The Djokovic Dilemma


Shock & Awe: Novak Djokovic Fires Entire Coaching Team

Second ranked Novak Djokovic knew something needed to change. Hell, anyone with a pair or eyes and a semi-functioning brain knew SOMETHING needed to change for the 12-time Grand Slam champion. No one however likely would have expected the Serb to clean house on Friday. Gone are long-time coach Marian Vajda, who has been with Djokovic since 2006. Also shoved out the door were fitness coach Gebhard Phil-Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovi. The moves all sound amicable and mutual according to statements today with the words “necessary change” and “new energy needed” abundant throughout those statements.

“I want to continue raising the level of my game and stamina and this is a continuous process,” Djokovic said. “I enjoy this journey, it feels like I am starting something new again.”

Those sentences encapsulate what many have been thinking for quite some time as the Serb has continued to struggle in 2017. Yes, his record is 14-4, but he’s won just one title at this point. His shock loss to Denis Istomin in the second round of the Australian Open looms as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Yes, it was just one loss and it was early in the season. It was a BAD LOSS though to a highly inconsistent player who has won just a single main draw match since that career-defining win.

Pile on top of that loss, two consecutive losses to Nick Kyrgios and a first-ever loss to David Goffin and the writing was on the wall; new energy was needed. That left Djokovic with a dilemma: continue to plod along and hope that things would turn around using his usual methodology or make a necessary change to try and re-energize his season? He made his first choice on Friday with the removal of his coaching staff, now it’s onto the next phase in rebuilding Novak Djokovic.

Before we focus on where the new energy could come from, let’s look back at where it came from the last time that Djokovic needed a change; Boris Becker.

The Boris Becker Era

There is no question that Boris Becker’s coaching elevated Novak Djokovic from elite player to THE elite player during their time together from December 2013- December 2016. Djokovic was a six-time Grand Slam champion when Becker came on board. At the time, Djokovic’s career best year had come in 2011 when he won three of the four Grand Slams in that calendar year. 2012 and 2013 though would bring only one Slam title each (Australia) with four losses in Slam finals during that stretch. That is when Djokovic saw a “necessary change” was needed to get over the hump.

Becker’s effect on Djokovic didn’t produce immediate Grand Slam glory as Djokovic lost in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in 2014 and fell short in the French Open final. Their first Slam title would come together at Wimbledon that year when Djokovic beat Roger Federer in a classic five set match. 2014 would end with disappointment in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, where Kei Nishikori sprung the upset in four sets on a hot day in New York. The year however was a positive one as Djokovic recaptured the #1 ranking spot and also won four Masters 1000 events. That was his highest number of Masters wins since the magic of 2011.

2015 would be the year that things really clicked for Djokovic and Becker and kick start the most dominant stretch this sport has seen for the next 17 months. Djokovic would win The Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open along with a single season best six Masters titles. He would finish the year at 82-6 with a record fourth straight ATP World Tour Finals title and the record for most ATP points as the world number one with 16,950. 2016 continued his mastery of the tour with a record sixth Australian Open title and then his first-ever title at Roland Garros at the French Open to complete the so-called “Nole Slam.”

At the time, Djokovic held a 42-3 mark at that point in the 2016 season. He’d gone 124-9 in the past 17 months. NINE LOSSES total. It’s still difficult to wrap your head around that level of domination and consistency. There was no doubt that the Boris Becker effect had helped catapult Djokovic so far ahead of the rest of the tour, that there seemed to be little hope for anyone catching him as world number one any time soon. We’d soon learn differently.

The Becker Effect

Before moving on to the collapse, let’s focus on what Boris Becker did that helped elevate Djokovic to unprecedented success. Becker took the time at the beginning of their relationship to be more of an observer and perhaps that is why 2014 in large part did not bring the big results right away for the pair. After taking in Djokovic for four or five months, Becker began to put his imprint on the team. He brought a seriousness to the table, more discipline and a professional work ethic.

The number one thing that Becker was able to instill in Djokovic was commitment. They would focus on a single goal and accomplish that goal. Rinse. Repeat and do it all over again. Mentally, he made Djokovic a monster that other players had an impossible time cracking. There was a definite passion to the Serb’s game and I think the goal oriented approach helped keep that fire in his gut. Becker was able to get Djokovic focused time and time again on achieving his next goal.

Therein, lies the downfall of their relationship in my estimation. It started with Djokovic achieving what seemed like life goal #1 for his career, winning the French Open.

What Went Wrong?

As Djokovic embarks on what he calls a new journey in finding his next coach, the questions he must ask himself are where did things go wrong?

Me? I point back to his French Open win as the beginning of the downfall. With Becker’s goal oriented style, what was left to achieve after winning at Roland Garros? On paper it might show as just one win, but when you get to three previous finals and can’t find a way to win, it becomes more than just one win. I think the 2014 finals loss to Stan Wawrinka made it even bigger. That was supposed to be Djokovic’s moment. He had finally beaten Rafael Nadal in Paris and then survived in five sets against Andy Murray in the semifinals. It was his time, but Stan Wawrinka made it his time instead. That made winning at Roland Garros in 2015 so much more than just one match.

I think that’s where it began to unravel for Djokovic. He finally got to exhale. He no longer had that gorilla on his back and it’s easy to see why he may have relaxed a bit and lost focus. Becker himself has been on record many times since that career-defining moment for Djokovic as saying that the Serb lost his passion for the sport after finally winning at the French Open. Becker cited a decreased work ethic towards the end of their partnership, saying that Djokovic was no longer putting in the hard work in practice that he thought was necessary.

There are certainly other factors that have added to Djokovic’s fall since that point. Some will point to his diet, which reportedly reached ridiculous points as it was revealed that Djokovic experimented with an all-liquid diet at some point in 2016. That allegedly caused plenty of friction between Djokovic and his team.

Some will point to his personal life, which has been the subject of rumor since Djokovic’s on-court struggles. Djokovic hinted as much last September at the U.S. Open, where he was physically out played by Stan Wawrinka in the championship match.

Others will point to physical issues, like the right elbow that has flared up this year and caused him to miss some time. It was an issue seen back as far as the U.S. Open in 2016, when he had treatment on it during a match.

All valid additions to what has been ailing Djokovic, but I do believe that the French Open win in 2016 changed him. Becker was unable to get Djokovic to up his commitment level back to where it was and I believe that is ultimately what led to their separation later in the year. Becker saw the ship sinking and knew there was a “necessary change” that was needed. I don’t think he bailed on Djokovic because he saw the ship taking on water and wanted to save himself. I firmly believe that Becker reached the “mutual” decision to leave in an effort to help Djokovic rediscover what he needed to get himself back to an elite level.

The Next Steps: Finding Desire & Fire

So that takes us to Novak Djokovic as of May 5th, 2017. Cinco de Djoko. The day when Djokovic decided to be proactive and make the necessary changes to find that “new energy” that he needs to turn things around. New energy for me being a dressed-up version of saying he needs to find his passion for the game again, exactly what Becker says has been missing from his former protege. No one plays an individual sport to lose, but there are varying degrees of success. Some mark out a journeyman-like career, making some money along the way, doing something they love. Others win titles, maybe never become elite, but find some stardom and success.

Others become elite professionals at what they do. Novak Djokovic has been to that mountain top. He turns 30 on May 22nd. Roger Federer has shown that it’s not any sort of death sentence in this sport, but it’s still a flag that flies in Djokovic’s face. His game isn’t with the natural grace, elegance and technique of Federer. Djokovic’s is one of fierce athleticism coupled with natural ability, albeit ability that won’t be the same when the athleticism fades a few beats. That’s where this race begins for Djokovic. Federer may have turned back the clock in 2017, but it’s unlikely that Djokovic is going to be in the same boat when he’s 35. There’s a possibility he may not be playing this sport at that age.

So even though there is time, I still think it is a race for the Serb. One he starts today in search of “new energy” in whatever way, shape or form that will take. Most will focus on the search for a new coach and that is a big piece of the puzzle. Yet, there are steps Djokovic can take himself to right the ship as he searches for a new captain. I think the number one thing on that list is being honest with himself.

He can’t blame injury for what he’s become. It might share some blame, but it’s not the root cause of the problem. If he’s honest, he needs to stand in front of a mirror and ask himself what has changed since winning the French Open last year. It shouldn’t be a difficult evaluation if he’s honest. Becker knows what it is and I think most of us, even as casual observers know that the root cause of his decline has been a decreased passion for the sport.

And that loss of passion carries a snowball effect with it. No passion for the game? Your work ethic decreases. No passion for the game? Losses are written off as “wow, the other guy was just too good.” During his peak, Djokovic never admitted defeat due to those circumstances. The losses were on him. Self accountability. That’s something else that might be missing. It might not have started that way, but with all the rumors swirling from injuries to personal issues, etc. – it would be easy to write off your troubles to outside influences and not the person you’re looking at in the mirror.

Is a Becker Reunion Possible?

Once Djokovic takes some time, hopefully for self reflection, where might the next candidate emerge to help shape the post-30 Camp Djokovic?

I touted the return of the Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic relationship within a year, when these two split last year. My gut feeling was that the split wasn’t due to lack of production from the duo, but due to the problems that had developed mostly on Djokovic’s side. It’s a logical link-up, yet likely highly illogical if Djokovic is truly looking for this new energy in his career right now. Becker is a known quantity and despite their rich and historic history of success, I’d rate this as a highly unlikely reunion now. To me, it still makes the most sense of any potential coach for Djokovic. However, I get the feeling that if Djokovic’s passion is reignited for the sport, he wants to prove that he can be elite again without Becker and with whatever choice he might make. It’s not a misguided notion by any means, but I am not sure it’s the best one.

Swedish Shock Therapy

Djokovic used the term “shock therapy” today when referring to wiping the slate clean as he rid himself of his former team. That makes you wonder if he might not be looking to someone who could reinvent his game somewhat at this stage or at the least, add in something new that could help invigorate the Serb. One can’t help but think automatically of Stefan Edberg and the way he redefined Federer’s game a few years ago. He turned Roger from what looked to be a fading star into a player who used new tactics to play shorter and more aggressive points. The end result was a career rebirth that Federer has taken to new levels this season with different coaching in place, but some of those key Edberg elements firmly entrenched in his game.

If we’re honest, Roger Federer is again the top player in the world right now. He’s played the best and most consistent tennis on tour, so who better to come up with a strategy to beat Federer than the man who coached him from 2013-2015? Edberg could provide some “shock therapy” if he can get Djokovic to employ some of the serve and volley tennis that made Edberg famous. The serve and volley has never been a regular part of Djokovic’s game plan, in fact he rarely uses that tactic at all.

It could make perfect sense though if you think about it … what’s troubled world number one Andy Murray this season besides his own poor play? Serve and volley. Mischa Zverev hounded him with it during his Australian Open upset win over the Scot. Vasek Pospisil used it in crafting an Indian Wells upset over Murray. Why not Djokovic? The main question in a potential Edberg-Djokovic partnership for me would be how well suited Edberg is to take on Djokovic mentally.

To an extent, it’s not all that different from when he came into Federer’s camp. He started with a multiple Grand Slam winner who had lost his confidence and comfort level on-court. That sounds an awful lot like Novak Djokovic in 2017. Still, Djokovic is a different animal with a different skill set that is based a lot off of the Serb’s physical fitness and training regiment. But perhaps it is time for a shock to the system, after all the tactics currently employed by Djokovic do not look as if they are capable of knocking off top tier players at the peak of their games like Federer right now.

The Immediate Future

Truth be told, Djokovic’s next coach could be just about anyone. It could be a big name, it could just be a familiar name, it could be someone the majority of us have never heard of at this point. His immediate future starts in Madrid next week at the Mutua Madrid Open, where he is on an island – 100 percent on his own. Perhaps that is the best medicine for him at this moment for that self reflection that I talked about earlier. He’s talked about taking time in his search for that new energy in the form of a new coach, so I don’t think we’ll hear much about anything new this month before the French Open.

I don’t think Djokovic will be looking for lightning-in-a-bottle like Milos Raonic did last year during the grass court season, when he brought John McEnroe on board as a consultant. This next selection for Djokovic feels like it will be a long term commitment, one that could well define the rest of his career. That makes this a big choice, one he’ll definitely weigh carefully. I don’t think his move to release his team today was made in haste, I believe it was calculated and probably done with weeks of thought behind it.

I don’t think he wants to be a captain-less ship for a lengthy time. Djokovic will plot his next moves carefully and diligently with an eye on returning to the top. The only prediction I have to make is that I think he will have a new coach by the U.S. Open.


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