Late last year, Novak Djokovic appeared lost.
He’d won at Roland Garros in June, a victory that completed his Grand Slam set and saw him hold all four major titles simultaneously.
With his primary goal met and a colossal lead at No.1 in the ATP rankings, what more was there for him to achieve?
It appeared he was asking himself that same question when he played at ensuing tournaments. He won just one more title for the year. He lost his No.1 ranking to Andy Murray. He suffered a slew of uncharacteristic early losses. And his competitive fire appeared extinguished.
Now, he assures us, it’s returned.
“Generally, if I see myself from larger perspective from today comparing to end of last season, I’m a different player. I feel more comfortable, I feel more fresh. I look forward to compete and I feel more confident on the court,” he said.
“Winning the French Open for the first time and crowning that couple of years of consistent high results was magnificent. I really gave it all; French Open was always one of the top priorities these last couple of years.
“But on the same side it took a lot of emotions and energy out of me, and I took some time to reflect on things. And then I had to start re-motivating myself and getting back on track, and I feel like now it’s much better than it was. Especially (compared with) the second part of the last season.
“After US Open I had those couple of months where I wasn’t myself on the court and now I’m at a better place and I believe I’m heading in the right direction.”
His upward swing has come at a good time.
The Serb is a three-time defending champion at Indian Wells, having last endured a loss in the Californian desert way back in 2013 in the semifinals to Juan Martin del Potro.
Del Potro looms as a potential third-round opponent for Djokovic; both players have fallen in what is being termed the “group of death”, a stacked bottom quarter of the draw also containing Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Nick Kyrgios.
Del Potro stretched Djokovic to three sets last week in Acapulco before Kyrgios bundled him out of the tournament in straight sets in the quarterfinals.
“I haven’t had too many draws like that. So yeah, it’s quite amazing to see that many quality players are in one quarter and one section of the draw,” Djokovic said.
“But it is what it is, obviously Nadal and Federer are just starting to build their rankings. Especially Roger, (he) hasn’t played for the last six months of last year; winning the Australian Open got him back into the top 10 but he’s still not top 8.
“We’ll see what happens in the first four, five days of the tournament. We’ll already have some very strong matches.”
For all of Djokovic’s assertions that he’s feeling like a world-beater once again, his results so far in 2017 wouldn’t exactly fill is fans with complete confidence.
He did win the ATP title in Doha to open the season, yet that result was quickly followed by a shock loss to Denis Istomin in the second round of the Australian Open. He made a brief appearance in Davis Cup for Serbia – his only rubber was cut short when opponent Daniil Medvedev retired in the fourth set – and wasn’t sighted again until his late wildcard entry into Acapulco.
During his time in Australia, Djokovic’s physique was put under the microscope – was the already-thin world No.2 even skinnier now?
“I’ve been even leaner,” he revealed to the press at Indian Wells.
“But I feel good at the moment – I feel like I have enough strength, power, and combination and balance of dynamics, speed and power on the court which is important because this sport requires an athlete to be good in all physical elements of your body.
“I don’t (weigh) myself too often; I was lighter let’s say end of last season than what I was know. It really goes up and down.”
In early 2016, not long before winning his fifth title at Indian Wells, Djokovic heard a metaphor that resonated with him.
“It’s much easier for the wolf that is going uphill and running up the mountain. Not easier, but he was hungrier than the wolf standing on the hill,” he said.
The wolf standing on the hill – the world No.1 – was where he found himself at the time.
This year, the circumstances are different.
“I guess I’m one of the wolves going up now. And I’m hungry,” he laughed when reminded of his quote.
“If I am not hungry to have success in this sport I wouldn’t be siting here talking with you and playing this tournament.
“I’ve achieved so much in my career that I’m obviously very content with (it) and I could easily stop today and say, OK it’s been enough.
“But I keep going because I have that drive in me. As long as that’s present, I’ll keep on playing.”
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