MIAMI—“I gave him a little room, and a little hope,” a somber, subdued Novak Djokovic said after his 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 loss to Roberto Bautista Agut on Tuesday in Miami. Sometimes, even in a match between a future Hall-of-Famer and a 30-year-old who has never cracked the Top 10, that’s all that’s necessary to turn the tide in a completely new and surprising direction.
This result surely came as a shock to a lot of people. Djokovic is a 15-time Grand Slam champion; Bautista Agut has reached one Grand Slam quarterfinal, in Australia this past January. Djokovic has been ranked No. 1 for 244 weeks; Bautista Agut has never been ranked higher than No. 13. Djokovic had won Miami six times; Bautista Agut had a 7-7 record here. In their head to head, Djokovic had won seven of their first eight meetings.
Yet watching them duel from the baseline inside the stadium, it was hard to see much difference between the Serb and the Spaniard—at least once the first set was over and Bautista Agut had a chance to dig into the rallies. They looked like mirror images: Djokovic and Bautista Agut lean into their two-handed backhands in exactly the same way, and smack their on-the-run forehands with similar tomahawk motions. While Djokovic hits with more depth and consistency, it’s Bautista Agut who can, when he’s in a groove, accelerate through his forehand with more pace. While Djokovic’s return of serve has been called—correctly—the best ever, Bautista Agut hit his with just as much confidence today.
Photos by Anita Aguilar
In other words, while the gap in their achievements is vast, the gap in their styles of play is slim. Djokovic won virtually all of their early matches, but three of them were highly competitive four-setters at Slams. Today, two new elements in their match-up—one from Bautista Agut’s side of the net, the other from Djokovic’s—proved to be decisive.
Earlier this year, Bautista Agut beat Djokovic in a similar three-set match, when he came from a set and a break down in the semifinals in Doha. That win meant that when he fell behind in Miami, he could still envision a win. It meant that, even when Djokovic went up a break early in the second set, and had seven more break points during that set, Bautista Agut could find a reason to believe he wasn’t doomed to defeat.
It meant that, during the most important rally of the match, when he was down a break point at 5-5 in the second set, and was being pushed farther and farther behind the baseline, Bautista Agut could have the gall to slide a tricky slice an inch or so over the net and goad Djokovic into missing his next forehand. It meant that, once he had been given some hope, Bautista Agut could raise his level the rest of the way. Over the course of the three sets, his first-serve percentage rose from 47 to 58 to a match-closing 66. It was Bautista Agut, not Djokovic, who closed like a champ when he slid a much-needed service winner up the T in the final game.
According to Djokovic, the new element for him today, and during this whole spring hard-court swing through Indian Wells and Miami, has been the amount of time he’s spent on his duties as head of the ATP player council. After sweeping through the States and winning the more-difficult-than-he-made-it-look Sunshine Double in 2014, 2015, and 2016, Djokovic has struggled at both events.
“Way too many things off the court,” he said. “I guess that affected me a little bit on the court. I didn’t feel my best, health-wise, in Indian Wells and here. Still rusty, but hey, look, you learn, that’s life.”
While Bautista Agut’s first-serve percentage was rising, Djokovic’s was plummeting—from 70 percent in the first set to 50 percent in the second. And when he had the match on his racquet, on that break point at 5-5 in the second, he was a half-step slow in getting up to Bautista’s short low slice. In the third set, Djokovic couldn’t keep enough balls in the court to make RBA nervous.
“He’s a solid player,” Djokovic said. “Congratulations to him definitely for a great comeback. But this kind of match I should not have lost. Just way too many wasted opportunities. That’s what happens when you don’t capitalize on time.”
The margins among the ATP’s Top 20 are slim, as we saw today. Will Djokovic’s commitment to the tour’s politics continue to make them even slimmer? His last win at a best-of-three event was the Shanghai Masters last fall; since then he’s lost to Karen Khachanov in Paris, Alexander Zverev in London, Bautista Agut in Doha and Miami, and Philipp Kohlschreiber in Indian Wells. Right now, the best-of-three format is less forgiving of his dips in form.
To which some would ask: So what? At this point in his career, after winning all of the majors and Masters, wouldn’t it make sense for a soon-to-be-32-year-old to focus solely on his Slam count? Djokovic didn’t completely sign on to that theory tonight. Yes, the majors mean the most to him, but they also meant the most to him back when he was dominating Indian Wells and Miami.
“The Slams are the ones that count the most, without a doubt,” he said. “So of course I prioritize those. But that hasn’t changed much. I’ve been having this kind of schedule for many years.”
Still, because Djokovic has been so good at the last three majors, we can’t say he’s in any kind of a slump until he plays the French Open in May—he has some time to get it together. For today, we can enjoy another stirring late-bloomer’s effort from Bautista Agut, and wish for more this season. He took the little room, and the little hope, that Djokovic gave him, and made the most of it.