And we all watched Ana Ivanovic struggle with it for most of the latter part of her career – never really getting a handle on it. She had been a player with a smooth-looking, effortless and powerful serve.
Kournikova the Kween of the yips
But by far the most famous victim of it was the much-maligned Anna Kournikova.
The Russian was a far better tennis player than the judgment that will be made of her in the tennis history books.
But she’s remembered for other things – including this.
Two decades ago, when she was just 17 and ranked in the top 15, Kournikova had a brutal case of the yips on serve.
Between October, 1998 and her fourth-round exit at the 1999 Australian Open, she hit 182 double faults in just 10 matches.
“It was one of most feeble and unintentionally comical matches of all time, and the packed crowd groaned and hooted, laughed and whistled through every excruciating moment,” it wrote.
Kournikova acknowledged that the pressure of the crowd didn’t help.
The Kournikova yips began at tournaments in Filderstadt, Germany and Berlin the previous fall.
“It has been happening for a while, so I am kind of used to it,” Kournikova said in her press conference in Melbourne. “I’m really frustrated with it, just like everybody who is watching. In practice I feel fine, I serve normal, and there’s no sign of double faults. It’s just when I come to the line, when I play, there’s something happening, so I’m just going to have to get over it and try to fight through.”
There were few players with more pressure on them than Kournikova at the time. Because of her extraordinarily high profile and marketability, she had the focus on her like few others.
And, despite her solid performances, she was getting constant pressure about not yet having won a Tour event – as if she somehow wasn’t a legitimate top player without one.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic arrived at his practice court about an hour later than scheduled Sunday.
But the large group of Djokovic fans who waited patiently were well rewarded.
A whole lot of things happened within the space of about an hour, all of them good things.
First, there was a Boris Becker sighting. And Djokovic had bro hugs and all the love for his former mentor.
New mentor Andre Agassi also showed Becker the love. And new coach Radek Stepanek showed his love by poking fun at Becker’s distinctive service motion.
There were a lot of coaches, a few Grand Slam titles as well.
(Warning, lots of Djoker pics below).
Coaches all over the place
And then, there was the hitting of the tennis balls. For that purpose, Djokovic had two young Aussie kids on the other side of the net.
They kept up well with him, except … they really couldn’t touch his serve. Not the first serve, not the second serve. After awhile they got their rackets on a few. But it was truly beyond their ken.
After that, it was time for some team bocce.
Becker was invited on court for that little contest, which consisted of of tossing the ball and trying to be the one who got it closest to the baseline.
None of the former players won, despite a variety of techniques. Agassi used his left arm. The winner was his physio, Marco Panichi.
After a little team group hug, it was on to the fan portion of the hour.
Babies and little boys and smiles
It’s no secret that bringing an adorable baby is a great move if you want to get a professional athlete’s attention. And Djokovic was no exception.
He immediately took the baby girl from her father’s arms (trusting a total stranger with your baby because they’re famous is this thing that some people can do), and posed with her for dad.
Then he lifted a young boy right over the fence and had a hit with him – and Djokovic provided his own Head racket for that purpose.
Djokovic does this regularly. The kid was in absolute heaven when he finished off the final point with an emphatic overhead.
It turns out that new coach Stepanek has an alternate duty – souvenir distribution. The Czech followed DJokovic as he made his way down the crowd line with a Vegemite drawstring bag full of ballcaps – with Novak Djokovic and Lacoste logos.
One final duty – an interview with Becker on Eurosport, where Djokovic proceeded to explain that he calls Becker “Schatzi” – a term of endearment.
The hour of love definitely put some good karma on Djokovic’s side.
He made a lot of people happy.
Djokovic’s fourth-round match is a tough test. The Serb will play Next-Gen finals champion Hyeon Chung during the night session on Rod Laver Monday night (7 p.m. Australian time; 3 a.m. EST and midnight PST back in North America)
MELBOURNE, Australia – When one player on a warmup court has a team, and the other is flying solo, the logistics get a little complicated.
So as Novak Djokovic huddled with his group, French veteran Julien Benneteau, who will play No. 7 seed David Goffin on Show Court 2 as Djokovic takes on Benneteau’s countryman Gaël Monfils on Rod Laver arena, just hung out with his own fine self.
Djokovic mentor Andre Agassi, who misses nothing, quickly realized that without a few team members to pick up the flying balls, they were all going to end up on Benneteau’s side of the court.
So he trotted over to do his part on Benneteau’s side.
There were a lot of Djokovic fans on hand, as usual. But not as many as usual; the extreme heat has kept the numbers from hitting the back side of the Melbourne Park complex as diligently as they normally would.
MELBOURNE, Australia – There were questions as recently as last weekend about whether mentor Andre Agassi would make the trip Down Under to join Novak Djokovic as he returned to action at the Australian Open.
First, it wasn’t 100 per cent certain Djokovic would play, after withdrawing from the exhibition in Abu Dhabi as well as the ATP Tour event in Doha.
And Agassi suffered a snowboarding accident over the holidays. He, too, had a tournament commitment with the exhibition in Adelaide. And he had to pull out of that.
But there he was, Saturday afternoon, back with Djokovic and new coach Radek Stepanek on Rod Laver Arena.
Here’s some video of Djokovic’s practice.
Agassi has other business in Melbourne, of course. As an ambassador for Lavazza coffee, his face is splashed around town in supersized form.
(We’ll test out the outrageous claim this promotional poster makes, and get back to you about any life changes therein experienced).
His work as mentor for Novak Djokovic wasn’t the only reason Andre Agassi was planning a trip to Australia this month.
Agassi also was planning to return to the city of Adelaide for the first time in 20 years, to play in a pre-Australian Open exhibition.
Unfortunately, the 47-year-old legend had a most mortal moment on the ski slopes during the Christmas break.
And the resulting shoulder injury will keep him at home in Las Vegas.
“I’m extremely disappointed to have to pull out of the World Tennis Challenge. Unfortunately I had a snowboarding accident over the Christmas break and haven’t quite recovered enough to fly out to Australia this year. I was really looking forward to making my return to Adelaide. To all my fans I’m sorry but I hope to be back soon,” Agassi said in a statement on the event’s website.
Agassi doesn’t specifically state in the quote that he won’t be at the Australian Open. But by saying he won’t “fly to Australia this year”, it’s a fair shot to conclude that he means both Adelaide and Melbourne.
As well, there still is no guarantee Agassi’s charge will play.
Djokovic is among several top players whose participation is uncertain; Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori have already withdrawn.
The six-time Australian Open champion has pulled out of both his planned events so far this season. No doubt he’s looking for enough positive signs from his ailing elbow from the two exhibition events he plans to play next week – the Kooyong Classic, and the Tie Break Tens event in Margaret Court Arena next Wednesday.
But if Djokovic does play a tournament for the first time since Wimbledon last July, he’ll have only his new day-to-day coach, Radek Stepanek, with him.
It will be the first official tournament of their new collaboration.
And when he does return, Andre Agassi will once again be by his side.
In a press release, Team Djokovic announced the return, and also the composition of Djokovic’s new team.
The Serb divested himself of his longtime team – coach Marian Vajda, fitness coach Gebhard “Phil” Gritsch, and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic after the Monte Carlo tournament last April. Supercoach Boris Becker left after the 2016 season.
Replacing them are another rather international group. Physiotherapist Ulises Badio (an Argentine based in Italy who worked for the ATP Tour for four years through last May) and fitness trainer Marco Panichi (an Italian based in Monte Carlo) will join Agassi.
Still in the works is the hiring of a second coach who will be involved in much of the day-to-day work and travel. Agassi – busy with many endeavours – has never been interested in or intrigued by a full-time gig.
Ancic not in the plans
It sounds as though former world No. 7 Mario Ancic, who joined Team Djokovic for Wimbledon but obviously wasn’t needed beyond that, isn’t part of the plans. Ancic, a lawyer who has a full-time job in New York, obviously is neither qualified for, nor available for, the main coaching job.
Djokovic ended his 2017 season after losing in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. He had been carrying an elbow/arm injury for more than a year, and he felt it was time to finally resolve an issue that was clearly affecting his performance.
Djokovic will not open his 2018 season in Doha, as he has done each of the last three years. He is the two-time defending champion having beaten Rafael Nadal in the final in 2016, and Andy Murray this year.
The press release indicates a return at the Australian Open. But of course, Djokovic may well enter a tuneup event before that. There’s plenty of time.
WIMBLEDON – If you saw the first few games of Novak Djokovic’s third-round match against Ernests Gulbis, you saw some long-lost Djokovic fire.
The former Wimbledon champion overcame an early surge by the former top-10 Latvian to win 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (2) and move into the second week.
Djokovic’s task on Manic Monday should prove less dangerous.
Rather than the danger of the shotmaking Frenchman Gaël Monfils, Djokovic instead has to get through Monfils’s unseeded countryman Adrian Mannarino.
If he does, he’ll reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
On paper, he would take that in a heartbeat.
Good grass fun for Mannarino
That’s not to take anything away from Mannarino, a tricky lefty who did yeoman’s work to get this far.
The 29-year-old defeated Borna Coric and Fernando Verdasco, to name two, before losing to Yuichi Sugita of Japan in the final of Antalya, a new grass-court event in Turkey.
He then had to find a way to get to London in a hurry. He took an overnight flight, landing in the early morning with little time to adjust. He caught a break with an injured Feliciano Lopez in the first round, but still played nearly four sets. Then he ran into Sugita again. That took five sets, and he was down two sets to one.
Monfils? Also five sets.
Djokovic and Mannarino played in the second round here a year ago, with the Serb winning in three reasonably competitive sets.
“So far it’s fantastic. I mean, not just this tournament, but also in Paris. We spent a lot of quality time together on and off the court. It’s a bit different now in Wimbledon because both Mario and Andre are staying with me as far as I go in the tournament, where Andre in Paris had to leave earlier. I’m glad to have them both. I think they contribute in their own way to my game. But most of all, there is great chemistry, great synergy, great understanding, respect for each other,” Djokovic said.
‘Mario has been my friend for very long time. I feel very relaxed next to him. And Andre, as well, is someone that has a personality that is very, very friendly, very kind, and at the same time very committed and professional. It didn’t take us too much to really connect. Everything so far is working great.”
The trio looked as though they’d all been friends for years, during one of Djokovic’s first practices here as the tournament began.
Nothing signed, nothing committed
The arrangements are still, to be sure, being made on the fly. Djokovic’s two advisors are not career coaches thrilled to be working with a former No. 1 and12-time Grand Slam titlist at the exclusion of everything else.
“We don’t have anything formal. We don’t have any contracts. And we don’t have any long-term agreements. First of all, I spoke to Andre. Andre absolutely agreed with Mario being that second person who might potentially be spending a little bit more time with me on the road,” Djokovic said.
Then, he contacted Ancic.
“We had a friendly talk. He was a bit surprised. He wasn’t expecting that. But he was already prescheduled to be in London. I asked him if he would like to spend a time with Andre and I during Wimbledon, while you’re there, if you have time. He was, anyway, planning to be a part … of the Legends tournament doubles,” Djokovic added. “So he accepted. That’s all we have for the moment. There is no really long-term agreements or planning, what’s going to happen. Obviously he’s got his commitments with his companies.”
Djokovic said there was a possibility Ancic might be able to make one or two of the Masters 1000 events in the summer, leading up to the US Open.
But all that will wait until this Wimbledon run is done.
ROLAND GARROS – The premiere of Novak Djokovic and Andre Agassi on the Roland Garros courts Thursday drew quite a crowd.
Nole and Andre. Do we have a nickname for them yet? Nodre? Djokossi? Someone will come up with a bon mot.
Notable with Agassi is that after many years with adidas, coinciding with many joint post-career sponsorship associations with wife Steffi Graf, the original Nike tennis rock star has been back under the ‘Swoosh’ for awhile. And it looks good on him. The shuffling walk is exactly the same; you can spot it from across the city.
The reviews on the Djokovic-Agassi association have been universally positive before it has even truly begun. Not that this is meaningful in itself. When Boris Becker joined Team Nole a few years ago, the reviews were decidedly mixed. But while Becker was around, Djokovic posted some otherwordly results.
Long-awaited return to the game
As much as anything, it is the game that is welcoming Agassi back. From his early years as tennis’s outlaw punk, he has matured into a statesmanlike figure, a philosopher. He’s a man whose tennis IQ, on the rare occasions he has displayed it in recent years, is off the charts.
Fans shouldn’t get too excited; Agassi is only expected to be in Paris long enough for the first few rounds. A long-planned family holiday is on the schedule later in the week.
He told the French TV program “Tout le Sport” that he originally had turned Djokovic down.
“Novak called me about three weeks ago and I said no at the start. But my wife (Stefanie Graf) said, ‘You should go, you will love it’. We had organized a family trip during Roland Garros anyway which was planned for a long time,” Agassi said during the program. “So I hope to see one or two of Novak’s matches and try to bring to him what I can because even a small remark can do a lot. What I know, with certainty, is that he can be even better than yesterday. I think he can only improve, because he understands how strong he is.”
Two career Slam champs on the same court
You never know; Agassi might get the tennis jones again after mostly being away from the game for more than a decade.
He has become a teacher by inclination, with the founding of several charter schools. And there’s no doubt there’s much the American, who won the French Open in 1999, can teach Djokovic about how to maximize the latter stages of his career.
Agassi was chased by a pack of journalists as Djokovic and his group made their way back to the locker room. He was congenial, but after just a short time on the court – their first time – he didn’t have much to say.
“With Novak, I’m at the very beginning. I enjoyed it right from this first day together. I can’t tell you a lot; what’s important is him, not me.” Agassi said. “I hope to offer (help) both mentally and technically. But give me time to learn.”