Does Novak Just Need More Match Play?

Novak Djokovic’s first round loss in Barcelona this week is making many wonder what, if anything, can get the Serbian back to his peak form.

After a rocky 2017 season that was ultimately derailed by injury, there has been little in Novak Djokovic’s 2018 start to suggest a turnaround. Djokovic has only appeared in 5 events over the first quarter of the year and lost in the first round of 3 of those. His overall win to loss record is exactly 50%. One would have to go back to 2006 to find similar numbers for the Serbian, a shock for a player who seemed untouchable only 3 years ago.

But, for a player who has been battling injury, how surprising should a slump of this extent be?

Since 1990, there have been 82 instances where a player of Djokovic’s level1 have been more than 8 weeks into the regular season with only 6 weeks played in the previous 6 months, highly suggestive of a comeback due to injury. How have the win rates of those players' returns compared to Djokovic’s?

The chart below shows the win rate over the 6 months of the return for each of these players. Only 8 of the 82 (10%) had a rate equal to or lower than Djokovic’s, including bumpy returns by Pat Rafter in 2000, Lleyton Hewitt in 2009, and Marin Cilic in 2015.

Although Djokovic’s struggle to come back isn’t unprecedented for a player of his caliber, it does put him among the lowest 10 percent of returns in the past 3 decades.

What if anything could give a ray of hope for Djokovic’s chances of turning things around?

If we look at where the same 82 players in the above chart were 6 months after the first 6 played weeks of their return (Djokovic’s situation now), we find that 58% improved on their 6-week win rate. However, the players that played more weeks in those 6 months far excelled that rate. Of players who played 15 to 19 weeks, 76% improved in their 6-week win record. For players who played 20 weeks or more, that percentage was 86%.

Playing more weeks may not be the cause of better performance, as the fitter more winning players could be the very ones who are playing more events. But the association nevertheless suggests that Djokovic’s choice to take the Barcelona wild card might have been the right one, even if he didn’t advance to the second round this time around.

More decisions like that in the coming months will be one way Djokovic can put the odds of a resurgence on his side.

  1. Defined as players with an Elo rating of 2000 or higher. ↩︎