If you make a living standing outside and hurling a small yellow sphere up above your head so you can hit it down, sometimes an enormous yellow sphere is right behind it, and you just have to find a way to cope. Novak Djokovic, squinting and awash in light, couldn’t, as he lost to David Goffin 6-2, 3-6, 7-5.
Up 4-3 in his last set at Monte Carlo today, Djokovic surrendered a crucial service game to Goffin, the Belgian counterpuncher ranked No. 13, who might be summed up as the slighter, weaker version of Novak himself. Djokovic double-faulted to start off that game. One point later, he stared out at his box and waved in front of his eyes like John Cena, except to indicate that he couldn’t see shit instead of the other way around. Then, without putting up too much of a fight, he gave up his service game, the very thing he’d fought so hard to maintain the last time around.
Djokovic, who through the second set had come into his best play since handling Juan Martin del Potro at Indian Wells, finally looked breakable at 3-2. That game turned out to be the hardest-fought single game of tennis in the clay court season so far, a gutting exchange that would have doubled as a perfect gateway drug to the sport. Both players, whose excellence had been out of sync—Goffin controlled the first set beautifully to win 6-2, then Djokovic dominated the second to take it 6-3—began playing well at the same time. Both players are fit and nimble enough to cover the court tenaciously, so when they’re matched up against one another, particularly on clay, it takes something really bold to snap the rally shut.
Seven deuces(!) later, Djokovic came away with the hold, and it was hard to see a way for Goffin to recover. Djokovic had gotten the break earlier in the set, so he just had to maintain. “Coffin Goffin,” said my colleague, who later felt bad about that remark after the Belgian rose from the dead. To understand his resurrection—beyond that timely shaft of evening sun—consider this point in the third set. Down the stretch, Goffin did Djokovic better than Djokovic could do Djokovic. Usually it’s the No. 2 who’s yanking his opponent to and fro along the baseline this way. While Goffin’s two-handed backhand is by far his more confident stroke, a series of well-crushed forehands forced Djokovic’s hand on this exchange.
Djokovic still showed signs of life, though. Goffin won this game, like most games in this final set, only after deuce, and after Djokovic dealt him some heavy returns.
Goffin isn’t a big server, as that descriptor almost never gets applied to men who stand less than 6 feet tall and hover around 150 pounds, but he cleanly hit his spots in his final service game, sending two unreturnable serves down the T. Djokovic, suddenly serving to stay in the match, burped up some uncharacteristic backhand errors, and Goffin seized on them to complete the upset.
This was the most significant win of the 26-year-old’s career and yet another ominous loss for the 29-year-old, who hasn’t cleared a quarterfinal since the first week of January. Sustained control of a match, which used to be Djokovic’s calling card, is suddenly a struggle for him; he’s dropped at least one set in 11 of his last 15 matches, as the New York Times’ Christopher Clarey observed. Against Gilles Simon on Tuesday and again versus Pablo Carreño Busta yesterday, he looked fragile. Goffin was merely the one who broke through, because Djokovic is no longer the machine he was this time last year.