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Djokovic’s defeat by Nadal leaves more questions than answers

What looked set to be a turning point for Novak Djokovic ended up being another setback, with more to come in the next few weeks as his ranking is set to fall

Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2022 Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2022 © Mao / Panoramic

When Novak Djokovic arrived in Paris, it seemed as if the stars were aligning in his favour.

Having been shut out of the Australian Open because of his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, the world No 1 had returned to the Tour, and after a slow start, had found his form and in Rome, where he won the title for the sixth time, he looked back to his very best.

Most people were tipping him to make a successful defence of his Roland-Garros title, especially since Rafael Nadal, the 13-time champion, had missed the first month of the clay season after fracturing his rib and then limped out of Rome with his chronic left foot flaring up again.

As they made their way to their quarter-final match-up, it seemed likely that Djokovic would do what he did 12 months ago, when he beat Nadal in the semis on the way to lifting the French Open title for a second time.

Novak Djokovic at Roland-Garros in 2021

But something happened on Tuesday night at Roland-Garros which showed that he’s not yet back to his very best, his title defence ending with a four-set defeat by the Spaniard. Though Nadal played stunning tennis, especially at the start of the match, when he led by a set and 3-0, and then at the start of the third, when he reasserted his dominance, Djokovic never quite found top gear.

Djokovic not yet back to his very best

Some of that was down to Nadal’s level but the Serb rarely looked his usual self. He made more unforced errors and hit fewer winners than Nadal, not numbers you’d normally expect. Of his 53 unforced errors, 30 came on the backhand, usually his best side. He took just four of his 12 break point chances and when he had the chance to level up the match, he couldn’t take it.

“I had my chances,” he said, magnanimous in defeat. “I had my chances in the fourth. Served for the set, couple set points. Just one or two shots could have taken me into a fifth. Then it’s really anybody’s match.

“But again, he showed why he’s a great champion. Staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it.”

In the previous round, when Djokovic walked out onto court, a few boos could be heard among the cheers, not everyone happy to see him back on Tour, given his stance against Covid-19. France experienced severe restrictions in the pandemic and there was clearly some lingering resentment.

Whether that contributed to how much the crowd were pulling for Nadal on Tuesday, it certainly didn’t help Djokovic, even if he’s usually so good at turning situations like that in his favour.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic after his deafeat vs. Rafael Nadal (Fotoarena/Panoramic)

“I think the crowd contributed a lot to the turnaround in the fourth set,” he told Serbian reporters after the Nadal loss. “They were 99.9 percent by his side and they have lifted him up in crucial moments. They helped him to find his energy.”

“I don’t agree that I benefit more from these conditions when meeting Nadal. We played in 2020 (in the final) in similar conditions and he brushed me off the court.”

Was Djokovic under-cooked despite Rome win?

In some ways it’s not surprising that Djokovic was not able to find his best level for long enough, when he needed it most against his biggest rival.

This was just his sixth event of the year. The emotional strain of what happened in Australia must have been tough to cope with – he admitted as much in an interview with Tennis Channel in Madrid – and though he looked great in Rome, he does not have the usual bulk of matches under his belt yet to be totally sure he can produce his best on the day.

Likewise, as a nine-time Australian Open champion, not having that confidence of winning the first major of the year in the bag is something he’s not used to. Instead, that went to Nadal, who moved ahead in the Grand Slam race with 21 in Australia. Nadal’s win in Paris means he could be standing on 22 when they head to Wimbledon later this month.

The consequence: Djokovic set to lose No 1 ranking

And then there’s the small matter of the rankings. The decision by the ATP to remove ranking points from this year’s Wimbledon means Djokovic will lose the 2,000 points he earned for winning the title last year.

Those points drop off the computer on July 11, which mean either Daniil Medvedev or Alexander Zverev will be No 1.

If Zverev loses to Nadal in the semi-finals in Paris, Djokovic will stay on top for one more week, but when the rankings are updated on June 13, he’ll drop to No 3.

That’s because last year’s French Open points come off the computer on that day, since the the event was played a week later in 2021.

And when the 2021 Wimbledon points come off the computer on July 11, unless something changes regarding ranking points for this year, then he’ll drop even further down.

US Open: Will Djokovic be allowed to play?

As things stand, Djokovic could end up being able to play just two of the four Grand Slam events.

That’s because as things stand, to get into the United States, people need to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Djokovic has said he will not do that, so unless something changes in his stance, or in the rules for entry to the US, he could be shut out of a second Grand Slam of 2022, not to mention the other US hard-court events, all of which would have more effect on his ranking.

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