Novak Djokovic’s life on tour these days is significantly different than what he had grown accustomed to throughout a decade of competing at the highest level.
Seeded a lowly No. 10 at the Madrid Open this week, he had no bye in the first round and was drawn to face another former top-five player who has slipped in the rankings due to injuries – Kei Nishikori.
It was a test that could ultimately prove a blessing in disguise as Djokovic claimed a confidence-boosting 7-5, 6-4 victory over the Japanese, who just last month had reached the Monte Carlo final but is still not 100 per cent recovered from a wrist injury that kept him sidelined from August last year until the end of January.
Djokovic, a two-time champion in Madrid, broke once at the tail-end of each set to wrap up the victory in just under two hours. The Serb faces either Daniil Medvedev or Kyle Edmund in the second round.
“Well, it was strange, I must admit, playing Kei in the first round. Our rankings dropped due to injuries and everything that was happening for both of us in the last year. I mean, it can happen and it did happen here,” said Djokovic, who didn’t play for the last six months of 2017 then had elbow surgery in February, amassing just a 5-5 win-loss record in 2018 heading into Madrid.
“Of course, I’ve played Kei on big occasions, in many of the big tournaments, finals and semi-finals. It was different to play him in the first round. It was a big test for both of us.
“I’m glad that match went my way, but it could have gone his way as well. It was a very few points that really decided a winner today.
“It was exactly what I needed for my confidence and for my game. I’m just happy to go through this one.”
Djokovic’s dip in form and poor results aren’t the only things that are different for him at the moment. They’ve resulted in a lower seeding at tournaments which means that after a decade of being one of the higher seeds, he now doesn’t get a bye at a Masters 1000 like Madrid, he can play someone like Nishikori in the first round, and doesn’t have to do the mandatory pre-event press conferences.
That last one is a welcome change for Djokovic he said with a laugh.
“There are some positives about it. Not that I don’t like you guys, but sometimes it’s nice,” said the 30-year-old Serb.
“I came in, I was, like, waiting for my team, Elena to tell me when the press conference is. She’s like, ‘No press conference’. I’m like, ‘Okay, great’. So it is different.
“Some things that I haven’t faced, haven’t experienced for a long, long time. I mean, I was very fortunate throughout my career to go in kind of an upward direction always with my results and with my success. Ever since I got to top 10, for a decade I didn’t go out from top 10. That’s something I’m very proud about and of course grateful for. At the same time it had to happen. These are the circumstances that I’m facing at the moment. I’m trying to get the best out of them.”
Djokovic isn’t shying away from the challenge and in fact is embracing his new position.
“That’s life,” he continued. “Life is there to test us, to allow us to understand that we can get the best out of all situations, to grow and to be the best versions of ourselves. That’s how I approach it. That’s how I see it.
“It’s not easy. At times, you know, you start to question because I achieved a lot in this sport. Then when you have to kind of start over again, start finding inspirations and ways and stuff like this to keep on going, it’s tricky. The mind plays games with you. You have to kind of dig deep.
“That’s what we are supposed to do if we want to get to a better place always, as people and as professional athletes. It’s a beautiful process.”
Djokovic appears to be heading towards the right direction this clay season. He won two matches in Monte Carlo before losing in the last-16 to Dominic Thiem and now has taken out a tricky opponent in Nishikori.
Thiem says he felt he saw the spark back in Djokovic’s eyes during that three-setter in Monaco and believes the 12-time Grand Slam champion looks on his way back to winning ways.
“I think you saw it especially in the match against me (in Monte Carlo), that somehow the fire in his eyes and his body is kind of back, the way he was acting when he broke me back in the first set was when I think everybody got reminded of his best times, how he was acting and how his presence was on court. I think if he keeps that up he’ll be back at the very top level,” Thiem told reporters in Madrid on Sunday.
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