Novak Djokovic Experiencing Breath of Fresh Air with Andre Agassi
The 2017 French Open is set to begin this week; can Rafael Nadal reach 10 French titles? Who’ll step up on the women’s side?
By Jane Voigt
Updated: June 1, 2017 • 7:36 AM ET
Novak Djokovic is seeking a second straight French Open title.
Tennis is a lonely sport, whether you’re ranked 1,000 or 1. Your job is singular and crowds can spell support or spoilage. The task at hand, though, for defending French Open champion Novak Djokovic far exceeds that of the other 128 male entrants into the second Grand Slam of the year.
Djokovic’s game had slid from sublime to subliminal, and changes were mandatory. He knew that weeks, if not months, ago. His loss to Rafael Nadal in Madrid’s semifinal and to Dominic Thiem in the Rome finals reinforced his decision to dump the team he’d worked with for 10 years. But it didn’t help him win these two prestigious tournaments.
Sitting in his players’ box were his younger brother and former fledgling pro, Marco, his wife Jelena at times, plus coach Pepe Imaz with his stale smile. Looking to them for that spark he desperately desired seemed futile. They didn’t have what he needed and what no human could have explained he needed. That’s how complex the game gets when a couple points measure a match and your worth at the top.
“…all in all, I did try my best,” Djokovic said, in his post-match press conference in Madrid. “It wasn't a very high quality of tennis from my side. I mean, I made a lot of unforced errors, especially first set.
“Just his quality was very high. You know, he managed to do whatever he wanted really, especially in the first set.”
“Do whatever he wanted” was about the worst comment Djokovic made during that press conference. Sure, it’s possible that an opponent can rise to such heights and drift into that zone where mystery and magic combine to spit out an unforeseen upset. But not in this case. Djokovic was on his heels, and it showed. He was shaken, again, and the French Open loomed.
Enter stage right, Andre Agassi, winner of eight Grand Slam singles titles, an Olympic Gold Medal, a Career Grand Slam, Davis Cups and owner of one of the most emotional comeback stories in sports. He was Djokovic’s ticket to relief — someone he could share with — someone who’d walked the walk, struggled mightily and risen from the dusty red clay to conquer demons and raise up the biggest trophies tennis offers. Here was someone, as well, who seemed to genuinely like Djokovic. That meant tons to him, winner of 12 Grand Slams, fourth-most in history.
Not many would deny Djokovic’s desire to be loved more than what would seem, well, normal. Early in his career, Djokovic was scolded for early withdrawals from matches. One year in Monte Carlo against Roger Federer, Djokovic retired because of a sore throat. That was in the quarterfinals of a Masters tournament, a step below a Grand Slam.
His parents, too, have added to the fragile nature that surrounds their son. They’d yell at opponents from the stands, argue with calls and kick people out of the players’ box, which is provided by a tournament. Federer, at one point during that Monte Carlo match, told them to shut up.
Djokovic’s temper has flared at times. He has intimidated ball kids, thrown racquets without regard for who they might strike and once started a tussle with a reporter who called him out on the possibility that some day he might actually hurt someone.
“If the ball hit a spectator, it could have been serious,” the reporter said.
“It could have been, sure, or it could have snowed,” Djokovic replied, leaning back in his chair in a defensive posture. “It could have been snowing today, but it didn’t.”
“You show this frustration,” the reporter pressed. “I’m asking if that is an issue for you?”
“It’s not an issue for me,” Djokovic argued. “It’s not the first time I did it.”
These episodes have eroded fans’ love and devotion, although his followers are ardent supporters with venom as potent as diehard Donald Trump supporters.
Agassi, though, is viewed as a giver. He turned his youthful career antics and appearance, with his long hair (a wig), those denim shorts and cut-off shirts, into a charitable existence. Agassi’s College Preparatory Academy was established in a poor neighborhood in his hometown of Las Vegas to give those in need the chance to transform their lives, just as Agassi did through perseverance, honesty and respect.
Agassi then, as he stands beside Djokovic on the practice court or sits in the stands to watch his matches, seems to be a vision or visionary. He stands on a road well ahead of Djokovic, but one that he wants to travel. That connection is the edge that might revive the No. 2 player in Paris enough to win again, a tremendous goal that must be kept in perspective day-in-and-day-out.
Djokovic didn’t mash words when he said he was looking for “the winning spark on the court again,” as tennis.com reported. So far, the relationship is smooth. On Wednesday, Djokovic advanced to the third round of the French Open for the 12th consecutive year.
"You know, I think this is exactly what I need at this moment, a person like [Agassi] that understands the transitions as a tennis player and, you know, as a person, as well, going through these kind of lifestyle and certain choices that you make, how that affects you later on.” Djokovic said on Monday in Paris via ESPN.
Djokovic won’t turn into a serve-and-volley player, but will continue to improve his all-court strategy.
“I’m trying to implement certain things on the court,” he continued. “Specifically it's not anything that really will significantly change my game. I won't start to play serve-and-volley or something like that, you know.
"It's more about the mindset, the approach, because, you know, I feel that the game that I have has gotten me to where I am for a reason, and he feels that my game is very much at a good place. It's just matter of fine-tuning it in the right way.''
Coach and tennis commentator Brad Gilbert changed the course of Agassi’s career and life at the French Open in 1999. Agassi faced Andre Medvedev in the final on a windy day, where Agassi dug himself into a two-set hole, but was then saved by a rain delay. In the locker room Gilbert screamed at Agassi, something he rarely did.
“What do you want me to say, Andre?” Gilbert yelled, as recounted from Open, Agassi’s best-selling memoir. “You tell me he’s too good. How the fuck would you know? You can’t judge how he’s playing! You’re so confused out there, so blind with panic. I’m surprised you can even see him. Too good? You’re making him look good. Just start letting go. If you’re going to lose, at least lose on your own term. Hit the fucking ball.”
Agassi dropped his racquet, turned to Gilbert and mouthed, “I did it,” after the last and winning point. He has taken Gilbert’s coaching to heart, letting it completely infiltrate his tennis with the best result possible his reward.
“He’s way more technical than me,” Gilbert recently said of Agassi. “But first, you try to understand the player.”
Djokovic has done the right thing. He recognized he had to shock his world to manage a realignment of it. He didn’t have to be alone, although the reality is stark.
After the last point in Djokovic’s opening win over Marcel Granollers, Agassi quickly left the player box. In his on-court interview, Djokovic said, “He’s waiting for me, to have a serious conversation.”
He smiled, too, which was a sign that their relationship is a good fit.