Novak Djokovic is having a tough start in 2022. After being thrown out of Australia in the intense heat of a vaccine and immigration row and stunned in the quarter-finals of the Dubai Open, Djokovic has been relegated to the sidelines.
All the while, ATP 250 and 500 tournaments race by without any sign of the Serb’s presence. Conspicuous by his absence, it makes a remarkable contrast to last year, where Djokovic had won the Australian Open and was gearing up to defeat Rafael Nadal on his way to a second French Open title.
Dubai used to be a mainstay of Djokovic’s calendar and a key event in his hard court appearances. He has won the tournament five times, with three of those titles occurring in a row from 2009 to 2011.
But against Jiri Vesely in the quarter-finals, Djokovic became unstuck. The Czech used the fast court conditions to his advantage, either going for fast one-two punches that were too quick for even Djokovic to track down or using drop shots and netplay to deny his opponent a chance to build a rhythm.
Djokovic made a few uncharacteristic unforced errors at crucial moments, perhaps due to the relative lack of match experience. The Serb managed to get to a tiebreak in the second set, but another rapid one-two punch from Vesely on his serve caught the sideline, jettisoned Djokovic from the tournament, and under the ranking system, will allow Daniil Medvedev to claim the number one spot this Monday.
Djokovic vs Vesely Highlights, Dubai 2022
Djokovic’s future success depends on whether he can travel and compete under local health rules. For a man who arguably pays more attention to detail than anyone else when it comes to the science of winning – from strict control over his diet to yoga and meditation – his chances of victory are now outside his meticulous scope.
Let’s look at the key Masters 1000 tournaments up to the French Open.
With Indian Wells and Miami, the US will not allow Djokovic to compete under current rules. Then comes Monte-Carlo, but the French government can only accept players with a special vaccine pass.
After that comes the Madrid Open, but the Spanish government have similar rules where vaccination is essential to compete in the draw.
One ray of sunshine for Djokovic is the Italian Open held in Rome. Valentina Vezzali, an Italian health minister, suggested that rules for outside tournaments are expected to be relaxed by May, allowing Djokovic to travel freely and compete there – an essential warm-up fixture on clay before Roland Garros.
Wimbledon is Djokovic’s best chance of competing in his next grand slam tournament, with the last of domestic restrictions being lifted in England.
Regarding returning to the number one ranking, Medvedev’s dislike of clay courts could help limit the difference in points between the two players while Djokovic remains out of action.
Though Medvedev has enjoyed substantial success in the past three years, none of his titles has come on clay, famously declared in his round of 32 match against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina at the Madrid Open, “I don’t want to play here on this surface!”
He also jokingly asked the umpire at the Italian Open to default him after hitting the ball into the net during a match against Aslan Karatsev.
Medvedev vs Davidovich Fokina, Madrid 2021
While this could give Djokovic some breathing space, the American hard court season continues in the lead up to the US Open, where Medvedev’s preferred conditions return to the fore. But as time passes and government rules ease, Nadal and Roger Federer have shown that it is possible to accrue further grand slam titles without being top of the pack.
Nadal was ranked five when he won the Australian Open this year. Federer’s resurgent 2017 season began with winning the tournament ranked just seventeen. Djokovic’s own 2017 saw him take the second half of the season off after Wimbledon, only to win the event the following year, along with Cincinnati, the US Open and Shanghai.
So while conditions and circumstances may temporarily conspire against players at particular stages in their careers, Djokovic is undoubtedly equipped to see the difficult times through and return to high-level competition once restrictions are eased.
Do you think Djokovic will be able to play in any grand slams this year? And will he be in a good enough state when he returns to compete effectively? Let me know in the comments below.