After losing in the French Open quarter-finals to an unknown Italian, Marco Cecchinato, earlier this month—despite leading 4-1 in the fourth set with multiple break points for a 5-1 advantage—Novak Djokovic was uncharacteristically monosyllabic in the post-match press conference. It was uncharacteristic because of his naturally effervescent personality, uncharacteristic because Djokovic is not meant to lose to someone who was ranked 72.
Any player would be glum after crashing out of a Grand Slam, and Djokovic appeared angry and dejected.
Q. Did you have issues going into this match or were there things that crept up?
Djokovic: Just couple of things, but nothing major, really. I don’t want to talk about that.
The former world No.1, on a comeback trail after a host of issues over the last year and a half derailed a perfectly smooth career, is still far from where he would like to be. For example, till the first week of May this year, he’d had six wins and six losses, a stark contrast to 2011, when his record was 33-0. His famed determination has shown signs of cracking, the impenetrable defence appears fragile, and the motivation, uncertain.
Q. Do you feel like this is the kind of match that in a couple months’ time, matches under your belt...
Djokovic: I don’t know.
The defeat to Cecchinato upset him so much that Djokovic claimed he might not get into the grass court season—a series of events played on lawn and culminating at Wimbledon, which starts 2 July.
Q. When do you think you’ll first play on the grass?
Djokovic: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.
Q. At all?
Djokovic: I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.
He changed his mind to enter the Fever Tree Championships at Queen’s Club, London (18-24 June), which he had last played in 2010, as he tried to reclaim form, and, more importantly, missing confidence. He lost in the final to Marin Čilić.
“Everybody he dominated over the years is walking on the court now with a different attitude," analyst and coach Brad Gilbert told ESPN.com. “If you’re Novak, whatever they say, the guys you smoked are not feeling badly for you because you’re struggling. I’m not going to say (Djokovic) can’t get it back—look at Rafa (Rafael Nadal) and Fed (Roger Federer). But Novak has to realize his situation."
So what are Djokovic’s chances at Wimbledon? Will the 50th year of the Open Era at Wimbledon open with the second coming of Djokovic?
Change of guard
Initially considered a “joke", someone who cracked easily, or did not have the strength to translate his considerable talent to success, Djokovic rebuilt his career on a series of changes. His experiments with diet—including eliminating gluten—are well documented. He changed not just what he ate but the way he ate, the way he trained, and soon became a formidable machine—with the flexibility of a rubber band.
Since 2011, when he first became No.1, till mid-2016, when he won his 12th Grand Slam title at Roland Garros, Djokovic dominated in an era of tennis greatness. He built a 23-22 win-loss record over Federer, 26-25 against Nadal and 25-11 against Andy Murray—the game’s contemporary greats, also known as the big four.
Why he began to unravel is not completely clear, but a sequence of injuries, personal problems, shifting priorities and search for spirituality waylaid the plan of continued global domination. In late 2016, Djokovic started working with a spiritual adviser called Pepe Imaz, who preaches a philosophy of amor y paz (love and peace); at various times, Djokovic has spoken about telepathy, telekinesis and the power of hugs. He fired his entire staff in mid-2017, calling it “shock therapy".
Almost every athlete worth his salt goes through injuries, recovery, and then returns to the sport, but for Djokovic, whose game is constructed on the might of his mental strength, his physical recovery did not synchronize with his motivation.
“He is a deep thinker," says Cliff Drysdale, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist and a commentator with ESPN. “I feel he is constantly searching. It’s a good and bad thing. Searching for perfection will be a part of his life but it has negative results. It doesn’t change the fact that technically and strategically he has been the most dominant player in the world."
Some critics say he has become too thin now—the 31-year-old, 6ft 2 inches tall, 77kg Serbian gave up meat more than two years ago—while others say he is not quick enough on court.
In May, Djokovic admitted he may have returned to competitive tennis too soon after his elbow surgery—he didn’t play between Wimbledon last year and the Australian Open this January. “It was my decision (to return) because I missed playing tennis so much. But I was not ready and it backfired," he told the press.
“I just think there’s something not quite there," The New York Times quoted Paul Annacone, former coach of Federer and Pete Sampras, as saying. “He also seems a little more dejected now when these sort of things happen. He’s not quite resolute."
Search for the right combo
The two men whose help Djokovic has sought over the last few years are Boris Becker and Andre Agassi, former players with a history of troubled relationships with the sport they embellished. Both Becker and Agassi went through their own mid-career soul-searching, and returned to the sport with some degree of success, which indicates that Djokovic may be able to do the same. Becker, after leading Djokovic through his most prolific period, left in late 2016, while Agassi and Radek Štěpánek didn’t last long as mentors.
“It’s (the coach is) hugely important," says Mary Pierce, a two-time Grand Slam winner who was the event ambassador for the TCS World 10K in Bengaluru in May. “He has got his old team back (now), which is good because it’s stabilizing."
The Serbian recently reunited with Marian Vajda, who has worked with him in the past, and trainer Gebhard Gritsch.
“He is among the top three candidates to win at Wimbledon," says Drysdale over the phone from Austin, Texas. “He has done it before. He is on a good path after coming back from injury. He played well at the French Open and I was surprised he lost. A while ago, people said Nadal will not win another major, and how wrong they were."
Djokovic can take solace from the examples set by current No.1 Nadal and No.2 Federer. The two remain standing among the famed four—which went up to five with Stan Wawrinka a couple of years ago. Three of them—Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka—suffered injuries, leaving Federer and Nadal to capture all the last six Grand Slam titles. The 36-year-old Federer came back strongly after taking half of 2016 off, while Nadal, 32, has a history of injuries and breaks.
Q. Can you summarize how difficult it is to come back on the level you want?
Djokovic: It is difficult. Many things in life are difficult.
Q. Are you able to articulate...
Djokovic: I’m not. I’m sorry, I’m not.
“When you come back, you can physically push the limits but the mind has to be strong to deal with the pain," adds Pierce over the phone. “You need patience, perseverance and belief."
At the Madrid Open in May, in a battle of the scarred, Djokovic defeated Kei Nishikori, another player returning from a long layoff. His swinging forehands, punishing inside-out winners worked well, he slithered and stretched like a gymnast—indicating that he may be getting back to his best, before he lost in the next round.
Q. What’s your process now with regrouping after this defeat? How do you get your mindset going forward?
Djokovic: I don’t know. I’m just not thinking about tennis at the moment.
Djokovic’s return to top tennis is important for fans because they are not yet ready to see the disintegration of the four. They would want the champions to ride into the sunset, not fall off the horses midway. Djokovic defined the new era of tennis—with his unmatchable defensive play, fitness and experiments with lifestyle—and deserves a second chance.
What’s indicative of his personality is an old video chat with a friend where he is asked if tennis is a game or obligation for him. Seven-year-old Djokovic, with his cap worn backwards, says: “Tennis is for me an obligation. The goal for me in tennis is to become a champion."
Maybe the lush grass of Wimbledon will give him the high he needs to be champion again.