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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Novak Djokovic still some way short of his best as Wimbledon beckons

Only 12 months ago, the Serbian was expected to sweep all before him, but the gradual decline since has left everyone, including the man himself, puzzled.

Novak Djokovic celebrates reaching the Aegon Classic final on Friday. Matthew Childs / Reuters
Novak Djokovic celebrates reaching the Aegon Classic final on Friday. Matthew Childs / Reuters

One year ago, Novak Djokovic made his way to the All England Club as the dominant force in men’s tennis and the overwhelming favourite to win a third straight Wimbledon title.

It was not just his barely believable 42-3 win-loss record that stood out, but the manner in which Djokovic was ruthlessly dispatching his opponents, to the point oftentimes of humiliation.

These were not run-of-the-mill top 50 players he was cruising past.

Neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal could lay a glove on Djokovic, while Milos Raonic – the Canadian with arguably the finest serve in the game – was embarrassed 6-2, 6-0 in the Indian Wells final.

But no one suffered more than then world No 2 Andy Murray, who found himself powerless to resist the Djokovic onslaught in not just one but two grand slam finals in Melbourne and Paris.

It made what transpired at Wimbledon – and indeed the 12 months since – all the more perplexing.

Of course, Djokovic is not the first world No 1 to suffer a shock defeat at Wimbledon – in his case a four set loss to No 41- ranked American Sam Querrey in the third round ­– but it seemed to trigger a gradual decline that has left the tennis world puzzled, not least of all the man himself.

"I've been struggling with the level of tennis," Djokovic told the BBC this week at Eastbourne, where he is playing his first Wimbledon tune-up event on grass since 2010.

"I've never experienced this particular situation since I started playing professional tennis. I was very fortunate to experience upwards direction in terms of results and improving the game.

"It's the first time now in a stretch of seven or eight months that I haven't won any big tournament."

After his premature Wimbledon exit, Djokovic bounced back the following week to win the Toronto Masters without dropping a set, seemingly putting the Querrey defeat down to a blip.

That proved his last title in 2016, and after opening 2017 with a title in Qatar, that remains his only silverware of this season, leading to the “stretch” Djokovic was referring to.

The cause of Djokovic’s struggles, which have resulted in a slip to world No 4 – the first time he has been outside the top three since October 2009, seem to be shrouded in mystery.

A few niggling injuries have hampered his hopes of building up some momentum this season, but the issues are more deep-rooted than an elbow problem.

Rumours of marital trouble with wife Jelena surfaced after Wimbledon when Djokovic blamed the defeat on “private issues”. Her continued absence from his player’s box until the US Open only fuelled the speculation.

Motivation, or indeed a lack thereof, following his French Open victory has also been a speculated reason for his relative slump.

With the other three majors safely in the trophy cabinet since 2011, a five-year pursuit of the career grand slam came to a successful conclusion in Paris last June. It would only be natural if motivation should wane following the completion of his biggest career goals.

Whatever the reasons may be, there is no denying Djokovic is some way off the player who looked set to surpass Federer’s record grand slam haul of 18.

The aura of invincibility has been stripped, and top 20 players who would be swept aside 12 months ago are consistently enjoying success against the Serb.

Compared to last year, Djokovic does not arrive at the All England Club as the dominant force in men’s tennis and not as the overwhelming favourite.

In a season of revivals that has seen Federer and Nadal back in the winner’s circle, Venus and Serena contesting an all-Williams final, and Petra Kvitova return from a career-threatening knife attack, Dokovic will hope his own mini-revival is not too far away.

Novak Djokovic's grand slam record since winning his 12th major title at the French Open in June 2016

Wimbledon 2016 - lost in third round to Sam Querrey 7-6, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6

US Open 2016 - lost in final to Stan Wawrinka 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3

Australian Open 2017 - lost in second round to Denis Istomin 7-6, 5-7, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4

French Open 2017 - lost in quarter-finals to Alexander Zverev 7-6, 6-3, 6-0

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