The final shot of the match was an errant forehand that was also his 58th unforced error.
“Very weird; I just completely lost rhythm,” said Djokovic, the No. 10 seed, who added, “for me it felt like the first match I ever played on the tour.”
He was asked to clarify.
“Yeah, everything, nerves were there,” he said. “I made so many unforced errors that it was just one of those days where you are not able to find the rhythm from the baseline especially from the backhand side. That has always been a rock solid shot for me throughout my career. Just some inexplicable, uncharacteristic errors, but that’s I guess all part of those particular circumstances that I’m in at the moment.”
Less than two years ago, Djokovic was the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam singles title and possessed a massive lead atop the rankings. But his elbow problem and off-court issues that he has declined to discuss in detail succeeded in knocking him off his perch. There is also the question that many great tennis champions have faced: How to keep summoning the fire within?
“The Djokovic I know is like the Djokovic I have seen on TV, and he never misses a ball; he puts the ball wherever he wants,” said Daniel, the 25-year-old son of an American father and Japanese mother who was born in New York. “Today, obviously he was missing a lot of balls, but even then you still have to beat him.”
After retiring during his quarterfinal match at Wimbledon last July, Djokovic did not play again for the rest of 2017 in an attempt to heal his elbow without surgery. He returned for last month’s Australian Open with a revamped, abbreviated service motion designed to relieve pressure on the elbow and showed flashes of fine form before eventually losing in straight sets to Hyeon Chung in the fourth round.
After that defeat, he decided to undergo a medical procedure on his elbow in Switzerland — one that the 30-year-old Djokovic has yet to explain in detail. But he did say on Sunday that he initially did not expect to be ready to play in Indian Wells but recovered more quickly than anticipated.
Asked if he was concerned about reinjuring the elbow against Daniel, Djokovic said, “not really.”
“But obviously having played only a couple matches in nine months, you are still in a way battling inside of your mind whether you are fit or not,” Djokovic said. “And even though you don’t have pain, you are still thinking about it because it’s something I’ve been feeling and dragging for over two years.”
Clearly, comebacks from extended layoffs are nowhere near as smooth as Roger Federer has made his look since he returned in 2017 after a six-month break to heal his postoperative knee. He continues to roll and on Sunday in the second-round match that followed Djokovic’s, he finished off his two-day 6-3, 7-6 (6) victory over Federico Delbonis, saving a set point in the second-set tiebreaker.
That was shortly after the reigning U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens eliminated Victoria Azarenka, 6-1, 7-5. Azarenka, a two-time champion here, was playing her first tournament since Wimbledon last year because of an ongoing child custody dispute that is not yet resolved.
“For me the most important is to have a clear head, which obviously right now is not,” she said. “Once I figure all my stuff outside the court, I’ll be able to focus and be 100 percent when I’m on the court.”
Amanda Anisimova has nothing but tunnel vision for the moment. In just a few days, the American teenager has gone from being a player to watch for the future to being a player to fear in the present.
Still 16 and subject to playing restrictions, she had not won a match on the WTA Tour before arriving in Indian Wells.
She has now won three straight, beating the No. 23 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second round and then transforming her first appearance on Stadium One into a coming-of-age moment by upsetting Petra Kvitova, the No. 9 seed and two-time Wimbledon champion, 6-2, 6-4, on Sunday in the third round.
Watching from on high, as Anisimova, the reigning U.S. Open junior champion, kept her composure during and between points, you would never have known that she had not been on this kind of tennis stage before.
“It feels crazy; I mean, I’m still in shock,” said Anisimova, a 5-foot-11 Floridian whose parents are Russian but who represents the United States, where she was born and raised. “She’s the best player I have ever played, and it was the biggest court I have ever played on. So it was definitely nerve-racking kind of, but I was enjoying it so much out there. And I was playing my best. It was a good day.”
A very good day and also the latest sign that a new generation of very talented youngsters are emerging from the United States and elsewhere.
In January, Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine reached the third round of the Australian Open at age 15. Anisimova, who did not make the long journey to Australia this year, was watching and taking note.
“Definitely, I think it’s motivating,” Anisimova said. “When Marta Kostyuk got to the third round, you say, ‘I can do that, too.’”
A very aggressive baseliner with one of the best two-handed backhands, Anisimova also is not afraid to tackle societal issues. She said one of her friends attends Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 were killed in a Feb. 14 shooting. She said her friend was uninjured but traumatized.
“It’s really close to me; it’s really sad what’s going on; I think that guns should be banned,” she said. “You should have stricter laws on that for sure, and I don’t think teachers should be having guns in school.”