“I am back in the locker room. That’s where I’m back,” proclaimed Novak Djokovic is a spiky press conference after a loss to the unheralded yet spirited Marco Cecchinato in the quarter-finals of the French Open in 2018. Djokovic seemed to be getting back to his vintage best, especially during the second and the third sets, where he unleashed a flurry of his forehand and backhand shots down the line to score some breath-taking winners.
Yet in what would have resulted in a sure shot victory a couple a years ago, when he was at the pinnacle of world tennis, his best was simply not good enough as he perished against a player no one had heard of before the start of the tournament. Eventually, despite playing his best tennis in the last couple of years, he lost the match 6-3 7-6 (7-4) 1-6 7-6 (13-11).
The defeat seems to have broken the man who along with Rafael Nadal is regarded as the toughest of competitors mentally, as well as physically when it comes to clutch situations. The press conference after the match further hinted to how much this loss had taken a toll on a man who is one of the greatest to have ever graced the game.
He said speaking to the press, “Any defeat is difficult in the Grand Slams, especially the one that came from months of build-up. I thought I had a great chance to get at least a step further but wasn’t to be.”
The ‘Djoker’, a moniker which has been given to the Serb for his jolly nature also hinted that he would require another long break from the game and may well skip the grass court season altogether. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just came from the court. Sorry, guys, I can’t give you that answer. I cannot give you an answer,” he answered, a man looking in great dismay and disbelief.
The former World No.1 and 12-time Grand Slam winner before the start of the tournament had slipped to No.22 in the ATP rankings, his lowest since 2006 when his ascension to the top of the world began.
There remains a good chance that after dealing with a nagging and often troublesome elbow injury for the past year, Djokovic may well recover physically after a carefully planned training and playing schedule with some good breaks in between.
But will he ever be the same player again mentally, with an unflinching and crystal clear attitude, the ultimate goal always remaining a victory at the biggest stage?
His two biggest peers and competitors in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal did so after many had written their careers off after a long lean spell. Now it’s up to the Serb to not only emulate his two biggest rivals but surpass them.
The ball is well and truly in his court and if Djokovic manages to conquer his mental demons, his could well turn out to be one of the greatest sporting stories of all-time.