INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — You know his nickname, “Joker,” a word play on Novak Djokovic’s last name — by now, even non-tennis people know the “D” is silent. But a year ago, the Joker wasn’t laughing. Or smiling. Or, worst of all, winning.
There’s no injured reserve list in his sport. No disabled list. There is, however, an attempt to play hurt, because if you don’t, well, you don’t play. And others rush by you in the rankings.
And no matter how much success you’ve achieved, as Djokovic conceded Wednesday, doubt creeps into the brain. It’s been a year of living wildly for the Joker, 12 months of agony finally erased by maybe not ecstasy, but at least a return to greatness, to the No. 1 position in the rankings — all the way from No. 22.
In retrospect, Djokovic shouldn’t have played the BNP Paribas Open a year ago. He had undergone surgery (“A small medical intervention,” was Djokovic’s description) on his right elbow in February, reluctantly, after a miserable end to the 2017 season.
He wasn’t ready for Indian Wells last year, but the tournament is a favorite among the players — the spectacular tennis complex is maybe 20 miles east of Palm Springs — who because both men and women compete (yes, Venus Williams won Thursday) some choose to call the “Fifth Slam.”
In the first round Djokovic was stunned by Taro Daniel, a qualifier ranked 109th. Surely this was the end. To the contrary. Four months later, the Joker won Wimbledon. Then he won the U.S. Open. Then, to begin 2019, he won the Australian Open, repeat victories in each case but also reassuring.
From No. 22 he has soared back to the top, where he had been after taking four straight Slams, concluding with the 2016 French Open. No one had done that — not Roger Federer, not Rafa Nadal — since the great Rod Laver in 1969.
“It was quite a journey,” Djokovic said of his tumble and ascent. “I try to remind myself where I was at this time year ago. A long absence from the Tour, surgery. Definitely I wasn’t ready to compete at this level last year. Most of my team members were against me playing Indian Wells and (following) Miami because it was too early after surgery.”
Djokovic is 31, a Serbian with elastic moves and a great service return. He used to be known for his imitations of star players — those of the mannerisms of Maria Sharapova and Nadal were thigh-slappers — but then he gained recognition for his game. His15 Grand Slam victories are third behind Federer’s 20 and Nadal’s 17.
Some asked how he judged his climb. “Quite unlikely to happen, considering how I was playing and how I was feeling on the court,” he said.
“But I’m grateful for the journey and also very grateful for my coach, Marian (Vajda), who came back to the team and gave me a sense of comfort and confidence.”
Without either, no one succeeds in tennis.
There are coaches, physical therapists, psychologists. But in singles, where the game’s focus is, it’s one person on his or her own, reacting, dictating. A ball in the net, a serve that misses by inches and a player gets down on himself or herself.
“I don’t regret it,” Djokovic said of his return to the game last March. “Maybe I should have made a different decision. But it taught me some lessons that helped.
“I had some amazing results in the seven, eight months that helped get me from 22 in the world to No. 1 in six months.”
They say that greatness is permanent. The best athletes may falter, but inevitably they find a way to come back. It’s in the genes. It’s in the mind. Once they’ve been there, they know how to return.
Even after disparaging themselves, as did Djokovic, who when the elbow was aching said it might be time to retire. We all have our bad moments.
“I kind of reflected on what I did over the years,” Djokovic said in the rather stilted words of translating his thoughts to English. “Always knowing in my mind the memories of those amazing seasons I had in the past and the reason I can make it again.”
He’s made it again. What a journey.