When Novak Djokovic drops serve four times in a match, fires 29 unforced errors over two sets and only converts two breaks points out of nine, you know there is something wrong. But stats alone hardly paint the full picture.
Watching Djokovic fall to the ever-solid Roberto Bautista Agut in the Shanghai semi-final on Saturday, there were plenty of signs of that mental fatigue he has talked about.
Those extra lingering seconds he’d spend wiping his face with his towel between points, hiding from the eyes of the world fixated on him. Those angst-filled racquet smashes, while carefully making sure he’s destroying every inch of the frame. That deadpan stare after ripping his shirt from the neckline, like it was suffocating him on court.
You wouldn’t describe Djokovic’s reactions as rage – more like a state of surrender to frustration. An acceptance of the situation he was in. Controlled but powerful aggression towards himself.
There was often a look of alarm on his face when he looked up to his box after hitting a poor shot. The world No1 appeared a man who was aware he had a problem, and was giving in to the struggle.
The last person you’d want to face when you’re feeling that way is definitely Bautista Agut. The Spaniard is relentless, as steady a baseliner as you can find on tour, and one who would force you to hit that extra shot, and go for more in search for the winner.
He can also be ice-cold when it comes to his emotions on court, and having previously taken sets off of Djokovic at two grand slams, he knew he had what it takes to make the Serb feel uncomfortable. More so than he already was.
The 29-year-old has spoken of “personal problems” after crashing out of the Wimbledon third round to Sam Querrey.
He has had to deal with wrist, shoulder and elbow injuries, which is something he has not been accustomed to, considering how carefully he treats his body.
His bulldozing stretch of form that saw him capture six grand slams from nine finals since the start of 2014 (25 trophies in total during that period) was governed by an insane level of meticulousness from the Serb.
From diet changes, to secret recovery routines, to meditation and yoga, to the people he has around him… that “holistic approach” he constantly talked about looks to have been briefly disrupted, be it because of the injuries, or his personal issues, or both.
In his perennial quest to reach the ultimate equilibrium in his life to bring out the best in him on the court, Djokovic has ended up mentally fatigued and out of balance. A continuous pursuit of perfection can do that to a person – it’s only natural. He himself said it, that it was only a matter of time before he went through something like this.
It seems the best solution for him right now is to take some proper time off. And considering how smart the 12-time grand slam winner has been with his breaks and off-seasons, you can count on the fact that he will use his time away from the court wisely.
Djokovic insists he is not thinking about the year-end No1 ranking at the moment which sounds like the right thing to do.
If he’s mentally spent, he’s better off just doing what he can in Paris and London before turning his focus to next season.