That’s what Novak Djokovic called his radical parting with long-time coach Marian Vajda and team earlier this month. He has been travelling without a team since then, during his semi-final run at Madrid and runner-up finish at Rome.
But maybe it was fitting, since his performance lately has been a series of shocks. One can probably trace the decline a year back, after his hard-fought French Open win. Then, it was among the highest points of his reign on top – a career Grand Slam at last, a genuine shot at being the third GOAT contender from one generation. But the slide since then has been steep, almost as jarring for tennis as his steep climb in 2011.
So when on Sunday, Novak Djokovic revealed that Andre Agassi would be his new coach – another shock as not many expected Agassi to return to tennis as coach – the shock therapy seemed to make a lot of sense.
“We’ll see what future brings. We are both excited to work together and see where it takes us,” said Djokovic, after losing the Rome Masters final to 20-year-old Alexander Zverev.
They do not as yet have a “long-term commitment”, which might hinge on the French Open results. But then, it is during the French Open that he needs Agassi’s services the most.
A gamble for both
On the face of it, it may seem like an incongruous decision, a gamble for both illustrious players. Does Djokovic need a short-term coach just for Roland Garros? Surely, he needs some stability with the grass season soon after. Is Agassi, who has little coaching experience, the right person to deal with a 12-time Major winner who doesn’t have a full team anymore? Can the player who once hated tennis but played it with flair, force and later focus, lead the player who plays with similar power, if not the same focus or flair?
But the one point in Djokovic’s statement that stood out was: “Andre is someone that I have tremendous respect for as a person and as a player. He has been through everything that I’m going through.”
And this tells you all you need to know about the partnership. Agassi will not just be Djokovic’s coach, he will be his mentor and guide. In the American’s own words, “There are many ways of getting strong, sometimes talking is the best way.” And that is the primary role he will essay as the World No 2 strives for revival.
There are several similarities between the two, not least the arduous quest for the elusive title at Roland Garros that Djokovic now seeks to defend.
After winning three Grand Slams and becoming World No 1, Agassi went on a downward spiral in 1997, plummeting to World No 141, battling injuries and a complete lack of motivation or enthusiasm for the game. Yet, he fought back to win five more Grand Slams, reclaim his position on the top and retire as an all time great in 2006.
Djokovic’s descent has been nowhere near as bad as it was for Agassi. He is still No 2 in the world, about 3,000 points adrift of a similarly off-colour Andy Murray. But the chasm in his game and approach from what it used to be, although not as tangible, is almost as strnage as Agassi’s was. Apart from the season-opening title at Doha, the final appearance at Rome Masters was his best performance this season. He has suffered shock losses such as the second-round loss to Denis Istomin at Australian Open, and has missed a substantial time due to injury.
Amidst it all, it’s not the weakness in his game but the lack of killer instinct and his earlier court presence that has been lacking. When faced with powerful, court-covering Djokovic of old, many a top player would be bogged down. But this season, he has been a mere shadow of that self, with the exception of a couple of matches like the demolishing of Dominic Thiem.
Need to rediscover motivation
The underlying problem here is Djokovic’s self-confessed lack of motivation. “After winning Roland Garros, I didn’t know how I was going to feel. I never had that issue after winning a big trophy, of bouncing back and finding new ways to motivate and inspire myself... But last year I found some emptiness for the first time in my life in terms of motivation. I needed a few months to think about things and get that mojo back on the court,” Djokovic told ATP.
And that is the crux of the matter – Djokovic needs someone to coach him mentally, more than just his physical game.
If motivation and rekindling the zeal for tennis is the need of the hour for the Serb, he could find no better man for the job than Andre Agassi.
“I question myself every day. That’s what I still find motivating about this. I don’t have the answers, I don’t pretend that I do just because I won the match. Just keep fighting and maybe something good happens,” Agassi had written in Open, his autobiography.
Open eloquently describes his hard-fought career, and how he overcame the various obstacles in his mind first, and translated that to the tennis court. And that’s just what Djokovic requires right now
Even Boris Becker, the Serb’s former coach who parted ways in December because he wasn’t training enough, backed Agassi’s appointment. The German legend is probably among the very few who accurately understands just what Djokovic needs from his coaching box.
Back in March this year, much before the talk of the two coming together, this is what Agassi had to say about Djokovic in an interview with The Guardian.
“If it was a physical thing it would be obvious. You don’t lose it quickly unless you’re dealing with a significant injury. So there’s got to be something emotional, mental, behind the curtain that only he and his team know. But he’s way too good to not find the solution. He’s also going to find perspective given his history. After clearing the courts of bomb shrapnel to practice I’m sure he understands how cruel and tough life can be.”
In hindsight, this one quote says a lot about the two. That Djokovic’s issues were more metal was widely agreed on in the tennis world. But for Agassi to get to the heart of it and offer a casual solution about perspective shows how deeply he still thinks of the game he once hated. This is the man who offered a bare, blunt and convincingly honest insight into his tennis in Open. And those are the same qualities he will offer Djokovic in his quest to rediscover his mojo.
In the same interview, Agassi also said he would have liked to coach someone like a Nick Kyrgios whose potential doesn’t match the performance, but that his family life wouldn’t allow him.
Now, he has the chance to work with a player who is also facing the gap between what he is doing and what he can do, albeit a player who has seen the heady height of the sport. It’ll be challenge for the now almost zen-like Agassi. But then, he was once the passionate wild child who played the game with a burning intensity, especially when he went down. If he can rekindle that same fire in Djokovic on the red clay of Paris, we might have a blistering combination at hand.
“Agassi was a revolutionary player because he had this charisma, he had this approach to tennis and to life that was quite different from others,” Djokovic had said last year, when he spoke about his desire to win the elusive French Open. Now that he has won it and gone the full circle in a year before arriving in Paris, he will look to this different approach from Agassi to get back to winning ways.
It will be an interesting mix mentally, and perhaps no less exciting in person as the two players with similar styles and trajectories come together to prove their point once again.