That thud was the sound of the fall from the highs of the 2011 season. Yes, that was the sound Novak Djokovic heard at the end of the 2012 Grand Slam season. If he were to look at himself in the mirror, and honestly question himself, Djokovic would admit that he hasn't played anywhere near the level he played at last year. In fact, I almost think that it would have been unfair for Novak to have won the US Open and faked a decent season when it really wasn't one.
Had Rafael Nadal not missed that easy backhand at 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth set of the Australian Open Final, it would have been a disastrous year for Djokovic. As it was, it did not appear very far from that. The reason this season has been so disappointing hasn't been the defeats so much as the manner of the defeats.
I have always considered the mental strength of Novak's not quite at the same level as Roger Federer's and Nadal's. In fact, Nadal is in an entirely different league than either of those two.
There was a time when Novak used to be bothered by the elements, the conditions and focused on everything other than the game. He got out of that mentality, although he still had some of those moments at times. Like that moment when match point down against Federer last year in the US Open, he seemed almost bemused with the crowd cheering for Roger, and he half hit that shot in disgust and half in jest.
The Wimbledon semifinal defeat against Federer, where Djokovic almost did a no-show for the entire match, and inexplicably turned cold and then again at the Olympics were defeats where Djokovic's mental approach could not be considered that of a champion. Even in the US Open Final, Djokovic's self-pity when faced with the elements was a highly negative approach that can never benefit him in the long run. In fact, had he kept a more positive approach at the beginning of the match, he could have come away with a win in four sets.
The elements affected both players, and embracing that fact in a more positive manner would assist Djokovic in his future. Further, Djokovic often shows a very satisfied picture of himself after his devastating losses, something not many champions show. It is good to be gracious in defeat, but don't lose that edge, that sharpness, that competitive drive because you will have to play those opponents again.
Game-wise, there is no question that Djokovic has gone south from last year. At least a couple aspects of his game have clearly deteriorated. His serve has definitely become much worse. In fact, he struggled to hold serve in almost the entire match against Murray. And if you recap the Australian Open Final against Nadal, even that was a terrible serving performance. Nadal's serving was even worse though, allowing Djokovic to win that one.
Also, in many of the rallies against Murray, Djokovic had the upper hand, and yet he chose never to come to the net to finish those points even when Murray was in a weak defensive position.
I understand the need to respect Murray for his passing shots. But when Murray was in a weak position, Djokovic failed to step it up and after a point it became incredibly difficult for Djokovic to keep beating Murray from the baseline. The constant need to keep hitting winning shots because of Murray's ability to retrieve finally caught up with Djokovic, and it was never felt more than in the final set. Djokovic was lucky to even win those two games.
As for Murray, he has definitely upped his game significantly from last year and before. His forehand has definitely got a lot of bite, and his overall game has always been fascinating. Murray's serve in the final wasn't all that great either, but he did serve well in some crucial moments and that got him into a winning position. Murray has only upside from here, and will definitely be a favorite when playing in hard court grand slams at the very least.
For Djokovic, it is back to the drawing board. That may include reviewing coaching options, while seeing if Marian Vajda continues to fulfil his role as best as he can. It is possible that Vajda has perhaps exhausted himself and has nothing more to offer.
For Djokovic to get back to his winning ways again at the grand slam stages, he has to mentally strengthen himself like never before and improve his serve a lot. Without those necessary ingredients, I find it difficult to see Djokovic winning many slams.
Make no mistake, Djokovic is a warrior and if his mental strength can get back to the very highest levels, his overall game will also come back, and this incredible champion will rule again.
The ball is in Novak's court; can he step it up?