Novak Djokovic has a solution to his on-court problems. Having made early exits from the two tournaments he has played since winning Wimbledon, the world No 1 was asked how he might add something extra to his preparations for the US Open, which begins here on Monday. “Two rackets,” Djokovic laughed. “I’m going to play with two rackets.”
“The Djoker”, as he is sometimes known in these parts, may need a sense of humour given his woeful performances at this summer’s Masters Series tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati, where he won a total of just two matches before losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tommy Robredo respectively.
He is still the bookmakers’ favourite to win the title here at Flushing Meadows, but that could be down to a shortage of alternatives. With Rafael Nadal absent through injury and the likes of Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka seemingly short of their best form, Roger Federer is the only major contender near the top of his game.
Djokovic was having the summer of his life until he set foot on court in Toronto. Having won his second Wimbledon title – his first Grand Slam trophy since his appointment of Boris Becker as coach – and reclaimed the world No 1 ranking, he went on to marry Jelena Ristic, who is expecting their first baby later this year.
What has gone wrong subsequently? “Many, many, many things are not clicking,” a bemused Djokovic said when asked about his recent results. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s more than obvious I’m not playing even close to what I’m supposed to play. I have to keep on working and trying to get better for the US Open.
“Just in general, I’m not feeling very comfortable on the court. I hope that comes with practice and with time.”
Asked whether he had had enough hours on the practice court, given the time he had taken off for his wedding, Djokovic said he had trained for a fortnight before returning to competition, which was longer than his customary post-Wimbledon break. “I practised a lot,” he said. “I had more than enough practice.”
Djokovic said that whatever the off-court distractions, his commitment to his sport remained unchanged. “I love competing and travelling,” he said. “I understand that many people are not as fortunate as I am to do what they love to do. To be top of the world in this sport, it’s quite remarkable, so I always try to remind myself of that.
“Big things have happened in my life recently. I got married and, hopefully, I’m soon to be a father, so of course these are the joyful moments in life one can experience. That obviously is going to affect my priorities in life. But tennis-wise as long as I have this passion for the sport, of course I’m going to keep on going and keep on practising and working and hoping that I can win many big titles and stay No 1.”
If his recent form has not been up to scratch, at least Djokovic will go into the year’s final Grand Slam event knowing that he has an excellent record at Flushing Meadows. The 27-year-old Serb has always been at his best on hard courts and played his first Grand Slam final here in 2007, when he lost to Federer. He reached the semi-finals in 2008 and 2009, losing to Federer again on both occasions. On his four subsequent appearances he has reached the final every time, losing to Spain’s Nadal in 2010 and 2013 and to Britain’s Murray in 2012. He claimed the title in 2011 after defeating Nadal.
John McEnroe, for one, does not read too much into the Serb’s results this summer and still regards him as the man to beat at Flushing Meadows over the next fortnight. “I don’t think Novak’s mind has been into it since [Wimbledon],” McEnroe said. “I think it was difficult for him to get back into the swing of things. I believe he’ll be ready here.”
McEnroe, who will be part of the ESPN commentary team over the next fortnight, said that the knowledge of not having Nadal to contend with if he reaches the latter stages of the tournament would be “a huge positive” for Djokovic.
The veteran American sees the world No 1 as the marginal favourite ahead of Switzerland’s Federer, who will be aiming to win the title for the sixth time. As the top two seeds, the Serb and the Swiss cannot meet before the final. Djokovic appears to have the tougher draw, with Murray and Wawrinka potential opponents in the quarter-finals and semi-final respectively.
“[Djokovic is] younger and he can go the distance perhaps a little bit more easily than Roger,” McEnroe said. “Depending on what happens leading up to it if they were to play in the final, some of it would have to do with how much was left in the tank from previous matches.”