Novak Djokovic’s No Good, Very Bad Year

Momentum is a funny thing. When you can’t seem to put a foot wrong, it seems abundant and never-ending. And when it’s gone, it’s as if the ground opens up to swallow you. Novak Djokovic certainly knows both sides of this coin, perhaps better than any player in the modern era. It’s hard to imagine a top player who has experienced greater heights or a more precipitous fall in such a short period of time. A little more than a year go, he was being asked about surpassing Roger Federer’s then 17 Grand Slam singles titles, and openly being discussed as the likely winner of the three man race for GOAT of men’s tennis. After all, he was younger than the other two, and apparently considerably fitter — having converted himself from Andy Roddick’s punch line to tennis’ iron man on the way to his five year run at the top.

Last year at Roland Garros, Djokovic finally completed his set of Slams, beating the frequent victim of his dominance, Andy Murray, in the final. During that two weeks, it seemed that there was no one who could touch the Serb. After all, Federer’s fatherly duties did what tennis couldn’t — sideline him with an injury, and Rafael Nadal, who entered the tournament looking strong, withdrew with a wrist injury which was the cherry on top of a season of misfires and ennui. The young guns’ long-awaited arrival on the scene seemed like it would require a lot more waiting, and Djokovic was on top of the world. In fact, Paris seemed like the culmination of a second victory lap that spanned from the 2014 Wimbledon title onwards. Sure, there were occasional blips, like Slam losses to Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka, but the aura of Djokovic’s dominance seemed only to be growing.

This was also an new, even more improved Djokovic from the 2011 version that took tennis observers by surprise with three Slam wins. In 2011, with a team of advisers and a commitment to yoga and meditation, he styled himself as a new age champion, and the guy who launched a thousand gluten free diets. After he failed to maintain that level of dominance over the next two years — with runs by Murray and Nadal taking him off guard — he retooled and added Boris Becker to the mix. Most observers wondered exactly what the blustering German could bring to the new age Djokovic camp, but it was exactly this bluntness, and this willingness to engage Djokovic’s inherent competitor that made Boris an integral part of the enterprise.

A vital part of Djokovic’s re-resurgence in 2014 is that Becker tapped into Djokovic’s chip on his shoulder — it’s something that both have in common, as competitors. For as much as a Roger Federer or a Stefan Edberg gains motivation from riding the wave of fan enthusiasm, Becker understood that Djokovic could be motivated by a need to prove himself in a still-hostile world. After all, this was a common theme from Djokovic’s family as first rose to prominence with his first Australian Open in 2008. Under Becker’s tutelage, it soon became apparent that Djokovic enjoyed chasing down the records of the two guys who preceded him at the top almost as much as he enjoyed the winning itself. And, this need to deny the naysayers (regardless of how many there actually were) wasn’t necessarily something that would be assuaged by adulation and popularity — after all, Becker remained an animus motivated competitor late into his career, despite the idol-like adulation he’d received consistently since he was a teenager. So, for every time that Djokovic won a title and didn’t receive the rapturous accolades reserved for Federer and Nadal, he could still remain hungry for more until he surpassed them. And, Becker was never afraid of stoking the fires with his comments to the press, either. Coming from the spite-fueled Lendl-Connors-McEnroe era, Becker understood that the Federer-Nadal collegial stewardship of tennis was a construct that Djokovic really did not have to follow, and one that ran counter to his charge’s competitive fire. And it appeared that the two of them would ride this wave into history.

But then two things happened — one public, and one still somewhat shrouded in mystery. The first is that Djokovic won the French Open and moved into striking distance of Nadal and Federer. And he was recognized for it, loudly and clearly. The second is that, something derailed in Djokovic’s personal life. And, suddenly, the extreme motivation that underpinned his success started to falter a bit at the edges. For a player like Djokovic, where everything from his breathing onwards was focused towards winning tennis matches, that slight reduction in commitment started to manifest problems pretty quickly. So, the past year has been marked with surprise losses at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, a meek loss to Dominic Thiem at this year’s French Open, and a somewhat lucky run to the 2016 US Open men’s final where he benefited from three retirements, which he nonetheless lost to Stan Wawrinka.

During the course of this downward spiral, Djokovic dumped his entire team, including Becker as well as long-time coach Marjan Vajda, and took up with Pepe Imaz, a tennis coach who also advocates long hugs. Clearly, Djokovic was looking for first peace and then victory — which is a big stretch for a guy who came up the ranks with his parents telling him that the world was stacked against him compared to Federer and Nadal and publicly advocating for Federer to retire. Maybe the take no prisoners approach of the Becker years spilled out and made Djokovic’s personal life as troubled as Becker’s had been in his heydey — we’ll never know for sure. But it’s clear that Djokovic decided that he wanted to make his life better first, and then worry about his game. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that he reached out to Andre Agassi, who is a player who knows a lot about emerging from a spiral, and also living a happy family life on tour. And, if Djokovic is looking for uplifting, meditative, encouragement and a dash of perspective about life, he really could not do any better than Agassi. But it’s still unclear whether this mental approach to the game can bring Djokovic back to his former heights.

Yesterday’s retirement from his quarterfinal with Tomas Berdych adds another wrinkle to the Djokovic saga. Whatever mental fatigue fueled this drop in form now also has a physical component to manage as well. There are already rumblings that he may take one of the more recent pages from the Federer/Nadal playbook — take some time off, heal his body, and perhaps set his mind straight. And it’s entirely possible that a year from now, we’ll be discussing Djokovic’s re-re-resurgence. But, for now, we, like Djokovic himself, are left simply puzzling over what we’ve just seen.