It’s been a strange few years for Novak Djokovic. Between 2011, a year in which he went 70-6 and won three of four majors, and 2016, when he went 82-6 and was again a Roland Garros title away from the calendar-year Grand Slam, the Serb posted some of the most historic seasons the sport had ever seen. He’d get that elusive title on the terre battue of Paris in 2016, extending his weeks-at-No. 1 total to an impressive 223.
When Djokovic crushed Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in Doha in early 2016, an awed Rafa confessed, “I know nobody playing tennis like this — ever.” Even Djokovic called his performance “as close to perfection as it could get.”
However, a lackluster 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(5) loss to American Sam Querrey at Wimbledon that year seemed to derail him. He reached the US Open final later that summer, but it’s now been nearly two years since Djokovic has hugged hardware at any of tennis’ big four events. That on-court perfection, that Djokovic dominance we had grown so accustomed to, suddenly seems fleeting.
Djokovic, as it turns out, says he’s has been dealing with elbow issues these last two years, an injury that cut his 2017 season in half and prior to the BNP Paribas Open, limited him to just four matches in 2018. But the 30-year-old arrived in the desert full of hope, eager to test himself on the match court. With both Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek now in his corner, he had plenty to play for. In addition to assessing his in-competition level and further testing his truncated service motion, he was looking to break a few deadlocks. He is tied with Roger Federer with a record five BNP Paribas Open titles; and he’s side by side with Nadal for most ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crowns with 30. A title run here would have set him apart.
But the 13th-ranked Djokovic — a back-to-back-to-back champion between 2014 and 2016 — was sent packing by a 109th-ranked qualifier representing Japan, Taro Daniel, who pulled off a shocking 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-1 upset Sunday in two hours, 29 minutes, the biggest win of his career.
There must have been a collective sigh in Djokovic’s camp when he held at love to open the match. But after sprinting out to a 5-2 lead, the errors — especially from the backhand side — began to mount for the 12-time Slam champ, his otherwise best-in-the-business shot often letting him down. (Djokovic would finish with 58 unforced errors overall.) Daniel, 25, all but sat back and waited for his more experienced foe to falter in the tiebreak, pumping his fist at the one-hour mark as he moved ahead.
Observed Tennis Channel commentator Jim Courier of Djokovic’s form, “He needs some Rust-oleum out there.”
The Serbian would serve for the second set, too, this time at 5-4. It took him three set points to do so, but he would level the match at one set apiece before letting out a roar.
Daniels broke Djokovic at love to take a 3-1 lead in the decisive third set, and added another break two games later to vanquish his veteran opponent, who appeared physically compromised through the latter stages of the match.
It marks the earliest loss for Djokovic at Indian Wells since 2006, when he fell in the first round to Frenchman Julien Benneteau, 6-3, 6-4.
“It felt like first match I ever played on the tour,” Djokovic confided. “Very weird. I mean, I just completely lost rhythm, everything.”
“Nerves were there,” he added. “I made so many unforced errors that it was just one of those days where you’re not able to find the rhythm from the baseline, especially from the backhand side. That has always been a rock-solid shot for me throughout my career. Just some inexplicable, uncharacteristic errors. But I guess it’s all part of those particular circumstances that I’m in at the moment.”
Daniels, into the main draw for the first time after unsuccessful qualifying attempts in 2014 and 2015, will next face Argentine Leonardo Mayer, who advanced when 22nd seed Kei Nishikori withdrew due to illness.
There was drama elsewhere on the grounds of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, as unseeded Gael Monfils saved a match point to dispatch No. 15 seed John Isner in three sets, 6-7(5), 7-6(3), 7-5. Isner, a runner-up in 2012, collected 15 aces on the afternoon, but fell to 4-6 in FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings with the acrobatic Frenchman.
Other upsets on Sunday were registered by Frenchman Pierre-Hughes Herbert (def. 24th seed Gilles Muller 6-3, 7-5), lucky loser Dudi Sela (def. 21st seed Kyle Edmund 6-4, 6-4) and qualifier Yuki Bhambri (def. 9th seed Lucas Pouille 6-4, 6-4).
A pair of American wild cards — Ernesto Escobedo (l. to Feliciano Lopez 6-4, 6-3) and Tennys Sandgren (l. to David Ferrer 6-2, 7-6(3)) — saw their Indian Wells runs come to an end against Spaniards. Fellow American Tim Smyczek, a qualifier, fell to 31st-seeded German Philipp Kohlschreiber 1-6, 6-4, 6-4.