Novak Djokovic on his love of grass, and the mental challenge of working back from injury
Novak Djokovic opens up about his love of grass as he prepares to make his long anticipated return to action after a lay-off due to injury
It is a while since the 12-time Major champion and former No1 Novak Djokovic has played at The Queen’s Club in deepest Kensington, but this year has brought new circumstances and new challenges for the three-time Wimbledon champion.
Twelve months ago, Djokovic had just won the Eastbourne title and would go on to reach the quarters at Wimbledon, but he had been struggling with an elbow problem through the weeks leading up to the grass swing. He was No2 in the world, having conceded the top spot to Andy Murray after a tough race with his closest contemporary through the latter stages of 2016.
But Djokovic would finally bow to the inevitable, retire against Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon, and not play another match last year.
He attempted his return this January at the Australian Open, but then resorted to surgery, and lost his openers in Indian Wells and Miami as he attempted to work his way back to fitness and confidence. On clay, though, it began to come together, and the familiar passionate Serb reached the semis at the Rome Masters and the quarters at Roland Garros. A good sign too that he was so bitterly disappointed after his exit in Paris that he could barely get his head round preparing for the grass season.
It was not long, though, before his head was clear: He took a wild card into the Fever-Tree Championships at Queen’s, where he had played just three times before, to work his game into full grass mode.
Djokovic reached the final in 2008, losing to Rafael Nadal, and in his last visit, back in 2010, he won his only doubles title. As he talked to the media ahead of his first match since that win, he reflected on his love of grass, and his memories of Queen’s.
“At the beginning of my career, I was thinking that grass isn’t the surface for me, never going to fit my game so well, because I was not so comfortable coming in, which grass in a way requires you—demands you—to come in to be aggressive, to have good volleys, and chips and slice.
“But over the years, I have been forced to learn how to play on it, and winning Wimbledon several times just built that confidence of being on the grass, and I love it now. The first day I already feel that I adjusted to the surface, that I got familiar with it.
Perfectionist that he is, though, Djokovic knows there are still ways he can improve on the green stuff.
“I think there are certain elements in my game, that I feel like always need some work, like serve, and volleys, coming to the net, and those types of things. And grass is the perfect surface for those things to be worked on. So the main focus is using the serve accurately, coming in, trying to play cat and mouse with other player, have the low balls, coming in. It’s completely different from clay to grass, but I think this time with the extended schedule, it’s better for us. You have more time to get used to it if you go far in Paris.”
He alludes, of course, to the expansion of the season by a week in 2015, so that the old scenario whereby the Roland Garros champion flew straight to London to play at Queen’s the next day, as Nadal once did, are over.
But Djokovic is looking for matches and court time, one of the reasons he has opted into a very starry doubles line-up at Queen’s with Stan Wawrinka. And while Djokovic may be at an uncharacteristic 22 in the ranks, the Swiss is at 261 after a similarly devastated 12 months.
Wawrinka too halted his season at Wimbledon last year, and then underwent double knee surgery. He has made tentative returns during 2018, but arrived at Queen’s with just one match-win through the entire clay season, and a 4-7 win-loss run. And his record at the tournament was not exactly encouraging either. Since reaching the semis in 2014, he has won just one match in three visits.
Wimbledon remains the only Major at which Wawrinka has yet to win the title too. His best runs are two quarter-finals, but he has been in London practising for some time, determined to regain his winning ways. A marriage made in heaven with Djokovic, then.
“Stan and I get on very well off the court. We never played doubles with each other, so we used the opportunity to get an invitation from the tournament.
“Stan is a great player, a multiple Grand Slam winner, also struggled a lot with injury, so his ranking dropped. We are both coming into the tournament not having played any weeks on grass, so we try to get as much time on court playing, and competing, before we step on the singles court. That’s the biggest reason why [we partnered]—but also, this is the only tournament in doubles that I ever won in my career, [smiling] so it brings back memories!”
Djokovic certainly has reason to be up-beat about the grass season, despite his early misgivings on the surface. It has yielded some fine prizes, not least three titles from four Wimbledon finals, and he is third among active players for grass titles won behind Federer and Andy Murray.
And it was in talking of Murray that the Serb revealed much more of the struggles he has faced during and since his injury sabbatical.
“I faced myself this major injury that got me off court for six and more months, surgery and so forth. You feel the consequences of that more mentally than physically. I never knew it would take so much time for me to get back in the state of mind where I’m comfortable, where I’m confident, with my game.
“But it is what it is, it’s a new experience, and I’m open to that and have to embrace it. It’s frustrating at times to know that I’m not able to execute what I was doing so well for years before, but those are the circumstances, and hopefully will change.
“In Andy’s case, he has been absent longer than I have. I don’t know how difficult it feels for him to deal with that, how painful it is to move around. But I think the biggest challenge will be mental.
“At least in my case, how to just get it out of your head, understand that it’s behind you, you’re fine now, you’re healthy, you can focus on your game rather than thinking 50 percent of the time while you’re on the court about whether something can happen, or does it hurt me, am I imagining things, is it real, is it not real. And then 50 percent of the time, you’re thinking about your tactics, and what you have to execute.
“If you don’t have mental clarity on court, especially on grass where everything happens very quickly, it is very difficult to play.”
But in a long and varied press conference that began with four or five minutes about the World Cup, Djokovic concluded with perhaps the most revealing words of all. He described tennis as “our passion, our love, and also our profession”, before concluding:
“Coming back after major injury is also something that inspires you, in a way, brings you that motivation, to kind of breathe in the new breath of life. You feel like you have restarted your career in a way. So I’m sure [Andy’s] more motivated than ever to go out there.”
The same, as if there was ever any doubt, may be said of Djokovic.
He opens his grass campaign against qualifier John Millman, ranked 63, in a first-time meeting. Millman’s key successes this year have come at the Challenger level, and in his only visit to Queen’s he lost in the first round. So it is hard not to see this match-up as the perfect confidence booster for the returning Serb.