MELBOURNE, Australia – It’s been six months since Novak Djokovic played his last competitive tennis match, at Wimbledon.
As he returns for the Australian Open, not healed but definitely hungry, he looks the same, mostly.
But there’s concrete evidence of the 18 months spent dealing with an elbow injury. And in order to return and be effective, Djokovic had to adjust his service motion.
It’s not a major change, more of a tweak. But this far into a career, even a tweak involves going against years of muscle memory.
“It was obviously the part of my game that I had to address because of the elbow issues. I’ve worked on it for last couple months with Radek and Andre,” Djokovic said Saturday during his pre-tournament press conference.
“Even though the service motion comparing to the old one, it’s not entirely different, but at the beginning even those small tweaks and changes have made a lot of difference mentally. I needed time to kind of get used to that change, understand whether that’s good or not good for me.”
Djokovic has played practice sets with the new serve. But he has only played one semi-serious match – at the Kooyong exhibition against Dominic Thiem.
He also has been wearing a Milos Raonic-type sleeve (flesh colour, sort of) on his right arm.
Shorter motion, less load on elbow
The goal of the change is to try to release the load from the vulnerable elbow, make the serve more efficient.
The effects of the new team, led by Agassi, shine through in the analysis and evaluation of how best to get back on court and compete.
Agassi himself used an abbreviated service motion for awhile early in his carer, after suffering a wrist injury. Djokovic said he, Agassi and coach Radek Stepanek spent “a lot of hours” analyzing his serve.
“There are three, four details, things, that I’ve changed with my rotation, the elbow up, which is the most obvious one. I feel like I spend less energy but I’m more efficient. I’m really looking forward to try out my new serve here,” Djokovic said.
The rumours (and reports) out there that Djokovic had surgery on his elbow were inaccurate. But Djokovic said he’d been dealing with it for a year, a year and a half.
Painful, and then too painful
Until Wimbledon, it was manageable. At Wimbledon, it crossed the threshold into unbearable.
“In consultations with doctors, it was quite clear, you know, what is going on. The next six months, I won’t play, regardless of how fast or slow the recovery goes,” Djokovic said. “Everybody goes through some level of pain daily more or less. This was quite a major injury.”
Djokovic said that with the whirlwind of the last few years he had been “discreetly wishing” he had more time to himself. He got it. He was able to be with wife Jelena when she had their daughter, refresh his mind – and get caught up on life.
He realized during the period a few weeks ago where he withdrew from the Abu Dhabi exhibition and the ATP Tour event in Doha that the elbow just wasn’t ready for a tournament load. But until then, he didn’t even know if he was going to come down to Australia and play.
The determination, after what Djokovic termed “long and very thorough consultations with my team and doctors, orthopedic specialists” was that even if the elbow wasn’t healed, it was getting better every day, and it was at a level where he could compete.
After six months out, a return
What he doesn’t know is how it’s going to react to real competition, after six months without it – by far the longest stretch of time in his entire life that he hasn’t been on the competitive tennis court.
Djokovic, who wouldn’t give any details about precisely what the elbow injury was, wouldn’t say whether he had any injections to speed up the healing process in time for Australia. “There was a lot of things that were on the table, that we’ve done, things that we haven’t done. To take you through the whole process, we need quite a bit of time,” he said. “I’m here. I’m going to play. Hopefully everything goes well.”
But … Djokovic also said that there were some long-term options on the table (which could include surgery) that he and his team will go back and revisit, once the Australian Open is over.
So the bottom line is that Djokovic is far from out of the woods.
But he’s here. That’s already a step forward.
The No. 14 seed starts his campaign Tuesday against American lefty Donald Young.