Novak Djokovic needs a fresh start

With Agassi now his coach and a new deal with Lacoste, Djokovic tells EDGAR he feels no fear about his next “amazing adventure”

Robert Chilton June 8, 2017

A year ago Novak Djokovic took his racquet and drew a heart in the red clay of Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros. He fell backwards inside the heart he had drawn, his arms and legs outstretched in relief and joy. Finally, after three runner-up finishes he had won the elusive French Open and clinched a career Grand Slam. “It was like my spirit left my body,” he recalled later. “A thrilling moment, one of the most beautiful in my career.”

What happened next has baffled the tennis community. Djokovic exited Wimbledon in the third round; he crashed out of the Rio Olympics in the first round, he lost the US Open final and was then dumped out of the Australian Open in January 2017 in the second round by Denis Istomin who was ranked 117 in the world.

Ex-player Pat Cash said the Serb had “lost his edge. There’s obviously a big confidence thing, but now he makes mistakes and it is a mental thing. Maybe it’s his time to say I’m not quite the same player that I was but I can still perform well. It’s clear that it’s a mental thing.”

Djokovic’s then coach, Boris Becker, who knows a thing or two about tennis psychology, noticed the change and ended his association with the Serb in December 2016 just prior to the Australian Open defeat. It had been a good partnership. Before Becker, Djokovic lost four out of five Grand Slam finals. With Becker in his camp, he won six of the next eight.

Announcing his departure from Team Novak, Becker said that Djokovic wanted to spend more time with his wife Jelena and their three-year old son Stefan. “As a coaching staff our hands were tied a little bit,” remarked Becker at the time. “We couldn’t do the work we wanted to do because he had more important things to do.”

This year has seen things go from bad to worse. After his Melbourne meltdown in January, Djokovic suffered a quarter-final loss to David Goffin at the Monte Carlo Masters in April. His only win in 2017 came in Doha in January. Enough was enough.

In a move he called “shock therapy” Djokovic parted ways with his coaching team – Marian Vajda, his coach, Gebhard Phil Gritsch, his fitness coach, and Miljan Amanovic, his physio – in May after 10 years of success that resulted in 12 Grand Slams.

What had Djokovic done? Was this pushing the self-destruct button? Would he ever reach the heights again? Had winning the French Open killed his hunger?

Fresh start

EDGAR met Djokovic on a sunny day in May in his hometown of Monaco. It was his 30th birthday, the day after he lost in the Rome Masters final to emerging German 20-year-old Alexander Zverev. 

Tall, incredibly lean, tanned and cheerful, there was no sign that the defeat or the changes in his life were unnerving Djokovic. He seemed energised. Just days before our meeting he announced he had hired Andre Agassi to steer him through the French Open, and was then revealed as the new ambassador of iconic French brand Lacoste in a five-year deal. 

Change is exciting, he told us, wearing a crisp white Lacoste polo shirt and white trousers. But we had to ask: was there perhaps a twinge of fear as this crocodile entered unknown waters? 

“I work very hard every single day to not have any fears,” he told EDGAR with huge confidence. “Fear is the biggest enemy for all of us in whatever we do. If I spent too much attention on my fears I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I have. I try to focus on the positive emotions that drive me: love, joy, passion and pure inspiration to play the sport that I love. I enjoy just holding a racquet and playing on a daily basis on any court, not just a Grand Slam. That proves to me that I have excitement and love for tennis and that pushes me to keep going.”

He paused and shifted in his seat. “This is a very particular period of my life with many changes. I stopped working with a team I worked with for ten years. We have so many wonderful memories and moments but it was time for all of us to move on. I feel that here on my birthday everything is kind of aligned with the universe. It’s a new start. I look forward to whatever this new chapter of my life brings. I’m excited.”

What about his slump on the court? He admitted his performances in big tournaments have been disappointing, but that the issue went further than results. “I think, more than the performances, I felt a lack of balance on the court emotionally,” he reveals. “I never faced that kind of challenge before. Even when I was losing Grand Slam finals I always had the energy to bounce back after a few weeks. For example, I lost the French Open twice and then won Wimbledon. I was able to recover quickly. 

“After winning the French Open last year I discovered this new feeling and I found it satisfying and fulfilling – but it was also exhausting. I had to rediscover my inner joy and motivation to play; not always to win or lose but to enjoy the game. I feel I’m there now. Hopefully Paris [French Open] will be the highlight of the season so far.”

Assisting him temporarily in his quest is tennis legend and eight-time Grand Slam winner Andre Agassi. “It’s a big move for me,” Djokovic continues. “Andre is someone I looked up to when I was younger. He’s considered one of the greatest service returners of all time and I rely on the return of serve in my game so there is similarity there. There is also similarity in the trajectory of his career: he has experience of dropping in the rankings and coming back from number 140 to number one. He experienced big transitions and challenges in his life. His resilience is something I can relate to a lot. He has been through everything I am going through now so he understands. We’ll see how the relationship unfolds. I think it’ll be an amazing adventure for both of us.”

Another important factor in this new chapter of Djokovic’s life arrives in the autumn. His wife is pregnant with their second child. They have a son, Stefan who is almost three. He says fatherhood is the “biggest gift we get” and adds “family values are the most important thing for me,” as he looks towards his parents who are sitting nearby. 

“Personally my life as a tennis player has changed ever since I became a father, not in terms of playing tournaments but entering a new dimension of consciousness and being aware of myself as more than just a tennis player. When I come back home I have to leave the racquet on the side and commit to that family unit which I’ve enjoyed very much. It brings me a sense of calm and also motivation because I’d love my son to support me from the box soon. Balance has always been one of the key words in my life, professional and personal. Trying to balance work with family and find that harmony is one of the hardest things we can do. I try. I’m not perfect and every day I learn something new.”

Hero at home

Although he says he’s not perfect, the Serbian nation believes Djokovic is pretty darn close. Stefan Bendic is a TV reporter from National Television of Serbia and told EDGAR about the effect a Djokovic triumph has on the country.

“When Novak wins, politicians get pushed off the front page,” chuckles Bendic. “When he wins, it’s unbelievable, it’s like the country and the people became completely different. When he won the French Open last year it was maybe the biggest party ever in Serbia. Novak was on every front page, and was the first item on TV news.” 

Why do they love him? “His humour, his charm, I think. But also because he’s a human being. His foundation helps children and people respect him. Maybe people prefer Federer or Nadal for their style of tennis. But everyone loves Djokovic – he’s the biggest sports person in the history of our country.” This kind of adulation means Djokovic is likely to remain a hero long after he retires. “I don’t consider myself to be only a tennis player,” adds the world number two. “I want to leave a legacy behind.”

Djokovic got hooked on tennis aged six when he spotted people having tennis lessons in his home town of Belgrade in what is now Serbia. His first coach Jelena Gencic nurtured his talent and enthusiasm. The Balkan conflict in the late 1990s affected the young Djokovic and his family deeply.

Then aged 12, Djokovic spent 78 nights in a bomb shelter during air raids. “We grew up in harsh conditions,” he says. “I skipped many junior tournaments because my parents didn’t have the money. These experiences have shaped us. I believe we appreciate things more. The consequences of those times, and the adversities, are deep inside us.” 

From those dark days, Djokovic now enjoys a good life in Monaco and has won more than $100m in prize money. Health and nutrition is hugely important to him and he and his wife recently opened Eqvita, a vegan café near his home in Monte Carlo. Famously, Djokovic eats a gluten free diet after an intolerance was detected in 2010 after he felt sick during matches. “Before then I didn’t even know what gluten was,” he explains. “I also removed dairy products and refined sugars from my diet. It’s helped me to be a better tennis player in the last seven years and a healthier person. I need it to feel calm and happy. I love to eat, but as an athlete food is also fuel that I try to use in the best possible way.”

As he prepares to add to his 12 Grand Slams at Roland Garros this month and then at Wimbledon in July, Djokovic is already set to go down as a legend of the game. He grows shy at the mention of the L word. “I prefer not to speak about myself like that. I leave it to other people to talk about whether or not I deserve to be named alongside the greats.”

He gives his back a little twist to the left and then to the right and looks out onto the red clay courts of the Monte Carlo Country Club. “I love this sport with all my heart,” he smiles. I have huge passion and motivation. As long as I have that inside me I’ll keep going.”