“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.