On Sunday, qualifier and world No. 109 Taro Daniel defeated five-time Indian Wells champion Novak Djokovic, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1, in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open. Daniel deserves a lot of credit for taking it to the 12-time Grand Slam champ, but it's hard not to think that this result was more about what Djokovic did to himself.
After losing to Hyeon Chung in the fourth round of the Australian Open, Djokovic took some time to get himself healthy. But while he may be revitalized physically, as far as we know, the former No. 1 showed plenty of rust in his tour return, which was central to the outcome.
It was clear early that Djokovic didn't have anything close to his best game, in spite of holding a 5-2 lead in the first set. His backhand, traditionally his most consistent and game-breaking weapon, bled errors—32 in all. With his go-to stroke a sudden liability, the rest of his game fell apart. The 30-year-old committed 61 unforced errors in the two-and-a-half hour match.
"It felt like my first match on tour," said Djokovic, according to Sport360.com's Reem Abulleil.
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The Serb failed to serve out the first set, growing the internal seed of doubt and emboldening Daniel, who at last year's US Open took a set from eventual champion Rafael Nadal. Playing aggressively and making Djokovic move, Daniel would quickly erase the deficit and would end up taking the first set in a tiebreaker.
Djokovic rebounded to level the match, but the taxing second set left the No. 10 seed looking worse for wear. Once the third set began, it didn't take long for most observers to realize that it was Daniel's match to lose. Not only was Djokovic seemingly missing everything at that point, but he looked gassed. The combination led to a quick and drama-free conclusion.
"I just completely lost rhythm, everything," a candid Djokovic told press. "Just didn't feel good at all, nerves were there. Just one of those days when you're not able to find the rhythm from the baseline, especially the backhand side."
"You're still battling inside of your mind," he added, referencing his recent elbow surgery. "You don't have pain, but you're still thinking about it."
For Daniel, a third-round meeting with world No. 47 Leonardo Mayer awaits. Mayer was supposed to play Kei Nishikori in his second-round match, but the former US Open finalist withdrew from the tournament due to illness. Mayer would instead play lucky loser Ruben Bemelmans—who he defeated, 6-4, 6-1, in just over an hour.
Djokovic, meanwhile, is scheduled to compete in the Miami Open in just over a week. He has won the hard-court Masters event six times in his career, but given what we saw today, it's hard to imagine another deep run. If he can't clean up a shot that was once his most reliable, nothing is a given right now.
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