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.
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, 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.