Madrid Masters

Novak Djokovic to fly solo in pursuit of ‘a new chapter’ after separation from old coaching team

World number two Novak Djokovic has parted company with his entire coaching team in the build-up to the Madrid Masters

novak djokovic
World number two Novak Djokovic Photo: Marianne Bevis

If Novak Djokovic’s parting of the ways with his coach of three years, Boris Becker, back in December did not come as a complete bolt from the blue, the world No2’s announcement today on his Facebook page did.

It began: “Novak and the team members [coach Marian Vajda, fitness coach Gebhard Phil Gritsch, and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic] decided to part ways after a detailed analysis of the game, achieved results in the previous period, and also after discussing private plans of each team member.

“Despite the fantastic cooperation so far, Djokovic felt he needed to make a change, and to introduce new energy in order to raise his level of play.”

The statement went on to stress that this has been a mutual decision following something of a dip—by his standards of the last five years or so—in the Serb’s results.

Djokovic said: “I am forever grateful to Marian, GG and Miljan for a decade of friendship, professionalism and commitment to my career goals. Without their support, I couldn’t have achieved these professional heights.

“I know they completely dedicated themselves and their lives to help me achieve my dreams and they were always my driving force and the wind in my back. It was not an easy decision, but we all felt that we needed a change.

“I am very grateful and proud of our relationship and the unbreakable bond that we built through years of mutual love, respect and understanding. They are my family and that will never change.”

Coach Vajda has been a constant in the Serb’s corner since Djokovic made his early mark on the main tour: The relationship began in 2006 when he won his first two titles.

Year by year, the 12-time Grand Slam champion improved both game and physical fitness: his first two Masters titles in 2007; his first Major in Australia and first Masters Cup in 2008; the Davis Cup in 2010; three Majors among 10 titles, plus the No1 ranking, in 2011; and a quite astonishing 2015 comprising 11 titles, with only the ATP500 in Beijing below Masters or Major level—an 82-6 run. Then last year, he completed his Grand Slam with the French Open, and by the end of the year, had reached a record 30 Masters titles.

Becker presided over the last three of those years, during which Djokovic was No1 for almost two and a half years until the end-of-year top spot was confirmed by Andy Murray in the final of the World Tour Finals. Djokovic said at the time:

“My professional plans are now directed primarily to maintain a good level of play, and also to make a good schedule and new goals for the next season. In this regard, I will make all future decisions.”

Certainly, after the French Open victory, it appeared that the mental and physical toll of such long-standing dominance was beginning to show. He made unexpected exits in the third round of Wimbledon and the first round of the Olympics, and periods of excellence were interspersed with less imposing performances.

2017 started well enough with the Doha title, but he seemed unable to reproduce his flawless tennis on a consistent basis, such that he conceded a surprise five-set loss to Denis Istomin in the second round of the Australian Open. He has not won more than two matches in any tournament since.

Clearly Djokovic, who turns 30 this month and is due to become a father for the second time later this year, has come to the conclusion that significant changes are required if he is to challenge at the highest level again. He has, too, been forced to watch from the side-lines as two of his biggest rivals made hay this year. Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal took significant time away from the tour last year to rehab injuries but they have returned refreshed and in winning form.

Perhaps, indeed, both have inspired Djokovic to review his own plans. He put it thus: “I want to continue raising the level of my game and stamina, and this is a continuous process. I enjoy this journey, it feels like I am starting something new again, and I love this challenge. I am a hunter, and my biggest goal is to find the winning spark on the court again.”

Certainly, Vajda believes there is still much more to come from Djokovic.

“We arrived to the point where we all realized we need new energy in the team. Novak can do so much more and I am sure he will. I am convinced that he will remain at the top of tennis for many years and that he will bring a lot of joy to all the tennis fans around the world with his victories. Of course, we will continue consulting each other, seeing each other, and hanging out together because after all, we are a family.”

Gebhard Gritsch shares that belief: “[Novak] is a champion and a warrior and the sky is the limit for him. I am very proud of all the time we spent together on the road. It was time for us all to move on professionally, but privately we will remain friends and family.”

Djokovic is in no hurry to replace any of his team, and that looks eminently sensible. He does not, after all, lack either success or experience at the very top of his sport.

“I feel like this is a new chapter in my life. My career was always on the upward path and this time I’m experiencing how it is when the path takes you in a different direction. I want to find a way to come back to the top stronger and more resilient. I have so much faith in this process and that’s why I will take time to find the right person who I can connect with professionally.

“I have been on the tour long enough to know how to manage daily routines and I don’t want to rush my decision. [So] I will be on the tour alone for a while with the support of my family and management.”

Djokovic begins the defence of his Madrid Masters title next week, followed by his final run in Rome, and then that title at the French Open. Indeed, aside from the grass swing, the world No2 has big points to defend for much of the year, notably in Montreal, New York and London.

For now, the early stages in the Madrid draw look manageable, but he has drawn Nadal, fresh from the Spaniard’s Monte Carlo and Barcelona triumphs, in his half.

Interesting times ahead, then.

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