MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The other day, Novak Djokovic admitted that skiing “kind of runs in my veins,” revealing that that would never sign an endorsement contract that forbade him to strap on the boards. On Tuesday, Djokovic missed a gate again and crashed out of the Miami Open in the fourth round, losing earlier than expected in his second consecutive tournament.
The top seed in Miami, Djokovic ripped through the first set against Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut in 33 minutes. But Djokovic slowly came undone and, after a brief rain delay, lost 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. It was No. 22 seed Bautista Agut’s second win over the world’s top-ranked player this year.
“This kind of match I should not have lost,” Djokovic admitted. “So many opportunities. Just way too many wasted opportunities.”
Tuesday’s match was difficult to digest and even harder to explain, although the details are simple enough. Bautista Agut, an excellent hardcourt player despite his clay-court heritage, stepped up his aggression in the second set. Djokovic, widely praised as perhaps the best serve returner in the game, was unable to capitalize on his break points, converting just four of 13.
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The baffling bit is that Djokovic has traditionally flourished in March, and he set out to add an unprecedented fifth “Sunshine Double” (back-to-back victories at Indian Wells and Miami, both prestigious Masters events) with the wind at his back. He’s been nearly invincible since a commanding win at Wimbledon last July began his resurgence from a slump of nearly two years.
Djokovic is superb on outdoor hardcourts, his game slightly more adaptable to the ambient conditions at the brace of March tournaments than that of Roger Federer. The 31-year-old Serb recently logged a Sunshine Double hat trick (2014-16), but in the three ensuing years he hasn’t made a quarterfinal at either event. It helps explain why he still looked a mite shell-shocked when he met with reporters following the loss.
Djokovic has played well this month in fits and starts. After his opening-round bye in Miami, he made short work of Bernard Tomic, but then Federico Delbonis fought him to a draw in two sets before capitulating in the third set of their third-round match. It was the kind of warning that a great player in top form uses to reinvigorate his game. Djokovic’s failure to put the hammer down on Bautista Agut hearkened back to those days in late 2016 and ’17 when he often seemed distracted and unable to play with a clear mind.
Djokovic doesn’t see any reason to panic. He didn’t feel he did much wrong earlier this month at Indian Wells, where he was beaten by in the third round by clever German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber. Here in Miami, Djokovic said, “I thought I played well today and throughout this entire tournament. Just one, two, three sluggish games, that’s what happened.”
Is he just rationalizing?
Djokovic has been busier than ever these days with extra-tennis activities, not least the political minefield he has wandered into as president of the ATP Player Council. Djokovic hasn’t declared his allegiance, but he’s widely thought to be a driving force in the faction that engineered the successful ouster of ATP president Chris Kermode. That means meetings — lots of meetings. And stress, as fellow stars Federer, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka all supported Kermode.
Djokovic was asked Tuesday if his off-court activities might be harming his ability to play at his peak level. Generally a man of many words, Djokovic tersely replied, “There is always a lot happening in my life.”
Tennis players work hard and enter every tournament focused on the task at hand, highly motivated. But as they grow older, the ground shifts under their feet and their priorities subtly change, sometimes without them even knowing it. Djokovic is 31 now, gorged with success, and a happy husband and father of two. Perhaps that Sunshine Double doesn’t mean quite as much as it once did.
This is a man who is always talking about “evolving.” Why shouldn’t his motivations and priorities in tennis change?
“Well, I mean, the Slams are the ones that count the most,” Djokovic said, referring to tournaments. “I mean, without a doubt. So of course I prioritize those. But that hasn’t changed much. I have been having this kind of schedule for many years. But that’s sport. You have to deal with it. It’s not the first time I lose early in both tournaments.”
Djokovic said he “definitely” will have to rethink his preparation for the March tournaments next year. When pressed on what he might do different, he contradicted his earlier claim, saying: “I just had, you know, way too many things off the court. I guess that affected me a little bit on the court.”
It’s a tricky time for the 15-time Grand Slam champion who has an abiding desire to be more than a ferociously focused title machine. He has always been a seeker of enlightenment and has longed to be a man of substance, influencing the world he inhabits.
Sometimes life is tricky, full of sharp turns and twists. Kind of like slalom course.