Novak Djokovic has gone from being the most dominant tennis player in the world to sounding like an existential philosopher, and not many of those have ever won a tennis tournament.
Djokovic has won 68 titles, including 12 Grand Slam championships and six Miami Opens. But those days seem a long way off. Ever since Djokovic lost in the final of the 2016 United States Open, his career has been in a tailspin, and he cannot pull himself out.
After a 6-3, 6-4 defeat to Benoit Paire of France on Friday at the Miami Open, Djokovic had few concrete answers for why he cannot regain his once-commanding form.
“I’m trying,” he said, “but it’s not working, and that’s all it is.”
Djokovic has also experienced off-court issues that he has not detailed publicly, and he has completely overhauled his coaching staff.
Asked if he was confused by his recent struggles, Djokovic replied flatly, “It just is.”
Before Friday, Djokovic had won 16 straight matches at the Miami Open (he did not enter last year’s event) and had a 21-match unbeaten streak against players from France. He was also 58-1 against Frenchmen since 2010.
Paire was the aggressor with his whipping forehand, and his serve was electric, leaving Djokovic walking side to side along the baseline after each ace. When the match was over, Djokovic, the No. 9 seed, hardly seemed surprised. He shook Paire’s hand, gathered his things, waved politely to the crowd and signed autographs for his fans.
“I’m not at the level they would like to see me at and I would like to see myself at,” he said. “But it is what it is, and life goes on.”
Less than two years ago, no player on the men’s tour was better than Djokovic, who at one point in 2016 held all four Grand Slam titles.
But last July Djokovic was forced to pull out of a quarterfinal match at Wimbledon because of a sore right elbow, which had long bothered him.
“I don’t want to sit here and whine about my last couple of years,” he said. “The truth is that it wasn’t easy. Obviously, I compromised my game and the movement and everything.
Although he did not make such egregious mistakes against Paire, a similar pattern unfolded. The match started evenly, but soon Paire had the advantage and Djokovic looked lost again. He later said he “ran out of gas.”
“That’s probably it,” he said. “I guess that’s one of the things, but it’s an accumulation of different things, obviously.”
The plan after the elbow procedure was to play at Wells and Miami in order to test the joint and get time on hard courts before returning to Europe for the clay-court season. It did not work out as he had hoped.
Still, Djokovic, 30, has time to regain his best form and challenge for the top titles. He said, though, that he held no expectations about whether he would be able to do that. He could not even promise that he would be able to play at the Monte Carlo Masters, which begins in about three weeks, although the event is on his schedule.
“I know that you can’t be the person that you were yesterday, and the player,” he said. “You have to keep on training, evolving, trying to improve your game.”