Novak Djokovic may look back on these last months as some of the most dreadful in his career, a series of moments that appeared to be filled with opportunity but fizzled in spectacular fashion.
On Sunday, his troubled year brought the challenge of the greatest clay-court player the game has known, and Djokovic flopped dramatically again as he lost to Rafael Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.
To be fair, there is no shame in losing to Nadal at Roland Garros. Nadal is now 100-2 on the red clay in Paris. But Djokovic, who won the Italian Open on clay in Rome last month and tore through his early matches at Roland Garros, was supposed to have an opening.
The weather was cool for the autumn version of this event, which is usually played in late spring. That slowed the ball down and took one of Nadal’s favorite weapons — his absurdly high-bouncing forehand — out of his arsenal. A new, heavier ball was supposed to make life even harder for Nadal and his power game, and favor Djokovic’s ability to find the sharpest angles for his winners. Midday rain in Paris forced organizers to close the roof, another supposed advantage for Djokovic.
And then, like so many other times in this strange year, it all went south so quickly for Djokovic, a 17-time Grand Slam champion who had not lost a match he had completed in 2020.
He struggled with his serve and failed to win a game in the first set. It was more of the same in the second, and his errors began to pile up. Seemingly easy forehands whipped into the net. Too many of his usually lethal backhands sailed wide.
And while Djokovic battled to extend the match in the third set, the final moments made clear how inevitable the result had been. Djokovic double-faulted to give Nadal the break that allowed him to serve for the third set at 6-5. A sloppy forehand gave Nadal match point, and then Djokovic barely moved on the ace that ended the tournament.
“I was not so pleased,” Djokovic said of the way things turned out.
That’s the way things have gone for some months now for Djokovic, ever since he started the year with a crushing win over Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open final for his 17th Grand Slam title. What looked like another year of dominance for the world No. 1 came to a halt in March when the spreading coronavirus forced sports to shut down.
In the spring, during the lockdown in Europe, Djokovic posted a series of conversations with his friend Chervin Jafarieh, who serves as a kind of New Age guru for the tennis star. The conversations were meant to help people add meaning and purpose to their lives, but Djokovic’s bizarre talk about the human body being able to make polluted water healthy through prayer and belief overwhelmed whatever good intentions he might have had.
In June, he began the Adria Tour, which was supposed to be a series of tournaments that would bring tennis out of its hiatus. But it became a kind of superspreading event, with Djokovic and several other marquee players being infected with the coronavirus. The tour was canceled after significant backlash for parties and other events that had few pandemic precautions.
Then, his game on cruise control at the United States Open in September with none of his main rivals in the draw, Djokovic lost his temper and swatted a ball that hit a line judge in the throat. Tournament officials, bound by the rules, disqualified him.
Then came Sunday in Paris.
“I was thinking the conditions were more favorable to me,” he said.
If that was the case, someone forgot to tell Nadal, who blistered through the first set and had Djokovic on his heels in a way he rarely finds himself. Tied at 1-1 in the second set and serving at 0-15, Djokovic watched Nadal pummel a backhand passing shot down the line. It passed just a few feet from where he was standing. His head dropped. His eyes fell to the red clay, his spirit broken.
“I was completely overplayed,” he said.
It is possible that Djokovic lost the French Open two days before he took the court against Nadal.
On Friday, Djokovic held a two-sets-to-none lead over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. He failed to convert a match point in the third set, and the match stretched to five sets over a total of four hours. That is not a good way to prepare to play Nadal at the French Open, especially after Djokovic battled stiffness in his neck and back earlier in the tournament.
After the loss on Sunday, Djokovic tried to be philosophical. He was beaten by a better player, someone who has proved nearly impossible to beat at this tournament. Still, he made 52 unforced errors compared with 14 for Nadal.
He spoke as someone who expects he will have many more chances, and at 33, he probably will. Some will go his way, and some will blow up in his face. Even the best tennis player loses 45 percent of the points he plays. Perfection will always be elusive. The key for Djokovic moving forward will be whether he can limit his unforced errors, both on the court and off it.
“I have my flaws, as anybody else,” he said Sunday evening in Paris. “In the greatest defeats you learn the greatest lessons, as a tennis player and a person as well.”