“Tennis was my number one priority when Stefan was not born. Now it’s completely opposite,” Novak Djokovic had said in 2017 when he became a father for the first time.
Apart from all the personal stuff that was going on in Djokovic’s life off the field, he was dealing with a lot of pressure on the field too. In June 2016, he was at the peak of his career. In most than half a century, Djokovic was the first man to hold all the Grand Slams together. He was No 1-ranked ATP singles player and with 12 Grand Slam titles, he only trailed Roger Federer (20), Rafael Nadal (16) and Pete Sampras (14).
However, the drastic downfall began after he clinched his Career Slam at Roland Garros in 2016. Maybe, he was too exhausted and used in terms of energy. Apparently, his elbow had begun to trouble him from 2016 season but somehow the Serbian had continued to play and that was only because he craved to finish his career slam by winning the French Open, the only title that was missing from his Grand Slam cabinet.
Maybe, that aggravated his elbow injury, resulting in a rough 2017 season. To begin with, he lost his No. 1 rank to Andy Murray at the end of the 2016 season. He then suffered a humiliating second-round loss at the Australian Open, the same Grand Slam which he has won for a record six times. Djokovic had already parted ways from Boris Becker after he lost his No. 1 rank and in May, 2017, he fired his entire coaching team – three close and long-term associates: mentor and coach Marian Vajda, fitness trainer Gebhard Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic – the same team that was there behind him when he was on cloud 9, on the top of world with all the four Grand Slams to his name, at the same time.
If Djokovic cannot handle pressure, setbacks and losses in his career, he cannot be considered at the same level of Federer and Nadal. In fact, the day Djokovic said the words,” tennis is not my top priority anymore,” that gave it all about his low confidence and poorer sportsmanship. There is no doubt he has been one of the best athletes to have graced the sport of tennis, but he certainly has not been the strongest of them.
The times when you are at a lower point in your career is when you require your team to back you. However, Djokovic preaches the opposite; showing no faith in his team, he splits ways from them. The latest victim was Radek Stepanek and Andre Agassi. While Djokovic’s work relationship was going down the drain with the latter, he shared a great bond with Stepanek.
Apparently, Agassi was taken on board only for important tournaments and hence he refused to travel with Djokovic for small events and that eventually hurt the former No. 1. After unseeded Hyeon Chung eliminated him from the Australian Open, Djokovic suffered twin setbacks in Indian Wells and Miami Open – first round elimination – and that didn’t go well with already low in spirits, Djokovic.
As Djokovic has been undergoing one of the most demoralizing periods of his career, he needed Stepanek, with an entire season ahead of him. For someone who has won 12 Grand Slam titles and an overall of 68 ATP singles titles – 7th highest in the Open Era – it should not be always about winning for him. A champion is created if he ticks off two crucial criteria; one is winning, of course, and other is how he steers himself during a crisis. The latter one is the more important one of the two and Djokovic has clearly failed there.
What a downfall can do to you, no player knows it better than Nadal. He has experienced more downs than ups in his career of 17 years now. No player has suffered more injuries than Nadal but those temporary hurdles did not stop the Spaniard from working his way back to the top. He did not part ways from his Uncle Toni during the tough times and the two went on to register the longest coach-player partnership in tennis – 27 years – before Uncle Toni decided to finally move on.
When Nadal was replaced by Djokovic at the top of the world, the former never gave out shocking statements like tennis was no longer his priority but that does not mean Nadal does not love his family as much as Djokovic. But, Djokovic’s “tennis is no longer my priority” statement certainly has drawn a line what separates him from “the real champions” like Federer and Nadal.
Comebacks might be tough but they are indeed possible and Federer is a living example to that. After Federer won the Wimbledon in 2012, he went without a Grand Slam title for a very long time. Critics even advised him to retire as his draught of a major lasted for five long years. However, what followed that unfolded Federer’s character and sportsman spirit that shouted three words loud and clear, “never give up!”
Ever since Djokovic ended his ties with Boris Becker, who coached him to six Grand Slam titles from 2014 to 2016, the Serb has shown the signs of being restless to return to the top as soon as possible. But, he has to accept that the renewed success might not come immediately and it is all about how strong he is mentally to hold himself and gracefully reclaim his top spot. Last year, Becker was declared bankrupt and Djokovic was one of the first ones to get in touch with him and that only implied the positive bond the two still shared.
Undoubtedly, Becker was the best coach Djokovic ever had. What will be a win-win situation for both of them is the Serbian getting Becker back on board as his head coach. There is no other person in the tennis circuit right now who understands Djokovic better than Becker. The reason for their split in 2016 has been one of the major mysteries in tennis, especially after being a very successful team. Hence, there is no reason we know why this move cannot be possible.