(Credit : ausopen.com ; Luke Hemer/Tennis Australia)
In a sport where margins are getting thinner and thinner by the season, even someone short-listed for the GOAT title can't get away with losing a part of one of his shots. Novak Djokovic and his serve have long been into a kind of love - hate relationship, but the Serbian through the years did find a way to turn that problematic shot to a top of the class one. But since a year and a half, it's back to haunt him due to a right elbow injury that just won't go away. His serve pays the price of the pain and then drags all Novak's game and mind with it. The player who was hitting 9 double faults and 57 unforced errors with second serves at 139km/h on Monday wasn't the Novak Djokovic we've been used to watch.
It's a sinking ship despite all the efforts Djokovic is putting to keep his head above water. The crazy thing being that he still reached the fourth round of the Australian Open despite of this, and only lost in three tight sets where he had countless opportunities against the oh so talented Hyeon Chung. But it was painful to watch the Djoker play in obvious pain and most of all very far from the brilliant guy who won six times in Melbourne by displaying lightining speed, accuracy and a PlayStation-like game. Surely, if it only hurts when he serves, then he could still find a way no ? No. Because by losing a part of that shot, he has lost his entry to the points and so his peace of mind. It's also impossible not to notice that his forehand has lost speed except when Novak fights through the discomfort to hit hit fully. And then winces. Pain starting on the serve, then dragging the forehand and then settling in the brain. How do you play when you constantly anticipate suffering ? When you have to cover up for it ? When you have to fight both your body, your frustration and your opponents ? It's just not possible anymore.
Richard Gasquet after losing to Roger Federer was praising how well the Swiss was serving. How well this shot has been destroying him. And suddenly I wondered about that : how had Federer got this shot back after the chronic back pain he's been going through for years now. Each time he got it back, and each time he then got his game back. No coincidence. How had this shot been decisive for his whole game ? His answer was pretty clear : he had to get 100% healthy again or he'd still not be the player he should be.
"Just the back being fine again. The problem is, when you have back issues, when you're scared or you don't have the confidence in your body, it robs you by, I don't know, let's say any percent, 20% or 30% of your capabilities maybe on that particular shot only, but it's enough to make you almost half the player that you normally are. Sometimes it takes time, you know. When it hurts, it hurts. It's just not point-for-point mentality because it's difficult. Finally when you're free again, you find better zones, more consistency. Consistency is a big thing in our sport. Can you serve like this for five hours? That's the goal. When you're carrying an injury, clearly it's tougher. I think right now I'm fine again. Look, bad backs always come and go I think for all of us players. They come and go. You just have to deal with it as good as possible. You hope they don't hit you at the wrong times, and that when it does hit you, you get over it very quickly. "
I had these words in mind watching Djokovic on Monday. There is just no way he can go on like that with 20% or 30% lacking from his serve and forehand. It has to be mentally draining to spend practices and matches covering for it, wondering about the level of discomfort, expecting the pain to shoot. Also the relief when the pain isn't there and the agony when it comes back again. And then Novak came to press basically echoing Federer's words : at this level, there's no way to cope when one shot is that much damaged. And when they say cope, they mean win big : we're not talking about Novak coming back to play fourth rounds of Grand Slam events, but of him having new shots at the biggest titles in this sport. And that it's not possible when there's this annoying tiny rock set in your so well tuned mechanism, and this worrying cloud deeply set in your mind.
"It's tough to describe", he said to my Serbian colleagues (article here). "If you're not on the court and haven't ever played at this level, you can't fully understand it. If one shot is compromised, the serve being maybe the most important one, then the whole game is compromised. And then you have this bug in your brain that reminds you of this issue all the time. If there's no freedom in one shot, it spreads to the other ones. I don't want to search for excuses but that's my reality and I have to face it."
Novak Djokovic has never had such a serious injury of his whole career, and surely it took time for him to accept that, yes, it was happening. Losing the control on the way his career is going must be scary as it's the biggest fear of any professional athlete. But those six months he took out of the game weren't wasted: they rested a body and a mind that needed it badly, and they succeeded in lighting the fire of competing in his heart again. It has also pushed the tennis crowds to more empathy and care towards the Djoker, as it was the case on Monday when that Rod Laver Arena tried to push behind its 6-time champion, seeing him fighting like crazy with the little he had left.
But through those six months, they haven't fixed that elbow injury - as those same months hadn't fixed Andy Murray's hip in a very painful "Tennis Twins" move of destiny - and now comes a decisive period for Novak. Tough decisions must be taken or rejected. But he can no longer suffer being half the player he used to be, even if this half is still for sure Top 10-like. As it's obvious that his passion for the game is totally restored, there's now an urgent need to restore that elbow before it also tries to sink his will. Somewhere, there's a medical team under pressure to find a way to bring back one of the greatest athletes of all time back on court. And when that elbow will finally be decided to be quiet, Novak and his serve will surely have another of their long talk to find the best way to be friends again, be it new motion or whatever they see fit. They've been talking and arguing for a decade, they're fine with it. Pain though ? No more.