Just as it is in life, time flies on the tennis circuit and it’s shocking how the sport has such a short-term memory sometimes.
A mere 13 months ago, Novak Djokovic was battling Andy Murray for the No. 1 ranking. In June 2016, he won a fourth consecutive major to complete a career Grand Slam and was on top of the world.
Today, Djokovic is ranked No. 12 and is coming off a near-six-month injury-enforced break. Murray is ranked No. 16 and, like Djokovic, has not played a match since Wimbledon, also sidelined due to physical problems.
Last year’s top-two have watched from afar as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer enjoyed successful comebacks from injury, winning two Slams each in 2017, and becoming No. 1 and No. 2 in the world rankings respectively.
At 36, Federer has defied the odds and returned from a six-month hiatus at the end of 2016 to put together a stunning 52-5 win-loss record in 2017.
Djokovic will attempt to follow suit when he returns to action from his own injury timeout. He will test the waters at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship this weekend in Abu Dhabi, before flying to Doha for his official season start.
The Serb, who not long ago was experiencing one of the most dominant stints in tennis history, fell victim to an elbow problem. He also showed cracks in his mental armour and finally pulled the plug early on his 2017 season in July.
He sought refuge in his family while his elbow healed, and returns to the court with a somewhat philosophical approach to both tennis and life.
A true believer in the benefits of meditation and yoga, a mellower version of Djokovic seems to have emerged. But that doesn’t mean the animalistic hunger for success that drove him throughout his career is gone.
While he acknowledges he requires patience to guide himself back to top form on tour, his goals are far from modest.
“I would lie to you and I would not be honest, not to you, to myself, if I tell you anything less than being No. 1 and winning Slams,” he says of his post-injury objectives.
“I know that I’ve done it in the past, I’ve proven to myself that I can do it and why not aim for it again? Because I feel that, first of all, I have the willpower. Which is the most important thing. You need to really want something, you need to wish for it, you need really strongly believe and commit to that. So I am.
“And not just myself, which is very important, my family, my wife, my children are there, my parents, my brothers, and my team, are very supportive of me and they’re giving me that energy that I need.
“For these circumstances now that I am in, I’m trying to balance these goals, at the same time be a bit more understanding of what’s going on here (elbow) and say just take your time. Even if it doesn’t happen next season or whatever, take your time. But once I’m there, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t satisfy myself with anything less than that.”
Djokovic turned pro back in 2003, and experienced success on tour at an early age, winning his first Masters 1000 10 years ago at the Miami Open and claiming his first major in 2008 when he was 20.
He has amassed 12 Grand Slam titles, has spent 223 weeks at No. 1, won Davis Cup and an Olympic bronze medal. Now aged 30, Djokovic says he can still find incentive to drive him further in the sport.
“My general goals in tennis and life is to really enjoy what I do and that’s what drives me still,” he says.
“That’s what drives Roger (Federer) by the way. I mean you saw what he has done in the last year after coming back from a six-month, similar to me, absence from the tour and coming back and almost becoming No. 1 and Rafa is world No. 1. That’s proof that you can do it.
“It doesn’t matter the age or not, if you take care of your body, your body’s kind of reversing that age clock and your mind as well, if you have that kind of spirit of a child enjoying what it does then you get energy. You get energy from above, I believe in it, I strongly do.
“I also have been in situations, many times, it happens throughout the year, where you have days where you’re thinking ‘oh my God’, I don’t feel like it, why this? Why that? And that’s something that is normal that we all go through we all have those days and you have situations where you’re forcing yourself to do it. And then you feel the difference, you feel yourself when you’re really over-trying or overreacting or whatever it is… but those days are necessary in order for the other days to feel better and to understand the importance.”
Federer significantly cut down on his schedule in 2017 in order to take care of his body. The result of that was a masterclass in efficiency from the Swiss, who picked up seven titles from 12 tournaments contested.
Djokovic will be more wary when entering tournaments but says he won’t be making any significant changes to his calendar.
“For now, I plan on playing Abu Dhabi, Doha and the Australian Open. And of course all the other big ones after that. The one that is still under question mark, the week that I was playing the last five, six, seven years, is always either Dubai or Acapulco and that’s something that I don’t know. And Davis Cup, I don’t know if I’m going to play or not,” he explains.
“It really depends on how my elbow reacts to all this month, month and a half of training, playing and matches. I hope I will make it through the entire month and just play well and go deep in Australia, but obviously it’s the first time, obviously I always have high ambitions and goals and I know what I’m capable of but this is the first time where I’m probably a little bit more cautious and aware of what the situation and circumstances I’m in with my injury that kept me away from the tour.
“So I want to be smart with it in a way, I don’t want to really – if you ask me I want to play every week of course, but still I have to be smart with it. So the schedule right now is supposed to be as it was in previous years, not much difference to be honest. It depends how January goes and then we’ll see.”
While he may be cautious about his 2018 schedule, he is far from that when looking ahead to his future in the sport.
Djokovic has surrounded himself by people who know all too well the concept of longevity in sport. His coaching team includes Andre Agassi, who played tennis until he was 36, and Radek Stepanek, who hung up his racquet last month aged 38.
Asked if he sees himself competing on tour well into his late 30s the same way Agassi, Stepanek and now Federer is doing.
“Yes I do, even older than that actually. I don’t want to put any limit to my career or to anything that I do, really. The limits only exist in the mind and if you set yourself a limit, or say ‘hey, it was a standard before so we have to accept the standard that once you reach that magical number 30 in tennis you’re not anymore at your peak’. Who says that? Jimmy Connors played when he was 40 semis of US Open, Roger is where he is winning Slams at his age. Who says that?” says Djokovic.
“I truly believe that we are the creators of our own destiny and our own paths and what we really want. What do you really want? That’s always a question: what do I really want and how much do I want it? Because for now I am very happy and very grateful to be able to have a family and play the sport that I love with all my heart today, as I did when I was four, when I started, and of course it’s essential to have the support of your close ones.
“And in that kind of environment I’m able to shine, I’m able to really excel. I’m hoping I can excel even more. But if you stop my career today and you ask me if I’m satisfied with what I’ve achieved, of course. I have to, if I draw a line, of course. But if you ask me if that’s enough, I would say no. If I had to finish my career today yes I’m happy with what I’ve achieved but am I satisfied knowing I can do more? I’m not satisfied.”
Great day on the court with @radek_stepanek looking forward to next one . Lots of exciting ahead of us! Thank you for joining the team 😉🎾Odličan dan na terenu sa Radekom. Radujem se narednoj prilici da radimo i razvijamo se zajedno. Hvala što si se pridružio mom timu. #Idemooo #training #tennis #motivation
Djokovic started working with Agassi last May ahead of the French Open and the American legend is sticking around with him next season.
It is a partnership Djokovic seems to be very happy with, and the plan is for Agassi to be with the Serb at all the Slams in 2018, and potentially more tournaments. Stepanek will be doing most of the heavy-lifting though, traveling the tour with Djokovic year-round.
In Agassi, Djokovic gets wisdom, calmness and the understanding of what it means to be a family man. In Stepanek, Djokovic has a friend who shares a passion for sports science, and body and mind wellness.
Together, Djokovic believes he’s hit the tennis jackpot.
“We always shared a lot and now he shares even more because he says I’m not on the opposite side of the net anymore so he can share even more,” Djokovic says with a laugh when discussing Stepanek’s knowledge of body preservation and career longevity.
“So we’re starting to spend more and more time with each other and I still look forward to get to know him even better. I was very happy with how our couple of weeks of training went in Monaco. Andre Agassi was there as well and it was the perfect week because everybody was together, the whole new team, and we obviously put objectives, daily objectives, long-term objectives, between us, and on paper, and discussing how we can improve my game and how I can play as efficiently as possible, with less energy spending as possible.
“And obviously Radek is one of the oldest players to play actively on the tour and there’s definitely a lot of great insights there from him on how you can keep your mind and body sharp and keep that longevity and also Andre’s incredible, smart and wise approach to tennis and to life in general helps me get different perspectives of who I am and what I do and just tennis in general.
“But I think what impressed me the most with Andre is how he’s able to break down very complex conversations into very specific, precise information that sticks with you and that is the exact direction that you need in order to actually accomplish what you want. So that’s a part of him that is so impressive and both Radek and I are learning a lot from Andre.”
Brilliant chat with @DjokerNole ahead of the @MubadalaTennis Championship. Says he’s pain-free and sounds motivated to get back on court. Stay tuned for the full interview @Sport360! pic.twitter.com/PoXQN70JgY
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) December 25, 2017
Stepanek was competing on tour up until 11 months ago. In January, he became the oldest ATP quarter-finalist since Jimmy Connors in 1995, when he made the last-eight in Doha. He then became the oldest since 1977 to qualify for the Australian Open. Back surgery in March put an end to his season and he officially announced his retirement from the sport last month.
“I think Radek has managed to blend in to this coaching role very quickly,” Djokovic added. “Very fast. He’s so fresh off the active player career that he knows exactly what I go through and what I need and how when he can communicate certain things and how to speak to me to allow me to get into that state of mind, to be in the zone and to perform as best as I can.
“He also has a very observant and very intellectual approach to tennis and he also, that’s why Andre and him got along very well, because they simplify things very much. Me sometimes I go into the blue sky and put some clouds, jump from one cloud to another, and they’re like just focus on one thing and keep things simple.”
Agassi had said when he first teamed up with Djokovic that he was doing it on his “own dime and own time”. He was coaching the 30-year-old for free with a sole goal to help him get back to his best and improve beyond that.
Besides simplifying things, Djokovic says Agassi has bolstered his self confidence.
“Second thing that resonates the most from him to me is ‘trust yourself’. Really be aware of how good you are, be aware of your qualities, be aware of what other players go through when they play you,” says Djokovic.
“Because sometimes you’re always so self-critical, when you’re on court, you’re going through ‘okay, I’m going through this or that’, fighting through emotions, you’re not satisfied because you know you can do better and da da da, sometimes you just need to again think of a different perspective and understand that there are two players on the court and there’s stuff you do so well that you can always rely on them as your assets. So that’s something he keeps reminding me of and it’s something I feel is very wise.”
Djokovic hasn’t just found wisdom from hanging around Agassi. He has also developed it from becoming a father. Jelena his wife gave birth to their daughter Tara last September, and his son Stefan turned three last October.
When talking about fatherhood, Djokovic gets very poetic.
“First of all it unlocked a new dimension of love for me. I mentioned this before and I have to do it again because that’s something that probably left the biggest impression on me,” he explains.
“That emotion of unconditional love and care and attention for children, it’s something that is really, I never knew that existed. My wife and I were talking before Stefan was born three and a half years ago and we were saying that we don’t want anything to be forced, in terms of our reactions, emotions and sensations, we wanted everything to come naturally.
“When Stefan arrived it was just those tears of joy, of happiness, of gratitude, to be able to have the role of the parent. And then it puts things in perspective, it gives more purpose. It allows you to understand what really matters because you think you’re fighting for one thing, it’s always about yourself as a professional athlete you care about making good results, making history, this and that, and bla bla bla, but it’s all nice, it’s all great, but that’s not what matters the most. It will not fulfil your heart forever.
— We Are Tennis (@WeAreTennis) December 7, 2017
“Success on the court, lifting trophies, feels great because a result of your commitment of your journey, it’s a beautiful destination that when you arrive to it, you appreciate everything you’ve done. And it’s confirmation of your quality and you feel proud of it, but at the same time you realise soon enough that there’s much more to it and if you keep on looking for material things to always make you happy, I find it that it’s hard to get to that long, lasting happiness and love and joy and all these beautiful sensations that we, as human beings on this planet, are looking for every single moment.
“So being a parent teaches you that, it gives you perspective of life and what life really is and what your purpose is on this planet, to share your knowledge, your experiences, your love, your emotions, to spread.
“I like the analogy of a candle. Because people always think I don’t know what can I do to change the world. I’m only one and there’s like seven billion people on this planet, I’m too small, I can’t.
“But one candle can light millions and millions of candles without losing its own fire. So that analogy always kind of stays with me and it reminds me of how powerful we are as human beings and we’re really able to transcend our own fields. Everything affects everyone.
“So I try to be aware of everything that I do. Say how that affects my children, so I think it makes you even more aware and responsible, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I cannot be more grateful.”
Djokovic begins his MWTC campaign in Abu Dhabi on December 29 against the winner of Thursday’s clash between Roberto Bautista Agut and Andrey Rublev.
To read PART ONE of our interview with Djokovic, click here.
Novak Djokovic will make his first appearance on a match court since Wimbledon last July at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship this weekend in Abu Dhabi. The 12-time Grand Slam champion sat down for an interview — for the first time in nearly six months — with Sport360 to discuss his long-awaited return to the tour.
Novak Djokovic enters the gym in Dubai on Christmas day for an evening session with his fitness trainer.
He looks healthy, sun-kissed, and cheerful, as he makes his way to a seat in front of the juice bar for our interview ahead of his participation at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi (December 28-30) – his first tournament since retiring during his Wimbledon quarter-final against Tomas Berdych last July.
Two weeks after that match at the All England Club, Djokovic announced he would miss the rest of the 2017 season due to a lingering elbow injury that had been bothering him for nearly a year and a half. His performances had been sub-par during the previous 12 months or so and he appeared both mentally and physically spent.
The Serb’s decision meant he would miss the US Open, ending his streak of participating in 51 consecutive Grand Slams. He had never taken such a long break from the sport before and he admits it was a tough call to make.
“It’s been a really roller coaster ride for me for a year and a half with this issue. I’ve never had surgery in my life, I’ve never had any major injuries that kept me away from the tour for such a long time. Never missed a Grand Slam in my professional career. It was a big decision, a big call to make,” the 30-year-old Djokovic told Sport360.
“And I could not make that call for a long time until I got to the point where the universe just sent me something, that it was inevitable for me. I couldn’t play anymore, there was no choice. It was like, that’s it, you can’t lift your arm.”
Djokovic didn’t pick up a racquet for almost four and a half months after that. He started hitting just four weeks ago in Monaco, where he was joined by his new team of Radek Stepanek, who was added to Djokovic’s coaching staff last month, alongside Andre Agassi, who had started working with him just before the French Open. His new physio is Ulises Badio and fitness trainer is Marco Panichi.
It was last May that Djokovic revealed he had parted ways with his long-time coach Marian Vajda as well as his fitness trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch and physio Miljan Amanovic.
With a brand new crew around him and a long hiatus effectively behind him, the ex-world No. 1 is able to look at the last few months with deeper perspective.
“I’ve learned a lesson because I really want to avoid getting to that stage of an injury ever in my career after this,” he admits.
“And it was a great lesson to learn to be honest. It was not easy for me to be absent for so long, I’m looking forward to speak to you more hopefully in the year to come,” he adds with a laugh. “But also to play tennis. And it wasn’t easy for me to watch tennis, follow it on TV.
“I can’t wait to get back on the competition level but it was a great experience for me to have. And it was a somewhat necessary experience because I got maybe too comfortable with not having major injuries, I was always really trying, and still keeping on, to take care of myself, my body, stretch, prepare, and respect the whole protocol of pre, during and post match and workouts and so forth.
“I spend a lot of time really always trying to find new ways how to get my body to a different level of recovery and performance and my mind, my brain, my eyes, everything. I try to get into sports science as much as I can, naturally but also with technologies. We’re so blessed to have different ways where we can train better and harder and more efficient. So I had this time to really dig deep into these things that kind of take my interest a little bit and it’s great to, as we’re kind of close to the season, to have more time on the court.
“This is the first time I don’t play for four months or something, four and a half months. I was hitting the ball well from the first practice but the thing is that your muscles, and bone structures and ligaments and joints and everything has to get stronger and fall into place and get used to the stress of hitting the ball and all this stuff.”
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) December 24, 2017
Djokovic joins Dominic Thiem, Kevin Anderson, Pablo Carreno Busta, Roberto Bautista Agut and Andrey Rublev at the MWTC in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
This will be the Serb’s fourth Abu Dhabi appearance, where he is a three-time champion.
“I’ve always had a lot of good times on the court in Abu Dhabi but also off the court I think it’s a very pleasant tournament to be part of, it allows all of us players to kind of check where we are with our game and in competition play. Because obviously that’s probably the first kind of official competition match play that we can get in the new season,” Djokovic said.
“And obviously for me it will be the first match after Wimbledon and that’s why I think I’m probably looking forward to it more than any other player as part of that tournament and as I said I always feel very welcome there, very comfortable to be part of the tournament because first of all it’s not for points so it’s not like you have to defend or this and that but it’s still very competitive.
“So I think it’s a nice balance between the two, it allows you to really check where your game is at, compete on a high level with quality players but at the same time you’re not over-stressed about winning that tournament or not, even though it’s part of my nature and I think many other players share that nature too where regardless of what match you play, you want to win it and you want to be able to get the best out of yourself and shine bright early in the season, if I can say so. And considering the circumstances I’ve had in the last year or so, I really look forward to start off on the right terms, pain-free, and hopefully get into the new season confident.”
Djokovic opens his MWTC campaign on Friday, December 29 against the winner of the clash between Rublev and Bautista Agut.
During his break from the sport, Djokovic found solace in the time he got to spend with his family – his wife Jelena delivered their second child, Tara, in September – and he also allowed himself to explore his other passions.
“I’ve had an opportunity, for the first time ever since I started playing professional tennis, to have this much time to, first of all, relax mentally, physically, emotionally, re-calibrate, be there for my wife for the second birth, be there for our son (Stefan) more,” he says.
“But also I could do other stuff. I had time to do some other stuff aside of tennis, some things that are attracting me a lot. I could dedicate my time a little bit more to my foundation, meetings and stuff like this. Preparing some different projects. I found an inspiration in other things that were always on standby, and will be on standby again because of tennis, and I choose that, I’m not complaining.”
While he is eager to get back on the court, he is also aware he might not be able to hit the ground running from the get-go. While he has been training physically for three months now, he hasn’t been hitting on court for long and he hopes he can give himself time to reach his top form.
“I’m learning how to be patient as well honestly, and I think one thing that we tennis players miss a lot is patience. And it’s part of the world that we are in, the season is constantly ongoing so it’s from January 1st to November 20th bam bam bam bam, you don’t have time much time and you’re always in a roll so you’re always into looking for quick solutions, quick fixes,” the world No. 12 explains.
“So it’s very important to take a step back and I had this opportunity now to see things from a larger perspective and understand what needs to be done differently maybe in the future.”
Djokovic chooses to describe it as “efficient patience”.
“I don’t consider any time as wasted time because there’s always something whether we’re closing our eyes, there’s always something happening inside, outside…” is how he puts it.
He says he used the time away from the court to enrich his life and the lives of people around him.
“Of course starting with relationships, with the family, and second child, and all these different things and I had more time to really dedicate to myself to understand where I am in life,” he adds.
Click here for PART TWO of the interview where Djokovic discusses the influence of Agassi, his 2018 goals, bringing in Stepanek to the team and more…
The showdown, between two Grand Slam champions, will take place at 17:00 at Zayed Sports City.
It is the first time a women’s tennis match will be staged at the Abu Dhabi showpiece.
Ostapenko stunned Simona Halep to win the French Open last June.
Williams will be making her first appearance since becoming a mother.
For the first time in the history of #MWTC, we’re bringing you two of the world’s best female players! #MWTC10 will see 23-time Grand Slam champion @serenawilliams making her comeback against the 2017 #rolandgarros Champion Jelena Ostapenko, as they play each other on Day 3! pic.twitter.com/S3uWvxkpa5
— MWTC (@MubadalaTennis) December 24, 2017
“I am delighted to be returning to the court in Abu Dhabi for the first time since the birth of my daughter in September,” said Williams.
“The Mubadala World Tennis Championship has long marked the beginning of the men’s global tennis season and I am excited and honoured to be making my comeback as part of the first women to participate in the event. I look forward to seeing the fans in Abu Dhabi at the 10th edition of the Championship very soon.”
Ostapenko is ranked No. 7 in the world and has never faced Williams on the professional circuit.
“I am thrilled to be playing in Abu Dhabi at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. This will be the first time that women have taken part in the event and it is a huge honour to be part of that history after watching the tournament for many years. Last season was really incredible for me and I cannot wait to continue the start of my new season at such an amazing event,” said the 20-year-old Latvian.
Ticket holders for day 3 can attend Williams’ match. Tickets for the MWTC are on sale at www.ticketmaster.ae and all Virgin Megastores across the UAE.