Tennis

Frustrated Novak Djokovic bounced out of the Miami Open in his opening match

Novak Djokovic returns a ball as he plays Benoit Paire at the 2018 Miami Open on Key Biscayne, Fla., March 23, 2018.
Novak Djokovic returns a ball as he plays Benoit Paire at the 2018 Miami Open on Key Biscayne, Fla., March 23, 2018. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

It wasn’t that long ago that Novak Djokovic basically owned the Miami Open, winning six titles between 2007 and 2016. Only his part-time coach, Andre Agassi, has also captured six of the men’s trophies here at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.

In fact, the 30-year-old Serb was top of the men’s tennis world for much of that time period, posting a year-end ranking that never fell below No. 3 and ending four of those 10 seasons as No. 1.

That kind of precise and determined domination is no longer the 12th-ranked Djokovic’s strong suit, and it has been like that for well over a year now. His primary physical problem is a right elbow injury, which kept him off the court for the past six months of last year and required what Djokovic’s camp refers to as a “small medical intervention” after the Australian Open in January.

In another dismal day on court, on what was a picture-perfect South Florida Friday afternoon for most, the ninth-seeded Djokovic looked as if he was in unfamiliar surroundings as he passively suffered another painful loss, this time to 47th-ranked Frenchman Benoit Paire 6-3, 6-4.

Following the defeat, Djokovic spoke honestly of his frustration and confusion at having displaced his winning mojo. What magnifies this situation is his controlling personality — following strict regimens right down to a gluten-free diet is his life mantra.

“I’m trying, but it’s not working,” said Djokovic, sounding as if he was confessing during a psychotherapy session. “That’s all it is. I mean, obviously I’m not feeling great when I’m playing this way. Of course, I want to be able to play as well as I want to play. Just it’s impossible at the moment. That’s all.”

Djokovic also fell in his opening match at Indian Wells earlier in the month. He was upset there by the then 109th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan in three sets.

“I wanted to come to Indian Wells and Miami because I wanted to see whether I can play a match,” he said. “I love playing on the hard courts. I wanted to get a couple tournaments before the clay-court season starts.

“I obviously wasn’t ready for that.”

Djokovic’s shot-making is lacking power, conviction and direction. On many occasions it appears as if he’s aimlessly stabbing at balls to find them frequently plopping into the net or landing way beyond the boundaries of the court.

“I know that you can’t be the person that you were yesterday, and the player,” he said. “You have to keep on training, evolving, trying to improve your game.

“Obviously, the circumstances that I was in in the last two years were kind of very challenging. But I’m not the only one that goes through that. I mean, there are tougher injuries that players go through. I don’t want to sit here and whine about my last couple of years.”

A 12-time Grand Slam champion with his last major title being a coveted French Open victory in June of 2016, Djokovic is in new territory as a player without a firm grasp on his immediate future.

When asked whether he’s anticipating starting his clay-court season as usual at the Monte Carlo tournament in mid-April, he said that was his intention but offered no guarantees.

“I don’t know what to expect,” Djokovic admitted. “I’m not expecting anything. Obviously, I’m facing various challenges in my game, health. I’m trying to figure things out and see what happens.”

For Djokovic fans, the Serbian left Key Biscayne with the following message.

“I love this sport,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that support me, especially here. I thank them for their great support. Unfortunately, I’m not at the level they would like to see me at and I would like to see myself at.

“But it is what it is. Life goes on.”

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