The Czech 39-year-old will begin working with Djokovic in Monte Carlo, where both men have homes, in the coming days, as the Serb continues his preparation for a return to competition at the Mubadala Championships in Abu Dhabi at the end of December.
Stepanek announced his retirement from tennis just a fortnight ago after 20 years on the pro circuit and following a long struggle to return from back surgery in March.
Djokovic said of the eagerly anticipated tie-up:
“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 [then] 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, currently at No12, his lowest ranking in over a decade, has not played since Wimbledon due to an elbow injury, and he will continue to work alongside Andre Agassi, notably at the four Majors.
The Serb added:
“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.”
It has been a year of twists and turns, ups and downs, for the 12-time Major champion. Djokovic dominated the ranking, Majors and Masters scenes for much of the previous six years. He rose to No1 with his first Wimbledon title in 2011, and would win 11 of his Majors, 25 of his 30 Masters, and accumulate 223 weeks at No1 from the start of that year until the end of 2016.
But the physical and emotional toll of maintaining such a level, and in particular winning the elusive French Open last year, began to show in the aftermath of that Roland Garros victory, when he held all four Majors simultaneously.
He went on to suffer his earliest exit at a Major in over seven years—the third round at Wimbledon—and missed the Cincinnati Masters and the Beijing 500, which he had won in the previous four years. Eventually, he could not hold off the surge of Andy Murray to the World Tour finals title and the No1 ranking.
Djokovic won the first title of 2017, in Doha, but not another until the Aegon International in Eastbourne, and along the way, there came a surprise split with his coaching team of a decade during this year’s clay swing, followed in quick succession by the recruitment of Agassi and Mario Ancic.
Following his quarter-final retirement at Wimbledon in July, and his subsequent withdrawal from the rest of the season, he confirmed that Agassi was to remain in his team:
“I’m happy to share that Andre Agassi is committed to stay with me next year, and I want to thank Andre for being with me this year and sharing his experience and wisdom… He was with me in [after Wimbledon], and helped me find doctors, specialists in treating elbow injuries.
“During this short period, we’ve been getting to know each other and building trust and understanding. He supports my decision to take a break, and remains my head coach.”
Now Stepanek, as well as bringing a long-standing friendship to the team, can bring a complementary set of skills and experience from his own top-10-level tennis in both singles and doubles. The Czech reached No8 in singles more than a decade ago after reaching the quarters at Wimbledon, and can boast final finishes at both the Paris and Hamburg Masters. He reached No4 in doubles in 2012, after picking up the Australian Open, Miami and Shanghai doubles titles and a share in the first of two Davis Cup titles.
Only last year, at Roland Garros, he reminded younger tennis fans just how much variety and flair he has when he pressed Murray to five compelling sets, losing 5-7 in the fifth, but as he said after this year’s surgery:
“Every day has been a question mark, I had a small pain every day… I realised that the body was showing me that it had had enough.”
The rumours were immediately rife that his personality and tennis could be a good fit for Djokovic, especially when Stepanek admitted:
“I believe with what I’ve been through, I can pass it to somebody one day… my intention is to definitely be part of [tennis].”
So beware a revitalised Djokovic at the forthcoming Australia Open—where he already holds the joint record of six titles. For he will not only be fit and hungry, but surely also stimulated by the fresh eyes and ideas of a fascinating coaching corner.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly