Djokovic Return Awaited with Eager Anticipation

by John on December 27, 2017

Back in early June of 2016 talk of the G.O.A.T in men’s tennis was swirling around big time. Novak Djokovic had just completed the career Grand Slam by defeating Andy Murray in four sets in the French Open final, becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles at once and the first man in history to do so on three different surfaces. Djokovic had reached the pinnacle of tennis success after having just concluded a run of five and a half years of other worldly results. And he was still only 29 years old, with a lot left in the tank. From January of 2011 to that June 5, 2016 afternoon on Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, Djokovic had dominated tennis like no other from the past. He had won 11 of the 22 Grand Slams contested during the run, bagged 24 Masters crowns and won the ATP World Tour Finals three times. His record in that span against the three other members of the Big 4, his toughest opponents and certainly the most competitive group of adversaries in the history of men’s tennis, was 57-23 (18-9 vs Roger Federer, 19-7 vs Rafael Nadal and 20-7 vs Murray). The tennis world was Djokovic’s and he was king. G.O.A.T was the opinion being bandied about by many. And certainly it had merit. A few more years at such a high level of play and the title was all but assured. But soon after the French triumph things started to become unglued for the Serbian world No. 1. Djokovic lost in the third round at Wimbledon to American Sam Querrey in July and then was beaten in the opening round at the Rio Olympics a month later. The pressure and physical exertion expended to win his first French Open and complete the Grand slam had taken their toll. Nole had lost his edge and in the months that followed he suffered unexpected losses. To wit: Roberto Bautista Agut in the semis at the Shanghai Masters and Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals at the Paris Masters. While Djokovic was faltering, Murray played lights-out, winning five tournaments in a row. He supplanted the Serb at No. 1 at Paris and punctuated his ascendance several weeks later by defeating Nole in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals. The defeats were weighing heavily on the Serb and he was out of sorts. In early December, seeking to rock the boat and spark winning ways, Djokovic parted company with coach Boris Becker. Djokovic started 2017 off on the right foot, winning at Doha, but then was stunned by Denis Istomin in the second round at the Australian Open. Shocking defeats to Nick Kyrgios at Acapulco and Indian Wells, and then a loss to David Goffin at the Monte Carlo Masters followed. Good players for sure, but not the likes of which he was used to losing to. Something was clearly wrong. Rumors of family problems surfaced, lack of motivation was mentioned as well as the possibility of an undisclosed injury. And then the B-word: burnout. Nole’s frustration elevated. The effort was there, but the results weren’t. Try as he might he just couldn’t pull the trigger when he needed to. To shake things up, Djokovic felt further change was needed. In early May, in what he described as “shock therapy,” Nole severed ties with long-time coach and friend Marian Vajda. After the breakup, Djokovic would lose to an in-form Nadal in the semifinals of the Madrid Masters. The following week he was upset in the final of Rome Masters by young up-and-comer Alexander Zverev. The Serb, by most anybody else’s standards, was not playing bad. But Nole isn’t just anybody. Then in another news-breaking stunner, just before the French Open, Djokovic filled his coaching ranks with eight-time Grand Slam winner Andre Agassi. Great things were expected, but Djokovic fizzled at Roland Garros, losing to Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals. The coup de grace came a month later at Wimbledon when Djokovic had to retire with a painful elbow injury in the quarterfinals against Tomas Berdych. Two weeks later, Djokovic announced he would miss the rest of the 2017 season due to a lingering elbow injury that had been bothering him for nearly a year and a half. Certainly the elbow injury was the key reason for shutting down, but mental and physical exhaustion were part of the equation too. Now as the calendar is about to turn the page on a new year, Djokovic is planning his return — a return anxiously awaited by the tennis world. He has added another coach to his team, as well as a key tennis strategist and analyst, in the last month to bolster his chances in the new year. Recently retired Czech player Radek Stepanek and Craig O’Shannessy, the brains behind BrainGameTennis,a tennis strategy website, have joined forces with Djokovic and should help Nole’s preparation and on court tactics immensely. Both joined him, along with Agassi, in a very productive preseason training camp in Monte Carlo earlier this month. Djokovic began hitting a little over four weeks ago and the elbow is holding up well. Nole’s first action will be in the Mubadala World Tennis Championships, a six player exhibition, Dec. 28-30 in Abu Dhabi. After that he is scheduled to play in the Qatar Open, Jan. 1-6, and then the Australian Open, Jan. 15-28. Barry Cowan, a former player and now a tennis commentator with Sky Sports, is optimistic about Djokovis’s return. “He’s fresh and from all accounts he’s fit. We’ll know more in Doha and Australia, but he’s only going to get better as the season goes on,” Cowan said. “He dominated the sport at a ridiculous level for a period of time and in the end, he burned himself out mentally. When Novak was 100 per cent fit and 100 per cent focused two years ago, it was impossible to beat him in big matches. You never lose it — it just takes time to get it back and I’ve got great hopes for him. I think he will have a phenomenal year.” Djokovic fans certainly hope so.

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