09 May, 2012

Viewpoint: The Djoker's Wilds

The easiest way to go from prohibitive favorite to questionable, to steal a phrase from Serena Williams, "Life."  I didn't blog about Djokovic's comments on the terre battue bleu last night, I felt the rest of the press corps had you covered there.  Reflecting on the remarks, certain things became clear to me.  The switch from red to blue clay here in Madrid may not have only represented a change to the optics of the event, but to Novak Djokovic's fortune.

There was a sense of malaise from Novak Djokovic when he left the court last night.  He scored an unexpectedly hard fought 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 win over local hope Daniel Gimeno-Traver and you almost expected a repeat of the Djoko-roar; that "this is my house" moment that we've seen from an emboldened Djokovic more than a few times of late.  There was none of that.  He went to his bag, put his racquets in and left the court.  There was obviously something else on his mind.

This week has enhanced the stark differences between himself and a player to whom he's often been compared early this year, Victoria Azarenka.  With a couple of losses under her belt, Azarenka has been absolved of the speculation and mounting pressure of trying to match Djokovic's incredible streak last year.  It seemed during that charmed season that nothing went wrong for the Serb.  He bounded from tourney to tourney, as if floating in a bubble.  A bubble that no tweener, or bolo forehand could burst.  Recall, last year Djokovic was a finger wag from the Old Master away from matching Don Budge (and approaching Rod Laver) with a true Grand Slam of his own.  He was challenged for sure, but Federer, save the one pivotal match in Paris and Nadal were both left earthbound as Djokovic ascended higher and higher still, dwarfing the two greats, if only for a season.  Azarenka, too has proven more earthbound.  Her winning streak against her nearest rival, the Siberian Siren, Maria Sharapova, was halted in Stuttgart a week ago before it reached the gaudy proportions of Djokovic/Nadal a year ago.  Azarenka won't float through this, her greatest season, she'll tussle.  She'll win a lot, she'll lose some too.  What she won't do is find herself in the position Djokovic seems to be in at the moment.

When Azarenka was asked yet again to comment on the surface, her response was polite, but firm and  direct:  "It is a little bit slippery but it's the same for everybody. I don't like to sit and complain about the surface. For me it's important to adjust, maybe it's not the best but it is what it is."  

Djokovic embarked on a well-covered, and frankly, understandable, diatribe on the surface that ate his press conference alive, not that the press corps minded his stream of headline-ready money quotes.  Djokovic was no longer floating, he was sinking.  Leaving yesterdays presser where Djokovic flippantly invoked Chuck Norris, as the person who could best teach him how to play on Madrid's infamous Smurf Turf, there was something obvious to me: Djokovic is going to need a change of mindset to defend his Madrid title. 

Much of Djokovic's ascendance last year can be pegged to one technical element, improved movement.  In starker terms, the ability to out-defend a wall, or at last a Spanish bull.  Here in Madrid, Djokovic does not trust his footing, he has all but literally deemed the surface in the Caja Magica hazardous.  "When you slide on the red clay," Djokovic pointed out, "you have the feeling that you stop and you can recover from that step, but here, whatever you do...split step for the return, going to the net, defending, being offensive...You are always slipping." If Djokovic can't, or more to the point, is afraid to move on these courts, his chances of retaining the Madrid title are slim to none.

The bigger question is where does he go from here.  Djokovic had a difficult Monte Carlo for understandable reasons, given the death of his grandfather at the beginning of the tournament.  Now Madrid is shaping up as another (lesser, but still significant) place of misery.  Win or lose, Madrid represents a significant break in the narrative of this relatively short clay season.  Prestigious Rome follows on its heels and the prize he most covets, Roland Garros, is two short weeks later.

As much as Djokovic is a question, so are his rivals, as Azarenka noted, the conditions are the same for everyone.  That means Nadal and Federer who play today are facing the same gauntlet that Djokovic slid down last night.  The difference is Nadal's clay campaign has gone from strength to strength thus far, while Federer has been out of the limelight plotting his return.  Djokovic is the one with negative momentum this year.  That's a big twist in the narrative from this time a year ago, and that is why we keep on watching.

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