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Novak Djokovic has cruised into the Madrid semifinals, but is still seeking his optimal state
The Serbian's recent history triggers some very real red flags that he probably needs to address in the coming months, if he hopes to add to his haul of 20 major titles.
Published May 06, 2022
INTERVIEW: Novak Djokovic's revealing conversation with Prakash Amritraj
It was a situation I never faced before, as many years as I've been on the tour, being involved with tennis politics, the press, everything. . . I consider myself familiar with all the aspects of my life, but still that was something completely unexpected. So yeah, it did take a toll on me—I think more mentally and emotionally than physically. I was just trying to figure things out, go back to that optimal state of mind and body and soul. Novak Djokovic, commenting on the repercussions of his controversy-mired attempt to play the Australian Open, in an interview with Tennis Channel analyst Prakash Amritraj
Djokovic’s comment answers a question that had bobbed like a cork in turbulent water since the beginning of the year, when the Australian government unceremoniously sent the world No. 1 back home before he had even set foot in the Melbourne venue where he had previously secured a record nine of his 20 Grand Slam singles titles.
The fiasco triggered an international firestorm, leading many to wonder what impact the controversy would have on the anti-vaxx Serbian superstar. Was something awry in the complicated internal world of Novak Djokovic? We had scant few answers to those questions, because until this week in Madrid, Djokovic had played just eight matches, winning but five (three of those on his home turf in Belgrade).
We’ve now learned a few things, both on the court in Madrid—where Djokovic has reached the semifinals but has played just two matches—and in the interview conducted by Amritraj, shortly after the Serbian advanced to the quarterfinals via a walkover issued by Andy Murray.
“When I was back from Australia, I was a little bit underestimating the emotional state I was in,” Djokovic told Amritraj. “I was like, ‘I am out of Australia, it is what it is, what happened happened. I am moving on.’ But then I did feel in the months to come the emotional and mental traces of what was happening there, and I feel it was just in the last few weeks that I was starting to get out of that a little bit, about to move on and transform that (experience) into fuel.”
Djokovic likes to meet the world head-on, his jaw thrust out, wearing a confident smile. But he’s a complicated guy with quasi-spiritual interests, on an ongoing quest for some sort of fulfillment that neither he nor anyone else can satisfactorily describe. But his recent history triggers some very real red flags that Djokovic probably needs to address in the coming months if he hopes to add to his haul of 20 major titles.
Djokovic’s temper cost him an excellent chance to win the US Open as the odds-on favorite in 2020, when he was disqualified in the fourth round for inadvertently hitting a linesperson in the throat with a ball struck in anger. Then, in 2021, Djokovic came within one match of completing a historic Grand Slam, an effort that won him the hearts of the New York fans he had courted for so long. But he squandered much of that goodwill with his misadventure in Australia, completing a hero-to-zero journey in just four months.
Now, three months down the road, the game looks a lot different from how it did when Djokovic landed in Australia. With Djokovic barred from competing in Melbourne, Nadal ended up earning a men’s record 21st Grand Slam singles title, with Rafa’s beloved French Open the next major on the docket.
More importantly, perhaps, Djokovic has had trouble tapping into the game that carried him to the brink of tennis immortality just a few months earlier in New York.
Upon re-emerging later that month in Dubai, Djokovic flamed out after playing two solid matches, beaten by 123rd-ranked Jiri Vesely. Djokovic then doubled down on his anti-vaxx stance, avoiding Indian Wells and the Miami Open because of vaccination requirements. His next event was Monte Carlo in early April, where he was upset in the first round by 46th-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. Then, in Belgrade, he struggled through three difficult matches but lost the final to Andrey Rublev—without winning a game in the decisive third set.
Referring to the emotional and mental impacts of the Australian debacle, Djokovic told Amritraj:
“I realized, when I started to play official matches, that it’s actually not easy to just finish up with that. I still had to deal with that feeling . . . that feeling that was holding me back a little bit. I wasn’t myself, I was more nervous than usual, in more of a defensive mode, mentally.”
Djokovic feels that he has “pulled through” those moments of doubt due largely to his performance in Belgrade, where he drew inspiration from the adulation showered upon him by his Serbian compatriots.
“It helped me in Serbia, with the crowd energy and support, to go through it [overcoming the doubts],” Djokovic said.
Judging by the results in Madrid, Djokovic may have regained at least some of his equilibrium. He said he was “very pleased” after dismissing Gael Monfils, 6-3, 6-2. A reunion with Murray wasn’t in the cards due to the Scot’s illness, but Djokovic looked impressive in his 6-3, 6-4 quarterfinal win on Friday over No. 12 seed Hubert Hurkacz.
Whatever happens over the weekend in Madrid, it’s clear that the game has changed since early this year due to—among other things—the emergence of a new force in the form of Carlos Alcaraz. The just-turned-19-year-old Spaniard has plenty of game to challenge Djokovic, in a way that’s different from the threat posed by Nadal or any of the other top contenders. While not as flexible an athlete as Djokovic, Alcaraz’s game already looks airtight, and he’s remarkably strong for one so young where it most counts: in the head.
Apart from any advantage those qualities give Alcaraz, you can bet the alarm bells are ringing in Djokovic’s mind. How he responds will be shaped in part by his vast store of experience, but perhaps also partly by his recent history.
Djokovic told Amritraj that he is focused on the day-to-day process of working on his game, taking a “detailed approach” to his training, trusting that all will fall into place. He said, “Patience is the key, and then trusting myself. Trusting my team. Trusting the whole process.”
Patience is a virtue, but with the French Open bearing down, new rivals emerging and the window of opportunity to win more majors gradually closing, Djokovic can’t afford many more misadventures, or complications like those brought about by his most recent, enormous one.