LONDON, GREAT BRITAIN — “Novak Djokovic is in a crisis”. That’s a line that has been reiterated many times over the past 12 months.
The man who looked like he couldn’t lose even if he tried to was suddenly losing matches. He then lost his No1 ranking. He lost all four Grand Slam titles he had held at the same time. He slipped to No4 in the world for the first time in 2009.
His every misstep has been chronicled to no end and many have been trying to uncover the real mystery behind his decline (by his own standards it’s a decline).
Where is the insatiable Djokovic who had been approaching every match like it was his last? Where has his boundless ambition gone?
The truth is, that animal-like Djokovic, who lived and breathed victories and bulldozed everything that came his way is gone. Instead, you now have a different version. One that appreciates that there is more to life than just tennis.
Djokovic is on a new path of self-discovery and he’s committed to his approach. There is absolutely nothing wrong about that. And that doesn’t mean he won’t be winning or dominating again. It would be foolish to write him off because as his fellow ‘Big Four’ peers have proved to us time and time again, their class truly is permanent.
But the way he’s going to be winning is expected to be different.
“I used to base all my happiness on winning a tennis match. I think many athletes today are doing that. So I try not to do that anymore because it’s not like I don’t care, but winning and losing a tennis match, absolutely not,” Djokovic told reporters at Wimbledon on Sunday, ahead of his opener against Slovakia’s Martin Klizan on Tuesday.
“Of course, I would love to win every single tennis match I play in, but I don’t try to take that as very essential, you know, moment in my life which determines my happiness.
“It’s a different approach, but I’m still here and I’m still motivated, I still keep on going. I’m still glad to kind of experience whatever professional tennis career has for me.”
It is obvious that the time where tennis consumed every fibre of his being had taken a toll on him. He admits it meant he was not paying attention to other things in his life outside the sport.
“It’s not a process that it’s only lasted for last few weeks. I mean, it’s lasting the whole lifetime. It’s the constant evolution. It’s just that when the things are completely going your way, in this case in professional tennis career, when I was winning constantly and being dominant in the tennis world, you’re happy and you’re content, you feel like everything is kind of revolving around tennis. But it’s not like that. Some other things were suffering during that time,” he confessed.
“So it’s always, I guess, figuring out what’s the right balance and right formula to be completely, I guess, in peace and satisfied with yourself, and everything that you do, you know.”
If indeed that approach is leading him to contentment then you can imagine it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be winning again.
He won’t be acting like a tsunami wiping everything in front him, because that would disrupt the equilibrium he’s trying to achieve in his life. But he would still be winning. Except it will be on his own terms.
“It seems to me that, especially nowadays, everything is observed through the lens of material success, who lifts more trophies gets more respect, more fame, more money, and a better status in the society,” added Djokovic.
“It’s hard in this kind of, so to say, values, set of values, to kind of go through that kind of process. But for me, it’s equally important, even more important, to take care of myself as a human being. What goes around off the court, as well. In the process, I believe that that’s going to positively affect my own tennis career, as well.”
If you look at the choices he is making and the people he is surrounding himself with, you’ll realise they are people who can only agree with his approach and enrich his process. Andre Agassi, a man who is helping him without getting paid. Mario Ancic, an old friend who has always been known to be one of the nicest guys on tour.
Djokovic is trying to focus on what matters and turns out, that to him, it’s not just about winning.
LONDON, GREAT BRITAIN — Juan Martin del Potro has been so unlucky with draws since his return from injury, that every time a new draw comes out, he automatically looks for the names ‘Novak Djokovic’ or ‘Roger Federer’, expecting to find them in his path early on.
The Argentine ex-world No4 has managed to rise from outside the top-1000 at the start of 2016, to his current ranking of 32 in the world, after he recovered from triple-wrist surgery and a lengthy absence. But he is yet to reach his former heights and difficult draws have not helped his situation.
The 28-year-old opens his Wimbledon campaign against talented Aussie youngster Thanasi Kokkinakis, who like Del Potro has had a long battle with injuries, but is on the comeback trail and is coming off an impressive upset over last year’s runner-up Milos Raonic at the Queen’s Club less than two weeks ago.
Should Del Potro survive Kokkinakis, he could face three-time champion Djokovic in the third round. It would be their fourth meeting of the year.
“When I look at the draw I try to find Roger or Djokovic and see who’s going to be my opponent. Yes, (Novak seems to be always in my section of the draw). Maybe he missed me when I was out,” joked Del Potro.
“No, but the only way to improve this situation is improving my ranking and that’s taking time. But anyway it’s a pleasure for me if I have to play against the top guys.”
Last year’s Wimbledon was Del Potro’s first Grand Slam appearance in over two years and he reached the third round, upsetting Stan Wawrinka in round two, before falling to Lucas Pouille.
Del Potro has lived through unbelievable experiences at the All England Club. From that epic five-setter he lost to Djokovic in the 2013 semi-finals, to his historic marathon against Federer in the London 2012 Olympics before he clinched the bronze medal with victory over Djokovic.
He acknowledges Wimbledon has a special place in his heart.
“First, because I feel how the people like to watch me playing here. I played many times against Andy (Murray) and when we were young we fought all the time and now we have a great relationship and we played great battles at the Olympics and Davis Cup,” said Del Potro.
“People like it when two tough guys play good matches. Also I won the bronze medal in the Olympics (in London 2012), and played the longest match in the Olympics against Roger in this stadium and that makes me a very special guy when I get into this court.”
And while Del Potro loves the tournament and has had much success here, he admits their special grass seeding formula that seeds players based on their previous results on the surface, can often result in unfortunate scenarios.
“This is how it’s always been in this tournament. But this time the changes have had greater consequences,” Del Potro said when asked about the special seedings.
“I don’t know if there was a controversy or if someone complained. But Wawrinka is a well-deserved world No3 and to move him out of the top four seeds for him is a big difference. Staying in the top four seeds more or less is the same but going to No5 is a significant change. Wawrinka is a well-deserved No3 and I suppose this must have angered him.
“Another consequential change is (Gilles) Muller who went from 25 to 16. And if you take this example, I believe that Feliciano Lopez did not get bumped high enough in the seedings.
“Feliciano won Queens and is outside the top 16 seeds even though he’s one of the best players on grass. I don’t know what criteria they follow for their seeding formula but we have to respect it and it’s a tournament with clear rules. But some players can feel prejudiced against by these rules.”
Del Potro is still bothered by a groin injury he had struggled with during the clay season but he says he is managing the pain and is not risking any further damage by playing Wimbledon.
He says it’s the same groin pain that forced him to skip the entire grass season in 2011 and it is a result of the intensity of his 2016 season, in which he won an Olympic silver medal and Davis Cup with Argentina.
Del Potro hasn’t played since Roland Garros, pulling out of Queens and s-Hertogenbosch because of the groin problem. Before the French Open, he didn’t play a full clay season because of the death of his grandfather. He hopes to finally play a full schedule for the rest of the year.
“It has been a tough year for me, but I’m looking forward to playing the whole hard-court season in America, and the indoor tournaments, because I like to play there. And I’m supposed to go to Asia, so if I’m in good shape, I’d like to play maybe 10 more tournaments this year,” he said.
There are four players who could end Wimbledon as world No1 – Murray, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka – which is the most competitive it’s been at the top in quite a while.
Del Potro was once competing for high positions in the rankings, and even though he is No32 at the moment, does he find it exciting to see how it all turns out?
“No, I don’t have any idea about that. But I think Roger, Rafa and the top guys are playing to keep making history in this sport and nobody cares if Roger is 5 in the world or No1 in the world. Maybe for him it’s important but for us and for tennis fans it doesn’t matter. The people want to see him win the Wimbledon trophy, as Rafa, Novak, Andy too and it’s going to be interesting to watch,” he replied.
Looking ahead to his match-up with Kokkinakis, he added: “I saw his game against Raonic in Queens and he played really well. He serves very good, he’s an Australian guy and all Australians know about playing on grass courts. It’s going to be a tough match for me, as all my year, I had a tough draw in all tournaments but I’m confident with my level, with my game, and I’ll try to hit hard the ball and try to win.”
Andy Murray believes the fact the No1 ranking is up for grabs by four different players this Wimbledon could add an extra element of pressure or excitement this fortnight at the All England Club.
Murray could possibly lose his No1 ranking to one of three players – Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic – by the end of the tournament and must reach the final to keep his position at the top.
The defending champion, who said he was ready to compete despite a lingering hip problem, begins his campaign against Russian-born Kazakh lucky loser Alexander ‘Sasha’ Bublik on Monday.
Murray hasn’t won a match on grass in the build-up to this year’s Wimbledon, having lost his opening round to Jordan Thompson at the Queen’s Club.
Asked if the battle brewing for the No1 ranking could play a factor this fortnight, Murray said: “I think it certainly could do, maybe potentially more towards the end of the event, if there was quite a few players left in, and there’s maybe match-ups that really influence it.
“I don’t think loads of the guys – for me, I’m not thinking about that right now. That’s not what my focus is. But maybe if, you know, there’s a match later in the tournament where you know if you win, for me I would stay at world No1, or if I lose, maybe I would lose the ranking to one of the other guys. But not right now.”
Murray had to pull out of his two exhibition matches at Hurlingham Club due to a sore hip and it interrupted his preparations for Wimbledon.
“I’ve had hip problems since I was very young. It’s not something new to me. It’s just been very sore the last few weeks. It was giving me quite a lot of trouble moving to certain shots and getting into certain positions,” he explained.
“So that was why I needed to take the break, to try and give it a chance to settle down, calm down a bit. You know, spent a lot of time with my physio and doing some extra exercises in my warmup, strengthening exercises, a lot of stuff to try to loosen off that area. It’s felt much better the last few days.”
The Scot seemed upbeat about his current condition and feels confident he could get through seven matches in 14 days if he does end up reaching the final.
“I’ll be fine to play the event and play seven matches. I mean, providing things can happen obviously when you’re playing. I mean, players have got injured during tournaments,” said the 30-year-old, who confirmed on Sunday that he’s expecting a second child with his wife Kim.
“But as I am today, if I feel like I am today, I’d be delighted and have no issues getting through. You know, if necessary, I can take some anti-inflammatories if my hip flares up. Hopefully that’s not the case.”
Murray, who turned 30 in May, and will soon be a father of two, is aware of the fact that he is closer to the end of his career than he is to the start of it and he plans on savouring every opportunity until the day he retires.
It seems winning Slams at 35, like Roger Federer has done this year, is not necessarily something he plans on doing.
“You want to make the most of every tournament you play. I think you realise that a little bit more as you start to get older. I hope I’m still playing here for five, six, seven more years, if possible. But I don’t know obviously what’s going to happen,” said the three-time Grand Slam champion.
“I think just because of what Federer’s doing just now, which is incredibly rare, a lot of people think everyone is going to start doing that now. I’m not sure that’s going to be the case. I want to make sure I make the most of all of these chances that I have left.”