There is no denying that Novak Djokovic’s announcement ahead of the Mutua Madrid Open that he and his team of a decade had decided to split caught many by surprise.
It was no surprise either, then, that the news became the primary focus of the defending champion’s pre-tournament press conference on Sunday afternoon.
It all began much as his Facebook statement had ended. On Friday, Djokovic concluded: “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. I will be on the tour alone for a while with the support of my family and management.”
Come Sunday, he stressed again the desire for space and time as he embarks on what increasingly sounds like a distinctly new phase in his tennis career.
“It was just time to try something new. I felt like I needed also some space and time to be kind of be by myself and think things through.
“Right now, I’m at that stage where I just don’t want to rush things. I’m completely confident in myself, and I believe in the process of change, that it’s going to bring me some good things… I don’t want to rush into it because I don’t think I’m incapable of being by myself, or with my brother, with my family now on the court. I feel completely comfortable with him and by myself.”
Djokovic is indeed here with his brother, but for a man who has invariably been surrounded by the same tight team, it is a different look. He will become a father for the second time later this year, and he turns 30 in a fortnight’s time—perhaps more reasons to reassess. He admitted, however, that he is continuing his relationship with life coach and former player, Pepe Imaz:
“Yes, he’s here. We’ve been working together for the last four, five years. He’s still part of the team.”
He has, he also revealed, had nine days training both with his brother and the physio with whom he has been working since last October. He added, with a smile:
“So all is fine. I’m not completely by myself. I have the great support of the family and management and my current team.”
Imaz was increasingly a presence in the Djokovic box at the end of last year before the Serb ended his highly successful three-year coaching partnership with Boris Becker in December. It marked the end of a season during which Djokovic’s remarkable dominance since 2011 showed some uncharacteristic chinks.
From that extraordinary year of 10 titles, with its 70-6 run, until he sealed his first French Open last year, Djokovic won 11 Majors from 18 finals, four World Tour Finals, and 24 Masters titles.
Thereafter, he reached the final of the US Open and won the Rogers Cup, but by his own standards, he began to look weary both mentally and physically. He admitted to some personal difficulties, and suffered wrist and elbow injuries, which also flared up this spring in North America. Along the way, he lost in the third round of Wimbledon, the first round of the Olympics, the second round of the Australian Open, and the fourth round of Indian Wells.
He revealed something of the loss of confidence that had come with those results and the acquiescence of the No1 ranking to Andy Murray into the bargain.
“Well of course when you start losing more matches, you start questioning your game, yourself, what you’re doing wrong, so you can rectify that and get better, turn the tables around.
“Of course, I’m thinking about it. I’m analysing my game… I’m constantly trying to improve and to get better. Obviously, I’ve been very fortunate to experience the upwards direction of my career ever since I’ve started. This is now a different direction a little bit. In the last six months, I haven’t had too many of great results. That’s why I’ve felt like I needed some changes… Life always throws new challenges as you. Instead of avoiding them and ducking them, I’m trying to confront them and trying to embrace them. I guess in the process, I’m trying to get better as a person and as a tennis player.”
He faces this upheaval just as he embarks on the defence of title points in Madrid, final points in Rome, and of course that Roland Garros victory, although it should be added that he looks and sounds very happy with the situation.
“I’ve played so many years on this level that I’m feeling comfortable on the tennis court regardless of these current changes. Generally, I haven’t forgotten to hit the tennis ball. I’ve continued more or less with the same kind of routine and approach that I’ve had over the years… But I’m not getting myself too far ahead. I just want to be in the present moment because obviously this is something that I am experiencing for the first time in my life.”
As for the next step in this transition, he added: “I also know that I’ll not stay by myself without a tennis coach for too long… I assume it’s going to be someone that has been through similar experiences like I have.
“I’m trying to channel that in the best way, then build a new chapter, build new ways of hopefully making more history for myself and for the tennis.
“[But] I’m comfortable where I am at the moment because I know it’s a right thing to do. It was just meant to be for me this way. I’m sure Difficult Paths Lead to beautiful destinations, so I’m sticking with that.”
Djokovic will open his Madrid defence against one of two wild cards, Spaniards Nicolas Almagro or Tommy Robredo.
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