Novak Djokovic in unfamiliar territory after 'really, really bad' return to Indian Wells

World No 1 was defeated in the third round by lucky loser Luca Nardi and is still without a title this season

Novak Djokovic greets Luca Nardi at the net following their match in the Indian Wells second round. Getty Images
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Novak Djokovic returned to Indian Wells for the first time in five years chasing more history. By the time he exited the tournament in the third round on Monday night, he had made history of a different kind.

The world No 1 arrived in California aiming to win the Masters 1000 tournament for a record sixth time, although his start to the season hardly suggested a player at his incomparable best.

At this stage of the year, Djokovic would usually have a title or two – including his obligatory Australian Open – but he is currently trophyless; his 10th Melbourne Park title defence ended in the semi-finals to eventual champion Jannik Sinner and he skipped all events between then and Indian Wells.

Still, the idea of the 23-time Grand Slam champion losing to a lucky loser in his second match back would seem inconceivable. Yet, that's exactly what happened on Monday as Djokovic fell to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 defeat to Italy's Luca Nardi, who had been beaten in the first round of qualifying by Belgian veteran David Goffin.

Nardi, the world No 123, is the lowest-ranked player to ever beat Djokovic at a Grand Slam or Masters event. History made, just not the kind Djokovic expected to make this week.

"He really didn't have anything to lose, so he played great. Deserved to win. I was more surprised with my level. My level was really, really bad,” Djokovic, 36, said. “These two things come together. He's having a great day; I'm having a really bad day. Results as a negative outcome for me.”

What was most alarming was the manner in which Djokovic struggled in the third set. Having pulled himself level after surprisingly dropping the first set, the top seed failed to impose himself on the match. He struck just two winners in the decider, compared to Nardi's 16, and won only 42 per cent of points on his second serve.

“I helped him play well, and I didn't help myself at all. I made some really terrible unforced errors. Just quite defensive tennis, and not much on the ball in the third and that's it,” Djokovic said. “He just stepped in and he used the time that he had. He was playing more free and more aggressive than I did and going for his shots."

As a small sample size, reaching a Grand Slam semi-final and falling to a shock early defeat in a Masters tournament wouldn't, for anyone else, be deemed a particularly terrible start to a season. But Djokovic isn't like anyone else and is measured by a different set of metrics.

A loss of this magnitude – to a 20-year-old with only four tour-level wins to his name – will invariably get people wondering whether this is simply an uncharacteristic blip or the very early signs of a more gradual decline from a player who has spent so long completely dominating his sport.

The only other time in the past six years that Djokovic reached March without a title was in 2022, when he was severely limited in his schedule because of Covid-19 entry restrictions. This time, though, Djokovic is choosing to play a more selective calendar to preserve himself for the bigger tournaments.

“No titles this year. That's not something I'm used to. I was starting the season most of my career with a Grand Slam win or a Dubai win or any tournament,” Djokovic said. “It is part of the sport. You just have to accept it. Some you win; some you lose. Hopefully, I'll win some more and still keep going.

“I guess every trophy that eventually comes my way is going to be great. Obviously to break the negative cycle a little bit I'm having in the last three, four tournaments where I haven't really been close to my best.”

Whether it is indeed a minor blip or a sign of something more significant will be a classic case of letting time tell, but there would be no surprise if Djokovic returns to top form sooner rather than later.

As for his opponent, it marked a surreal moment for a player who still has a Djokovic poster on his bedroom wall.

"I don't know [how I held my nerve]," Nardi said. "I think it is a miracle, because I am a 20-year-old guy, 100 in the world, and beating Novak. It's crazy."

Updated: March 12, 2024, 2:41 PM