Djokovic: "After Roland-Garros, I didn’t really listen to my body and my mind"
Having been struggling for the past few months, Novak Djokovic has taken the decision to split from his coach Marian Vajda and the rest of his staff (namely his physio and physical trainer), just five months after giving co-coach Boris Becker his notice. Never before has such a successful player cleaned house from top to bottom in so short a space of time. We spoke to the Serb, who confirmed that since winning Roland-Garros last year, he has simply not been the same. Will "shock therapy" of this kind get him back to where he once was?
The photo is less than a year old. And yet, in that time, how things have changed for Novak Djokovic. Last Friday, the defending Roland-Garros champion sent out a press release via his official site and social network channels to say that he was parting ways with his coach of almost 11 years, Marian Vajda (bottom left in the photo), as well as his fitness coach Gebhard Phil-Gritsch (bottom right, in white) and physio Miljan Amanovic (top right, in black), who had been with him through good times and even better ones since 2011. This announcement came barely five months after Boris Becker, his co-coach since 2014, had also been given his notice. All of these men had played essential roles in constructing a solid foundation then reaching for the stars, in the form of 12 Grand Slam titles. This time last year, the good ship Djokovic seemed unsinkable, thanks in no small part to these people. "They are my family and that will never change," said the Djoker, before reflecting on what has been a disappointing start to the year and adding that he felt that the time had come to try some "shock therapy".
“I want to continue raising the level of my game and stamina and this is a continuous process. I enjoy this journey, it feels like I am starting something new again and I love this challenge. I am a hunter and my biggest goal is to find the winning spark on the court again." That spark does indeed seem to have disappeared, but even though the world No.2 maintains that he only came to his decision after losing to David Goffin in the quarter-finals of the ATP Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo, is it really the bombshell that some are making it out to be?
"Accept, recognise and learn from disappointing results"
A string of earlier-than-anticipated defeats starting at Wimbledon last year (where he went down in the third round to Sam Querrey), phrases along the lines of "I’m not enjoying playing any more", the loss of the No.1 world ranking (to Andy Murray), the strengthening of ties with controversial mental coach Pepe Imaz and then the end of the working relationship with Boris Becker, who had been his co-coach for three seasons, certainly paved the way for this major upheaval. Then in Monte-Carlo, by which time it had become quite clear that the opening months of the 2017 season had failed to recreate a virtuous circle, the now No.2 in the world began to express doubts to those closest to him. It was time for Nole to talk frankly about his shortcomings and this (relatively) unsuccessful run. Introspection was the order of the day from a man, who was often seen as more like a machine when he was dominating the circuit like few before him.
"The opening months of the season did not pan out the way I hoped they would, nor in the way that they had the past seven or eight years," he said at the time. "But I am aware that to a certain extent, it’s usual for a top-level athlete to go through this kind of up and down. I believe in myself, I believe in my abilities and in the quality of the effort that I put in. I simply need to believe that sooner or later, the process will provide the results that I want and that I am hoping for." Those results obviously need to be a world away from the ones he has had over the past year. Since winning at Roland-Garros, in fact. The French Open was his holy grail, the last remaining title that he needed to accomplish the career Grand Slam, and the one that required the most energy. And the one, he now realises, which has caused him to go through a rough patch ever since, again relatively speaking.
"I’ve been having disappointing results for quite a while now if you compare them to what I have enjoyed over the past eight or nine years," Djokovic said frankly. "It’s actually since Roland-Garros that I’ve been having these ups and downs… I got to the final of the US Open and the Masters but other than that, it’s been a real roller-coaster (though he did win titles in Toronto and Doha during this period). But hey, (smiles), it’s something that I just have to accept, recognise and learn from. It’s a life lesson." Indeed, Nole is a convert to the viewpoint put forward by his Spanish mental coach Pepe Imaz, who says that "it all comes down to loving and respecting yourself ", or more succinctly, the motto "Amor y paz" ("love and peace"). "It all starts with me, not with anyone else," Djokovic continued. "I’ve been able to identify certain things and why they happened. That, in general, is the first step: being aware, and then trying to rectify things to be able to make a new start."
“Roland-Garros was the high-point of my career..."
Djokovic has identified at least two definite reasons behind his current crisis – his mental and his physical "self-management" in the aftermath of Roland-Garros. "I’m trying to step back from it now," the Serb explains. "To get some distance, and to take a more general view and an overall perspective of everything that I have been able to accomplish. I think that up until recently, I hadn’t really taken stock of the period of five, six, maybe seven years, all that I had accomplished during that time and the amount of energy that I had used up to achieve what was the high-point of my career, which was winning the one Grand Slam tournament that had eluded me." Then comes quite a revelation. "To be honest, I didn’t really listen to my body and my mind. After Roland-Garros, I should maybe have taken a break. But at the same time, I couldn’t really do that because there was Wimbledon and the Olympic Games following straight on. They are both big things, and it’s tough to turn them down, and say ‘no, I’m not doing them'…"
"...but afterwards I didn’t manage to turn the page and start afresh"
Breaking up a team which has had (a lot of) success but no longer seems to be working is not an end in itself, therefore. Rather, it is a way for Djokovic to rewrite his incredible story in the present tense. Whom will he call on to accompany him around the circuit? For the time being at least, he has said that he would rather fly solo. "I want to find a way of getting back to the top, and be stronger and more resilient," he said in the press release that sealed the split with his coaching staff. "I am confident in the process and that is why I will take the time I need to find the right person. I have been on the pro circuit for long enough to know how to manage daily routines and I don’t want to rush my decision." Does this mean that Imaz, who was with him in Madrid, will now occupy a greater role? Or is Nole simply hoping to find more answers deep down, before looking for a new coach? The latter is what the Serb has been hinting at since Madrid: "I know that I am not going to carry on alone, without a coach, for too long. It will be someone who has been through similar experiences to me. There haven’t been many tennis players in the past who have reached such a high level, so I’ll have to see. I’m thinking it through, calmly and in great detail. I don’t want to rush things."
Time certainly seems to be the most important word in the defending French Open’s vocabulary at this juncture. "Every year up until now, I was able to simply turn the page and start afresh, day after day, no problem," he explains. "But last year, for the first time, I wasn’t able to do that. Coming to terms with Roland-Garros took more time. So as I said, I am aware of what is happening, and at the same time, I am also aware that as time passes, the more confident I am, and I can feel my game getting back to a high level. I just need to be patient." This last assertion came with a smile – a sign that the man who bestrode the circuit like a colossus might be getting his mojo back. "I need to accept that certain things aren’t quite slotting into place in the right way at the moment, but that in the end, they will. This way of thinking, and the emotions and energy that I put into it all, are very important." And he has one single goal. "I know that if I am capable of getting back to the top of my game" he warns, "if I am capable of implementing this type of motivation, then I should be capable of getting back to the level I want to be at." And that level will see him win more Grands Slams.