But I don’t think I have ever seen Djokovic more disconsolate after a loss than he was yesterday after falling 7-6 (6), 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (5) to Sam Querrey in the third round of the world’s preeminent tennis tournament. He was unusually somber, perhaps because he met with the media only about twenty minutes after a loss he could never have anticipated. Djokovic earnestly tried to be honest about his own startlingly low grade performance—and the reasons for it—without diminishing what Querrey had done. He was walking a fine line, but, characteristically, he did not cross it. In my view, Djokovic was remarkably dignified without concealing the depth of his pain and the degree of his disappointment.
He had good reason to be so wounded by what had happened. Only once in nine previous appointments against the journeyman Querrey had Djokovic met defeat, and on that occasion the loss was freakish because the Serbian was ahead 6-0, 2-0 indoors in Paris at the Masters 1000 event in 2012 before he got beaten 0-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4. Querrey was the last player anyone expected to oust Djokovic on a big occasion. It was an astonishing setback for the world No. 1 on a number of levels.
Djokovic was trying to become the first man in the “Open Era” ever to win five consecutive major tournaments. He had just joined the career Grand Slam club by winning his first French Open at Roland Garros. He had made it at least to the finals of the previous six Grand Slam events. He had captured six of the last eight majors dating back to Wimbledon in 2014. Moreover, Djokovic was striving for a third straight Wimbledon title and a fourth in all. He was the strong favorite to prevail again this time around.
Moreover, Djokovic is one of the most reliable performers in all of sports, a paragon model of consistency, and a champion who has established himself across the past five years or more as an exceedingly tough customer who can handle pressure as well as anyone in his trade. Just how consistent is he? Since losing in the third round of the 2009 French Open to Philipp Kohlschreiber, Djokovic had advanced to the quarterfinals or beyond in 28 consecutive Grand Slam championships. That is no mean feat. It did not happen by accident. He is the game’s ultimate professional. He takes no one lightly. He approaches every contest with an uncluttered mind, a deep purposefulness and a clear sense of tactical priorities.
So why did he lose to Sam Querrey of all people? I believe there was something fundamentally wrong with Djokovic. Querrey played some inspired tennis, and his steely resolve at the end of this confrontation was impressive. But the fact remains that Novak Djokovic lost this match much more than Querrey won it. There was considerable speculation afterwards about what went wrong for Djokovic.
Perhaps in time we will find out more about what may have led to his demise, but I believe the rumors swirling around the grounds yesterday that Djokovic was suffering from a left shoulder ailment that seemed to inhibit him decidedly on his backhand side, and even on serve. Both the serve and the backhand were not anywhere near his customary standard. In turn, Djokovic seemed to be having an issue with his eyes. Keep in mind that he had lost only three matches on his way to Wimbledon all year long, including a defeat against Feliciano Lopez in Dubai when he had to retire after the first set because his vision was impaired. Periodically, he has had problems with his contact lenses.
I noticed when Djokovic commenced his battle with Querrey on Friday evening that he seemed to be straining his eyes at times. The first set was hard fought on both sides of the net, and Querrey exploited his big serve to the hilt, pouring in 24 of 34 first serves. He won 21 of those 24 points (88%) and kept Djokovic constantly at bay. The match started in the early evening and Court 1 was slick. Djokovic fell a bunch of times and seemed very uncertain of his footing. Conversely, Querrey seemed surprisingly comfortable and perhaps a bit surprised that Djokovic did not test him more with high quality returns.
They went to a tie-break, and Querrey was up 6-4, double set point. Djokovic rallied to 6-6 dynamically, but then he met misfortune. Querrey miss-hit a backhand return off a second serve as he attacked the net. Djokovic was not on balance for his backhand passing shot, and he missed. Querrey took the next point commandingly to seal the set. The top seed was in trouble, but his problems mounted in the second set. Djokovic garnered his first break point of the match at 1-1 but did not convert. Thereafter, he evaporated, losing five games in a row, getting broken twice, fading into a pale imitation of himself. He seemed somewhere far away, and Querrey relaxed and blasted away off the ground accordingly. Djokovic remained reluctant to move with his customary explosiveness, as if he was afraid he might fall.
The match was postponed until Saturday by rain. The situation was reminiscent of Djokovic’s fourth round duel a year ago on Court 1 with Kevin Anderson. In that encounter, Djokovic dropped a pair of tie-breaks to the South African before retaliating to take the third and fourth sets. They returned a day later, when Djokovic won a tense fifth set to complete a remarkable comeback. He then, of course, marched through the tournament, defeating Federer in the final for the second year in a row.
When the Djokovic-Querrey clash resumed, the world No. 1 seemed briefly to have found his range and reestablished his confidence. Striking the ball much more cleanly, setting up his shots precisely, opening up the court intelligently, Djokovic rolled to a 4-0, 0-15 third set lead before rain curtailed play again. That may have hurt Djokovic’s rhythm. When they returned, he held for 5-0 but then dropped three games in a row before closing out the set 6-3.
The lapse from the Serbian seemed costly as the fourth set turned into a riveting skirmish. Djokovic was determined to push on into a fifth set and make Querrey squirm, but the American was equally unswerving as he sought to avoid another set at all costs. Querrey saved three break points in the first game of the fourth set. Djokovic surprisingly missed a high backhand return off an 88 MPH second serve kicker, lofted a forehand lob long and missed a two-hander off a miss-hit shot from the American.
Querrey held on for 1-0. After Djokovic held at love for 1-1, he sternly went to work again after another rain delay. When play resumed, Querrey fought off three more break points, two with aces, one with a forehand winner up the line set up by another booming serve. It was 2-1 for the No. 28 seed, who held with a 129 MPH ace down the T. Serving in the fourth game, Djokovic was harried. He saved one break point with a superb second serve released at 105 MPH down the T that drew an error, and erased another when he got away with an abysmal approach shot as Querrey bungled a forehand passing shot into the net.
It was soon 2-2. Querrey wandered into more difficult terrain as Djokovic garnered two more break points, but the American came through with a service winner down the T and an ace to deny the Serbian those opportunities: 3-2 for the American. Djokovic found himself down 15-40 in the sixth game but released a 105 MPH second serve on the chalk that set up a solid forehand approach, and Querrey missed the passing shot. A forehand winner from Djokovic lifted him back to deuce. Querrey created a third break point chance, only to drive a two-hander long without much provocation. Djokovic resolutely held on for 3-3.
After two deuces, Querrey advanced to 4-3, serving four aces in that game, but Djokovic answered with a hold at 30 for 4-4. Down 15-40 in the ninth game, Querrey delivered back to back aces. Djokovic moved to break point for the third time in that game but Querrey’s drop volley was letter perfect. Yet Djokovic would not relent. He reached break point for the fourth time in that game and the twelfth time in the set, and this one he converted. A deep return of serve handcuffed Querrey, and Djokovic stepped in to lace a forehand inside in for a winner.
The top seed was serving for the set, and he seemed poised to turn the match permanently in his direction. But he played an abysmal game at the worst possible time, netting a routine backhand down the line before falling to 0-30 when a backhand crosscourt that was called wide. Djokovic rallied to 15-30 but did not get enough mustard on a forehand approach, allowing Querrey all the time he needed to drill a backhand passing shot up the line for a winner. Djokovic saved one break point but then did himself in on the next one at 30-40. He attacked somewhat tentatively and “bricked” a forehand drop volley. The ball died on his racket and landed only slightly in front of him.
Improbably, Querrey had broken back for 5-5 after the Serbian virtually gave his serve away. The American held at 30 for 6-5, and then the aggravating, spitting rain reemerged, delaying play once more.
Djokovic had to serve to stay in the tournament when he returned, but he held at love as an apprehensive Querrey faltered considerably off the ground. On they went to a tie-break, and Djokovic had the quick mini-break and a 2-0 lead. He then got what looked like a bad bounce, subsequently miss-hitting a forehand wildly. Yet Querrey remained uptight, taking a short chip return from Djokovic and sending a forehand approach out. For the second time, Djokovic had the mini-break. He served at 3-1. But he was cautious, and Querrey forced the favorite to lob long. Djokovic then sliced a backhand into the net, making an error that could only be attributed to nerves.
Yet the top seed aced Querrey down the T for 4-3. Here Djokovic missed a crucial backhand return long off a 91 MPH kicking second serve from Querrey. That made it 4-4. Djokovic netted another backhand—this one under mild pressure—and that gave Querrey a 5-4 lead. An unforced error off the forehand from Djokovic sent ripples of anticipation across the crowd as Querrey stood at 6-4, with two match points at his disposal.
On the first, Djokovic aced Querrey down the T at 122 MPH. Querrey served at 6-5, missed the first delivery, but sealed the biggest triumph of his career when Djokovic drove a forehand inside in wide. The 6’6″, 28-year-old American had produced one of the biggest upsets of the Open Era at Wimbledon by toppling the sport’s dominant performer. Seven time champion Pete Sampras lost to lucky loser George Bastl of Switzerland out on the old Court 2 in 2002 as he made his last appearance, and that was a stunning upset. Rafael Nadal bowed out in 2012 against the maddeningly unpredictable and explosive Lukas Rosol, and the Spaniard suffered a similarly shocking loss in 2013 against the Belgian Steve Darcis.
On paper, Querrey’s victory over Djokovic might look like a lesser upset, but perhaps it is not. With all due respect to the American—an easy going, decent, well liked individual—he has no business beating Novak Djokovic. I am convinced the way Djokovic pushed his backhand through that entire match that the rumors about an ailing left shoulder are absolutely true. He was simply not himself. Querrey served beautifully, releasing 31 aces overall and 15 in the fourth set alone. He won 79% of his first serve points, offsetting a 42% success rate on his second serve.
But—at least in my view—Querrey did not play out of his mind or beyond his comfort zone. He made 52 unforced errors, including 25 in the fourth set. Yet he prevailed largely because the guy on the other side of the net was almost unrecognizable. Djokovic was clearly saddened in his press conference, yet he found some kind words to laud his opponent. “Congratulations to Sam,” he said. “He played a terrific match. He served very well, as he usually does. I think that part of his game was brutal today. He made a lot of free points with the first serve. Just well done. He just overpowered me.”
Asked why his serve and backhand were so far off, if there was a reason for that and if he was 100% healthy, Djokovic responded, “Not really. But it’s not the place and time to talk about it. The opponent was playing on a very high level and he deserved to win.”
And yet, despite his defeat and the end of a stirring run through the majors that has raised his place in history immeasurably, Novak Djokovic can hold his head high and turn his attention to the Olympic Games and the U.S. Open. I believe there is a good chance that he will be victorious in both events. He has removed a layer of pressure from himself by losing here at Wimbledon, and that will motivate him even more for the upcoming events. He had been half way to a 2016 Grand Slam, but now that opportunity is over. Djokovic has been beaten at a major for the first time since Stan Wawrinka upended him in the final of Roland Garros last year.
His run of greatness must not be taken for granted. To put it in perspective, Roger Federer was twice a match away from sweeping four majors in a row, but both times, in 2006 and 2007, Rafael Nadal toppled the Swiss in the finals of the French Open. Nadal himself was going for four in a row when he played the 2011 Australian Open, but he fell against countryman David Ferrer in the quarterfinals of Melbourne. Pete Sampras swept three in a row across 1993 and into 1994, but he bowed out in the Roland Garros quarterfinals against compatriot Jim Courier.
Djokovic surpassed them all and became the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to win four majors consecutively. He also set an Open Era record by taking 30 matches in a row at the majors, surpassing Laver’s mark of 29 straight in 1969-70.
Djokovic’s astounding run is over. But the view here is that he will rebuild his psyche over the summer and remind everyone that there is nothing more dangerous than a great champion trying to recover from a hard loss, knowing that there is no one out there who can stop him when he is at the peak of his powers, and realizing that he remains the best player in the world of tennis by a wide margin.