“In 2010 I lost to Jürgen Melzer in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros," Novak Djokovic told Sky Italia last month. “I cried when I left, that was a bad moment. I wanted to stop playing tennis and saw only black. But it was also a transformation. Because after this match I freed myself.”
In those days, Djokovic said, “I knew I could do more, but I lost the important matches against Federer and Nadal. After this match [against Melzer], I took the pressure off to start playing more aggressively. That was the turning point for me.”
This isn’t the first time Djokovic has cited his 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-4 loss to Melzer as a career-changing moment. Viewed from a 2020 perspective, you can see why he thinks of it that way.
As of June 2010, Djokovic was 23, he’d been a pro for five years, and he had just one major title to his name. As good as he was, and as hard as he tried, he was still the third wheel in his three-way rivalry with Rafa and Roger. For most players, of course, that would be a dream career, but Djokovic wasn’t most players. His goal, from the moment he broke onto the tour, had been to become No. 1; he didn’t care who he had to step over to get there. Listening to Djokovic today, it sounds as if his loss to Melzer at Roland Garros finally made him stop worrying about overtaking Federer and Nadal, and just play tennis.
The results didn’t come right away. At Wimbledon a month later, Djokovic suffered another painful and baffling defeat when he went out to Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the semifinals. But at the US Open that September, he saved two match points to beat Federer in the semis, before losing to Nadal in the final. When Djokovic led Serbia to its first Davis Cup title at the end of 2010, the transformation was complete. He wouldn’t lose again until Roland Garros in 2011.
Djokovic’s defeat to Melzer would be a milestone in another way: He hasn’t blown a two-set lead since. During that time, the Serb has remade himself from a player with a reputation for pulling the mental ripcord early into a master of the marathon victory. With the anniversary of Melzer’s win upon us, we take a look back at a match that looms larger today than it did at the time.
Highlights—Melzer's five-set stunner over Djokovic:
At first, 26 minutes of highlights seems like it might be overkill, but this clip gains momentum as it goes, and especially as the bullets start to fly off Melzer’s strings over the last two sets. Aside from being a famous upset, this was a terrific shot-making session.
It’s also one that looked like it was going to be exceedingly routine for two sets. Djokovic comes out firing in his usual way—not with his serve and forehand, but with his return and forehand. Time and again, he stretches out for a return, drops it at Melzer’s feet, and finishes the point with a forehand winner. But everything else is clicking, too. Djokovic closes out the second set by knocking off a confident overhead. There’s no sign here of the shaky smashes in his future.
But this video makes clear that there’s one element of Djokovic’s game that has improved markedly since 2010, and it’s his serve. Back then, he was using a straight-over-the-head motion, like a cricket bowler or a slingshot. For a guy ranked No. 3 in the world, it was highly unnatural. I’m not sure when Djokovic fixed it, but it seems clear that upgrading his serve was a big part of why he has upgraded his game in the years since 2010.
When Djokovic goes up a break early in the third set, at 1-0 and again at 2-1, the match looks all but over. But this is where Melzer makes his stand. After snapping a topspin lob winner over Djokovic’s head, the Austrian finally relaxes and finds a groove from the baseline. He breaks with a forehand pass for 4-2, runs out the third set, and hits bigger and better from there. Big serves, big backhands, big forehands, and lots of drop shots: Melzer’s racquet turns into a Howitzer—with touch. Djokovic fights hard to hold for 4-4, and celebrates as if he has finally broken his opponent’s will. Instead, it’s Melzer who stays on top of the baseline, and the rallies. All Djokovic can do, after a certain point, is throw his hands in the air as he watches another winner scream past him.
It doesn’t appear on this clip, but the final game of the match included a controversial call. Djokovic went up 0-15, and appeared to go up 0-30, when his forehand passing shot was ruled a winner. But Melzer signaled that the ball had landed wide, and chair umpire Carlos Bernardes agreed—much to the chagrin of Djokovic. Hawk-Eye agreed with the Serb; the replay technology showed the ball catching the tape. (This video captures that scene.)
After squandering two break points and saving two match points, Djokovic finally succumbed. As usual, though, he was quick to offer Melzer (who shares a birthday with him) a congratulatory hug, and to shake Bernardes’ hand.
Later, Djokovic criticized Bernardes—“I don’t know what was going on with him”—but he didn’t use it as an excuse. “I can’t blame him for losing this match,” he said. “That’s one call.” He also refused to call for Hawk-Eye to be installed at Roland Garros just because of this one incident.
Why did Djokovic become a champion he did after this match? He might tell you it was because he felt free. Someone else might tell you it was because he improved his serve. But the way he took this defeat—with perspective rather than petulance—showed that there was a champion inside of him all along.