THE MYSTERY OF NOVAK DJOKOVIC – The Game’s Biggest Enigma

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Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images]

Bill Simons

PARIS – A year ago in the seventh game of the NBA Championships, deep into crunch time, Steph Curry was about to finish off a fast break with a layup. But a sprinting Lebron James swatted it away and promptly offered some intense trash talk and a mighty staredown. The play said it all about Cleveland’s incredible 2016 comeback victory.

This year, in the second game of the finals, Curry put an incredible start-and-stop, swirl-and-feint move on Lebron that left the huge Cavalier in the dust. The humbling payback move could prove to be the signature moment of this year’s NBA season.

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Today the world’s No. 2 player, Novak Djokovic, was the favorite to beat the young, still rising 23-year old Dominic Thiem. After all, the Serb was the Roland Garros defending champion and the winner of eleven Grand Slams – and just a few weeks ago he’d mercilessly dismissed the Austrian 6-1, 6-0.

But today, on Suzanne Lenglen Stadium, Thiem won a fiercely contested 73-minute first set. Then, on set point in the second set, in the middle of a scramble exchange, Thiem hit a crosscourt backhand that wrong-footed the famously sure-footed Serb.

The off-balance Djokovic lunged. He spun, and awkwardly helicoptered out of control. As he haplessly fell to the sticky orange clay, his racket twisted wildly in the wind. This was Hemingway having writer’s block. Or Trump having nothing to tweet.

The Lenglen crowd was stunned. Djokovic – the bend-and-twist, ultra-limber master of movement – laid on the court in a clump. The packed stadium was taken aback. Not only would we not see what was long expected to be the match of the tourney – a Nadal vs. Djokovic showdown in the semifinal – Nole tea leaf watchers were now, more than ever, wondering what’s up with their perplexing player.

It’s the biggest mystery in the game. After all, just a year ago, the man from the Serbian mountains had reached the ATP summit. He’d won the French Open to achieve a career Grand Slam, and simultaneously held all four Slams – just incredible. Can you spell d-o-m-i-n-a-n-t? He was the man.

Even today, oddsmakers figured Novak would prevail. After all, he was facing a foe he’d beaten 6-1, 6-0 a few weeks ago. He’d reached six straight Roland Garros semis and he sprinted out to a fine 4-2 first set lead. But, after Thiem’s take-down passing shot that left Nole flailing in the Parisian dust, the Serb didn’t win another game, as he went down 6-0 in the third set. John McEnroe said he was tanking.

Of course, Novak’s collapse today mirrors the longer fall of this former No. 1, who last year achieved so much in Paris, but then began a perplexing slide a few weeks later when he fell to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon.

But why the downward drift of the man who will now become No. 3?

Theories abound. The French Open was such a transcendent accomplishment for a man who’d long craved acceptance, and who’d seemingly forever played in Rafa’s shadow. Now he’d won Rafa’s tournament, and, like his two prime rivals, had a career Grand Slam. A letdown could be understood. What we may never understand is the impact of his very personal, very difficult problems.

On court, some say that he appears to have lost a bit of speed, his shots don’t quite penetrate like before, and his confidence has wavered.

Novak himself spoke of the wolf syndrome: “it’s the wolf trying to get up to the top of the mountain who is hungrier and faster than the wolf who has already reached the top.” And Thiem today was blasting off both wings, moving well, serving big, and strong mentally. Well, you get the idea: Thiem was one hungry wolf.

One idea Djokoivic had, to try and recharge his batteries, was to call in Andre Agassi for a brief drop-in coaching run. Never mind that Novak had idolized Pete Sampras as a kid, he and Andre are so similar – not only in their strokes and style and brilliant tennis IQs, but also in their complexity and their openness to deeper ideas.

After all, Agassi’s deep-think book is called “Open,” and more than any other top pro, Novak has been open to everything from oxygen tanks and gluten-free diets to the mysterious Spanish guru Pepe Imaz, who reportedly helped Djokovic’s brother cure himself of depression.

Today, after his astounding 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-0 loss, Djokovic was not depressed. Rather, he was both adrift and candid. Here was one confused fellow who didn’t have any answers.

He told the media that the first set of the match was the key and that Thiem’s heavy spin gave him problems.

Novak added, “I’m feeling like I’m missing consistency. I play a great match or two in a row, and then I play a completely opposite match. That’s what happened today…As an athlete you have to accept that and get used to it.”

He admitted, “It’s a whole new situation that I’m facing, especially in the last seven, eight months, not winning any tournament, which hasn’t happened in many years…[But] all the top players have been through that. So I guess you’ve got to go through it [and] try to learn your lessons and figure out the way.

“The win here last year has brought a lot of different emotions. Obviously it was a thrill and complete fulfillment. I lived on that wave of excitement ’til US Open…And at the US Open, I just was emotionally very flat and found myself in a situation that I hadn’t faced before.

“It’s obviously tough to get out of it and figure out the way to move ahead…I have achieved the biggest heights in this sport…and that experience gives me enough reason to believe that I can do it again… the next chapter for me. Now I’m just figuring it all out. Obviously, there are things to think about and to work on, and we’ll see where it takes me.”

And so will plenty of Nole fans around the world.

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