BNP Paribas Open: Novak Djokovic returns for a chance at history

Novak Djokovic appeared to be at rock bottom last year at Indian Wells. He hadn’t won a Grand Slam title in nearly two years, underwent the first surgery of his career and had reached the age of 30, which often signals the beginning of the end for even the world’s best tennis players.

His loss to Taro Daniel, who ranked 109th in the world, marked the first time since he debuted here as an 18-year-old in 2006 that Djokovic had lost his first match at the BNP Paribas Open. He then lost his first match two weeks later in Miami.

Some wondered aloud if perhaps his championship window had closed.

“When we saw him at Indian Wells and Miami last year was probably like the lowest we had ever seen him playing at his level,” said Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst who previously coached Andre Agassi.

Fast forward 12 months and it’s obvious that any notions of Djokovic being finished were clearly premature. He’s not only returned to form but is surging like perhaps never before and enters his first match at Indian Wells as the top-ranked player in the world.

He’s won the last three Grand Slams and can match a feat that only he and the legendary Rod Laver have accomplished by winning four consecutive majors. Djokovic did it from 2015-16 and dubbed it the Djoker Slam.

“He’s got a good chance to do it,” Laver told The Desert Sun. “He played so unbelievably well against Nadal in the Australian Open. I’m thinking, ‘How can anybody do that?”

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But first, Djokovic has some unfinished business in the California desert. He won three consecutive singles titles here from 2014-16 and compiled a 20-match win streak here that was finally snapped by Nick Kyrgios in 2017. He has a chance to win a sixth title here at Indian Wells, which would be more than any player in the history of the tournament.

To be in that position, Djokovic had to get healthy after elbow surgery in 2017 and regain his confidence during a tumultuous first half of 2018. His breakthrough came in Rome, where he reached the semifinals before losing to Rafael Nadal. He then reached the final at Queen’s Club in London and won Wimbledon for the fourth time.

He then won the U.S. Open in September and the Australian Open in January, which added to the Serbian’s tally of 15 Grand Slam titles. He came here last year, at the very least, to get matches in preparation for this latest run.

“I definitely wasn’t ready to compete at this level last year,” Djokovic said Thursday. “I was trying to convince myself that I was, and I truly wasn’t, and I know that most of my team members at the time were against me playing in Indian Wells and Miami because it was too early after surgery.”

Djokovic, 31, rose from 22 to first in the ATP rankings and some believe he’s now playing as well and with as much confidence as ever before. He’s brought back key members of his team that have helped him again be the player he once was.

“Now he’s back at that level where we’ve seen him dominate for many, many years and now it’s almost like, ‘Who’s going to beat him in a best-of-five match on any court?’ ” said Mark Woodforde, a 12-time Grand Slam doubles champion.

Added Gilbert: “He’s playing as well as he was when he did the last Djoker Slam, if not better.”

Woodforde and Gilbert are just a sampling of those who are stunned by what Djokovic is doing. BNP Paribas Open tournament director Tommy Haas isn’t coy when he talks about his pal Roger Federer is the best player of this or any generation. But he also won’t say that Djokovic doesn’t have a chance to be in the conversation at some point.

“You say, ‘Well, hold on now,'” Haas said. “He’s 31. If he stays healthy another four, five, six years and wants to continue to play and dedicate his life to it, he can play another 20-24 slams. Let’s say he wins five or six of them. I mean, he’s right there with Roger. It’s kind of crazy.”

Aside from improved health and no lag after time away, one difference in Djokovic, Haas and Gilbert say, is that players aren’t entering matches with as much of a belief that they can beat him this time around. This time last year, Gilbert said, players likely had a greater belief that they could beat a vulnerable Djokovic. Now, they walk down the tunnel and into the stadium already down a few games in their head.

For Djokovic to rise through it all and regain the top spot in the rankings, it also shows the great sense of belief that Djokovic has in himself.

To battle back from that and try everything from yoga to drinking celery juice every morning at the crack of dawn, Haas says Djokovic is “the ultimate warrior.”

Laver, Gilbert, Haas and Woodforde are all in Indian Wells this week to watch for themselves, up close and personal, whether this latest run will continue with a BNP Paribas Open title.

“It was quite a journey in the last 12 months,” Djokovic said. “I tried to remind myself where I was last year at this time — coming back after a long absence from the tour and bouncing back from the surgery.

“It was quite unlikely to happen considering how I was playing and feeling. I’m very grateful for that journey.”

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