Novak Djokovic: Down, but not Out

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Greatness in tennis is associated with a select few. Novak Djokovic is certainly in that category. The Serb has chalked his name in tennis folklore as one of the finest competitors in the game. He has amassed 12 Majors, a record 30 Masters 1000 titles (jointly held with Rafael Nadal), and at the 2016 French Open, became the second man in the Open Era (after Rod Laver in 1969) to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles.  At his best, Djokovic is the equivalent of a willow tree – he can bend but will never break. In 2017, his best tennis deserted him though, and he unsurprisingly brought his season to an end when he retired in his quarter finals match at Wimbledon due to injury.

So, what has gone wrong for the former World No. 1?

His triumph at Roland Garros after three unsuccessful attempts in the finals took a lot of Djokovic. He was visibly bothered by a debilitating elbow injury, which played a part in his early emotional exit at the Olympics. While he did reach the finals of the US Open and ATP World Tour Finals at the close end of 2016, he finished the season surrendering his World No. 1 ranking to fellow rival Andy Murray, who Djokovic beat at the French Open. While this was largely due to Murray’s brilliant upturn in form in the autumn, Djokovic’s downfall played a part too.  Djokovic’s reaction shortly after, was to end his partnership with former coach Boris Becker before embarking on his preparations for 2017.

He successfully defended his title in Doha in the opening week of the year, but in fairness few could have foreseen Djokovic’s next move. He was put to the sword by Denis Istomin in round two at the Australian Open, and back to back defeats to Australia’s Nick Kyrios in Acapulco and Indian Wells followed respectively.

The repercussions of a quarter-final exit in Monte Carlo saw him mutually agree to end his association with long-time coach Marian Vajda and his entire team members. His highlight of a turbulent clay court season was a finals defeat at the Italian Open to rising star Alex Zverev. His unsuccessful defence of the Roland Garros crown was complete when he fell to Austria’s Dominic Thiem in the last eight, another up-and-coming talent who Djokovic will have to contend with in 2018. In spite of a late surge to rediscover his confidence and winning spark, even a title win in Eastbourne prior to Wimbledon would not help Djokovic’s course. The Serb was in need of firing the bullets and recharging his batteries. Djokovic’s injury issues stem from the past decade of incredible success including two astonishing years of domination in 2011 and 2015 respectively. He is human after all. Djokovic’s troublesome elbow injury may have been his reason to end 2017, but he dearly needed a break from the game to be competitive again.

Is Djokovic Done?

The answer is a resounding, “No.”

While past success can have no guarantee of future success, Djokovic is a rare breed of talent and imperious physicality. The big question is definitely his fitness and whether he can comprehend what he said after dismissing Vajda, “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.”

The signs are ominous that aging combined years of success will result in the inevitable decline, but there is a fine line between good and great players, and Djokovic is the latter. He can take plenty of heart from the remarkable recuperation of rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal who both bounced back from career-threatening injuries to enjoy stunning seasons catapulting in finishing the year as the top two players in the world. While the expectation is that Djokovic’s return might follow a similar trajectory to that of Federer and Nadal, the Serb has quickly played down such an impact, highlighting the need to take it one step at a time saying, “The new season is about to start and there is a long way to go back to where I left off. We are aware that I need to go step-by-step, not hurrying anything. I feel much better now, and I can’t wait to play matches again.”

What to expect from Djokovic in 2018?
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Djokovic is scheduled to appear at the Mubadala World Tennis championship – a three-day Exhibition event in Abu Dhabi during the last week of 2017. He can then regroup and reflect on that part of the season where he seems to play majestic tennis. In the last eight editions of the Australian Open, Djokovic has won in five of them and has gone on to do the sunshine double on four occasions. That is a mind-boggling feat to say the least.

The recent announcement of retired Czech player Radek Stepanek, who is a close friend of the Serb, joining his coaching team is a major coup. Stepanek will bring a wealth of experience spanning 21 years on tour, and it will be interesting to see how the two lock horns for a season of transformation. Andre’ Agassi has confirmed his participation as Djokovic’s coach in 2018 with his focus solely on the Majors.

Djokovic may be down at the moment, but do not write him off just yet.

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