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What Happens When a Winner Stops Winning?

A year ago, Novak Djokovic was the defending champ in all four Grand Slams. Now, he’s getting dumped out of the French Open quarterfinals.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal to be young again, the law of equivalent exchange says that Novak Djokovic’s gluten-free fountain of youth must have run dry.

In the quarterfinals of his attempted title defense at the French Open, Djokovic faced off with Dominic Thiem, the 23-year-old Austrian who loves clay and big forehands. Last year at Roland Garros, Djokovic topped Thiem in the semifinals, losing just seven games. On the clay of Rome almost three weeks ago, Djokovic thrashed Thiem 6–1, 6–0. But, in keeping with this year’s theme of grand reversals, Djokovic’s performance this week was not a win, or even a tight-fought loss; it was a backbreaking beating.

The final set of the Serbian’s 7–6, 6–3, 6–0 loss was just the second time in his 14-year career that he’d dropped a final set at love. But even during the tight opening set, there were signs that Djokovic was not the same player that we saw a year ago.

To open their first-set tiebreak, Djokovic hit a second serve to Thiem’s forehand, and the return came radiating heat. The Austrian is an unconventional clay courter who loves flat pace and seems perpetually on the lookout for early winners. He wheezes when he hits the ball, which heightens the entertainment value of his physical style. He isn’t extraordinarily mobile. And he hits the ball in a way that isn’t hard so much as it is physical; it’s almost as if he blasts his forehands for show. In other words, he’s the type of player Djokovic has feasted on throughout his career, especially on slower surfaces.

On this point, Thiem was stationed in his preferred position on the baseline and trying to hit Djokovic off the court. The Serb hit a loopy return and allowed Thiem to settle in behind the baseline and run around his forehand. For Thiem, the problem with this strategy is often that his pure pace and deep positioning cause him to muscle balls that fall short and lose their speed by the time his opponents have to hit a return. But on this rally, Djokovic failed to capitalize on Thiem’s weaker, shallower strokes. Eventually, the Austrian hit himself into position, pushing Djokovic into the deuce court, and then hit a blistering, 102 mph forehand into the ad court. Djokovic scrambled and reached the ball in time. Then he framed it into the stands.

Each time Thiem hit a short ball, Djokovic seemed to hit a neutral shot where his former self would have turned defense into offense. On his final scramble, where he barely reached the ball in time, it was impossible not to envision yesterday’s Djokovic hitting the winner that became his signature shot: scrambling laterally, sliding into a near split, and ripping an abridged stroke for a winner.

There isn’t a simple way to describe how Novak Djokovic can be unbelievable in the way that “beauty” can suffice as a descriptor for Federer or “intensity” can typify Nadal. So, when Djokovic fails — which he’s been doing for the past year — it seems like he isn’t doing anything right. Djokovic is the narrativeless hero; his playing style produces trophies or nothing at all. The only thing that makes him a champion is that he has titles to defend.

In another era, the past 12 months for Djokovic would have simply been a letdown, but by today’s standards, it has been a disaster. At last year’s French Open, he became the holder of all four major trophies, something that no man had done since Rod Laver in 1969. For all the talk about Djokovic being the Third Man in the ATP’s recent historic circus, his stretch from Wimbledon 2015 to the 2016 edition of Roland Garros may be the most impressive run in the modern game. Djokovic’s path to victory never seemed to hinge on a single part of his game, a big first serve or a low-margin forehand blast. Instead, he ground his opponents to death, stacking small victories of stamina until the collective weight of his blows became unbearable. Djokovic’s edge seemed to be in his mind and in his preparation, rather than in low-margin winners. His machinelike consistency made it seem like his reign would last forever.

Yet, since he won his first French Open last year, Djokovic has taken only two titles and has lost during the first week of two majors, something he hadn’t done since 2009. On Monday he will drop to third in the world rankings, his lowest position since 2011. It doesn’t look like one facet of Djokovic’s game is severely impaired but, rather, that they have all dipped incrementally. And when he frames balls that used to sit up for winners, the dip in body language is visible, too. At the professional level, dropping a set at love is rarely the result of a skill gap. More often, it is representative of a psychological break. The final set of the Thiem match was a formality; the mental game was won hours earlier.

Djokovic’s 2017 slump has come unconventionally: He hasn’t been usurped as Federer was by Nadal, or as Nadal was by Djokovic himself. The Serb, rather, has tripped and fallen off his pedestal. He’s lost matches to members of the old guard (Nadal), the supporting cast (David Goffin), the hungry youngsters (Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Thiem), and the unknowns (then-117th-ranked Denis Istomin at the Australian Open). Djokovic hasn’t been surpassed by the tennis world, but he has failed to uphold his end of the bargain; today, if you want to be part of history, you must be invulnerable until the next invulnerable champion comes along. Athletes become increasingly volatile as they age, but Djokovic will always be held to a higher standard.

“Djokovic has also faced the challenge of coming of age in the era of Federer and Nadal, who have nurtured the greatest, most sentimental rivalry in the history of tennis, and, possibly, of sports,” Lauren Collins wrote for The New Yorker in 2013. “… By a fault of timing, he is the forever crasher, the automatic odd man out.”

It’s anybody’s guess what has caused the athlete who was often compared to a machine to turn into the inconsistent player who has shown up at the past couple of slams. (Djokovic made the final at the U.S. Open last year, but his path was light, to say the least.) He missed the Miami Masters with an injury, and as he turned 30 a few weeks ago, it isn’t beyond belief that his body is aching and costing him a step. Rumors have swirled about turmoil in his personal life. From December, when he split with Boris Becker, he was directionless until he hired the King of Rebirth, Andre Agassi, who recovered from a drop out of the top 100 to play his best tennis in his early 30s. For a man notorious for obsessing over his diet and routines, it’s not hard to accept that when his entire off-court life began swirling, his play started to suffer. Ultimately, though, it’s all speculation; the cause of his subpar performance this past year could be anything. But, at some level, this is simple: Nothing lasts forever — at least, almost nothing.

In sports, we’re in the Age of the Living God. With individual athletes staying at the top of their games for longer than ever, our theories on longevity and decline have been blown to pieces. Federer and Nadal were the two best tennis players in the world a dozen years ago, and they still might be today.

Except, consider this: Roger Federer’s most thrilling victory came in his most human moment. His Australian Open win after he started edging toward his fifth decade and his ranking had dropped to 17 was more stunning than when he won the tournament without dropping a set a decade earlier. We are most impressed when we expect the least.

At some point Djokovic will win another major. Probably a few. Odds are he’ll bounce back; we’ve never seen someone in this era dominate the game so thoroughly and then never reach the summit again. Don’t forget that even the best players experience a thrashing once in a while (especially in the bizarro world of clay). But his aura has been definitively shattered. That’s fine. Watching a human is much better than watching a god.