The decision to go coach-less is not unprecedented in men’s tennis. Others have done it with varying measures of success. Most famously, Roger Federer dominated tennis during portions of the past decade without a full-time coach until he realized that he needed help to conquer his chief nemesis, Rafael Nadal. The mercurial Nick Kyrgios is currently scaling new career peaks going solo.
In a vacuum, Djokovic’s decision to fire his coaching staff appears to be a logical one. As Djokovic’s fortunes have plummeted since he scaled the Mt. Everest of tennis at Roland Garros, it is apparent that his coaching staff have failed him on several counts. He has looked jaded and lost mental battles against Kyrgios, which would have been unthinkable a year ago. His body started breaking down physically, possibly hinting at an extreme training regimen. He has also experienced a metaphysical decline, which has manifested as a crisis in confidence and a renouncement of ambition, all strange outcomes considering that he was erstwhile the possessor of the most unshakable mind in men’s tennis.
Before we get any further, this is not meant to be a commentary on what’s eating Djokovic. There is enough precedence in men’s tennis (e.g., Borg, McEnroe, Wilander) with great champions who experience extreme burnout at the peak of their skills and tumble down to earth. Djokovic’s sudden decline, all speculations aside, is natural and explainable. In fact, even more perplexing than his loss of form is the one of the gentleman currently ranked number 1, Sir Andy Murray. Men’s tennis may be in a crisis mode even as its two best players are playing like stooges who need a private session with Dr. Phil. There’s only so long the two ageing warriors, Roger and Rafa, can buttress the temple of the Big Four. Simply put, Djokovic and, to a lesser extent, Murray need to find their mojo quickly for their sport to prosper.
A quick examination of events in the past year suggests a flagging intensity in Djokovic’s game even as the background grew noisy. There were rumblings of discord between Djokovic and his supercoach Becker. Soon a “guru”, Pepe Imaz, appeared from nowhere to calm down and refocus the great man. Injuries to the elbow and ankle surfaced and have stubbornly continued to be a bother. Now finally, after a middling start to the year, his entire support group has been dismissed in a wave of the hand. During this tumultuous time, Djokovic has struggled to put together a sequence of matches that would signal a turnaround.
A lesson we have learned about great champions is that they call time on their own terms. Even in decline, Djokovic’s caliber is beyond question. While his pinpoint accuracy has given way to inconsistent execution and crucial errors in close matches, he continues to display the single-mindedness that made him so great. If he took a feather from Federer’s cap, it would be to find a way to reinvent his game to make up for the drop in his baseline efficiency, which may never return to those lofty levels. On the other hand, he would also do well to emulate Rafa, who has flourished under Carlos Moya. The noticeable change in Rafa’s game has been a resurgence in self-belief and intensity that once made him unbeatable. It isn’t unrealistic to expect Djokovic to catch a second wind and return stronger.
Djokovic, even in his greatest matches, enjoyed the theater and the “it’s me against the world” sentiment. It spurred him to play tennis like no human played before him. He chased down dying balls, turned himself into a contortion artist, painted the court with laser missiles and won matches with his mind before they even started. The events of the past year will only reinforce his motivation to be back at the top of the totem pole. He will find a coach and he will win again. That’s because when it comes to screenplays, Djokovic writes them like nobody else!