inside-out forehand winner. For those three games, the streaky Spaniard had outgunned the world No. 2 from the baseline.
Djokovic had the exasperated look of a man who had been down this road one too many times recently. He jawed with the chair umpire; he urged the ball kids to hurry up; he stared in the direction of his player’s box. Anybody who had been watching him for the last nine months or so could have been forgiven for expecting the worst. So far in 2017, we had seen him suffer unexpected defeats at the hands of Denis Istomin, Nick Kyrgios (twice) and David Goffin. Even when Djokovic was winning, many of his victories were three-set struggles. Now it looked like RBA was going to push this one to a third.
But he didn’t. Instead, something even more surprising happened: Djokovic immediately turned the match back around and won the last three games for a more-straightforward-than-it-sounds 6-4, 6-4 win.
What was the difference? Rather than let his frustration get the better of him, and take him down further, Djokovic used his angry edge as fuel, the way he did when he was a hungry young player on the rise a decade ago. When Bautista Agut reflexed a forehand winner at 4-3, Djokovic didn’t throw his hands up in despair; instead, he answered by putting together an intelligently aggressive rally that took Bautista Agut out of the point entirely. Then he smacked an ace to hold for 4-4.
In the next game, Bautista Agut hit a passing shot that clipped the tape, but it was no problem for Djokovic, who kept his cool and found the perfect backhand angle for a winner. Later in that game, Djokovic followed a ground stroke to the net and confidently knocked off a forehand volley. While he blew a couple of break points, and was the beneficiary of a bad line call by the chair umpire, Djokovic played with more freedom than he has recently. He raced forward when he could, and showed off a more varied repertoire of shots. He finished the game by breaking Bautista Agut with a backhand down-the-line winner that felt cathartic.
For this day, at least, Djokovic had his edge and his freedom back. When he couldn’t finish off Bautista Agut easily, he didn’t act as if he couldn’t believe what was happening to him. He got annoyed, but he also got better. He saw that RBA was sharp, and he did what he needed to do to win anyway.
This may or may not be the start of a turnaround for Djokovic. He has a tougher match ahead of him on Friday, against Juan Martin del Potro, and an even tougher potential semifinal after that, against Rafael Nadal. And we’ve seen him follow good days with bad this season already: He beat Del Potro in Indian Wells, only to lose to Kyrgios the next day. Still, a turnaround will happen for Djokovic eventually, and it would make sense if it happened soon.
Last year, I thought his dip in play after the French Open was due in large part to the fact that he had no more goals to reach. He had finally won at Roland Garros, he held all four major titles and he had vanquished all of his rivals. At that moment, his ascent was complete. Now, nine months later, Djokovic has dipped just enough to make another ascent possible. He has lost his No. 1 ranking, and this past week he had his seven-match winning streak against Nadal snapped. He can feel hungry again, and he can feel like the hunter again.
“I’m still not playing as well as I can,” Djokovic said in Rome. “But that’s a good thing, in a way, because you know there is still room for improvement.”
Thursday was an improvement for Djokovic. We’ll see if he has room for more this week.
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