Even before the last point was played in his 7-6, 4-6,6-1 loss to Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel, the chorus of “Novak’s crisis continues” was already growing. Granted, the Serb’s play was far from his most impressive — most notably, 58 unforced errors, often coming on his bread-and-butter shots, like his inside backhand, confounded both spectators and Djokovic himself. But, given the circumstances, I wouldn’t put this match in the same category as the downturn Djokovic experienced from Wimbledon 2016 to Wimbledon 2017, for the following reasons.
1. He had surgery six weeks ago!
— ™ (@lynnlovestennis) February 1, 2018
This was Djokovic on February 1. He described the still-not-entirely-disclosed procedure as a small medical intervention. But for a pro athlete, any kind of surgery, especially on his playing hand, is far from minor. The fact that he was able to rehab and come back to play, somewhat unexpectedly, in Indian Wells should be encouraging for him.
2. Taro Daniel Can Really Play.
He may have had to qualify for the Indian Wells draw, but Taro Daniel is no stranger to rising to the occasion against quality opponents. Until today, the most memorable match of his career may very well be his 2016 defeat of Jack Sock at the Rio Olympics. But, he was also impressive in his second round loss to eventual champion Rafael Nadal at least year’s US Open. While Nadal can be a slow starter, Daniel showed the same ball striking skills on display against Djokovic to take the first set against Nadal, before succumbing to his own fatigue from a first round five setter and Nadal’s counterattack to go down in four sets. Needless to say, Daniel has been around enough not to be cowed by the biggest stages, and in a best of three set match, he had the experience to take advantage of Djokovic’s rusty play.
3. Djokovic’s Loss is Explainable.
While the errors themselves may have befuddled observers and the man himself, this wasn’t a match that Djokovic lost with a loss of mental edge — as one might characterize his 2012-2013 dip pre-Becker. This was just a bad day at the office, after not being there for a while. And it’s not even the first time he’s had such a terrible showing — remember that time he made 100 unforced errors and won a five setter against Gilles Simon in Australia? At 58 unforced errors over three sets, this match is pretty much the same error rate — the surprise might be that he didn’t lose against Simon!
None of this means that the Djokovic camp will leave Indian Wells happy with how things have gone — but given the struggles he’s experienced since Roland Garros 2016, an explainable, sloppy loss to an opponent who can play a few weeks out of surgery isn’t quite part of the Novak-in-crisis narrative that has dominated the last couple of years. He’s got a ways to go to reclaim his spot at the pinnacle of the sport, but today’s showing is more likely to be the start of that climb than a sign of downfall.