Can Djokovic Overcome Father Time and Injury Struggles?

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Former World #1 Novak Djokovic is in an unfamiliar spot, filled with adversity. He is currently #21 in the world, his lowest ranking in four years. He has cleaned out his coaching staff, including Boris Becker and, more recently, Radek Stepanek and Andre Agassi.

More alarming is that his struggles do not seem 100% due to injuries. For 12 months, Djokovic has been battling an elbow injury that has prevented him from playing at a top level.

At last year’s Wimbledon, he retired in the quarterfinals against Czech Tomas Berdych. He was sidelined for the remainder of the 2017 season, returning to compete at this year’s Australian Open.

However, the Serbian bowed out in the Round of 16, losing to Hyeon Chung with an evident elbow injury. At age 31, one has to wonder if the superstar will ever return to the form that got him to number one. Or has Father Time finally caught up to him?

Djokovic En Route to Winning Most Majors

It is astonishing to believe that two years ago, we were seeing the Serb at his peak form. Entering the 2016 French Open, Djokovic was #1 in the world. And with no Nadal and Federer playing in Paris, it was clear that Djokovic was the favourite.

He would advance to the championship match, to face World #2, Scotsman Andy Murray. Djokovic has a winning record over Murray when they met in Grand Slam finals (5-2) and he has a 5-1 record when the two have met on the clay court.

This French Open final would have a greater significance for the then-World #1. He was trying to join Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal as the only male players to win all the Grand Slam tournaments at least once.

Murray took the opening set 6-3. Given that he had never lost a match at the French Open after winning the opening set, it was clear he was in a position to take control of the match and let Djokovic suffer in his French Open demons.

Djokovic had lost in three previous French Open Finals, twice to Nadal and once to Swiss clay court specialist Stan Wawrinka. In two of those three finals appearances, the Serb had won the first set. But his opponents demonstrated greater mental fortitude, raising their level of play to win the championship.

But on this cloudy Sunday in Paris, Djokovic avenged his demons. He took control of the match with tremendous defense, brilliant serving, and powerful winners, defeating Murray 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in the remaining three sets. For the entire match, Djokovic had a 69% first serve percentage, 41 winners to 37 unforced errors (+4), demonstrating his tenacity under pressure.

When he raised the Coupe des Mousquetaires in front of the raucous crowd in Court Philippe Chatrier, he had completed the “Nole Slam,” holding all four Majors at once, from Wimbledon to the French Open. Djokovic was in a league of his own…and many experts believed he was on his way to taking tennis by storm and breaking Federer’s major record.

Injuries and Coaching Changes Force Djokovic to Tumble in Rankings

The 2016 French Open is the last time Djokovic has won a Major championship. In the Wimbledon succeeding his big major win, Djokovic got steamrolled by Sam Querrey in four sets in the third round, the first time he would lose before the quarterfinals since the 2009 French Open.

While he would make the final at the US Open in New York, he would end up losing in four sets to Wawrinka, who punished Djokovic with his thunderous one-handed backhand and intense mental toughness.

For any tennis player, focusing on the present and having a dearth of distractions often leads to positive results. For Djokovic, changes were on the horizon.

German Boris Becker, who had coached Djokovic for 10 of his 12 Majors, had decided to part ways with the superstar Serbian. He had taken the future Hall of Famer to superstardom, a level that saw him win multiple Majors in the same calendar year and have winning records over Federer, Nadal, and Murray.

While the coaching spot had jumped between the state of vacancy and occupied, Djokovic began to suffer serious injuries. His elbow, necessary in his powerful groundstrokes, had been hindering his performance. This ultimately resulted in the Serb having surgery, after losing at year’s Australian Open.

The Hard Road Back to the Top

When a player like Djokovic takes a massive tumble in the rankings, it takes a large amount of will and spirit to get back into winning form.

Djokovic can look to his two superstar counterparts, Federer and Nadal, for inspiration to come back from injury. Both the Swiss and Spaniard athletes had been sidelined for an extended period of time due to injury.

With hard work and a little bit of luck, Nadal and Federer stormed back up the rankings, claiming the last six majors, and are ranked one and two in the world respectively.

When Djokovic returned to Monte Carlo, the tennis world saw the Serbian return to dominant form. In the first round, he defeated fellow countryman Dusan Lajovic in under an hour, only losing one game.

“After two years finally I can play without pain,” Djokovic said after the match.

Even though the superstar is on his way to returning to form, getting back to that level of consistency that we saw Djokovic possess from 2011-2016 will be difficult. At this year’s French Open, he would end up making the quarterfinals, only to lose to Marco Cecchinato in four sets. According to Djokovic’s coach Marian Vajda, the Serb still has a long way to go.

“It wasn’t definitely Novak,” Vajda admitted. He had a good chance to tie things but he didn’t take advantage of it. He wasn’t controlling the points. Novak is not at 100%. He needs matches. He is at 80%. We are doing a good job.”

Djokovic has a lot on his plate. He has a wife and two kids to look after at home. His elbow clearly is not 100%. So as he enters his first grass court tournament of the year at Queen’s as a wildcard, tennis fans hold their breath, hoping that this charismatic personality can once again get back to the promised land.

(Main Photo from Getty)

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