It was back in July that Djokovic had this rare, long absence forced on him by injury. A chronic elbow problem had become progressively worse through the year, and it required drastic action, as he explained:
“All the doctors I’ve consulted, and all the specialists I have visited, have agreed that this injury requires rest. A prolonged break from the sport is inevitable. I’ll do whatever it takes to recover…
“Five months may seem long from this point, but I’m sure they will pass quickly because there is so much I want to do.”
First in that ‘to do’ list would certainly be time with the newest member of his family, for Tara was born in September, a sister for three-year-old Stefan. Plenty to keep the Djokovics’ busy then, but besides the demands of family life, and the rigours and discipline of maintaining peak physical fitness while unable to play competitively, the 30-year-old also had other matters to resolve.
Key among them was rebuilding his coaching set-up after he announced a split with his team of 10 years’ standing in the run-up to the French Open. He soon recruited Andre Agassi, and the American steadily increased his involvement with Djokovic through those demanding months—to the extent that he helped the Serb seek out specialist advice over his injury.
Djokovic subsequently affirmed: “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.”
That was not the end of the coaching story, however. Within weeks of Radek Stepanek announcing his retirement in November, Djokovic took to social media to report the addition of Stepanek to his team. He explained:
“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.”
Sure enough, photos began to emerge of training in Monte Carlo, where both Djokovic and Stepanek have homes. There were shuttle runs on the beach, then on 3 December, Djokovic Facebooked:
“I have been continuing to train and practise here at home. New movements, different equipment—improving my game and preventing future injury! I feel more confident each day.” There in the foreground was Agassi.
Days later, a video of Djokovic balancing son Stefan on his legs was captioned: “Best core training I ever had!”
But the tennis courts have not been the only source of news about how Djokovic has been busying himself. This week, a refurbished pre-school in Serbia re-opened thanks to funding from the Novak Djokovic Foundation.
The Foundation, which has just marked its 10th anniversary, aims “to give preschool aged children from impoverished areas the chance to learn and play in a safe, creative, and nurturing environment… Early education is the foundation upon which they will stand for the rest of their lives.”
According to the Foundation’s website, the €94,000 donated towards the reconstruction the Bambi Kindergarten is one of 37 school renovations already supported, but the Foundation backs many wide-ranging intiatives such as teacher training and outreach work with young people.
And what of the tennis player behind the Foundation? When can fans expect to see him wielding a racket in competition?
Well, very soon—and very often, too. He begins the season at the lucrative Mubadala World Tennis Championship exhibition event in Abu Dhabi.
The high-profile, six-man tournament always attracts high-profile players, and the 10th edition is no different, though Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic have pulled out as they too continue to recover from long-term injury absences. However, the event still boasts world No1 Rafael Nadal, No5 Dominic Thiem, and No10 Pablo Carreno Busta, plus Kevin Anderson and the fast-rising star, Andrey Rublev.
Djokovic, despite currently being ranked at No12, has won the event three times, and has earned appropriate scheduling: He plays the semi-final on Friday 29 December.
From Abu Dhabi, he heads down the coast to the first ATP tournament of the year in Doha, where he is two-time defending champion.
Djokovic then flies to Australia for the first Major of the year, and his most successful Major, but he is squeezing in some more fast-paced action before opening his campaign for a seventh Australian Open title.
It has just been announced that Melbourne will host the first stop in the Tie-Break 10s Series in 2018, and Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios will headline the eight-man line-up at the Australian debut of the super-tie-break tournament.
The concept is a fast-and-furious brand of tennis in which every match comprises first-to-10-point breakers. The winner will walk away with $250,000 in prize money on 10 January, just five days before the start of the Open, and on one of its show courts, the Margaret Court Arena.
So there will be plenty of opportunities to catch up with Djokovic as soon as Christmas is done and dusted.
He will surely be spending quality time with his wife and children during the imminent festivities, but make no mistake. While he will eventually return to the tour fresh and rested, his form and fitness will tell a story that is far from idle.
28-30 December: Mubadala World Tennis Championships, Abu Dhabi
1-6 January: Qatar Exxonmobil Open, Doha
10 January: Tie-break-10s, Melbourne
15-18 January: Australian Open, Melbourne
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly