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By Chris Oddo | Wednesday April 4, 2018


Novak Djokovic’s return to relevancy is taking longer than expected, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a road back to the top of the tennis for him. He’s only 30, one of the ten greatest tennis players of all-time already (with a chance to finish much higher on this speculative, imaginary list), and seemingly about to be truly healthy for the first time in several years.

So why is it getting harder to envisage a dominant Djokovic and easier to wonder if he’ll ever win more majors or get back to No.1 upon hearing the news that he has parted ways with his coaching team of Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek prior to the clay season?

Maybe it shouldn’t be.

Like global equity markets, there’s uncertainty in the Serb’s current situation due to the coaching change, and because the market doesn’t like uncertainty, there are those willing to dump Djokovic stock and move on to the next big thing or maybe just get out of the market entirely.

But that doesn’t mean that Novak’s stock isn’t worth a nibble.

Think about it: are things really that bad for the 12-time major champion? Can’t much of his current malaise be chalked up to the fact that he’s been injured for a long time and he still hasn’t reached optimal health when it comes to his elbow?

It’s difficult to tell from the outside, but there’s certainly more going on with Djokovic than just an elbow problem. He’s a complicated individual that seems to be searching for something more than a winning formula on the tennis court. Djokovic’s professional life often gets tangled with his personal life—so in a sense he’s forced to juggle a competitive fire and the responsibility to be the best tennis player he can be with his yearning for enlightenment and his quest to be the best human he can be. Where these two quests intersect might have more to do with Djokovic’s win-loss record than who his next coach is.


So let’s not overreact to Djokovic’s current coachless state. On paper it appeared that Andre Agassi was a match made in heaven for Djokovic but as it turns out the two never really got on. There’s no shame in that and there’s no reason to believe that a break-up has increased the likelihood that Djokovic will remain at sea without an anchor in perpetuity simply because Agassi is gone.

If we can take anything from the failed partnership with Agassi and to a lesser extent Stepanek, who is also out as of today, it’s that good chemistry just doesn’t magically form out of thin air, and it can’t be forced. Marian Vajda was Djokovic’s rock for over a decade and Boris Becker stepped in at a time when Djokovic was looking for something more and helped the Serb become invincible in every way. But the fallout from all the greatness that Djokovic achieved was the fact that Vajda fell out of the picture—perhaps for good.

Maybe we haven’t given enough credit to Vajda for what he did for Djokovic in his formative years and through his most dominant phase as a professional. Maybe Djokovic is missing some stability without the anchor of his loyal friend and coach by his side.

It’s pure speculation at this point, but is it all that outlandish to assume that in Agassi, all Djokovic received was a constant reminder of how close-knit of a family he had when Vajda was at the helm of his team, or even when the Surly Becker was on board?


Djokovic, as we’ve noted, is a complex human that is no doubt hyper aware of his environment and an athlete whose performance is acutely linked to the chemistry that prevails in it. If he felt that Agassi wasn’t on his wavelength then best to move on and not chalk it up as a failure but—as Agassi says— the pair agreeing to disagree.

Not every coach works for every player, even if they both have great backhands or specialize in the same aspects of the game.

In time we’ll probably come to realize that how Djokovic the player interacts with Djokovic the human is going to be the ultimate driver of success for whatever team is formed moving forward. As we’ve watched him struggle—whether due to injury, fatigue, a crisis of confidence, or simply the lack of desire—it has allowed us to appreciate just how big of an effort it must have taken for him to rise to the unprecedented heights that he hit during 2014, 2015 and 2016. It wasn’t just talent, fitness, or the ability to deliver in the clutch that got him to the top of the tennis pantheon. It was a legendary desire to leave no stone unturned in the quest to surpass the two-headed monster that had always stood at the top of tennis, while Djokovic looked up.

Let us not forget that Djokovic’s brilliance in many ways is a reaction to the initial brilliance of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. No other tennis player could hold a candle to them and yet here was Djokovic so primed for the fight that he didn’t just match them—he surpassed them both, at least for a spell.

He was the hunter and the hunter was not distracted by philosophical musings or searching for raison d'être. The hunter had hunger and wanted only to eat.

In those days Djokovic, guided by Vajda first and then by Becker, hit the accelerator with all his might and gripped the wheel so tightly, taking his fans and all of tennis on a wild ride for the ages that landed him on tennis Mt. Rushmore.

Nearly two years after his last major title and his greatest one, Djokovic is still trying to recalibrate his appetite for destruction. Who should he target? What is his prime motivator? How can he rekindle the fire that drove him so furiously in his prime and who can help him by providing a spark?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Serb is in search mode. He didn’t take his foot off the gas for a decade and when he finally did, he found that it wasn’t so easy to take the wheel after stepping away.

And maybe it shouldn’t be cause for panic but in today’s hot-take, fast-twitch world of sports panic is the baseline and patience almost inconceivable.

How many times was Federer washed up between his 17th and 18th major? Turns out he didn’t have a problem with getting older, he had a Djokovic problem. How many times have we seen someone clamoring for Venus Williams to call it a career? Where were those people when she played the Wimbledon final last July?

And where will the people that declare Djokovic’s best days are behind him be when he rises from the ashes of all this chaos to reclaim his place at the top of tennis?

The fact is, it doesn’t matter. For Djokovic, all that matters right now is that he gets healthy and finds the spark.

In the meantime, the stock’s cheap, and the fundamentals are still excellent.

 

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