Novak Djokovic is no longer the king of ATP, as his 122 weeks reign ended yesterday in Paris. Andy Murray is the new leader, after years of frustration, anger and drama against the top three players of ATP in the last 12 years: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. My aim is not to analyze how Murray ended up as World No.1 but to discuss a major factor that stopped the domination of Djokovic
The bipolarity of self-confidence
Bipolarity of self-confidence. The capacity to shift from a confident personality to disorder and chaos. I think this issue and his fitness level have been instrumental in the 122 weeks as World No1. He defeated Roger Federer in an epic final at Wimbledon 2014, after an amazing comeback from the Swiss Maestro in the fourth set. The Serb was stronger and was confident all throughout the final set who brought him back to the throne of tennis. Since that moment, he went through many difficult moments such as the surprising defeat in the 2014 US Open semifinal, against Kei Nishikori, the loss against Stan Wawrinka in the 2015 French Open final or the 0-2 set deficit against Kevin Anderson at the last year’s edition of Wimbledon.
But most of all, because of his fitness and self-confidence, he overcame his major rivals in 2015 and 2016. Because Federer was in top shape and in full control at Wimbledon 2015, US Open 2015 and Australian Open 2016. An inspired, strong and powerful Djokovic was the wall between Roger and some other Grand Slams and maybe the position of World No.1. After this year’s Aussie Open, Andy Murray showed and demonstrated he is the new man to beat as he reduced the gap between him and Novak step-by-step. After the US Open final, it became clear that there will be a race between the two for the tennis crown , as the difference was a bit bigger than 4500 points, in the context that Nole had to defend the points for all four major tournaments that were to follow: Beijing , Shanghai, Paris and London.
In September 2015, Novak thrashed Marin Cilic in the US Open semifinal. 6-0, 6-1, 6-2. The player from Croatia won only two games on his serve, an issue for a power-player with huge serves. In that match, Cilic made 37 unforced errors while Nole made only 13, a big gap who demonstrates the high level of self-confidence Djokovic possessed. Apart from that, if you watch the highlights of the three sets, you can observe how the body language of Marin is defensive and unusual for a hard-hitter. On the other side, the semifinal was just another day at the office for the Serb. Clear winners, nice angles and total domination both at the net and on the baseline. Djokovic won 61% of the return points in that match and hit 16 winners, enough for a world-class performance. His fitness and his A-game seemed to be perfect.
14 months after the „New York demolition”, the two met in the Quarter-final of the Paris-Bercy Masters 1000. A totally different background for both of them. Cilic’s year has been pretty good. A quarter-final loss at Wimbledon after five thrilling sets against Roger Federer (Cilic lead 2 sets to 0 and had two match points) was disappointing and frustrating. Fortunately, it was the sign that announced two big hits from the Grand Slam winner. He won the Cincinnati Masters final against Andy Murray and the trophy in Basel. It was crystal clear that the Croatian player was back in business. On the other side, Roland Garros will always represent the pinnacle of Novak’s career, as he managed to win the only slam that was missing from his trophy cabinet. But, at the same time, that win was the beginning of the downfall. At that point, nobody dreamt of seeing a new leader at the end of the year as the gap between Djokovic and Murray was 8045.
Before the Paris-Bercy Masters, Nole was in a totally different state of mind in comparison to last year. His problems with the elbow and with his wrist damaged the level of play while his focus was no longer on reaching a target, as it was before French Open. This type of relaxation is negative because after you reach your ultimate goal, the question is: And what’s happening now? This is exactly what hit Djokovic as his place in the Hall of Fame was already booked. The performances in the post-French Open triumph have been average for a world-class player as the Serb: 3rd round loss at Wimbledon to Sam Querrey, 1st round defeat at Rio Olympics against Juan Martin del Potro, trophy in Toronto, final loss at US Open against Stanislas Wawrinka and semifinal loss at Shanghai against Roberto Bautista-Agut.
One year ago, with the exception of an encounter with an in-form Wawrinka, the result would have been guessed before the start of the first game. Now, Novak is losing his service games easily and his return is no way near his usual effectiveness. He no longer has the confidence to play that aggressive and suffocating game who kept him up for 122 weeks and players feel this and use this as an advantage. Who would have thought that Bautista-Agut can beat the Serb in straight sets on a hard court? Or that Querrey can pulverize the defense of Djokovic on grass? Perhaps this was in Cilic’s mind before the clash at Paris-Bercy.
The list of upsets was complete after a top class show from the Croat in the Sports Hall from the capital city of France. The champion of the 2014 edition of the US Open showed courage, grit and inspiration, attacking Djokovic all throughout the match. He scored 27 winners and earned 10 out of the 13 net points. Nine aces and a high level of serves represented the wall who stopped Djokovic. “The Serbian Remontada” seemed to be impossible to achieve as Cilic won 15 out of 19 points at the end of the first set and the beginning of the second set. On top of this, Novak called the trainer, feeling again pain in his right hand and the duo of mental and physical uncertainty was complete. He could have won the second set after a 5-4 lead and a game on his serve but two double faults awarded the game to Cilic. At 5-6 and 15-40, Nole saved two match points and the French crowd thought that the fearless Djokovic might be back in the game. It was just some fake gossip under the roof of the Paris-Bercy Sports Hall. The tiebreak went to Cilic (7-2) and so did the match: 6-4. 7-6.
An aggressive and efficient Cilic defeated a defensive and fragile Djokovic. Who would have thought we will say this after the 2015 US Open semifinal? At the same time, the lack of self-confidence and the “bad mood” of Nole’s game led to the loss of the first spot. Within five months, Murray annulled 8000 points deficit and became the first British player to reach World No.1 in the Open Era. A well-deserved triumph and an exciting tennis year to come after the season finale. An ATP World Tour Final that will no longer contain superstars as Federer or Nadal but a showman like Gael Monfils and a future leader as Dominic Thiem.