The hard truth: At No. 2 in the world, Novak Djokovic is still looking for answers to questions about his health.
Novak Djokovic. He's an enigma wrapped inside a mystery. He's a supremely gifted and intuitive player with an uncanny flair for the dramatic, and he's a habitual brooder that tends to become a prisoner of his own demonic mind. He's got enough moxie to keep a roomful of international dignitaries hanging on his every word, enough style to look equally stunning in a tuxedo or a Speedo, and yet he's vulnerable, moody, and hypersensitive to the extreme pressure of being an elite athlete.
The phrase Jekyll and Hyde comes to mind, but there are so many theories—from Djokovic, his camp, pundits, and beyond—in play that it is very hard to get the the heart of Djokovic's demons.
It's easy to watch Djokovic, as we did yesterday as he struggled through a straight set win over Julian Benneteau, and wonder—just what the heck is up with this guy, and how much better would he be if his fitness was at the level of his peers?
But it's not so easy to understand.
"When you go out on the court you want to battle your opponent, you don't want to have to be worrying about yourself—that problem can be fixed," said Brad Gilbert, as he discussed Djokovic's health with Chris Fowler and Darren Cahill during an ESPN broadcast.
Gilbert, like many others who have found themselves frustrated when watching Djokovic struggle in spite of his world class strokes and tennis IQ, believes that Djokovic has it in his power to eliminate his distracting maladies.
But there are others that don't think it will be so easy. Perhaps, they think, this is Novak's cross to bear.
Still, it's worth a shot. Djokovic is only 23, and he does possess a skillset that could take him to the No. 1 ranking and even keep him there for a while—but not with his current afflictions.
Djokovic spends so much of his time fighting his issues with breathing, that's it is hard to get an accurate read on how much better the world's current No. 2 player could be if he went forward with the fitness level of other top-5 players.
But could it really be fixed, as Brad Gilbert wants to believe? Or is Novak a self fulfilling prophecy that will remain forever out of breath at those crucial moments of matches when he needs clarity—and oxygen—the most?
More perplexing, is that Djokovic himself isn't quite sure of the nature of his heat-related illnesses. "Well, it's a big mental struggle, as well, besides physical," Djokovic said yesterday after the match. "I don't know," he continued, "I'm really trying to balance all things in my life, and fitness-wise and everything, I've been doing a great job... It's just, I guess, a little nervousness during the match, and it all combines with the heat and stress..."
It's clear from his words, that Djokovic hasn't been able to put a finger on the cause of his on-court suffering. It's also clear that he wants to overcome his issues. In between moments where he was bending over and gasping for air yesterday, Djokovic was able to produce some thrilling shotmaking against the Frenchman Benneteau. If you saw his drop shot on set point in the first, you know exactly what i'm referring to.
Djokovic was able to overcome his issues yesterday, but in a different scenario against a different opponent, he might not have been so fortunate. Many of his losses in the past have been attributable to his breathing issues, and due to the current lack of understanding of the nature and legality of possible remedies for them, we can except to see more turbulence ahead.
The fact that he's No. 2 in the world in spite of all this is definitely cause for pride. The fact that he's searching for a solution, however, is still what is holding him back.