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Novak Adrift

By Giri Nathan

Once you’re done appreciating how convincingly Iga Swiatek claimed the No. 1 slot in the WTA, you might then turn to the analogous situation on the men’s tour, as queasy as Iga’s is satisfying. How often do you see a perfectly healthy world No. 1 who, by mid-April, has only this scribbled on the season résumé: a fired coach, two wins, and two losses? That’s where we are right now with Novak Djokovic, scarcely playing tennis, but firmly on top of it.

There’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t still be the best player on tour, if he were only playing a normal schedule. I have cheese in my fridge old enough to remember when this guy was closing in on the Calendar Slam. As inspired as we all were by the near-perfect hard-court swing of Rafael Nadal, and as shaken as I am by the existence of Carlos Alcaraz, I know that the former has a stress fracture in his rib that needs healing, and the latter is a mere babe too young to know the hurt of full-strength Djoker. Were he touring normally, I’d be picking Novak to take any tournament of consequence. But you can’t ignore the burps and bumps of the past few months.

He started the year with some international humiliation, courtesy of the Australian government. It was his fault he wound up at the whims of these bureaucrats, and it was their fault it played out so grotesquely, and it’s everyone’s fault that I cannot spend another sentence lingering on this stupid debacle. The next challenge for Novak was finding a tennis tournament that would have him. If you’re looking for places that aren’t terribly scrupulous about the überwealthy and powerful people allowed in, you could always do worse than Dubai. Djokovic, who’s won the title there five times, showed up and beat Lorenzo Musetti and Karen Khachanov, only to lose to qualifier Jiri Vesely. Not long after, he fired his forever coach, pal, and countryman, Marian Vajda.

Novak Djokovic’s career could be split into two parts. There’s the big part where he employed Marian Vajda and won 20 Slams and 37 Masters. And there’s the little slice where he did not employ Marian Vajda and lost to Nick Kyrgios twice in two weeks. That stretch in 2017–2018 was the least fruitful patch of his prime, and he was drifting around in search of radical solutions. When he booted Vajda and the rest of his team during the 2017 clay swing, he said he was looking for “shock therapy.” (Was it shock therapy he needed, or just a sorely needed elbow surgery, delayed because he wanted his body to repair itself with “natural” methods? I leave it to the reader to decide.) This time, at least, instead of ditching the whole camp, he’s keeping the continuity with his other coach, Goran Ivanisevic.

An unvaxxed Djokovic couldn’t get into the U.S. to play in Indian Wells or Miami. Daniil Medvedev became world No. 1 in his absence, but his reign was short-lived, as he didn’t make a dent at either tournament. Later he’d reveal that he’d been playing through a “small hernia,” which now needs repairing. (Medvedev’s love affair with clay will have to wait another year to be rekindled.) Djokovic came back to Monte Carlo this week, only to lose to the spunky Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, vanishing in the third set. “I just ran out of gas completely. Just couldn’t really stay in the rally with him. I mean, if you can’t stay in the rally, not feeling your legs on the clay, it’s mission impossible,” he said afterward. He remains 10 points ahead of Medvedev. For a man wandering the wilderness, refuge doesn’t get much sweeter than next week’s tournament plans: the home courts in Belgrade, bearing his name.

Above: Novak looks for answers in Monte Carlo. (Getty)

Issue No. 18