PARIS — He has changed everything and changed it back again, taken time off, made all the adjustments he can think of except to ratchet down his colossal expectations of himself. Yet Novak Djokovic found himself stymied at the same point he was a year ago, and he was angry.
Djokovic was still sweating when he marched into a small interview room moments after his crushing quarterfinal defeat on the other side of the grounds at Roland Garros by a man who hadn’t won a match at a major before last week.
It was not the space where Djokovic usually addresses the media after matches, and his presence had not been announced. An ATP official asked him to move to a larger room with a working audio system.
Djokovic refused to budge. He picked at his hands, guzzled water, wiped his forehead with his forearm and mopped his face with the hem of his T-shirt as startled reporters piled in. Some were shut out, and watched from the press work room. The silent video told the story even before audio later became widely available.
“I am back in the locker room,” he said tersely. “That’s where I’m back.”
That was not the destination Djokovic had envisioned when he turned toward the crowd at Suzanne-Lenglen stadium after saving a match point in the fourth-set tiebreak, pointing to one ear and motioning for more noise, or when he raised his fist after hitting another winner to give himself a set point and a chance to haul himself back into the match.
It took another few points to send him home, but 12-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic knew how many chances he’d squandered and emotion propelled him on his brisk walk to what he clearly considered the relegation area.
A year ago this week, Djokovic faced the media after the quarterfinals and tried to parse his earliest ouster from the tournament since 2010, at the hands of rising clay-court force Dominic Thiem of Austria.
Djokovic, who had just hired Andre Agassi as his new mentor, seemed more puzzled that day than anything, although it was easy for observers to speculate that his long stretch of dominance — six major titles in a two-year period culminating with the 2016 French Open — had taken a chunk out of him. I asked if he would consider taking a break and he said he wouldn’t rule it out. He shut down after Wimbledon to give an elbow injury time to heal.
In April, Djokovic decided to reunite with his longtime coach Marian Vajda and appeared to be regaining momentum — especially in a run to the semifinals in Rome, where he pushed Rafael Nadal to lift his game in an engaging, blue-chip match.
There is no shame in losing to Nadal on any clay court in the world, but Djokovic had to be distressed at falling to Italy’s No. 72 Marco Cecchinato after reviving in the third set and taking a 4-1 lead in the fourth. He was gracious about giving Cecchinato credit Tuesday and uninterested in talking about himself, a big departure for an athlete who is typically willing, when reporters ask him, to search his soul. No one brought up the prospect of a break this time until he did. “I don’t know if I’m going to play on the grass,” he said. Time will reveal whether that was blurted out in the heat of the moment.
Last week in the big interview room, after Djokovic had beaten a man 10 years his junior, I sensed that he was in a tolerant mood, and asked him what it would be like to chat with his youthful self. Funny you ask, he said.
“I feel like I need to go back to those days when I started playing tennis and why I started playing tennis, to remind myself and to get inspired and to get motivation from that source,” Djokovic said.
“What I’m getting from my younger self is, ‘Smile and remember why you started playing it.’ If this becomes a mechanical thing for me, it’s not good… going back to that inner child is very essential, I think, at least in my case, and he’s there and he’s reminding me to enjoy what I do.”
When the red dust settles, he might be able to listen. But patience is the hardest quality of all for past champions to come by.