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…