Monte Carlo 2019: World No 1 Novak Djokovic counting on clay after failing to build on Australian Open success

Anuradha Santhanam
Of Djokovic’s biggest rivals, Nadal this year has remade himself — and his game — physically, and there is perhaps no bigger paragon of mental fortitude in the game than Roger Federer

Novak Djokovic is, any way you slice it, one of the greatest tennis players of all time €" no matter where your GOAT loyalties lie. Until 2016, the Serbian was considered one of the greatest clay-court players to have never won a major on that surface €" that is, of course, until he broke his Roland Garros "jinx". After a 2017 that saw him thrown though the wringer physically and psychologically, Djokovic spent much of the 2018 season climbing steadily back up the rankings and his historic return to World No 1 at the end of the year was nothing short of extraordinary.

2019, however, has not been all smooth sailing for Djokovic. Historically and statistically, hard courts have always been the Serb's strongest surface €" ten of his fifteen Grand Slam titles, and his only Olympic medal, have all come on hard courts, but this year, Djokovic had a shaky start €" and finish at the Qatar Open, dropping sets against Marton Fuscovics and Nikoloz Basilashvili before being ousted in the semi-finals by the experienced €" but much lower-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut.

Djokovic may have followed that up with his seventh Australian Open title, but apart from an utterly one-sided final, interestingly against Rafael Nadal, the Serbian has had some uncharacteristic struggles €" or at the very least, trouble from sources he might least have expected. Among them were Canadian wunderkind Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev, each of whom has been steadily marking their own rise up the ranks.

In the fashion that the Australian Open final went, however, one might well have expected Djokovic to take the Sunshine Double €" and convincingly €" but precisely the opposite happened. After struggling against American Bjorn Fratangelo, Djokovic would tumble to Philipp Kohlschreiber in straight sets. If Miami was expected to be any different, it was not; rather than be able to avenge his loss to Bautista Agut earlier in the year, Dokovic lost once again to the Spaniard, this time in Round 4 at the Miami Masters.

And this was not the Djokovic of mid-2017 struggling with his knee and his wrist, nor the Djokovic of late 2017 struggling with his mental health. This was a fully-fit, raring-to-go Novak Djokovic, who, on his day, is otherwise near-unbeatable €" and particularly on hard courts.

Despite his fitness, and indeed his hold on the rankings, Djokovic has simply not looked the same. Victories that one would expect to be simple for the Serbian have been hard-fought, and it has not been for lack of fitness that he tumbled. So what, then, has been ailing Novak Djokovic? After his loss at Indian Wells, a number of analysts alleged he was "out of practice" on hard courts.

Now, Monte Carlo is the first he is playing on clay at all this year. It would, of course, be remiss to say he is "rusty" €" if anyone could play a match with no practice on any surface, it would perhaps be Djokovic. But truth be told, there is still the spectre of the old Djokovic still lingering beyond a calmer, fitter surface. During his match against Kohlschreiber, the "Angry Djokovic" surfaced yet again, smashing his racquet after pushing a volley wide and gifting his rival a break-point. Djokovic himself looked untrusting of his own shots, pushing a few shaky, unsure groundstrokes

Of Djokovic's biggest rivals, Nadal this year has remade himself €" and his game €" physically, and there is perhaps no bigger paragon of mental fortitude in the game than Roger Federer. There is no doubt about the physical prowess of Novak Djokovic €" but it appears that necessity has not been the mother of reinvention, to borrow a phrase.

Indeed, Kohlschreiber is proverbial "small fry" for Djokovic in a field that includes, apart from Nadal and Federer, young guns Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, all of whom are significant Grand Slam challengers. Thiem is particularly a dab hand on clay, and has the psychological advantage of having won his debut Masters title this year at Indian Wells.

At only 31, Djokovic €" who only marked his full triumph towards the end of last year, looks to be losing his grip on what has brought him back yet again, and with no dearth of young contenders looking to unseat tennis' old guard, his spot is no longer the secure throne it once was. And stability will be the key for the Serbian if he is to hold on to his title for some time.