The state of Novak Djokovic's right wrist is rapidly becoming the outstanding tennis mystery of 2014, destined for a place alongside Rafael Nadal's aching knees and Roger Federer's recently sore back in the lore and legend of the game.
Djokovic pulled out of the Madrid Masters 1000 the other day, citing the lingering pain in what he would describe only as his "right arm." If you remember, Djokovic had his right wrist strapped during his semifinal loss to Roger Federer in Monte Carlo a few weeks ago. He alarmed fans the day after that tournament ended when he declared that his wrist was in worse shape than he thought.
He rather cryptically said, "I just rest now. I cannot play tennis for some time. How long, I don't know. It's really not in my hands anymore."
A few days later, the prognosis changed. Djokovic declared that the rest he had on his schedule in any event before the start of Madrid probably would be sufficient to heal his wrist. Thus he was entered in Madrid. But he withdrew shortly after the draw had him going up against another big, physical, hard-hitting player in his first match, Marin Cilic.
Djokovic told the Associated Press: "I did everything possible in order to play in Madrid ... but unfortunately my right arm injury has flared up again."
There seem to be a few weird things going on here. For one, this time around Djokovic specifically spoke about an injury to his "arm," not to his wrist. You have to wonder what that change of emphasis means. For another, these attempts to downplay the severity of the injury seem to be backfiring.
Djokovic's comments serve only to obfuscate the issue, and they're bound to start wild rumors. They raise the question, "Just how badly hurt is he?" And there's the possibility that the injury is worse than he has been saying (but as bad as he first suggested) and that Djokovic is engaging in some wishful thinking -- or is it outright denial?
Djokovic was happy to learn that none of the doctors with whom he consulted while his wrist was sore in Monte Carlo thought he needed surgery. But they also couldn’t tell him just what was wrong. As he said of his deliberations with various experts before and during the Monte Carlo tournament: "I heard so many things in last 10 days. … Trust me, it's complicated."
Complicated isn't usually good.
Of course, there's no solid reason to jump to conclusions one way or another. Djokovic's main target this year was the French Open, which he needs to win in order to complete what has become a line item on any superior player's resume these days, a career Grand Slam.
Djokovic, who left the U.S. hard-court swing with two Masters titles just a month ago, is an extremely fit player. When it comes to fitness and match-toughness, he has socked away a lot of capital.
Unlike, say, Andy Murray, Djokovic is comfortable on clay. He doesn’t really need to play Madrid if he wants to be cautious; in his situation, playing in Rome the week after next would be more than enough prep time for Roland Garros.
The best-case scenario here is that Djokovic is playing it safe. The injury all but invites him to keep his powder dry for Rome and/or Paris.
But it’s also possible that this wrist/arm problem is a threat to Djokovic’s short-term goals -- or worse. It does seem that a lot of players are being stricken by serious wrist injuries these days (case in point: Juan Martin del Potro). So I wouldn’t assume anything, one way or the other, about the problems Djokovic is facing.
One thing is for sure: You can’t win it unless you’re in it. And right now Djokovic is no more in the running in Paris than he was the moment after he mangled that overhead that cost him the French Open semifinal against Rafael Nadal last year.