Novak Djokovic's greatest asset was his consistency. His peerless, endless consistency. He was a technically perfect player, with groundstrokes that seemed to be constructed in a lab to never miss. It wasn't the power or past players, or the power of Rafael Nadal, or pure magic of Roger Federer. Djokovic's greatest asset was that he wouldn't miss. Novak Djokovic was unbeatable because he was unbreakable - a machine. On Wednesday, he broke.
Novak Djokovic's career crested last May when he finally won the French Open, completing his career slam and also his own personal Nole-slam (winning four straight majors). He did it after so many years losing to Rafael Nadal at the French (five times). He did it a year after finally beating Rafa, but only to lose to Stan Wawrinka. He was on top. And that seems to have been, seemingly, the beginning of the end.
First, it was Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, a shock 3rd round upset to a Top-30 player. Then it was a series of, for Djokovic, relatively poor results at the end of the season. Then came his US Open Final loss to Wawrinka, and his year-end Final loss to Murray to cede the #1 ranking. In that time came multiple murmurs and statements of Djokovic's mental state, of him losing his joy, part of his drive. Of him just having crested, but even then, no one could have expected this.
Novak Djokovic is the one player you would never think would lose to a #117 player in the world. Djokovic didn't just lose, though, he got outplayed without playing too badly himself. Novak Djokovic seemed untouchable because he was more consistent than anyone else, with more flexibility, more durability and more consistency. But we have to ask if that Novak will ever come back. As a player without a huge serve, or overpowering groundstrokes, with a game more built of technical precision than power, if age may catch him more quickly than we realized.
Lost in all of this is Novak Djokovic is turning 30 in May. He won his French Open, his 12th overall slam, a couple weeks after turning 29. Roger Federer turned 29 in August, 2010. He won 16 slams before his 29th birthday, and has won one since, the 2012 Wimbledon Title at 30. He hasn't won a slam since turning 31 (admittedly, he's made three finals since).
Rafael Nadal turned 29 during the 2015 French Open, a tournament that saw him lose to Novak Djokovic. He hasn't won a slam since. In fact, his last came the year before when he turned 28 in the 2014 French Open. Even in an era where more older players are playing longer and better, 29 still seems like a strong cut-off point. It happened to Federer, who's issues post-29 have not generally been injury but consistency, and Nadal. It may just happen to Novak also.
The mental games that Novak seems to be fighting in his hide can't be forgotten either. On one hand, two weeks before the Australian Open started, Novak beat Andy Murray in the finals of the Doha tournament, a big win given Murray's recent success against Novak and #1 ranking. So it wasn't like this what Novak entering a tournament out of form. On the other hand, though, Novak is a player who early in his career was seen as something of a over-dramatic semi-headcase.
Djokovic broke out in 2007-8, making four straight semifinals at 20 years old, capping it off with winning the 2008 Australian Open. He wouldn't make a Final until the 2010 US Open. In the period in-between, his results were almost always strong (tons of QFs and SFs in Slams) but outwardly it was an interesting time. He was criticized for retiring in too many matches, for always seeming to have some medical issue that bothered him, for not putting away easy matches, for never winning close sets against Federer or Nadal, for bouncing the ball too many times before he served. Djokovic was a weird guy.
Suddenly, it all clicked for him. He has openly expressed it was a move to a gluten-free diet in 2010, or different training regimens, but from his run to the 2010 US Open Final onwards he was a different player, a more confident player, and that confidence transferred itself to performance worthy of one of the best players ever. But slowly after the French Open win, the old Novak has started to creep out.
There were veiled references to his mental state or his 'personal issues' (to the public his family life seems fine). There has been quite a lot recently written about his split from coach Boris Becker and widening gap between his longtime personal coach Marian Vijda as he starts to work more with a strange fitness-nut in Spain who talks about how love is connected to the body.
Djokovic is at a career crossroads it seems. Just like Nadal did in 2014, there was a brief moment where Djokovic seemed like a player who would make a spirited run at Federer's record of 17 slams, and that could still happen, but for right now Novak is teetering close to the edge of becoming another tennis great who stalled at 29-30, and the more he inhabits the traits that made him a mecurial prodigy in his early 20s, the more stark the contrast between 2014-16 Djokovic and the current iteration seems.