Novak Djokovic takes wild card into Queen’s Club

All that analysis and speculation about Novak Djokovic skipping the grass-court season can now be consigned to the trash.

The 31-year-old Serb has taken a wild card into the Queen’s Club tournament.

He was given what’s called an “A+ wild card”, because he is on the ATP Tour 500 “premier player list”. The tournament still has two wild cards to hand out.

Djokovic doesn’t play grass-court warmup events too often.

It will be the first time Djokovic has played Queens’ Club since 2010, when he lost his second match to Xavier Malisse of Belgium. 

He reached the final in 2008, losing to Rafael Nadal after defeating Janko Tipsarevic, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian to get there. And then, the following year, he chose Halle and reached the final there.

Since 2010, Djokovic had only played once. He took a late wild card into the smaller Eastbourne event last year, the week before Wimbledon, and won that.

“Grass is very special”

Here’s the quote from the press release, in which Djokovic speaks in perfect sentences, remembers the brand-new sponsor’s name, mentions his previous tournaments and even enumerates the members of his staff who will be with him.

(Press-release quotes are an art form unto themselves, aren’t they?)

 ‘I am very excited to be playing the Fever-Tree Championships again. I have happy memories of reaching the final at The Queen’s Club 10 years ago and also winning the doubles title. The atmosphere is always great and I am looking forward to playing in front of the British crowd again. After the exciting events in Rome and Paris, I’m ready for new challenges. Grass is very special, it is the rarest of surfaces so I’m happy I’ll have the opportunity to compete at this strong tournament, which will also be a great preparation for Wimbledon. Marian Vajda and Gebhard Phil-Gritsch will be with me in London, and this makes me happy.’

He did indeed win the Queen’s Club doubles title in 2010, paired with Jonathan Erlich of Israel. They won match tiebreaks in their last four matches to take it. 

It is, surprisingly, the only doubles title of his career, although he doesn’t play that often.

Big-time field

Roger Federer may be in Halle, Germany next week. But all eyes will be on the venerable Queen’s Club, which has put together a tremendous field this year.

Djokovic joins French Open champion Nadal, Andy Murray (hopefully), Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka.

Also in the field are Kevin Anderson, David Goffin and Grigor Dimitrov.

In all (barring the inevitable withdrawals), six of the top 10 and 11 of the top 20 will be on hand, as well as Djokovic, Nick Kyrgios and Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic. 

British lefty Cameron Norrie also received a wild card.

Change of heart

Much bandwidth was frittered away in the wake of Djokovic’s dramatic press conference, and rather vague response following his loss to Marco Cecchinato at the French Open.

It was interpreted by many as being some sort of definitive statement that he was seriously considering skipping Wimbledon. 

Faced with the automatic and inevitable question from the British press about the grass – and in a state where he might well have wanted to throw all of his rackets into the Seine – his answer was succinct:

We Tweeted at the time that it was in all likelihood an automated response to the question he (and all the other top players) get from the British press every year, once they’ve lost in Paris.

Given that Djokovic is one of the rare top players who most often doesn’t play any of the warmup events, he gets a question about whether he will have a change of schedule every year. And that’s likely what he thought he was answering.

That turned out to be the case.

After a few days to cool off and turn the page on the defeat, and having played some very good tennis in Paris, he’s hopping back in the saddle.

Djokovic was unlikely to skip a Grand Slam. There are obligations to his sponsors and all sorts of other factors. 

Plus, he’s a three-time Wimbledon champion.

Djokovic runs the gamut of emotions in shock loss

PARIS – The story of unlikely French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato will go on.

So there’s plenty of time to dissect and digest that over the next few days.

But what of Novak Djokovic, who had every right to believe he, not an unseeded, No. 74-ranked opponent in only his second career main draw in Paris, would take the court Friday against Dominic Thiem?

Instead, the Serb is going home after a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11) loss that ran the gamut of emotions.

For three hours and 26 minutes, the 31-year-old Serb showed all of what makes his fans worship him so, and some of what his detractors reproach him for.

It was compelling, can’t-turn-away drama and, at its best, it was brilliant tennis.

“Any defeat is difficult in the Grand Slams, especially the one that, you know, came from months of buildup. And I thought I had a great chance to get at least a step further, but wasn’t to be. That’s the way it is,” Djokovic said.

Opportunities lost to go five

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Djokovic’s emotions came close to boiling over at times, with a couple of physical niggles and, mostly, an 0-2 set deficit early.

The 2016 French Open champion was so close to putting the match into a fifth set. And, since Cecchinato had won the first two sets and was losing momentum by the moment, you liked his chances.

There were moments, especially in that fourth set, that he was channelling peak Djokovic so nearly, you could almost close your eyes and remember exactly how he did it back when he was nigh-on unbeatable.

His opponent forced him to get to that level, clearly unafraid to win and seemingly unabashed by the new, uncharted waters of his career.

But Djokovic is not there, not yet. Had he been even a little closer, he and Thiem would be squaring off on Friday.

He glimpsed his peak level in this match, numerous times. But he’s not yet at the point where he could sustain it long enough.

Djokovic was up 4-1 in that fourth set. Then he was up 5-2. And then he was up 5-3, 30-love when he tried to serve it out, only to be broken.

He was down a mini-break in the tiebreak. Then he was up one and playing as though he wasn’t going to make an unforced error the rest of the day. Then he was down a mini-break once more. He saved three match points. He had three set points of his own.

Crazy, high-wattage tennis

At 9-8, Djokovic’s third set point, the crowd thought he had it with a backhand down the line. But a great retrieval by Cecchinato had Djokovic set to hit another shot, a planned inside-out forehand with a little angle. Distracted momentarily by the crowd, Djokovic completely shanked it.

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At least, he beseeched the crowd to be quiet in French!

His reaction was intense. He bemoaned the crowd, begging them (s’il vous plait) to shush. 

He wouldn’t get another chance. 

At 10-10, his forehand hit the top of the net and bounced back on his wide. At 11-11, Djokovic went for an inside-out forehand, but just missed it.

On match point No. 4, lacking a little lucidity, Djokovic tried a surprise serve-volley. But the serve wasn’t good enough. Cecchinato’s backhand down the line dropped softly in the corner, and the Italian fell softly to the court.

Djokovic immediately crossed over to the other side of the net and extended his arms to a player he’s friendly with, with whom he has practiced numerous times at the Piatti Academy in Italy and at home in Monte Carlo.

“Well, it’s never been hard for me to congratulate and hug an opponent that just we shared a great moment on the court. And the one that wongamut deserved to win the match, and that was Marco today,” he said afterwards.

“I know him well. He’s a great guy. He deserved. And that’s something everybody should do. On the other hand, when you walk off the court, of course, it’s a hard one to swallow.”

Despite having roared at the Court Suzanne-Lenglen crowd just minutes before, after they threw him off on that set point, Djokovic waved and patted his heart as he left. 

He really did do all the right things on the court after the loss, as he always does. Even though his head must have been burning, and his heart a little battered.

Physical woes

In the first set, Djokovic had the trainer come out and try to stretch out the neck and shoulder area that has given him trouble occasionally over the last little while.

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If that seemed to loosen up eventually, he had another slight issue with his right calf.

gamutThe issues may well have affected him some. Although there probably isn’t a player left in the tournament in its second week who doesn’t have a few aches and pains.

“Just couple of things, but nothing major, really. I don’t want to talk about that,” he said later in his rather unusual press conference.

They didn’t affect his fight. And his scrambling in some key moments of the fourth set indicated that if they affected him physically, it was going to be mind over body.

Quick change of plans

Djokovic had no interest in sitting in the big press conference room after that loss. And so he took it upon himself to head in shortly after the loss, but to a much smaller room. There was no transcription service set up, no television cameras at the read, and room for only a few media who hustled to get there from the main room.

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It’s actually surprising Djokovic even knew where Room 2 was, actually.

There was some criticism of the Serb’s decision, to be sure. 

But in this case, Djokovic’s revamping of the procedures, and the steam still coming out of his ears, spoke volumes about how he felt about the loss. Probably a lot more than another few hundreds words could have expressed.

It was out of character. And with all the occasions Djokovic has headed in and been more than gracious to his opponents after losses, answering whatever questions were asked, you’d have to give him a mulligan on this one.

He could have just paid the fine for skipping the press conference. He can certainly afford it. But he came.

“He played amazing and credit to him. Congrats for a great performance. He came out very well. I struggled from the beginning. Unfortunately, it took me time to get well, and struggled with a little injury, as well, at the beginning. And after, when I warmed up, it was better,” he said. “But, yeah, just a pity that I couldn’t capitalize on the chances in the 4-1 in the fourth set and some break points that I thought I had in there, but he came back and credit to him.”

Doubtful for grass?

In the state he was in, Djokovic brushed aside the usual French Open questions about the upcoming grass-court season. (These are the specialty of the British tennis press that makes the trip across the Channel every year).

gamutHe was asked when he planned to make his grass-court debut.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass,” Djokovic replied.

It’s been a bit of wild card with Djokovic, who has won Wimbledon three times, but whose tuneup schedule has not been set in stone in recent  years, the way rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s plans have been.

Last year, he took a late wild card into Eastbourne, played the week before Wimbledon. That’s an unusual move for a top player. But he won it.

It was the first time he played a tuneup event on the grass since 2010.

He was asked again, and repeated the same answer. Asked to clarify, he couldn’t.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Just came from the court. Sorry, guys, I can’t give you that answer. I cannot give you any answer.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Djokovic might well have wanted to crush all of his game sticks after that defeat, it seems likely upon further review that Djokovic assumed the question was about playing grass warmup tournaments.

Given his sparse recent history in that regard, he gets that question every year in Paris. 

One thing’s for sure, he’s not going to think about it for awhile.

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Relaxed Djokovic hits the practice court (video)

PARIS – Novak Djokovic arrives in Paris far more encouraged about his prospects than he was even a month ago.

A first-round loss after his last-minute entry into Barcelona, and a second-round loss in Madrid were setbacks.

But after reaching the semifinals in Rome and giving eventual champion Rafael Nadal a lot to handle before losing in straight sets, he can look at the French Open and imagine the possibilities.

Better yet, Djokovic’s effort in Rome ensure he wouldn’t get to Roland Garros unseeded.

His ranking points from a year ago, when he reached the Rome final, were dropping off and even if he entered the event ranked No. 18, he wasn’t going to stay in the top 40 if he didn’t put up a good result.

Instead, the 2016 champion comes into Paris as the No. 20 seed. And he finds himself in the opposite half of the draw from Nadal, after the singles draw was made Thursday evening.

Good draw for Djokovic

Djokovic will face a qualifier or a lucky loser in the first round, with a fairly rusty David Ferrer as a potential second-round opponent and No. 13 seed Roberto Bautista-Agut looming in the third round.

The top-ranked player in a potential fourth-round matchup is No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov, a good outcome. And his potential quarterfinal opponent could be No. 10 Pablo Carreño Busta or No. 8 David Goffin (with long shots Gaël Monfils and Nick Kyrgios also in that section).

So he had a lot to be smiling about, as he hit the practice court on Suzanne Lenglen Wednesday with Borna Coric of Croatia.

Here’s some video of that effort.

Djokovic even had a special smile for the grounds crew, who were waiting in a corner of the court and had their mobile phones out to get a shot of him.

Relaxed

 

Win for Thiem, but positives for Djokovic

For Dominic Thiem, it was a superb victory to kickstart his all-important clay-court campaign.

For Novak Djokovic, it was – even in defeat – a building block in his renaissance.

Thiem prevailed 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-3 in a third-round match in Monte Carlo Thursday that ran a few seconds short of 2 1/2 hours. It provided moments of great (and some no-so-great) tennis, and plenty of competitive tension and emotion.

Thiem was off for five weeks tending to a bone bruise in his foot. For a player often accused of playing far too much tennis as it is, it was an unusual layoff.

The break may serve him well in the late stages of the season. But it created some ring rust for this clay-court opener.

It took the 24-year-old two hours, 40 minutes to squeak past Russia’s Andrey Rublev in his first match. But he played a far, far better match against Djokovic, who won their first career five meetings before losing their most recent clash, a year ago at the French Open. 

Thiem

The reward for getting through this one is a date with No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals Friday.

Thiem’s tactics effective

Thiem’s serving patterns Thursday were designed to pull Djokovic out wide, on both sides of the court. Along with the changes in spin and velocity, they proved effective. The Austrian won 75 per cent of points of his first serves. He won 52 per cent of them on his second delivery. And he faced only three break points.

Again, he drew Djokovic into the backhand cross-court pattern that often proved a winning formula for Borna Coric in the previous round. The difference was that Coric is not as good a player, and he couldn’t do it often enough – or at the crucial moments late in the sets – to have a better outcome.

It’s a pattern that isn’t working as well for Djokovic these days because he isn’t confident enough in his ball striking to include the element that so often turns those exchanges in his favour. The ability to change the direction of the ball almost on command and fire his backhand down the line, thus gaining the advantage in the rally at any moment – is a cornerstone of his ground game.

In this one, while the two were close to even in the short rallies (under five shots), Thiem was well ahead between 5-9 shots (37-31) and longer than nine shots (17-10).

Thiem
Djokovic had some vintage moments over the last two days (and nearly five on-court hours) in Monte Carlo. Next step is to have even more of them – and clean up the backhand side. (TennisTV.com)

The Serb’s backhand is producing an alarmingly high number of errors at the moment (the majority of them going into the net on Thrusday). It was flagrant during his matches at Indian Wells and Miami, and it was just as apparent on Thursday. Of his 40 unforced errors (to only 20 winners), 26 came on the backhand side.

And when he did go down the line, he did so with such safety that, on the slower surface, Thiem was generally able to track it down.

Building blocks in Monte Carlo

Djokovic’s first match was an ideal matchup for him, against a countryman who was unlikely to mount enough resistance either mentally or with his game. He couldn’t have asked for better.

The match against Coric was a sterner test against a stronger opponent. It could have turned differently, had the 21-year-old Croat been able to push through on some of his opportunities. But that’s only one side of the net. On his side, Djokovic was faced with multiple challenges. And he resisted in a way he hadn’t during the American hard-court swing.

He needed more than 27 minutes, from his first match point through to his 10th and final match point, to close it out against Coric. Had the match gone to a third set – and it well could have – there’s no telling what the outcome might have been.

But it didn’t. And that experienced served him well, at times, on Friday.

And the fact that Djokovic was able to come back from 2-5, and three set points, to eke out the first set in a tiebreak was a huge positive.

Against Thiem, he defended the corners of the court a whole lot more effectively than he had the previous day. The uptick in his anticipation and side-to-side movement was noticeable.

“A lot of positives in this tournament. Three matches played. The last two matches have been almost two and a half hours, today three sets obviously against one of the best players in the world, especially on clay,” Djokovic told the media in Monte Carlo afterwards.

“I’ve played some great tennis… Still some ups and downs. But every match here in Monte-Carlo had some periods of brilliance and the tennis that I really enjoyed, I wanted to play. That obviously gives me a lot of positive energy for what’s coming up.”

 

Soft warning a turning point

Djokovic was visibly annoyed, at 3-2 in the third set, when chair umpire Carlos Bernardes gave him a soft warning, telling him to watch the time between points.

ThiemIt was hardly an unusual occurrence in a Djokovic match.

And it came as the two players were on serve in the third set. It didn’t come just before Djokovic was about to serve. And Bernardes didn’t even issue a warning or a code violation.

Djokovic responded by taking an average of 16 seconds between points in his next game – down a full nine seconds from his 25-second average through the match to that point. And he was broken. 

In his next service game, at 3-5 and working to stay in the match, Djokovic was still rushing. On one point, at 15-30, he fired his first serve as Bernardes was still addressing the crowd, asking them to quiet down.

Djokovic missed by several feet. He only salvaged that point with an off-the-charts difficult backhand volley on a rare (and curiously-timed) serve-and-volley on his second serve. It was not lucid thinking.

A few points later, it was over.

Djokovic declined to shake Bernardes’s hand even though, in truth,  he had only himself to blame for failing to handle the fairly benign situation with his typical, experienced calm.

Back-to-back tough ones

But those are things that happen when your confidence is down.

There were long stretches of the match when Djokovic played with the fire and emotion that he needs to play his best.

ThiemBut in those last three games, after that initial break of serve, the emotional energy seemed to drain out of him even though the match was by no means over. 

The combination of that, and the back-to-back long, physical matches after a long spell without much match play, may have done him in a little.

But getting those matches – and some victories – will only serve him well going forward.

More clay next week

After the match, Djokovic told the media in Monte Carlo that he plans to add a tournament next week. He also said that he would continue to work with longtime coach Marian Vadja through the clay-court season.

Vadja left as part of a purge of the entirety of Team Djokovic before last year’s French Open. But he returned to help Djokovic through his clay-court preparation period in Spain.

“I’m lacking matches. That’s why we all agreed that it’s quite important for me to play, try to use every opportunity possible,” Djokovic said. “We’ll continue working hard in this process, trying to build up… I look forward to building more confidence on the court, to get my game on a desired level.” 

The options are the 500-level event in Barcelona and a smaller, 250-level event in Budapest.

No doubt either would happily offer a wild card.

But his best play would be the smaller event.

(UPDATE: Djokovic chose Barcelona)

Budapest the better bet

Five of the eight Monte Carlo quarterfinalists – including Nadal and Thiem – are in the Barcelona draw. Lucas Pouille (at No. 11) is the only top-25 player in the Budapest draw barring last-minute surprises.

Budapest offers a first-round bye in a 28-player draw, compared to a first-round bye in a 56-player draw, with an extra round. That means an extra day or two of practice. It could also mean a better opportunity to continue to build on the groundwork laid in Monte Carlo – perhaps even the opportunity to hold up a trophy for the first time since Eastbourne last summer. 

(Not to mention, it would be a welcome boost for a 250-level tournament, something the smaller events desperately need in the top-heavy world of men’s tennis).

With two more Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome before the French Open, there remain plenty of opportunities to face the top guns. The more matches under the belt when that happens, the better.

Good first step for Novak Djokovic

The Novak Djokovic who stepped on Centre Court in Monte Carlo Monday was a much-improved edition, compared to the lost-looking fellow who went out in the first round in Indian Wells and Miami.

And that has to be encouraging, as the two-time Monte Carlo champion rolled over Dusan Lajovic 6-0, 6-1 in just 56 minutes.

If he was pleased about finally playing without elbow pain in Miami, despite the early exit, he seemed even more positive about his health as he spoke to the media after his victory.

“I thought it was good considering the amount of matches I’ve played in the past almost 12 months. With injury and everything that was happening the past couple months, the post-surgery period, me trying to come back to Indian Wells and Miami, and obviously playing well below the desired level, it wasn’t that easy for me to cope with all of that. At the same time it made me I think even more inspired to come back and try to play the way I played today,” Djokovic said

“Under the circumstances and considering I haven’t played too many official matches, I thought I played well. I thought I started the tournament well. It’s first match on clay,” Djokovic said. “All in all, it was a great start of the tournament.”

Draw gods kind

Of all the qualifiers Djokovic could have drawn for his clay-court debut, it fell to his friend and fellow Serb, Lajovic, to try to stop him.

That was a stroke of good fortune, even if the rest of Djokovic’s draw poses a significantly heightened challenge.

There’s a mystique that a player like Djokovic has among his countrymen. It’s the same for Rafael Nadal against fellow Spaniards, and for Roger Federer against his friend Stan Wawrinka – even after Wawrinka became a Grand Slam champion himself.

Djokovic was all in for a hug at the net after stomping fellow Serb Dusan Lajovic Monday in Monte Carlo. (TennisTV.com)

It’s the alpha-dog edge; the lesser-accomplished countrymen come on court, for whatever reason, with far less intrinsic belief in victory than their talent might indicate.

Lajovic played that way, especially in the first set. But of course, Djokovic’s play had something to do with that.

Djokovic is 13-1 against Viktor Troicki, with Troicki’s only win coming in their first meeting back in 2007. He’s 5-2 against Janko Tipsarevic. And in his only previous meeting with Lajovic, Djokovic dropped just three games.

Still, Djokovic’s movement looked good. His serve motion seemed more relaxed and effective than it did in the U.S. last month. He was clinical.

It was the first time the Serb, because of the drop in his ranking, failed to get a first-round bye in Monte Carlo since his first appearance in 2006. He lost to then-No. 1 Roger Federer in three sets that year.

Coric next up for Djokovic

The next challenge will come in the second round, where Djokovic will face Croatia’s Borna Coric.

Longtime former coach Marian Vajda, who rejoined Team Djokovic for a 10-day clay prep period in Spain, watches on Monday in Monte Carlo with Djokovic’s agent Edoardo Artaldi. (TennisTV.com)

As a teenager, Coric was touted as Djokovic’s stylistic clone, in the way a young Grigor Dimitrov assumed that role with Federer.

These days, that mantel seems to fall on South Korea’s Hyeon Chung, as tennis moves on with its flavors of the month when early promise takes longer to deliver.

Djokovic and Coric have met just once, two years ago in Madrid. Djokovic won 6-2, 6-4 in the second round and went on to win the tournament.

Coric was ranked No. 40 then. Monday, his ranking dropped 11 spots when he didn’t play Marrakech last week (a tournament he won a year ago). So he sits at No. 39, although few would argue that he’s a much better player now, than he was two years ago.

The winner will play the winner between No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem and Andrey Rublev of Russia.

(Screen shots from TennisTV.com)

Charity Day in Monte Carlo

At first glance, it looks like Monte Carlo’s powerhouse men’s interclub team all went out en masse for a hit and giggle.

Novak Djokovic, the Zverev brothers, Marin Cilic, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov  were on hand – a powerhouse lineup. All went out and did their part for La Fondation Prince Albert II de Monaco. The Monaco sovereign’s charity is devoted to the environment and sustainable development.

But there were some non-resident exceptions: Dominic Thiem (still a resident of Austria) and Lucas Pouille (Dubai) also took part.

(Some celebs most of us in North America have never heard of also participated).

Meanwhile, some pretty high-level qualifying matches were going on on the outside courts. Seppi vs de Minaur, Troicki vs Stakhovsky and Delbonis vs Mahut toiled as the stars took over the Court Central.

TennisTV streamed the charity event on Facebook:

 

As well, Djokovic went out and had a little hit with his son, Stefan.

Main draw begins Sunday

There is a 56-player singles draw and only a week to get it done. So matches in the Monte Carlo main draw will start on Sunday.

The final round of qualifying also is happening, including Nicolas Mahut vs. Jérémy Chardy. With that quality, sometimes it’s hard to tell the main draw from the qualifying.

Some matches to look out on Monday for involve a couple of wild cards.

Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis (22) will meet Russia’s Karen Khachanov (21) in a battle of young guns.

And 17-year-old Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime will play Mischa Zverev, 13 years older.

First Agassi, now Stepanek out of Team Djokovic

We don’t know – we may never know – what’s going on with Novak Djokovic.

But something is.

After the announcement by mentor Andre Agassi during the Miami Open that his association with the longtime former No. 1 had ended, comes the news Wednesday that new coach Radek Stepanek also is gone.

The announcement came via a statement on Djokovic’s website and social media. It’s cryptic, unusually poorly written, in the third person, and by someone else. And it reveals little.

“After Miami Novak Djokovic and his tennis coach Radek Stepanek decided to end their cooperation.

The private relationship with Stepanek was and will remain great, and Novak has enjoyed working with him and learning from him.

He remains grateful and appreciative of all the support he has received from Radek during the last period.

Novak remains focused and eager to come back stronger and more resilient from long injury break that has affected his confidence and game.

He is continuously and passionately looking for new and different ways to regain winning form.

Djokovic will upon his short holiday with a family start his preparations for the clay season and upcoming tournaments.

The cooperation between Novak and Andre Agassi has also ended.”

When Stepanek was a no-show in Miami, the word was that the Czech was kept at home by a personal matter. It was presumed to be the impending birth of his first child.

It turned out to be significantly more than that.

So through the brief North American “Sunshine Swing”, Djokovic has lost both of the coaches he took on in 2017 with such positive anticipation, after he sacked his entire longtime support team.

Stepanek

A fun, original announcement

The news last November that Djokovic would begin working with Stepanek  was announced, playfully, on Instagram Live.

“Radek is one of my very close friends on the tour. And I was always impressed with his level of determination, passion and love for the sport. The fact that he just recently retired at the age of 37 speaks volumes of his love for the game. He has lot of experience and knowledge, and he has played on a high level for many years. I am excited to join our forces together and cannot wait to compete again having a new team to back me up,” Djokovic said on his website.

“On Andre’s suggestion I pursued Radek. Therefore I am sure the two of them will work well together. The new season is about to start and there is a long way to go back to where I left off. We are aware that I need to go step by step, not hurrying anything. I feel much better now, and I can’t wait to play matches again.”

(Right there, you can see the quality and tone of what generally comes from Djokovic in his public statements – in harsh contrast to today’s announcement).

A short, terse ending

The end of the brief Agassi-Stepanek era came in three dispassionate sentences.

Stepanek
Mario Ancic, the former top-10 player turned lawyer, also was briefly part of Team Djokovic last season. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The neutral words reveal little about whose decision it was.

Some variation of the words “by mutual agreement” is nearly always used when players and coaches split. It was used for Djokovic’s two previous coaching announcements over the last 18 months. But the words are conspicuously not used here.

The beginning of the relationship with Agassi, last spring in Paris, also was filled with promise. There was great respect, and even a little awe that the American tennis legend was willing to come on board.

The confirmation that the relationship with Agassi is history came five days after the American’s comments were broadcast on ESPN. And it was limited to a single, brief sentence at the very end.

18 months, four coaching splits

Stepanek

In Dec. 2016, Djokovic split with Boris Becker, who was alongside the Serb during the most prolific period of his career.

“After three very successful years, Boris Becker and I have jointly decided to end our cooperation,” Djokovic said at the time.

Two weeks after last year’s Monte Carlo tournament, in early May 2017, Djokovic divested himself of the entire team that had been with him for years. Coach Marian Vajda (who had been with him since 2006), fitness coach Gebhard (Phil) Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic – all gone.

Djokovic called the move “shock therapy”, as he looked for the spark to get back on track through a tough period affected by an ongoing elbow injury.

Again, the words “mutually agreed” were used. And Vajda even supplied a statement for the “we’re still all one big, happy family” announcement on Djokovic’s website.

“I will be on the tour alone for a while with the support of my family and management,” Djokovic said at the time.

Just a couple of weeks later, Agassi was on his way to Paris to join the team.

What’s next

Wednesday’s statement indicates Djokovic will take a short holiday (it appears he’s already on it) and then begin preparing for the clay-court season.

 

Happy Easter weekend everybody! Hope you are enjoying with your loved ones ❤

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As of Wednesday afternoon, Monte Carlo time, Djokovic remains entered in the Monte Carlo Masters, although he doesn’t refer to it specifically. It begins a week from Monday.

He also is entered in doubles with countryman Filip Krajinovic.

Agassi parts ways with Novak Djokovic

MIAMI, Fla. – ESPN promised some blockbuster news on the coaching front as it teased its Miami Open broadcast of the semifinal between Alexander Zverev and Pablo Carreño Busta Friday night.

It probably needed a little teasing – at least for the casual tennis fan.

But given the relationships within the ESPN tennis crew, it wasn’t a surprise that the news was about Andre Agassi.

Agassi, who signed on at least year’s French Open for a position as a part-time coach/mentor, says his association with Novak Djokovic is over.

“With only the best of intentions I tried to help Novak. We far too often found ourselves agreeing to disagree. I wish him only the best moving forward,” was Agassi’s statement, as detailed on the ESPN broadcast.

Djokovic had a full coaching team with Andre Agassi and Mario Ancic at Wimbledon. But that was the last tournament he played in 2017. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Every public pronouncement from the two was always of the most glowing nature, with Djokovic seemingly honoured that a player of Agassi’s stature was willing to help him get back to his best.

“That’s one of the things I felt like I needed is new inspiration, someone that knows exactly what I’m going through, you know, on the court, off the court,” Djokovic said when the collaboration was announced, back when their relationship was still essentially over the phone. “He has been through all these transitions, he has been in my shoes before playing Grand Slams, being the best in the world, and facing all the challenges that are present in professional sport.”

Agassi wouldn’t accept any remuneration. He wanted to help the longtime No. 1 however he could for the good of Djokovic and of tennis, but he already had myriad commitments to business and family.

Djokovic’s tennis was already struggling, as the elbow issue he had been dealing with for more than a year was beginning to affect his results. He didn’t play at all from Wimbledon through the end of the season, and was a question mark at the Australian Open in January until just before the start of the tournament. 

Agassi sightings increasingly rare

Agassi
Agassi ended up making the trip to Melbourne for the Australian Open, despite an injury he suffered while snowboarding. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Agassi, who had originally said he would not making the trip Down Under after suffering a snowboarding injury, ended up changing his mind at the last minute.

The Serb defeated Donald Young, Gaël Monfils and Albert Ramos Viñolas with the lost of just one set, before losing in three close sets to Hyeon Chung in the fourth round in Melbourne.

After undergoing a procedure on his elbow in early February, Djokovic returned at Indian Wells, but not before stopping off in Las Vegas to work with Agassi for a few days.

Djokovic lost his first-round match in the desert to qualifier Taro Daniel. Given his lack of match play and the fact that he was just one month out from the elbow intervention, it should have been a huge shocker. But the manner in which he lost certainly gave pause.

“For me it felt like first match I ever played on the tour. Very weird. I mean, I just completely lost rhythm, everything. Just struggled also a little bit with the health the last couple of weeks,” said Djokovic, who had a cold.

“I mean, nerves were there. I mean, I made so many unforced errors that it was just, you know, one of those days where you’re not able to find the rhythm from the baseline, especially from the backhand side. That has always been a rock-solid shot for me throughout my career,” he added. “You know, just some inexplicable, uncharacteristic errors. But that’s, I guess, it’s all part of those particular circumstances that I’m in at the moment.”

Agassi was not a presence in the desert, despite the proximity to his home. Tennis.Life spotted him at Djokovic’s first on-site practice, but not after that.

Trying again in Miami

When he arrived in Miami, Djokovic announced that he had been pain-free for two days, for the first time in … a long time.

Again, Agassi was absent. Djokovic’s new day-to-day coach, Radek Stepanek. Stepanek was at home in Europe in the wake of the announcement that he and ex-wife Nicole Vaidisova were expecting their first child.

The good health news was not reflect in Djokovic’s first effort on court.

He lost in straight sets to the mercurial Benoit Paire, who received an unexpected hug from the Serb at the net and acknowledged he wasn’t facing the same player who dominated tennis for several years before the elbow injury, and won the Miami Open six times.

Again, tt wasn’t just that Djokovic lost. He didn’t look good – at all. He was short of breath at times, even after points of no particular length. It wasn’t especially hot, but Djokovic still tried the ice towel and put on a cap.

He looked gaunt (although he looked much healthier in real life than he did on television). Basically, he looked like a shadow of his former self. Nothing looked natural; he looked to be thinking more than playing, not surprising given he had attempted various tweaks of his technique over the previous two years in trying to find a way to play through the elbow problem.

“It’s impossible at the moment”

Perhaps the tweaking, and the lack of match play, have set him off-kilter to the point where the Djokovic tennis hard drive has been corrupted.

“I mean, I’m trying, but it’s not working. That’s all. That’s all it is. I mean, obviously I’m not feeling great when I’m playing this way. Of course, I want to be able to play as well as I want to play. Just it’s impossible at the moment. That’s all,” he said afterwards.

“I felt I started the match well, first six games, then I just ran out of gas. He was serving well. I just wasn’t able to break him down. He was just coming up with the good shots at the right time. It happened very fast,” he added. “I’m just in general trying everything I can. You know, it is what it is. I’m not at the level that I used to be. I’m aware of that. I just have to obviously believe in myself and hopefully it will come.”

Perhaps a premature return

Djokovic said he wanted to play Indian Wells and Miami to see if he was ready, to get some matches in before the clay-court season. Obviously, as he pointed out, he wasn’t ready.

“I compromised my game and the movement and everything because of the injury. I’m trying to figure things out,” he said.

“I don’t know what to expect. I’m not expecting anything. Obviously I’m facing myself with various challenges in my game, health. I’m trying to figure things out and see what happens,” said Djokovic, who at that point was uncertain about whether or not he would play his “home” tournament in Monte Carlo in what was, then, three weeks’ time.

Since then, Djokovic has added Monte Carlo to his official schedule.

What’s next for Djokovic

When he does return, Djokovic will do so without his mentor by his side.  

And there’s work to do. Many top players have returned from long injury absences in recent years. Everyone’s different, but none of them have seemed so … at sea when they came back. 

It’s an extraordinary turn of events for the player who has won more than anyone in the last few years. But, on some level, perhaps all of that winning is taking its toll on the back end. That’s a toll very few people other than those who have experienced it can relate to.

Shades of Sampras

It harkens back to the 1998 season, when American Pete Sampras went all-out to try to finish the season ranked No. 1, to make it six years in a row. The American played a ton late in the season: every week from Basel to Vienna to Lyon to Stuttgart to Paris and even to Stockholm before the ATP Tour Finals.

And he made it. That’s still a record. 

But after that, despite two Wimbledon titles, Sampras was never quite the same. In the years leading up to that 1998 season, from 1993 to 1997, Sampras had won 31 tournaments and dominated the game. It was almost as though that last push was one push too many, when he was already running low on gas.

It’s not just a physical thing, for a superbly-conditioned athlete. It’s a mental and emotional thing, the effort required to remain at the top and win match after match, when everyone is chasing you. That’s especially true after such an extended period of dominance. And Djokovic is human.

The next few months of the tennis season are the most concentrated ones, with two Grand Slams, three Masters 1000s, and two surface changes. 

If Djokovic returns in Monte Carlo as planned, the break will not have been very long – not nearly long enough to shake it all off and get back to being Djokovic. It will be fascinating.

Djokovic himself has issued no statement yet about the parting of ways. Given it was the middle of the night in Europe, you’d expect something later on.

No one but the man himself knows exactly what’s going on. He’s not sharing the finer details. He’ll work them out in private, and when he does, his fans will know, because the results will show on the court.

Djokovic takes on Zverev (video)

MIAMI, Fla. – Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev won’t play until the weekend as the No. 9 and No. 4 seeds, respectively.

So they got in some match practice Wednesday before a big crowd at the Miami Open.

Djokovic will be without coach Radek Stepanek (who is back in the Czech Republic) and mentor Andre Agassi during the event.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have lots of people on the court.

Physical trainer David Daglow, and physiotherapist Ulises Badio were both on hand (the two, and Djokovic, had matching Novak Djokovic silhouette T-shirts).

Agent Edoardo Artaldi, nattily attired, even chased down a few balls on court.

(We’ll note that Team Zverev sat comfortably in the shade through most of this practice, as Team Djoker did all the ball-boying. Noted! Could well have been pre-arranged; nothing worse than having six people on a tennis court looking busy chasing balls).

Sleeved, and matchy-matchy

Djokovic had the protective sleeve on his right arm. But as a matter of logistics, it also should be noted that whatever else he wears it for, the hot sun in Miami is murder on arms that have products like Voltaren Emulgel and the like on them.

When the sun here hits that stuff, it can be like a second-degree burn (yes, that’s from personal experience). In fact, that was the reason Milos Raonic started wearing his sleeve back in the day, so that he could keep playing after an incident like that.

Here are a few tidbits from that practice.

Stepanek to be a daddy

Meanwhile, Stepanek has a little – huge – personal matter to attend to, in his absence.

It’s official; he and ex-wife Nicole Vaidisova, who were engaged and married when Vaidisova was far too young and divorced five years ago, have reunited and are expecting a child.

 

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Djokovic: Pain-free just two days ago (video)

MIAMI, Fla. – Novak Djokovic has no expectations in terms of results at the Miami Open.

But the good news is that as of two days ago, he is pain-free for the first time in “years”.

The elbow issue, on which he had what he called a “small intervention” at the beginning of February, has been bothering the former No. 1 for a long time even if, despite feeling pain, Djokovic posted some good results before calling an end to the 2017 season after Wimbledon.

Djokovic retired in the second set of his quarter-final match against Berdych there.

He didn’t play again until the Australian Open in January, where he lost in three tight sets to Hyeon Chung of South Korea in the round of 16.

Following the elbow procedure, Djokovic returned at Indian Wells, but lost his first match to Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel. 

To add to his woes, Djokovic also clearly was suffering from a cold all week.

Here are some snippets from Djokovic’s pre-tournament conference Tuesday.

(There’s a last bit, about a minute and a half, in response to a question Djokovic answers in Serbian).

Djokovic, the No. 9 seed, has a first-round bye. He will play the winner between Benoit Paire of France and Mischa Zverev of Germany in his opening match.

(With apologies for some of the shaky camera work. We blame two cross-country flights, jet lag, lack of sleep/food and excess of coffee. All is good now. 🙂 )