Is Djokovic’s problem in his elbow — or in his head?

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The question now, after he has been eliminated in the first round of only the second tournament he entered this year — a tournament he's won five times — is whether the problem is in Novak Djokovic’s elbow or his head. Or both.

Tennis is a tough game, physically, mentally. The pros fly literally around the world. There’s no true off-season. Worse, unlike, say baseball, there’s no DL, disabled list. So people keep trying to play instead of trying to recover.

Then, of course, if and when they do recover, is the no-less-important issue of preparation, You can hit dozens of practice shots, but once a match begins, well, let Djokovic describe his failing Sunday in the BNP Paribas tournament at Indian Wells.

“Very weird," he explained. “I just completely lost rhythm. For me, it felt like the first match I ever played on the tour.”

It was the first match against Taro Daniel, a qualifier who is ranked 109th. The first match after losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January. And, of course, the first loss to Daniel. The score was 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1, and it left Daniel as bewildered as, well, Djokovic.

“The Djokovic I know is like the Djokovic I have seen on TV, and he never misses a ball; he puts the ball wherever he wants,” said Daniel, who was born in New York. “Today, obviously he was missing a lot of balls, but even then you still have to beat him.”

Or let him beat himself.

We’re not talking just any opponent here. This is a man who a year and half ago dominated men’s tennis, winning in order the 2015 Wimbledon, 2016 U.S. Open, 2017 Australian and, not least since it’s on clay, the 2017 French Open. No one had held all four Grand Slams since the great Rod Laver in 1969. Then...

Was it the elbow? Was it rumored off-court problems? Was it a sense of no more worlds to conquer?, A year ago here at Indian Wells I asked Djokovic whether he relaxed after earning the French, which Roger Federer only won once, which John McEnroe and Pete Sampras never won. He conceded that was the case.

But in 12 months, missing time with the elbow injury, struggling in some matches, he has dropped from an uncatchable first in the ATP rankings to 10th. And now he’s gone one match into Indian Wells. 

He had surgery on the elbow in the beginning of February — “a small medical intervention,” he described it. Perhaps more time is needed to heal. Perhaps like some ballplayers, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Rick Ankiel come to mind, Djokovic, although not with the yips, is unable to make the shot he once made.

Djokovic is 30, and while Roger Federer, for one, sneers at age — he won the Australian a month and a half ago at 37 — everyone’s body is different. Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, all have fallen victim to wear and tear. The stars keep pushing themselves, traveling from Doha to Melbourne to, yes, Indian Wells, to please sponsors and to embellish their rankings. The other day, Federer said how much delight he felt to return to No. 1.

“It’s life, you know,” said Djokovic. “God always challenges you when you expect it the least.” 

No cracks here that God has a poor backhand.

“Yeah, everything, nerves were there,” Djokovic said of his flaws against Daniel. “I made so many unforced errors that it was just one of those days where you are not able to find the rhythm from the baseline, especially from the backhand side.

“That has always been a rock-solid shot for me throughout my career. Just some inexplicable, uncharacteristic errors, but that’s I guess all part of those particular circumstances that I’m in at the moment.”

Djokovic said he had no expectations and just wanted to go out and see what would happen.

“I was not even supposed to be here,” he said, “because the surgery was only five, six weeks ago. But I recovered quickly and got myself ready. I’m sitting here talking after a lost match. It’s not something that I as an athlete want, but at the same time there is a reason everything happens in life.”

He just has to find the reason, and that never is easy.

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