by Saqib Ali
The tennis year has started with two titles already in the books – Giles Simon winning in India and Gael Monfils winning in Qatar. It’s fair to say that comebacks will be the theme for the year on both tours, more so on the ATP. Lot of marquee names are on the comeback block including Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Gael Monfils, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori among others, but the biggest comeback story without a doubt is of former number one Novak Djokovic. Biggest comeback story also comprises of the biggest unknown status to it. We will not be able to take stock on Djokovic’s game till he actually plays the Australian Open in a weeks time as his comeback has been derailed a few times this year.
Djokovic was clearly the best player in the game for a good part of 2012 to 2016. He displayed tennis of the highest calibre during those years, especially from 2015 to his maiden triumph at Roland Garros in 2016. What happened since is one of the most discussed fall in form for a champion player. Many have called it emotional fatigue as he held all majors at once – a feat not accomplished since 1969 on the men’s side. The tennis world concluded that he had burnt himself emotionally while accomplishing the almost impossible feat. His recent media interviews also revealed the physical injury he had sustained in the process of playing with pain last year. Unfortunately the injury has followed him into the verge of the 2018 season as he has pulled out of two events in the span of twenty four hours. Tennis needs a healthy Djokovic – like it needs a healthy Nadal or Federer. Vibes from Djokovic camp were really positive till the elbow trouble resurfaced on the eve of his match in Abu Dhabi against Roberto Bautista Agut a week ago. The pull out seemed a precautionary measure considering the first major was only 15 days away. The cloud of uncertainty loomed large over his participation when he withdrew from the Qatar 250 event within twenty fours hours of his withdrawal from Abu Dhabi.
Much needed news came earlier this week when his participation in the Tie break Tens was confirmed. He will be joined there by arch rival Rafael Nadal. A healthy Novak can add a new dimension to the field as two of his biggest rivals stole the show last year at majors. Djokovic could use that as a healthy sign of motivation as he tries to reassert his place at the top of the game this season. In the process he has put together a new team which includes the latest addition of Radek Stepanek, along with Andre Agassi. Stepanek is a recent retiree of the men’s game and was playing main draw events not too long ago. Stepanek does not have any coaching credentials but that does not mean any negative as not too long ago Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg started their first coaching assignments and had decent success, especially the German Becker. Stepanek could be of great use as he carries knowledge of current tour players, their patterns and tendencies. This may seem of little detail but this knowledge can be of great value to Djokovic as he begins his comeback on tour this year with more than one new voice in his box.
As Djokovic tries to hit the reset button on his already great career, the tennis universe will be glued in with attention. The same universe is gutted for his rival Andy Murray who has withdrawn from the year’s first major due to the hip injury he had sustained middle of ast year. Hip joint is one of the toughest injuries to recover from and surgery is the last option Murray will exercise. Murray’s concerns are very legitimate as he has seen former rivals in Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian struggle to retain pre hip injury levels. The tennis community feels for Murray and wishes to see him back on court healthy. Murray continued to play with the injury last year as he exhausted every single way possible to go and defend his Wimbledon title. In the process he may have aggravated the joint and hence faces the daunting dilemma of a hip surgery. Something he should have done last year was done by Japan’s Kei Nishikori this year – as he postponed his arrival to court by easing his body and taking more time for coming back. This maybe a smart move for the Japanese number one’s career and may serve dividends in the long term planning of his career.
As all these players counter the most fearsome opponent – injury. A more important question that needs to be addressed is why so many injuries are interfering the top players lives. Can the sport’s governing body look into some of these issues as they cannot be just coinciding with the new year storylines. No one seems to be sure where to begin with from equipment changes to cutting down on schedules of the season that runs for more than ten months. These athletes play a very physical brand of tennis and push their limits to the absolute levels on a daily basis. This kind of grind has its physical tolls, which can alter playing days of the affected or injured. This is a broad topic but a very significant one and something that will need to be attended to sooner than later. We welcome Djokovic back to full health but at the same time pray that Murray can do the same sometime later this year or even later.