By David Zakhodin
When we last discussed the status of Novak Djokovic’s tennis career, he was visibly frustrated in a bizarre press conference following a third round exit at Wimbledon. As shocking as that moment was to both the former world number one and the rest of the tennis world, many saw it simply as an outlier and byproduct of having expended a Herculean amount of energy to hold all four Majors at once. However, as we have noticed with Novak’s subpar performance (by his standards) since Wimbledon 2016, there is more to this drop in tournament play than an occasional bump in the road.
Following the aforementioned uncharacteristic early exit from Wimbledon, it seemed Novak had righted the ship. Always dominant in the Rogers Cup, he breezed through the tournament without dropping a set and looked poised to make a run at the last milestone missing from his trophy shelf: an Olympic gold medal. Despite the favorable hard court surface and destiny pointing toward Novak cementing his legacy with the Golden Slam, he ran into a freight train in Juan Martin del Potro and left the court in tears after a devastating loss.
While this may have been seen as a setback of sorts, Novak still arrived in New York as the overwhelming favorite and defending champion. In what was a strange sequence of matches filled with both injury speculations about himself and retirements from his opponents, Novak made his way into the final to face a familiar foe. Playing out in a fashion similar to their previous Grand Slam final encounter at Roland Garros, the U.S. Open final left Novak in a whirlwind of uncertainty in light of another impressive display of tennis from Stan Wawrinka. In past years, however, we had become accustomed to seeing Novak fly through the fall indoor season and build his lead as world number one. However, this trend was broken in late 2016 when Novak underperformed in the last several tournaments and surrendered the world number one ranking to Andy Murray.
Perhaps the most dumbfounding part of the loss at the World Tour Finals that led to losing number one was the lack of solid play from the baseline. Since his breakout season in 2011, we have seen Novak lose matches where he was too defensive or outhit by his opponents. Shockingly, however, he lost to Murray because of the amount of uncharacteristic unforced errors he made during neutral parts of the point. For a guy who built his resume as one of tennis’ greatest champions, Novak looked as if he had forfeited control of his machine-esque ability to make every ball when it counts the most.
As 2017 rolled around, it began to seem like Novak successfully re-charged the batteries as he defeated Murray in a scrappy battle in Doha to start the season. We all thought the Australian Open would be the ideal scenario for him to regain his momentum, playing at a venue he had virtually conquered this decade. But when a stunning five-set loss in the second round to Denis Istomin jolted the tournament, the consensus became that Novak was no longer his old self. Since this January, Novak has failed to reach the final of any event he has entered and is not even being discussed as a contender for the French with the way Rafa is currently playing.
So the real question: is Novak done? Is this the downfall of the invincible guy who might have been on track to break the Grand Slam record? The answer: a definitive NO. It would be easy to count out one of the game’s greatest the week after he went “nuclear” and fired his whole in what was summarized as shock therapy. If sacking Boris Becker during the offseason was only a yellow flag, then firing Marian Vajda and the rest of the Serbian squad was surely a red flag. Unlike what Congress did with the U.S. Supreme Court, the nuclear option actually may be a positive and necessary turning point for Novak and his future prospects.
Despite the cliches pointed out by both Novak and other players in this clip, history shows that making coaching changes pays dividends for champions who have success during the latter stages of their career. The reason I bring this up is Novak is a week from turning 30. While results in men’s tennis may indicate that 30 is the new 20, we all know Father Time stops for no one (unless you’re Roger Federer). However, if we look at every Grand Slam winner of the last 20 years, only five have won a Grand Slam after turning 30: Petr Korda (one Slam wonder), Pete Sampras (once), Andre Agassi (twice), Stan Wawrinka (twice), and Roger Federer (twice). We may very well have a sixth joining the club if Rafael Nadal wins the French Open in four weeks’ time, but the sample size is large enough to conclude that very few tennis players are able to accomplish the sport’s biggest feats past the age of 30.
Having said all of that, it seems the differentiating factor among the 30-year-olds who have been successful when most thought they were past their “prime” has been the willingness to undertake coaching changes. For example, before Federer won Wimbledon, after turning 30, and regained the status of world number one, Andre Agassi was the only to have previously done so. Among other things, Agassi attributed his end of career success to the coaching change he made in ending his relationship with Brad Gilbert and beginning a new one with a fresh voice in Darren Cahill. Similarly, Roger Federer has done the same throughout his 30’s, going from Paul Annacone to Stefan Edberg and now to Ivan Ljubicic, with whom he captured his most recent Australian Open crown.This demonstrates a definitive blueprint for success with respect to the game’s best players. When the odds become increasingly stacked against them because of their age, making proactive changes is necessary to extend their prime.
In the case of Novak Djokovic, he needs someone in his corner that can mentally give him a greater sense of purpose on court. Whereas someone like Federer has used a new voice in his box as a means of pursuing more aggressive tactics to prolong his career, Novak needs a coach who can help him re-focus on what made him the most invincible player on tour for multiple calendar years. Technically, it does not appear that Novak needs to change anything in terms of strokes or shot patterns to improve his play. Instead, his return to dominance is contingent upon his ability to lock into that zone where he simply refuses to give up the baseline or give his opponent any breathing room.
Saturday’s match against Rafael Nadal at the Mutua Madrid Open was Exhibit A of his regression in the last twelve months. Previously, it seemed like Novak was the only one to figure out a consistent recipe to beating Rafa multiple times on his favorite surface because he was the one guy who could outlast Rafa around a clay court. But during this match, Novak looked like any other player who Rafa simply has on a string throughout the course of a straight set win. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the source of Novak’s regression is more a lack of confidence and poise rather than a tactical or technical issue.
Hence, the hiring of a stellar coach would play a vital role in proving that Novak is nowhere near being “done”. Because of his demonstrative character on court and tendency to glare at the box during tight moments, Novak is in dire need of a reassuring presence in his camp who isn’t a family member (not that his parents or brothers ever look too confident). With different rumors and theories circulating regarding his poor performances and their potential connection to various factors in his personal life, this is a perfect time to zone back in on chasing more titles.
But in order to establish a relationship with a new coach who helps him accomplish new goals, Novak needs to end this facade of claiming that tennis is no longer his top priority in life. Following his loss to Wawrinka at last year’s U.S. Open, he made the following statement, “I psychologically felt huge pressure, and now I'm no longer thinking about the number of titles. If they come, super, I will accept them. After all, tennis is not the only thing in the world.'' And more recently, “I continue to play tennis with the same passion and love that I had when I picked up the racquet for the first time in my hands. Tennis makes me strong and gives me great emotions and as long as I feel it, I'll continue to play.” These overarching evaluations of his future goals and current career state are nothing more than a byproduct of having reached the pinnacle of his career. After winning last year’s French Open in which he accomplished the Career Slam and moved into the position of being tied for fourth in all-time Grand Slam victories, it seemed like utter Nirvana.
Now, we see that Novak has more left to prove. I do not believe for one second that he is content with just playing professional tennis because it makes him happy. Those quotes were defense mechanisms aimed at justifying a dismal last eleven months by his standards and publicly re-affirming commitment to his family. When it is all said and done, people will recognize Novak for the way in which he changed how the ideal tennis player is perceived. If Roger is the swan gliding across the court and Rafa is the bull brutishly attacking, then Novak is the unbreakable wall. His robotic game style has defined what it means to be a solid tennis player this decade, and now he needs to demonstrate longevity. Both in their 30’s and “past their prime,” Roger and Rafa are re-writing tennis history with their respective resurgences following injury. Roger has won Australia, Indian Wells, and Miami eleven years apart; Rafa has won the first three clay court events on the calendar twelve years apart.
Since he is younger and has more left to give physically, Novak is more than capable of regaining his reign atop the tennis world. One could potentially make the argument that Andy Murray took that title from him in 2016, but the Scot has done nothing in 2017 to suggest that he has earned staying power atop the rankings. Therefore, the responsibility falls on Novak to find himself a coach that will lift him out of this current meddling shock therapy phase. It is without a doubt that Novak is one of the five best tennis players ever, and I do not want to remember him as the guy who had it all and then lost his head too quickly to accomplish anything meaningful after age 30. For someone who took the tour by storm, it is undeniable that Novak has all the physical skills to win more Slams and become world number one once more. In spite of all the adversity he has recently faced, Novak now has a ripe opportunity to re-elevate himself to tennis greatness if he seeks out the right guidance and gives greater purpose to the latter chapter of his professional career.