London – It will be surreal in the extreme when Novak Djokovic goes on court in defence of his title in Madrid next week, glances up at his box and the growling, comforting countenances of his fiercely loyal Serbian friends are missing. The troubled world No2 called the nuclear clearout of his support staff on Friday “shock therapy”. And it does have the unmistakeable ring of a psychiatrist’s formula, a decision reached after a deep discussion about life and tennis. It also has the ring of desperation.
Whatever the agreed public stance of mutual agreement, these are close friends and confidants he has let go, not just employees. They have been with him most of the past decade and were a tight-knit unit.
Djokovic’s departing coach, Marian Vajda, had been alongside him since 2006, before he won the first of his 12 slam titles, fitness coach Gebhard “GG” Phil Gritsch was there “eight years to the day”, as he said later, and his physiotherapist, Miljan Amanovic, had been a part of this imposing inner sanctum for just as long, rarely quoted, unquestioningly committed to the cause. Others also gathered around him for big matches. It was some posse.
Players split with coaches all the time. Although Andy Murray has been reconciled for a year now with Ivan Lendl after a messy divorce, he has said goodbye to half-a-dozen mentors with professional ruthlessness. Even the ever-calm Roger Federer needed a couple of years with Stefan Edberg, his personal hero, to brighten up his game, before the Swede moved quietly out of the picture at the end of 2015.
It will seem different altogether, though, when Vajda, GG and Amanovic are not there for Djokovic in Madrid against either of the expert Spanish clay-courters, Tommy Robredo or Nicolás Almagro. Either opponent would regard Djokovic as beatable. He has not been this vulnerable on court for a long time.
Quite who Djokovic will call on to replace his compadres is a mystery. He followed Murray’s lead three years ago when he turned to a former leading player in Boris Becker and he might do something similar again. There will be no shortage of candidates and whoever it is will have the luxury of a relatively free hand.
Even the ebullient German sometimes wondered if he was as deeply embedded as the others. He notoriously risked his boss’s wrath when he revealed last year that they often called out to their employer during a match in Serb or Croat, possibly passing on advice that bordered on coaching, which is not allowed. When Becker left, it was thought the Djokovic camp would turn inwards again and remain strong. For a while, they did.
Vajda’s exit is not a complete surprise. He had long ago tired of the travel and cut down his overseas commitments during Becker’s three years, so that separation had already begun. The first signs of a more fundamental change arrived about a year ago, though, almost imperceptibly.
Into the mix stepped Pepe Imaz, a former fringe Tour player from Spain who sells contentment through meditation. Imaz was prominent courtside, giving headline writers a gift when he arrived in flowing robes and long hair. Djokovic did not like his friend characterised as a guru, but an hour-long video of the player speaking at one of Imaz’s meetings did little to dispel the notion.
Coincidentally or not, Imaz joined the Djokovic caravan about the time the then world No1 was experiencing what he would later describe as personal issues. Whatever was troubling him, his game suffered. An elbow injury struck, too. At the Rio Olympics, Djokovic was a not-so-shock first-round loser to Juan Martin del Potro. The Serb was inconsolable in defeat. There could be no doubting his desire to do well for his country.
At the Paris Masters, he collapsed to hand Murray his world No1 crown and retreated with unusual grumpiness. While his relationship with British tennis writers has always been cordial, it briefly deteriorated, culminating in a verbal spat with a tabloid writer after he had lost to Murray at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. The exchange went viral on social media among the Serb’s thousands of aggrieved fans.
The new season brought no respite. Djokovic lost to Denis Istomin in the first week of the Australian Open, just before Murray lost to Mischa Zverev, which opened the door for Federer’s astonishing return after six months away. Neither the new world No1 nor the old world No1 has properly returned to his best since – which seems to have unsettled Djokovic more than it has Murray.
When Djokovic lost four sets in a row against Nick Kyrgios in consecutive hardcourt tournaments this year, mild concern grew into genuine consternation. Nobody beats Djokovic twice in a row, to borrow from Vitas Gerulaitis.
In a carefully prepared statement on his Facebook page on Friday afternoon, Djokovic asserted: “I want to find a way to come back to the top stronger and more resilient. I am a hunter.”
Before he fell to earth on his second visit to Paris last year, Djokovic was the hunted, the world No1 for 122 weeks in a row. Even after losing to the estimable David Goffin in Monte Carlo last month, he was adamant: “I fear no one.”
That is the Djokovic the game needs restored to full power. He has been an awesome sight and will surely be so again, perhaps when he returns to Roland Garros as champion next month. But it will not be as easy as it once was. Far from it. He is involved in a serious personal battle of character and self-belief. Uncertain as a prodigy, he grew in strength as his talent blossomed and he crushed his peers. Now, for the first time in his career, he must do it alone.
The Guardian Sport