Nikoloz Basilashvili is back with a bang in 2021. The #1 ranked Georgian picked up the fourth title of his career last week at the ATP Qatar Open. He beat World #6 Roger Federer along the way, and topped world #11 Roberto Bautista Agut in straight sets in the final. Basilashvili at his best certainly has the game to mix it with the elite on the ATP Tour. However, that level has been missing from the Georgian’s game since the resumption of the Tour in August last year. He won just two of his last 16 matches he played before arriving in Doha. The two wins came against opponents ranked outside the top #250.
The fact is, before his brilliant run in Qatar, Basilashvili was adrift in the tennis world and looked a shell of his former self. He is lucky the protected ranking system remains in place or he may well not have featured in Qatar at all. His brilliant run to the title last week suggests he is back, but where did he go and will he be back for long?
Off Court Issues Directly Impacting the Georgian’s Game
Last year it came to light that Basilashvili has been accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife Neka Dorokashvili. The story unfolded in May of last year when both the WTA and ATP Tours were suspended. Basilashvili was arrested and has since been released on bail ahead of court proceedings. The Georgian tennis star has denied the accusations and will go to court to defend that claim, with a preliminary date for the hearing set for the 16th of July this year. The Georgian is free to play on the tour in the meantime. However, the off court issues have clearly weighed heavily on Basilashvili since his return.
The most telling sign of their effect has been his body language since his return. Doha aside, the World #36 has cut a disengaged figure in many of his matches in the last eight months. I watch Basilashvili often and am a big fan of his game. His effortless power off both wings makes him a joy to watch when he’s hitting his marks. He is also a perfectionist, both he and his coach have admitted to that fact. So, when he is off his game, there is usually an Andy Murray-esque monologue of self-reprimand accompanying each poor shot or bad decision. However, that has not been the case since his return.
Cutting a Forlorn and Uninterested Figure on Court
The Georgian has played a lot of bad tennis since his return. Most of it has been poor tennis by his standards. He often played shots that would ordinarily draw a stream of muttering and gesturing in frustration. However, until Doha that perfectionist trait all but disappeared. Almost every poor point he played was met with a half-hearted shake of the head before continuing with the match. It was almost as if he knew the bad shots were coming and there was little point in trying to convince himself otherwise.
His performance in the Open Sud De France demonstrated it perfectly. He faced a beatable opponent in the first round in Gregoire Barrere. After a poor first set, Basilashvili stormed to a 4-1 lead in the second. He then proceeded to lose five games on the bounce with barely an admonishment despite several poor points and decisions costing him a set he should have won comfortably.
That lack of self-reprimand was a clear sign that his head wasn’t fully in the match. In truth it hasn’t been for most of the matches he has played since returning to the tour. However, that changed in Doha. Basilashvili was back. He blasted winners and called himself out for poor errors in the way he so often does. Fortunately for him the winners finally began outweighing the errors, seemingly a result of the return of the point-by-point pep talks. The end result of Basilashvili at his best was a beautiful week of tennis in Qatar and a fourth title for the Georgian.
Jail Time May Beckon For Basilashvili
However, he may not be back on the tour for too much longer. The sentence in Georgia for the domestic violence offense faced by Basilashvili could have a serious impact on his career. A guilty verdict means either a 1-3 year prison sentence or 200-400 hours of community service. The latter should mean he can continue playing on the tour, while the former will obviously see him absent from the tour for an extended period.
For now though, Nikoloz Basilashvili is back. The courts in Georgia will have their say on whether Basilashvili is guilty or not. That discussion is not for us to have. From a tennis perspective, however, it was a joy to see a great tennis player tour back at his breath-taking best. He may disappear again this year, but hopefully we see some more brilliance before he does.
Main Photo from Getty.