Novak Djokovic has lost his biggest weapon – and he may never get it back

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If there were doubts about Novak Djokovic’s current standing in the men’s game ahead of his return to action in Monte Carlo, they were amplified by his defeat against Casper Ruud.

Djokovic had never dropped a set against his Norwegian rival prior in their previous five meetings, with the manner of his third defeat of the season leaving an impression that the world No 1’s decline can no longer be viewed as a temporary blip.

There will be those who point out Djokovic has a habit of starting the clay court season slowly, with his failure to win in Monte Carlo since 2015 confirmation of that.

Yet the huge double fault he threw in on match point against Ruud was symbolic of an aura that is being chipped away rapidly with each defeat in Djokovic’s record.

His defeat in the Australian Open semi-finals against an inspired Jannik Sinner was not a sign of his imminent downfall, but his horrible loss against Luca Nardi and now this defeat against Ruud will give every player he faces hope that the Djokovic of old has gone for good.

This 24-time Grand Slam champion may well be a different beast by the time we get to the Grand Slams at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon the coming weeks, but the fear factor Djokovic has taken onto court with him for 15 years and more is suddenly losing its venom.

“I’m used to really high standard in terms of expectations of the results, so not having a title is, maybe comparing to the last 15 years, not a great season at all,” said Djokovic.

“I had semis of Australia, semis here. I only played three tournaments this year, so of course, you know, it’s normal to expect that you have some seasons where you don’t start well, and this is the one.

“Hopefully, I can pick up. In terms of results, I can build from here, because, you know, I played some good tennis. Hopefully in the next tournaments, I’ll be able to play even better.

“My game was kind of up and down. I mean, the positive thing is that I kind of managed to come back after losing the first set and really find the strength in the game.”

If you had shown those quotes to an audience of tennis fans when Djokovic won the ATP Finals in Turin last November, they would never have believed they would be muttered by the most successful male player of all-time just a few months later.

Like a prizefighter who suffers a shock knock-out or a football manager who believed he was special until results undermined his greatness, Djokovic is a world No 1 who appears to be there for the taking.

“Obviously Novak is Novak. He’s human. Sometimes he doesn’t seem like it, but he is like everyone else,” said Ruud after his win.

“I think what really motivated me and helped me a bit was maybe that I thought about, you know, he lost a match in Indian Wells to Luca Nardi, and he showed there that he’s also vulnerable sometimes. Not many times in a year, but a few days here and there he’s possible to beat.

“Luckily for me I was able to think about those thoughts in the end of the third set and take advantage of it, believing more in myself that I could beat him now than before because he didn’t have that perfect record so far this year, and that kind of is how tennis works.

“Fine balance. If you see that someone has done really well in the beginning of the year, it’s tough to play them, because you’re expecting, wow, this guy is almost impossible to beat.”

They were words that said much about how the locker room is looking at this version of Djokovic.

We have not viewed the 24-time Grand Slam king in such a light for a long time, with the red-faced Djokovic suddenly looking all of his nearly 37 years as he has lost matches that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago.

Sinner and his young rival Carlos Alcaraz have been hailed as the future of men’s tennis, but they may start looking like the present unless Djokovic defies the sands of time once again and rediscovers his mojo on the Grand Slam stages this summer.

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