Novak Djokovic’s exit is biggest shock for years but clues were there

Wimbledon - All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club

Rarely can so many disbelieving eyes have been trained on Novak Djokovic. The whole of tennis was watching the best player in the world lose the plot, the match and – however briefly – his aura on No1 Court here on Saturday, and it was not an altogether pretty spectacle.

It wasn’t just Sam Querrey, the world No 41, looking out for the merest hint of vulnerability as he served his way to the biggest upset of recent seasons. There was also a dwindling section of the locker room still in contention who, for all their respect for the defending champion who started the season dreaming of a calendar grand slam, would as soon see him on the plane back to Belgrade as moving into the fourth round.

Against all odds and expectations, it happened. Querrey, the most mild-mannered of men – whose appearance on an American TV dating programme ended with his chosen partner refusing to answer his texts – was through to take on the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut. Big Sam was a deserved and delighted winner, 7-6 (6), 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in two minutes under three hours, but, stretched over two days, it must have seemed much longer than that.

Andy Murray went on to Centre Court against John Millman not long after Djokovic had repaired some of the self-inflicted damage of the night before by serving out the postponed third set and drag it back to 1-2. As they went about their business – Djokovic flowering now in the sunshine, Murray happy to see the roof on the main court drawn back at last after playing two matches under cover – tension rippled through day six of the championships.

Roger Federer, meanwhile, was relaxing at the nearby rented house that has been his annual retreat at this tournament, building his energy for the week ahead. He is on Djokovic’s side of the draw. Well, he is there unattended by the world No1 now and looking dangerous.

So, what went wrong – and what does Djokovic’s shock expulsion mean for Murray, Federer and the other hopefuls? The Scot, who proceeded to a sound win over Millman, has been catapulted into outright favouritism. The Swiss, though, will fancy his chances. The likelihood is they will meet in the final for a second time. Federer’s last slam victory was in 2012, when he beat Murray under the roof. Murray’s last slam success was in glorious sunshine a year later, when he beat Djokovic. This is a delicious cycle of history.

As to what went wrong, one man thinks he knows. A week ago, John Alexander – the former Australian doubles star and newly returned Liberal MP for the “silvertail” Sydney seat of Bennelong in his country’s general election over the weekend – predicted trouble for Djokovic. “He won’t collapse, he’s too good a player,” he said before the tournament, remarks that did not reach far beyond his own constituency – and were not wholly accurate. The rest of Alexander’s prognosis made sense, however.

“There will appear some cracks in his game,” he said. “At the Australian Open there was a hint of what’s going on in his mind, because he’d slowed his first serve down to about 185kmh [115mph]. He was getting a very high percentage of first serves in, but, at one point, he served two double faults in a row.

“I got the feeling that he’s lost confidence in his second serve and that’s why he’s slowing his first serve down. Whether he’s lost confidence . or he has a little bit of the yips I don’t know, but it looked edgy.

“It’s happened to other great players, they get the yips in their second serve and it’s the beginning of the end. Under pressure over five sets on a surface where serving is very important, maybe that will surface?”

Sam Querrey celebrates his win over Novak Djokovic.
Sam Querrey celebrates his win over Novak Djokovic. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

How correct Alexander was in that regard. Last year, Djokovic’s average first serve speed was 117mph, his second serve 97mph. In this tournament, he has been way down the overall maximum speed list, 49th at 122mph; and on Saturday his power slippage was marked. He hit that highwater mark once, but was averaging 111mph first time (5mph slower than in 2015), and 93mph on second serve (down 4mph).

Those are just numbers. But the visual evidence was more disturbing. Djokovic lacked zest again on Saturday although nothing like the energy deficit that drained his tennis to the point of impotence before they escaped the rain on Friday evening.

There would appear to be a physical as much as a mental problem, because he has frightening inner strength under pressure and there was plenty of that in this third-round match. His co-ordination and balance were out of sync on Friday, a little better when they returned on Saturday.

Yet he could not do what he nearly always does: find a way. It is hardly a disaster for him. He is still the best player in the world. He was understandably downbeat at the hastily convened press conference and admitted he just wanted to get out of the place as soon as possible. But he is no longer at Wimbledon and, all of a sudden, that makes this tournament a whole lot more interesting.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Wimbledon, for The Observer on Saturday 2nd July 2016 18.14 Europe/London

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