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9:03PM

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.

10:30AM

French win proved all too satisfying for the Joker

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The Joker, they call him, and there were times that Novak Djokovic — yes, the “D” is silent — with his skill at mimicry could make us laugh. But now, after a year when triumph was muted by disappointment, he sees life and tennis from a different view.

Once at the top, of course, as the line goes in the musical Evita, it’s a long, long way to fall. Djokovic didn’t tumble that far, but not only did he fail to win either of last two Grand Slam tournaments, after winning the previous four in succession, he dropped from the No. 1 ranking to behind Andy Murray.

Progression worked against him. A great start, an unsatisfying finish. Four straight Grand Slam victories, beginning with the 2015 Wimbledon and climaxing with the 2016 French Open, his first win there.

Satisfaction worked against him. Asked if after the French he subconsciously relaxed, Djokovic unhesitatingly answered, “Yes.”

And why not? Since the start of the Open era in tennis, April 1968, only four men had won each of the four Slams: Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Now this agile Serb had become the fifth.

“It was the crowning achievement for me,” said a candid Djokovic. “The French was a priority, but it took a lot of emotion out of me.”

He was sitting in the interview room Thursday at the BNP Paribas Open, the defending champ, seemingly relaxed, unquestionably honest — with himself and the media. It was hot outside, 91 degrees in this desert community some 15 miles southeast of Palm Springs, but inside the air conditioning was working its magic.

“Generally, I see myself in perspective from the end of last season,” said Djokovic. He will be 30 in May, and despite the struggles after the French, relatively speaking — a third-round loss at Wimbledon, a finals loss at the U.S. Open, a quick departure from the Rio Olympics — he was still considered the man to beat.

“I feel much better in terms of my game from the mental side, than I was some months ago,” he said.

The pressure never ceases, pressure to advance when you’re young, pressure to persist as you become established.

“No doubt there’s pressure,” agreed Djokovic. “It’s part of the work. It means we’re doing something that is worthy and has value.

“Something that I always dreamed of doing on such a high level. Certainly as one of the top players, one of favorites to win a Grand Slam, you put pressure on yourself.”

Until winning the French, until making history.

The years and the service returns and the forehands caught up with him. It was as if he said, “Phew. That’s over.” But in the competitive world of tennis, it’s never over until as long as you’re on the court, especially when you have a reputation to enhance.

“I don’t regret things in my life,” said Djokovic, who has won 12 Slams, fourth highest behind Federer, 18, and Nadal and Pete Sampras, 14 each.

“But maybe I should have taken a long break after the French to recharge emotionally. It didn’t happen. I just kept going.”

Not very far in results but, Djokovic said, a considerable distance in his mind.

“It was a lesson to be learned,” he said. “I think those four to five months the second part of 2016 were very important to me, for my growth as a player, as a human being.

“Particularly after the U.S. Open. Then I had those couple months where I wasn't myself on the court. Now I'm at the better place and I believe that I'm headed in the right direction."

Djokovic is in the tough part of the draw at Indian Wells, a tournament he’s won five times previously. In his bottom quarter are Federer, a four-time winner, Nadal, a two-time champ, and Nick Kyrgios.

“I haven't had too many draws like that," Djokovic said. "It's quite amazing to see that many quality players are in one quarter.”

You might say it’s no Djoke.

6:31PM

Newsday (N.Y.): Djokovic’s Grand Slam streak ends in Wimbledon loss to Querrey

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

WIMBLEDON, England — The great Roger Federer could see the upset coming. Even if the rest of us, and Novak Djokovic, perhaps did not.

Californian Sam Querrey defeated Djokovic, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, in four often-interrupted sets played over two days.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2016 Newsday. All rights reserved.

7:28AM

Wimbledon may be just what a chaotic Britain needs

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — Chaos anyone? Sorry, I meant tennis anyone. Yes, another Wimbledon, with fans queuing overnight and swallowing strawberries and cream. But really not another Wimbledon.

This is the first Wimbledon after, against the best advice, Great Britain waved goodbye to logic and the rest of Europe, voting itself into isolation and, some warn, economic disaster. Brexit was the clever phrase about the not-so-clever move out of the European Union.

It’s been like threatening to leave home when you’re 13,” the novelist Howard Jacobsen wrote Sunday in the Observer about the vote. “You hope it will scare the living daylights out of your parents. But only the insane actually do it.”

So perhaps the return of the All-England Championships for a 130th time is specifically what the battered, shattered non-united kingdom needs to remind itself that all is not lost, unless like poor Englishman James Ward on Monday you had to face Novak Djokovic and were dropped 7-0, 7-6 (3), 6-4.

As always there is change. The newsstand next to Wimbledon’s first aid office has closed, another blow to journalism. Ah, but the shuttle cabs from Southfields station on the District Line — “Alight here Wimbledon tennis,” advises a disembodied voice — still cost two pounds, 50 pence. Even though, because of the pound’s devaluation, the dollar cost is less than it was last Friday, something like $3.23 as opposed to $3.60.

And Venus Williams, who turned 36 a week and a half ago, still plays capably, despite the years and the anti-immune syndrome from which she has suffered. On this very memorable first day, Venus, a surprisingly high eighth seed, beat Donna Vekic of Croatia, 7-6, 6-4.

“I still feel 26,” said Venus, who won women’s singles in 2000 — 16 years ago for heaven’s sake — and three other times. “I don’t know if anyone feels older. You have this infinity inside of you that feels like you could go forever. That’s how I feel on the court. As long as I can get my racquet on the ball, I think I can make something happen.”

Younger sister Serena (who will be 35 in September) is defending champion. Yet Serena, favored at the subsequent U.S. Open in an attempt to win the true "Grand Slam" or all four majors in a calendar year, was upset in the semifinals. Serena then lost in the finals of both the Australian Open in January and the French, three weeks ago.

She plays Tuesday as tradition holds: the women’s champ returning the second day, the men’s, the seemingly unbeatable Djokovic, the first day. “The first part of the match,” confirmed Djokovic of his play against Ward, “was almost flawless. So I’m very pleased with the way I started Wimbledon.”

Djokovic, of course, is from Serbia, which is waiting to be accepted into the European Union. Well, there’s an extra space now, isn’t there? One country wanted out, another wants in. Seems like a good swap, knowing the way the British majority voted.

“I’m just curious to see what the future holds for Britain and for the European Union,” said Djokovic when quizzed about the loss of money from Wimbledon due to the pound's decline. “I’m not in a position to more profoundly discuss this matter.”

Nor would he speculate on whether he can do what Serena in 2015 could not, win a Grand Slam, last accomplished by a male player by Rod Laver in 1969 — who also won all four in 1962 as an amateur.

The only other Grand Slam winner was Don Budge, in 1938. Budge, who grew up in Oakland where the courts he learned on are now named for him, wanted to be a baseball player. Joe DiMaggio, who grew up across the bay in San Francisco, told Budge he had hoped to play tennis. The second choice wasn’t bad for either.

Djokovic, 29, beginning with last year’s Wimbledon, has won the last four majors, a “Novak Slam,” if you will, but he’s still only halfway to the Grand Slam, needing victories here and in September at the U.S. Open. Serena, hesitant last summer to ruminate about her chances, is very willing to do so about Djokovic’s this summer.

"He has every opportunity to do it," she said. "I think he'll get it easy. So he should be fine."

Not to be the skeptic, but didn’t the experts predict the Brits would choose to stay in the European Union? We all make mistakes. Especially, we’re told, the British electorate.

7:30PM

Palm Springs Life: Novak Djokovic Is the Whole Package

By Art Spander
Palm Springs Life

He is the best in the game right now, No. 1 in men’s tennis, a ranking earned, not bestowed, which perhaps is the reason Novak Djokovic seems less intimidated by the position — you know the adage, nowhere to go but down — than invigorated by it.

“My thinking, my approach,” he said in response to a question of what should we expect, “is not that I have to win this, I’m supposed to win this, but I’m going to believe in myself, and I carry the confidence that has brought me to where I am at this moment.”

Read the full story here.

Copyright 2016 Desert Publications. All rights reserved.