It was the fourth-round stage of the Miami Masters 1000 event. The initial 128-man field had been whittled down to 16 and most who were even remotely cognizant of the current state of tennis would have penned in Novak Djokovic, the top seed and double defending champion, as a certain quarterfinal participant.
It was to great surprise that in a match that lasted no more than 80 minutes—roughly a third of the time it took Djokovic to win this year's Australian Open—35-year-old Tommy Haas had outwitted and outplayed the world No. 1 to earn a 6-4, 6-4 victory against the odds.
Long before the first ball was hit, most would have struggled to identify an area where Haas could hurt Djokovic. The German possessed a good serve, but it wasn't spectacular. He owned a good forehand, but Djokovic's was widely accepted to be better. And while Haas' one-handed backhanded could often be a thing of beauty, the constancy of that beauty faded when compared to Djokovic's.
Additionally, the head-to-head record between the two favored Djokovic, with Haas having lost their last two meetings—both on hard courts—last year. And so, in many ways, the stage was set for a routine win for the No. 1 player in the world.
A win that would never materialize.
For most watching, Djokovic's performance would have elicited a mix of confusion and disbelief. The Serb did not seem to have a clear game plan to play Haas and his execution of what he had was poor, too. In the first set alone, Djokovic made 12 unforced errors and scored only three winners while being broken twice. By the end of the match, he'd made 30 unforced errors in total.
The important question for Djokovic coming out of this match was where things had gone wrong.
In a tournament that was without the presence of his big rivals like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, this was an opportunity to gain a title on the field—an opportunity that he is unlikely to get during the clay court season when seven-time French Open Nadal is king.
So where have things gone wrong?
Djokovic's concentration levels in matches over the past few months is a cause for concern. The steely eyed resolve that was an integral part of his 2011 breakout season has dissipated into an inability to think clearly and concisely in pressure moments. Against Haas, would-be winners were tame shots aimed absent of purpose and almost all of his attempts at assertiveness turned to compliance.
Two weeks ago, he lost in the Indian Wells semifinals to Juan Martin Del Potro—a player whose fitness has been called into question numerous times over the last few years—from a set up. This week, he was making unforced errors when down break points.
The biggest criticism I feel that may be leveled, fairly, at Djokovic is with regard to how he has failed to cultivate his forehand into a stroke of real menace. He improved the shot in 2011 and 2012 by inculcating more angle into the swing, which afforded him the luxury of sweeping opponents well out of the court.
However, of late, that forehand has fumbled to find its feet.
Djokovic's more solid stroke, his backhand, while often lauded as the best shot in tennis, doesn't compare to the powerful forehands of the likes of Nadal or Federer as it is often passive and, most times, used by Djokovic as a point constructor as opposed to a point "ender"—which would be no problem if his forehand were used vice versa.
From the world's best player, such passive ball is lamentable, but it figures that with the lack of a signature shot—that go-to shot when things are tight and mistakes can't be afforded—Djokovic would tend to resort to the safe, incessant back-and-forth tennis played out mostly in the middle of the court that low-ranked players slip into when they run out of ideas or confidence.
In that fourth-round tie, it seemed Djokovic either did not want to push Haas around the court or was simply unable to.
The biggest criticism I feel that may be leveled, unfairly, at Djokovic is regarding how he has alienated his audience. I understand the view that where an audience's allegiances may lie with regard to what player they'll support overwhelmingly and what player they'll support less so is not something a player can control. But there is something to be said for a player fostering an environment where he/she may control the crowd.
How can anyone do that, you may ask. Well, look at Del Potro and how he brought a partisan Rafael Nadal crowd onside at the Indian Wells final three weeks ago by energetically calling for their noise, support and praise.
Then there is the case of Tommy Haas, Djokovic's opponent on the day, who dominated crowd support in the match through his charisma, visual cues like loud "c'mons" and fist pumps and an infectious innocence about the way he approached the game.
This was, in fact, a player who at the start of this year's tournament had only played four matches in Miami since 2008, which is pretty much as little visibility as you can get in the ATP Tour
Perhaps, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and even Andy Murray are such darlings that fans can't help not rooting against them, but even still, it has to be said that there is something going fundamentally wrong somewhere for Djokovic.
Falling into the Trap of Relying on Physicality
Most worrying for Djokovic, and thus so because it is the trend he would most likely fail to notice, is how he has fallen a little bit into the trap that "physical" players often encounter, using their physicality as the main weapon and the game plan (e.g., Gael Monfils) when really, it's supposed to be an enabler—something to help him carry out the game plan.
Of course the game is physical and exertion of some sort is a requirement, but at it's heart tennis is about what a player does with the ball. Too often, sadly, with modern tennis, players are more interested in playing their opponents not the ball.
How these issues will be dealt with, if they will be recognized and dealt with, remains to be seen. As it stands, we are left with more questions than answers.
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