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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, March 11, 2018

 
Novak Djokovic

"For me it felt like first match I ever played on the tour. Very weird,” said Novak Djokovic after an error-filled Indian Wells exit.

Photo credit: Dan Huerlimann/Beelde Images

INDIAN WELLS—Hurling a massive uppercut after seizing the second set, Novak Djokovic looked ready for battle in his comeback match.

Taro Daniel absorbed Djokovic’s body blows, counter-punched with precision and knocked the former No. 1 right out of the BNP Paribas Open with the biggest win over his career.

Watch: Indian Wells Live Blog

The Japanese qualifier reeled off five consecutive games stunning five-time champion Djokovic, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1, to spoil the Serbian’s return.

It is Djokovic’s earliest exit from the BNP Paribas Open since his 2006 tournament debut.

Confronting a myriad of issues—an elbow procedure he underwent about six weeks ago, injury-induced inactivity, an apparent cold that had him reaching for tissues at times and a hot opponent who played through qualifying—were too much for Djokovic to overcome.

The former world No. 1’s trademark two-handed backhand is a foundation shot of his game, but Djokovic could not find the court at times, hit some second serves in the low 80 mph-range, squandered a set point and 5-2 first-set lead and completely lost his range and rhythm in a sloppy final set.

Playing his first match since an Australian Open loss to Hyeone Chung in January, the six-time Australian Open champion summed up a disorientating experience as a strange day all around.

“For me it felt like first match I ever played on the tour. Very weird,” Djokovic said. “I mean, I just completely lost rhythm, everything. Just struggled also a little bit with the health the last couple of weeks. I was grateful to be out on the court after surgery that quickly. But at the same time, just didn't feel good at all.”




Initially, Daniel, who called his win "amazing", wasn't exactly feeling too perky himself.

"Warming up this morning, I was like, crap, this court is really big," Daniel said. "I was actually pretty nervous playing the match. But he obviously wasn't in his top form, so I was able to take advantage of it. And even if I lost the second set, I still had faith I could pull something off in the third. And I was able to stay pretty tough, so I'm pretty proud of that, yeah."

Arriving in the desert winless, Daniel saw Djokovic struggling and made the most of it.

"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," Daniel said. "Today, obviously he was missing a lot of balls, but, I mean, even then you still have to beat him.

"Especially, you know, in a crowd like this, it's pretty amazing to do it... it's going to be a huge win for my career in the future, for sure."

Djokovic, who shut down his 2017 season after retiring from the Wimbledon quarterfinals, has played only five matches this season.

The world No. 13 said he’s not in pain, but is dealing with self-doubt.

“It's not really (pain). But, you know, obviously having only played a couple of matches in nine months, you're still, in a way, battling inside of your mind, you know, whether you're fit or not,” Djokovic said. “And even though you don't have pain, you're still thinking about it, because it's been something that I have been feeling and dragging for over two years. So, yeah.”



A resounding roar from fans along the Led Zeppelin classic “Whole Lotta Love” blasting from the sound system greeted Djokovic as he walked on stadium court. Djokovic broke for 3-1 then used the clever drop shot lob combination to consolidate.

The rangy Daniel saved a set point in the eighth game when Djokovic netted a forehand down the line.

Serving for the set in the ninth game, Djokovic flicked a forehand into net to face a break point 37 minutes into the match. The former No. 1 saved it but Daniel drilled a forehand pass for a second break point. Pushed to reply off his back foot, the Serbian steered a forehand wide as Daniel broke back for 4-5.

Playing primarily down the middle in the tie break, Daniel drained five errors from the 10th-seed taking the 61-minute opening set when another Djokovic forehand expired in net.

Playing more proactive tennis, Djokovic rallied in the second set. A crunching crosscourt forehand drew a framed forehand replay as Djokovic scored the first break of the second set for 4-3.

Closure was complicated as Djokovic saved a pair of break points before converting his third set point to level the match after one hour, 52 minutes.

Celebrating with a hearty fist pump, Djokovic waved his arms exhorting fans to make noise.


 

Soak it all in. #BNPPO18 #TennisParadise

A post shared by BNP Paribas Open (@bnpparibasopen) on



The uprising did not faze Daniel, who competes with a relaxed intensity and seldom looked stressed today. Djokovic dodged four break points to start the deciding set working through a gritty hold to level at 1-1 after two hours, 10 minutes.

It was a prelude to problems.

Sailing a forehand and slapping a double fault long put the Serbian in a triple break point hole. The Japanese qualifier cracked a crosscourt forehand breaking at love for 3-1. Daniel banged a serve down the middle backing up the break for 4-1.

Daniel bolted a backhand down the line and earned his fourth break on Djokovic’s fourth double fault.

When the Serbian sailed a forehand, Daniel was through to the third round in two hours, 30 minutes.

"God always challenges you when you expect it least," Djokovic said. "He always throws everything possible at you. I have experienced many times similar situations, so I know that there is always something good in it. You just need to try to set your mind at that frequency.

"Obviously right now, I mean, I'm sitting here and talking after a lost match. It's not something that I as an athlete want but, at the same time, there is a reason everything happens in life."

 

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