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Djokovic's Decline: Will Novak ever dominate again?

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Thursday 26th April 2018

Djokovic's Decline: Will Novak ever dominate again?

2018 has been one to forget so far for Novak Djokovic. The tennis star has won just five matches this season whilst losing four, which his worst ever start to a campaign. His latest defeat came at the hands of world number 140 Martin Klizan at the Barcelona Open, a result which means that Djokovic has now failed to progress beyond the last 16 of any tournament this season.

There can be no doubt that Djokovic is one of the greatest players in the history of men's tennis. After all, the Serbian has picked up 12 grand slam singles titles in his illustrious career, as well as 30 Masters 1000 series titles and he has held the number one ranking for an astonishing total of 223 weeks. 

However, since his last grand slam success at the 2016 French Open there has been a noticeable decline from Djokovic. He has struggled with injuries and a lack of form which has led to a fall in the ATP World Rankings and the title wins have dried up. In the 22 months prior to that success at Roland Garros he won 20 singles titles, including five Grand Slams and was ranked number one. The 22 months since however paint a very different picture, with just two titles to his name, both of which were only at ATP 250 events and a drop to number 12 in the world. These stats leave many asking the question: Will Novak Djokovic ever dominate men's tennis again?  

Reasons For Decline

There are a few reasons which could explain Djokovic's recent woes. The obvious thing to look at is the elbow injury which cut short his 2017 campaign. After reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, he was forced to retire after losing the first set to Tomas Berdych due to the pain of his injury. He claimed that it had been bothering him for a year and a half and decided to miss the rest of the season in order to recover fully. It looked to have worked, as he returned at the Australian Open and picked up wins against Gael Monfils and Albert Ramos-Vinolas en-route to the fourth round. The recovery was short lived though and he suffered a reccurance of the elbow injury which contributed to a straight sets defeat to Hyeon Chung. 

Following that loss, Djokovic decided to undergo surgery on his elbow, meaning he would miss another two months of action. He came back at Indian Wells, but lost his opening match before again going out at the first attempt at the Miami Open a week later. Wins over Dusan Lajovic and Borna Coric at the Monte Carlo Masters followed, but in truth they were brief moments of sucess in an otherwise disasterous season to date, with defeats against Dominic Thiem and Klizan following. 

Despite those defeats however, Djokovic stated that: “After two years finally I can play without pain.” This would indicate therefore that there is more than just an elbow injury causing Djokovic's wretched form. There could be question marks over his motivation. For several years he was driven to win the French Open which would complete his career grand slam. It seemed to be what energised him. It can surely then be no coincidence that since winning in Paris he has gone off the boil. Having now achieved almost everything in the game, is it a case of job done? 

Another factor is almost certainly his split with Boris Becker. The German joined Novak's coaching team in 2013 and together they won six grand slam titles, two ATP World Tour Finals and 13 Masters 1000 titles. Becker and Djokovic parted company at the end of 2016 and he has since struggled to replace him. Andre Agassi was appointed as a coach, but he left after less than a year of working with Djokovic due to a difference in opinions. The Serb also hired Radek Stepanek and whilst he seems to be a more steadying influence, they have yet to produce a good run of results together and he remains unproven as a coach.

Can He Return To The Top? 

If it is true that Djokovic is now playing without pain, then there is no reason why he cannot make it back to the top of the men's game. He only has to look to his great rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, for inspiration when it comes to returning from injury and winning big titles again. Currently, Federer and Nadal are dominating the game once again and between them they have won the last five grand slams. Few would have predicted that to be the case 18 montha ago, but both are taking care with their schedules meaning that they only play select tournaments  to stay fresh which is perhaps a route Djokovic needs to follow them down.

After the Swiss and the Spaniard, no other player is really stepping up to the plate and winning on a consistent basis. Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka both currently out injured and the likes of Marin Cilic, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov can't seem to replicate their top form week on week. If Djokovic can find some form, he is a better player than the rest of the field and it wouldn't take him too long to leap frog them with a little confidence.

However if the 30-year-old is to dominate the game again, it feels like he needs to set himself some long-term goals to re-energise himself. Whether that is a return to number one or another grand slam title, he needs something help motivate him to get back to winning ways.

There have been glimmers of the old Novak Djokovic, despite the poor results. For example in his match against Lajovic at Monte Carlo he won 67% of return points, which is close to being vintage Djokovic. If he can replicate performances like that in the coming weeks and get a few wins under his belt in Madrid and Rome, then he should regain some much needed confidence in his game. If he does, he certainly has the ability to then go on and have a stronger second half of the year.   

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