2016 has been a mixed bag for Novak Djokovic: in January he collected his 60th career title in Doha, and became only the eighth player in history to achieve a Career Grand Slam following victory over Andy Murray in the final of May’s French Open. Since then, it’s all been downhill. The mighty Serb has been humbled by unfancied American Sam Querrey at Wimbledon and succumbed to a first-round defeat at Rio 2016, his first opening round defeat since January 2009.
It has been a case of the opposite extremes for Djokovic this year, but how has his form fluctuated so erratically?
Well, the season could hardly have started any better for the 29-year-old. A straight sets victory over Rafael Nadal in the Qatar Open final resulted in Djokovic breaking his own ATP ranking points record, bringing it up to a staggering 16,790. This was followed up by his sixth Australian Open win and fifth Indian Wells Masters title, leaving Djokovic’s rivals trailing in his wake. His incredible run resulted in a situation where world numbers 2 and 3 (Murray and Federer) could combine their points and still not have enough to match Djokovic’s commanding total.
In April, the world number 1 continued to break records with ease. Djokovic won the 2016 Miami Open for a third consecutive year, and did so without dropping a single set en route to picking up his sixth career Miami Open title, tying him with the legendary Andre Agassi for most singles wins in the competition.
If championship after championship wasn’t keeping Djokovic content as the summer approached, his wage packet certainly will have done. Djokovic surpassed Federer to become the all-time leading prize money winner on the ATP tour with career earnings of $98.2 million. Could the money be getting to his head? Was it all getting a bit too easy for the imperious Serb? A lethargic, uninspiring early round exit at the Monte Carlo Masters hinted as much, but just when tennis fans were questioning where such an unexpected, dismal performance came from, Djokovic bounced back, storming to the Madrid Masters title for the second time in his career with a straight sets victory over Murray.
Panic over, then. Or not.
The world number 1 appeared to be back to his imperious best, and the real career-defining moment came in May: the “Nole Slam”. He made light work of the French Open field, then in the final, apart from dropping the 1st set, cruised past the challenge of Andy Murray. It made him just the third player in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time, and the first player to surpass the $100 million mark in prize money.
Victory at Wimbledon now looked nailed on, what with a chance to win his third title at SW19 in four years. A draw against 41st ranked Sam Querrey would surely be meat and drink for someone of Djokovic’s quality. In one of the most seismic upsets in recent tennis history, Djokovic was outfought and outclassed by the Californian Querrey, a man who himself admitted he harboured little hope heading into the third-round tie. Now, just like in April, alarm bells were ringing once more. How can a man in such blistering form, who looks set to complete a calendar year Grand Slam, look so bereft of ideas against a man ranked 40 places lower in the standings?
Well, according to the Serb himself, he ‘just needed some rest’.
“I managed to win four Grand Slams in a row – two different seasons, though. I want to try to focus on that rather than on failure. It’s been a very successful year so far, but a very long, exhausting one, in every sense of that word,” Djokovic explained to the ATP in the aftermath of the most improbable result of the year.
He returned to the court in late July, and in typical Djokovic style, instantly returned to winning ways at the Rogers Cup, becoming the first four-time winner of the Rogers Cup in the process, albeit against a fairly depleted men’s draw. A return to form ahead of the Rio Games, then, and seemingly the ideal preparation for Djokovic to add the one title that he so sorely craved: Olympic gold. A first round draw against a resurgent Argentine Juan Martin del Potro was hardly ideal, but Djokovic had won everything there is to win in the game besides the holy grail of a gold medal. Surely he would be intent on producing his best tennis early on to set a marker for the rest of the tournament. But it would be tears for Djokovic again – literally, this time –as he endured ‘one of the toughest losses in his life’ and his hopes of claiming an elusive Olympic gold went up in smoke in Rio. The 29-year-old, who also lost to del Potro in the bronze medal play-off at London 2012, had no answer to the sheer power of the eventual silver medallist who secured a 7-6, 7-6 straight sets victory. DelPotro was rarely put under any obvious pressure and hammered a quite ridiculous 29 forehand winners past a despairing Djokovic.
With the early rounds of the US Open now underway, Djokovic’s aura of invincibility has diminished considerably. Andy Murray has even replaced the Serb as favourite to win the final major of the season. This is partly due to a very unconvincing round 1 display from Djokovic, struggling for much of his encounter with Jerzy Janowicz. It is also a reflection of Murray’s recent run, securing consecutive Wimbledon titles and consecutive Olympics singles golds. No doubt the Scot will head into the tournament oozing with confidence.
Of course, Djokovic could improve as the fortnight progresses as he often ‘plays himself in’ to the slams. With that in mind, the news just in that his 2nd round opponent Jiri Vesely has withdrawn might be more of a dent to his chances than the boost you might think.