Monte Carlo Masters: Is Novak Djokovic finding it difficult to be motivated for non-Slam events?

Musab Abid
Djokovic is not just a player fighting to reach the top of the tennis world anymore. He is now a statesman, an ambassador, a politician and a world leader, who is also somehow five short of the all-time Grand Slam record.

The 2017 tennis season was a godsend for nostalgia lovers, and for fans of 'age is just a number' bumper-sticker-worthy quotes. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had returned from their injury-induced breaks and taken to ruling the sport again, splitting the four Grand Slams between them. And to a lot of people, everything seemed right with the world again.

But in Novak Djokovic's world, nothing was right whatsoever. He had gone from emperor to pauper in a matter of months, and his matches had started to resemble pointedly sadistic torture chambers. He looked like he was being forced to play a sport he had no interest in, and he even tanked his Roland Garros quarter-final against Dominic Thiem.

For every happy memory of Federer or Nadal winning a title, there was a sordid counter-image in the form of Djokovic painfully trying to string two decent shots together. 2017 was about the glorious resurgence of Fedal, but also the agonising downfall of Djokovic.

2019 has also seen a bunch of dismal Djokovic losses, but it started on a starkly contrasting note. He opened the year by blitzing everything in his path at the Australian Open, and reinforcing his hold over the World No 1 ranking. The Serb has already won the one tournament that truly matters; nobody can dare to say that the season has (so far) belonged to anyone apart from Djokovic.

Is that why he doesn't seem particularly bothered about winning any other tournament?

Djokovic lost 3-6, 6-4, 2-6 to Daniil Medvedev in the Monte Carlo quarter-final on Friday, but the match wasn't as close or exciting as the scoreline suggests. For much of the blustery afternoon, Djokovic spent his time spinning his wheels, hitting his shots without any of the intensity he displayed in Melbourne. It wasn't quite a tank-job, but it wasn't a full-blooded battle from his side either.

Part of that was down to Medvedev's unique style of play, which is predicated on machine-like consistency and excruciatingly repetitive patterns. The Russian seems more interested in retrieving the ball and hitting it to a certain spot than imparting any pace to it, and that restricts the options for the opponent. Unless you possess the raw power to hit through Medvedev's seemingly tireless running, you need to be prepared for long rallies where nothing much happens for vast stretches of time.

Ordinarily, a style of play like Medvedev's at the other side of the net would inspire one of two responses: it would either drive you crazy, or put you to sleep. When Djokovic met Medvedev at the Australian Open earlier this year, it drove him crazy; he cursed and yelled and smashed his racquet until he had tamed his game enough to outlast Medvedev. But at Monte Carlo, where the stakes were considerably lower, he went to sleep.

Some of the errors that Djokovic made €" there were a staggering 47 in total €" were not just uncharacteristic of him, but uncharacteristic of any top player. He sent routine forehands long and makeable backhands wide, and even his trusted return of serve frequently went MIA. That he could still make a match out of it was because he was still Djokovic; even on a bad day, his defense is good enough to make you pay for a fumbled putaway or two.

But by the middle of the third set, everyone knew there was only going to be one winner. The Serb was either hitting a dropshot or carelessly swinging his racquet to try and hit a winner. He seemed unwilling to engage in any extended rallies, and Medevev promptly took advantage and closed out the contest.

It was a tame end to a generally uninteresting match, which required a shirt change by Djokovic at one of the set breaks to get the crowd to start making some noise. More disconcertingly however, Djokovic's lack of interest in the match brought back some of the memories of his forgettable 2017.

It didn't help that Pepe Imaz, the guru specializing in long hugs and the man who many fans blamed for Djokovic's listless performances that year, was spotted in his player box again. (Djokovic later confirmed that he is still working with Imaz, and that he's always had him as a friend).

But that Australian Open remains a strong differentiating factor between the two years, and possibly the biggest indication of the Serb's outlook for the future. Djokovic reacted in diametrically opposite ways to Medvedev's game in Melbourne and Monte Carlo; the odds are his mind will complete a full circle and return to its focused self by Roland Garros.

"French Open is the ultimate goal on clay, and it's expected in a way for me to peak right at that tournament. Because that's what I'm aiming for. This is only the first tournament on clay and it's a long season," Djokovic said after the match.

You don't even need to read between the lines to understand what Djokovic's line of thinking is like right now. He's not looking at the Monte Carlo Masters as a coveted trophy; he's looking at it as 'only the first' tournament on clay, and as preparation to peak for Roland Garros.

To some extent, that's how every top player looks at tournaments preceding the Slams. But not every top player is in the position that Djokovic is in. The man has won everything there is to win at the Masters-or-below level. He has nothing new to prove at any event anywhere in the world.

The Slams are really the only place where Djokovic can add to his legacy, so can we blame him for just going through the motions at all the other events?

Rafael Nadal was asked what he thought about Djokovic's loss later in the day, and he seemed to echo the idea that such results shouldn't really be a cause for too much concern.

"Always, when Novak lose, always seems strange because he's super solid. But everybody is human, no? And every day you play against another opponent that wants to win, too. That's how it works. This is sport."

This is sport indeed. And the sport that Djokovic is involved in, also requires him to put out fires (or start them) outside the court. He is the President of the ATP Player Council, and the obligations that come with that post are bound to dim his fire for non-Slam events even further.

After his loss in Miami Djokovic said he had too many things going on off the court, and many assumed he was referring to his role in the ouster of ATP chief Chris Kermode. Considering the brouhaha that has surrounded that particular chain of events, he may be forced to make more such oblique references before the season is over.

Djokovic is not just a player fighting to reach the top of the tennis world anymore. He is now a statesman, an ambassador, a politician and a world leader, who is also somehow five short of the all-time Grand Slam record. It's easy to understand why he thinks there are bigger fish to fry than a Monte Carlo quarter-final against Medvedev, or a Miami fourth round against Roberto Bautista Agut.

"Grand Slams I've been playing my best, and that's what I intend to do," he also said after the match. Considering he has won the last three Grand Slams, is there any reason to doubt he will live up to his word?

2019 is certainly not 2017. And no amount of Masters losses for Djokovic is going to change that.

Also See: Monte Carlo Masters: Rafael Nadal overcomes early scare against Guido Pella to join Novak Djokovic in semi-finals

Monte Carlo Masters: Novak Djokovic shrugs off shock defeat to Daniil Medvedev, says aim is to peak at French Open

Monte Carlo Masters: Daniil Medvedev stuns Novak Djokovic in three sets to reach semi-finals

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