COMMENTARY | After pocketing both the Australian Open and Dubai titles earlier this year, Novak Djokovic was looking to increase his haul when the men's tour recently swung through North America. The two main tournaments during this leg, Indian Wells and Miami, are both played on hard court, a surface on which Djokovic typically excels.
Unfortunately, fate had different plans, and the world's No.1 tennis player came up short on both American coastlines. In what can only be described as surprising, Djokovic lost in the semifinals at Indian Wells and the fourth round at Miami.Given Djokovic had only lost one time prior to the quarters in the last two calendar years combined, the latter result was fairly significant. Tack on the fact that Djokovic lost to 34-year-old Tommy Haas and the shock value only increases. Prior to this victory, Haas was 1-14 in his career against No. 1-ranked players.
For Novak, the outcome meant two consecutive tournaments on a hard court in which he failed to claim the title, or even make the final. During the Miami match, Haas regularly employed a backhand slice to help keep the ball low and stop it from bouncing up into Djokovic's comfort zone. Although certainly an effective tactic, Djokovic appeared to cooperate by playing a rather flat all-around match.
Tied at two games apiece in the first set with the score knotted at 30-30, Djokovic played two straight points in which routine-looking forehands were perplexingly struck as unforced errors. After losing the first set, Djokovic then double-faulted at 15-40 to give Haas the first game of the second. It was that type of day for Djokovic, which was mostly characterized by his inability to tap a higher level.
After losing to world No.18-ranked Tommy Haas, Djokovic himself seemed to agree that his tennis game just isn't where it needs to be. Answering questions after the match, Djokovic said, according to ASAP Sports, "The results show everything, you know. As far as I'm concerned, it's definitely the worst match I have played in a long time."
Beyond Djokovic's No. 1 seeding at both tournaments, his results in California and Florida were surprising because they both took place on his preferred surface. There is absolutely no doubt that hard court is Djokovic's strongest surface. In fact, 78 percent of Djokovic's career titles have been won on hard court. Of the top three players in the game over the last decade, Djokovic has the highest concentration of titles on a single surface.
Popularly referred to as the "King of Clay," Rafael Nadal has won 72 percent of his career titles on the red dirt that yielded his popular nickname. Roger Federer has won 68 percent of his titles on hard court. Clearly, these surface figures are less concentrated than Djokovic's, albeit over somewhat longer careers.
The fact that so few tournaments are played on grass is one reason why Federer's concentration on hard court is higher than one might otherwise assume. These statistics also suggest that a surface-specialist moniker, such as the "Prince of Hard Court," might eventually catch up with Mr. Djokovic.
Prior to Indian Wells this year, much was made of the fact that Nadal hadn't won a title off clay since 2010. However, less widely publicized is the fact that Djokovic hasn't won a title off hard court since Wimbledon in 2011. The two-year anniversary of that drought is on the not-so-distant horizon.
When Djokovic first broke out and dominated the tour in 2011, his run gained momentum with consecutive titles at Indian Wells and Miami. Riding the confidence of these achievements Novak continued his trophy collecting spree on clay in Europe. It was on this historic run that Djokovic won half of his career titles on surfaces outside hard court, and that was in the span of only a few months.
In 2012, when Djokovic captured the title in Miami, but not at Indian Wells, he played the rest of the season without a title off hard court. Given that Djokovic failed to reach the finals of both recent hard-court tournaments in North America, it seems safe to say that his game is not currently clicking on all cylinders.
Whether he can turn it around and claim some clay or grass hardware in 2013 is yet to be seen.
Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. He is a frequent contributor at the Bleacher Report.
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