Injury that felled Roger Federer deals major shock to Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic receives treatment
For the first time in 1400 professional outings, on Monday Novak Djokovic's body cracked and yet he still rallied to win the match - Mateo Villalba/Getty Images

Unprecedented. Shocking. Game-changing. Such were the words that came to mind as Novak Djokovic announced that he has torn his medial meniscus and is withdrawing from the French Open.

Admittedly, this may sound like hyperbole. Some variation on the headline “Athlete gets injured” is published dozens of times every day. But you have to remember who we are talking about: one of the most bulletproof physical specimens in the history of sport. In the circumstances, “body defeats Djokovic” must count as the biggest upset of the year.

Broadly speaking, Djokovic has been the world’s best for 13½ years. In that time, he has collected a couple of overuse injuries, including an elbow problem that needed surgery in 2018. And yet, in 1,400 professional matches, he has never heard a joint, a ligament or a tendon go “pop” on him. Until Monday afternoon, that is.

Djokovic’s resilience is founded in both nature and nurture. His first coach, Jelena Gencic, never believed in weight training. Instead, she recommended that he should hang from doorways to improve his already uncanny flexibility. Often compared to Gumby – a clay character from American TV – he has always soaked up the impact of the tour like a giant shock absorber.

His fitness record ranks among his many extraordinary achievements. It certainly stands in contrast to that of his greatest rival. Rafael Nadal’s physical frailties have forced him to miss 15 majors since he played his first Wimbledon in 2004. Djokovic has skipped just three since his own debut in 2005, and two of those stemmed from his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid.

It is true that Djokovic, who recently turned 37, has admitted struggling for motivation on the ATP Tour this season. But he has still put in some vintage performances at the majors, the only events that get him out of bed these days.

He certainly looked robust when he outlasted Lorenzo Musetti – an Italian 15 years his junior – in an epic five-setter in the small hours of Sunday morning. Compare that with the faltering display we witnessed from his near-exact contemporary Andy Murray, who was born a week earlier, but who came into the French Open with a metal hip, recently ruptured ankle ligaments, and a sore back which needed an unspecified “procedure”.

It might make more sense to place Djokovic alongside Roger Federer, who floated through his career playing such high-class, low-impact tennis that he did not retire until he was 41.

Yet even Federer tore the meniscus in his left knee in 2016, when he was 35. (Weirdly, he felt it go when he turned awkwardly while running a bath for his twin daughters.) It took him eight months or so to feel fully confident on the repaired joint, whereupon he added three more major titles to his tally.

The Federer story – which eventually saw him forced out of the game by cartilage trouble in his right knee – emphasises how difficult it is to predict Djokovic’s recovery schedule.

Some meniscus tears never heal right; others prove as trivial as Taylor Fritz’s example from 2021. (Sustained in the second round of the French Open, that one didn’t even stop Fritz from winning matches at Wimbledon three weeks later.) The range of outcomes is so broad as to reduce any prognostication to sheer guesswork. But a 37-year-old body – even one as perfectly conditioned as Djokovic’s – tends to heal itself more slowly than a youngster’s.

Clearly, there was always going to be a moment when Djokovic’s fairy-tale run came to grief. It took a miserable French Open, blighted by dark skies and endless rain, to undo him. Speaking after his ill-fated knee twist on Monday afternoon, he railed against the tournament for removing most of the sodden clay and leaving a “very slippery” surface.

At the same time, however, we should acknowledge that nobody else has struggled with their footing on Court Philippe Chatrier to the same extent as Djokovic. Having torn his meniscus in the second set of his meeting with Francisco Cerundolo, he recovered his mobility via a heavy dose of painkillers, but still went on to suffer a heavy fall while tracking across the baseline in the fifth set.

Could this injury be the result of the soreness he had felt in his knee for a couple of weeks, but which only bothered him when he wasn’t warmed up and contesting a match? Or might it have been a hangover from his 3.07am finish against Musetti? According to Dr Robby Sikka, medical director for the PTPA player union: “Neurological recovery takes longer the more you put a player through, and another five-set match would be very tough.”

What we can say for sure is that Djokovic’s camp has been in flux. He announced a split with coach Goran Ivanisevic in March, and with physical trainer Marco Panichi a month later. Even his agent has been replaced. While cause and effect are impossible to identify in a case like this, the sense of instability extends far beyond the court.

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