PARIS: Novak Djokovic is facing the gravest crisis of his career after a shock French Open defeat to Italian journeyman Marco Cecchinato left him contemplating missing Wimbledon to rebuild his game and reboot his state of mind.
The 31-year-old Serb slumped to an epic 6-3, 7-6 (7/4), 1-6, 7-6 (13/11) quarter-final loss to world number 72 Cecchinato, a player who had never won a match at the majors before this year's Roland Garros.
Djokovic, a former world number one and 12-time Grand Slam title winner, had previously only been beaten by a player ranked lower than 25-year-old Cecchinato at the majors on two occasions — Marat Safin at Wimbledon in 2008 when the maverick Russian was at 78 and 117th-ranked Denis Istomin at last year's Australian Open.
Tuesday's defeat left Djokovic shell-shocked, so much so that he threatened to skip the forthcoming grasscourt season and, by extension, Wimbledon where he is a three-time champion.
"I don't know if I'm going to play on grass — I'm just not thinking about tennis at the moment," said Djokovic who opted to conduct his post-match media duties on Tuesday in a minor conference room, which had already been shut up for the evening, far away from the waiting cameras.
His career statistics which used to sing of record-breaking feats now make grim reading.
The last of his 12 majors was secured at Roland Garros in 2016 when he completed a career Grand Slam. That was the year he also became the first player to break through the career $100 million prize money barrier. But his last run to a semi-final at the Slams was when he went onto finish runner-up at the 2016 US Open.
The Djokovic resume lists 68 career titles but he's only won four since his French Open triumph in 2016. That Paris win came after three final defeats in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
'Life is difficult'
What was particularly frustrating for Djokovic on Tuesday was the manner of his defeat.
He may have had to call two medical timeouts for a neck and right leg injury, but chance after chance was squandered.
Three set points came and went in the 12th game of the second set, three break points were wasted in the sixth game of the fourth before he blew the chance to level the tie at two sets apiece in the ninth game.
He had another three set points in the gripping fourth set tiebreaker, the third of which flew into the Paris evening sky off an ugly ballooned forehand.
There was still a hint of the old Djokovic magic as he desperately clung on, saving one match point with a no-look backhand volley.
Djokovic, attempting to reach a 32nd Grand Slam semi-final, knows there are lingering problems in his game. A ranking of 22 is the lowest for 12 years, a consequence of his long-standing elbow problems and indifferent form.
He hasn't made the final of a tournament since winning the Wimbledon warm-up at Eastbourne last summer. He won just two titles in 2017 compared to seven in 2016 and 11 in 2015.
This year too has been a rollercoaster.
He was knocked out of the Australian Open in the last 16 by Hyeon Chung, then ranked at 58.
Taro Daniel, the 109-ranked Japanese player, stunned in him in Indian Wells before Benoit Paire, at 47 in the rankings, knocked him out in Miami.
In what was becoming a familiar tale, Martin Klizan, at 140, stunned him in Barcelona before there were signs of life with a semi-final run at Rome where it took Rafael Nadal to snuff out his challenge in the semi-finals.
"It is difficult. Many things in life are difficult," said Djokovic.
"Any defeat is difficult in the Grand Slams, especially the one that, you know, came from months of buildup.
"And I thought I had a great chance to get at least a step further, but wasn't to be. That's the way it is."
At least Djokovic can look to old rival Roger Federer for inspiration.
It may be two years since Djokovic's last Grand Slam triumph, but Federer went almost five years from Wimbledon in 2012 until the 2017 Australian Open before he added to his majors collection.