Playing his first match after firing his whole coaching staff, Novak Djokovic struggled. Today, in the second round of the Madrid Open, he squared up against world No. 76 Nicolas Almagro—a player he had defeated in all four previous matches, losing only one set in a tiebreak—and teetered on the brink of loss, but came out with the victory, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5.
It nearly paralleled his first match at Monte Carlo, against Gilles Simon: take a first set against a dangerous but ultimately much less skilled player, lose the second, and go down a break of serve in the third before coming back to win, aided by some critical gaffes on his opponent’s part (Almagro’s wild baseline errors, and Simon’s poor serving with the match on his racket). Maybe this is a new pattern for the modern Djokovic, who lately has scrambled to close out a cupcake in straights, as used to be his trademark. He’s now bleeding sets left and right, dropping at least one in 12 of his last 16 matches. In the year 2017, Almagro has no business defeating the world No. 2 and yet today, up 3-0 in the third, he was just a few holds of serve away.
The point here—as with all previous scrutiny of the Serb—is not to demean the players beaten by Djokovic, but to call attention to how precipitously one of the sport’s all-time greats has declined. Less than a year ago he’d won four Slams straight, and now he’s grinding out tough matches to conquer journeymen he’s always defeated. Almagro is a stout Spaniard who hits a devastatingly heavy ball on his forehand and one-handed backhand; he boasts a hard, well-placed serve for a guy of his stature; has beaten Rafael Nadal on clay; and he has ranked as high as No. 9 in the world. He also has a lifetime 3-40 record against top five players, is seen as someone who never delivered on promise, and has always lacked what commentators love to call “the mental game”—sane decision-making under pressure. Almagro plays a brand of tennis a casual player might find intensely relatable: Crush every ball as hard as possible, even when sunken well behind the baseline, and even if it means mishitting the thing six feet out on a semi-regular basis.
But when he’s clicking, shit, he’s clicking. This is the brand of emphatic shot-making that kept him in the match: a tightly angled return to yank Djokovic off the court, then seizing the ball early and beating it down the line, hard but with a healthy margin for error. That point won him what, at the time, seemed a match-sealing break of serve in the third set.
Had Almagro kept up that level of play, at least on his own service games, where he’d had a huge advantage—he won 86 percent of first-serve points in the second set, 84 percent in the third set, and 78 percent for the match as a whole, a real feat versus a returner as savvy as Djokovic—the upset would have been his. Then he lost three straight games to level things at 3-3, and some old-school sliding Djokovic defense came to the fore at all the crucial moments. He curled a sweet winner at the end, applying just enough top spin to color inside the lines.
Djokovic still flashes the defensive ingenuity, tireless consistency, and precision shot-making on the run that has won him 12 majors—everything’s clearly still there. But will we ever again see him sustain it over three sets, let alone five?