BECK: Novak needs rest, peace, and war

—- by Chris Beck —-

“I feel I’m in a much better state of mind than maybe I was the end of last year,” Novak Djokovic told media before aiming to defend his title at Indian Wells.

But Djokovic exited early again, losing to Nick Kyrgios in the round of 16 at Indian Wells, after losing to Kyrgios a few weeks earlier in Acapulco, and falling early in Melbourne to underdog Denis Istomin. A few days later, he apologized to fans for pulling out of Miami with an elbow injury.

He then lost to David Goffin in Monte Carlo, and just before the Mutua Madrid Open, parted ways with his coach, fitness trainer and physiotherapist — his “family” of the past 8 years. This was almost unimaginable a year ago, when he was playing some of the best tennis ever. 

Novak is more or less alone now, with nobody to pressure him but himself. Maybe he doesn’t want the pressure anymore. Fans will expect him to lose now. There’s less pressure on Djokovic to return to his form of recent years. Djokovic is free to play any way he wants now, without a team to scold or encourage him. He can spend less time practicing, and spend more time with his wife, brother, son and another baby on the way. He can re-charge and grow as a person, even if it means failing to defend his titles last year in Madrid, Roland Garros and Canada. 

Other than his sublime third set versus Juan Martin del Potro in Indian Wells, Djokovic has recently lacked the consistency and composure under pressure that made him the top player in the world with more than $107 million in career earnings — though only about $300,000 this year.

Probably the best returner ever, Djokovic had trouble handling the quick release of Kyrgios, who even put a second serve on the T at 126 miles per hour in the second set tie-breaker. Djokovic is even misfiring on his backhand side, which was rock-steady during his reign as number one. He looks sluggish at times, and he no longer defends with an aura of invincibility.

Djokovic’s losses continue to stir speculation about whatever problems he might have. Is Novak, 29, going through a burn-out phase, as Agassi and others did before rebounding, or is he headed for early retirement a la Borg? Are his injuries worse than we realize?

Djokovic clearly hasn’t been the same since drawing a heart in the red clay at Roland Garros after taking the French Open title, his fourth slam in a row, and leading Andy Murray by 8,000 points in the world rankings. The Serbian sensation lost steam in the second half of the season, capping off his frustration by ripping his shirt in anger and smashing his racquet during his loss to Roberto Bautista-Agut in the semi-finals at the Shanghai Masters.

His former coach Boris Becker told reporters in December that Novak didn’t practice enough in the second half of 2016. “He is a happy family man, with a wife and a son and naturally he spends time with them,” he told CNN in January.

Since then, Djokovic has continued to lose rankings points and fall behind Andy Murray, who won his second Wimbledon and seven titles in 2016, as well as Dubai this year. Melbourne champion Roger Federer is resurgent after missing the last half of 2016. Kyrgios, Stan Wawrinka and others have figured out how to hit through Djokovic’s wall. 

Djokovic is no longer working with Becker, and there was much conversation last fall about Novak’s pursuit of peace and love, with his brother Marko Djokovic and spiritual guru Pepe Imaz in his box for tournaments.

After Djokovic’s loss in Melbourne, former champion Pat Cash told BBC that Novak has lost tenacity.

“His defeat just shows that Novak has absolutely lost his edge, there’s no doubt about that,” Cash said. “I’d love to see him competing, to be a true number two fighting for that number one spot, but at this rate I don’t think we will see that.”

Djokovic’s former mentor Niki Pilic suggested to Reuters that Djokovic may have lost his flame. “Novak had a physical and mental edge second to none. That tenacity is no longer the same. It remains to be seen whether he can rediscover it and get back to the top level. The hard work of the last five or six years has taken its toll. Tennis was the priority every morning and afternoon and evening and all I can tell him is to be the person he was.”

Djokovic is clearly going through some changes. He’s tweeted about enjoying time with his infant son, and his early round losses have given him more time to ponder things.

Djokovic has long been a scientist open to experimentation with novel training methods and hyperbaric chambers. He touts the merits of his gluten-free diet, yoga, and room temperature water (better for blood circulation). He once talked about how marriage and fatherhood in 2014 brought holistic balance to his life. We shouldn’t have been surprised by his affinity for Imaz, a proponent of meditation and long hugs.

A former journeyman pro, Imaz espouses a philosophy of “amor y paz” — love and peace. His Spanish tennis center, Pepe Imaz Tennis, is dedicated to helping players reach their highest professional level while giving “absolute priority to the person’s well-being, feelings and emotions.” Its website explains that players who turn pro often replace their love for the game with fear. The key is to “restore the love for the game and for oneself.”

It’s pretty new-age stuff for professional athletics, and if it has helped Novak off the court, it hasn’t produced great results on it.

At first, Djokovic pushed back against the media calling Imaz a “guru.” He doesn’t want to seem flaky, even though he asked the fans in Toronto to hug each other after he claimed his fourth Rogers Cup this summer. “I don’t know where you heard that he’s a guru,” Djokovic told media in Paris last fall. “He’s been in tennis for all his life.”

Perhaps that idea came from the two-hour “Amor y Paz” video where Djokovic, hand over his heart, sits next to Imaz, with his flowing hair and loose-fitting white cotton garb, addressing a spellbound gathering with a one-hour monologue. When Djokovic finally takes the mic, he talks about trying to find the balance between work and family by speaking internally. “But not with your mind,” he stipulates. “With your soul and heart.”

With 12 Grand Slams to his name, Djokovic still has a shot at matching Roger Federer’s total of 18 if he can find his way through this career “thicket.” For now, Djokovic seems committed to a spiritual route rather than Boris “Boom Boom” Becker’s hard-ass Teutonic approach.

But at some point, Djokovic has to wonder about the dangers of tampering with a winning formula. He ruled the world with Becker and Marian Vajda fostering a mental toughness and emotional intelligence in him, which helped him find a higher gear when others were fading. “Something that was there last year is missing, so he’s got to sacrifice everything else for his next major,” said Becker.

If Novak continues to struggle on his road to love and peace, he might end up rediscovering the art of war, and the battle-hardened warrior that he is. 

(words copyright Chris Beck, all rights reserved)


(photos copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved)