Does Novak Djokovic Deserve Criticism for Taking Rest of the Year Off?
Tennis star Novak Djokovic announced on Wednesday that he will take significant time off from the ATP Tour.
By Jane Voigt
Updated: July 27, 2017 • 12:37 PM ET
Novak Djokovic is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2017 in 2018.
History repeats itself. Immediately after Wimbledon last year, Roger Federer hung up his Nike tennis shoes for the year due to an injured knee. On Wednesday, Novak Djokovic followed in Federer’s foot steps, announcing through Facebook and his website that his right elbow needs ‘a prolonged break.’
“All the doctors I’ve consulted, and all the specialists I have visited, in Serbia and all over the world, have agreed that this injury requires rest. A prolonged break from the sport is inevitable. I’ll do whatever it takes to recover,” Djokovic said in the statement.
He continued, “It is the most important for me to recover, to be able to play injury free for as long as possible, to compete in the sport that has given me so much, the sport I love. “
Does Djokovic’s decision make him less of an athlete? Some would say yes.
Cal Ripken never would’ve played 2,632 consecutive baseball games with the Baltimore Orioles over 16 years, had he taken time to heal a bum throwing arm, achy hamstring or sore back. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls wouldn’t have recorded a 72-10 season, which included a 44-game winning streak at home from 1995-96, had Jordan taken a few days off because, let’s say, his ankle hurt or an opposing team’s results provoked a laissez-faire attitude.
If they had, their dominance would have dwindled in the eyes of fans, pundits and corporate sponsors.
And although Ripken’s record still stands and probably will forever, that doesn’t mean Ripken is a better athlete compared to Djokovic. And, conversely, we can’t conclude that the12-time Grand Slam champion is less of an athlete because he’s decided to sideline his career for five months.
Why? Sports ain’t what they used to be — tennis in particular.
More tournaments crowd an already stuffed calendar. There’s no real off-season. Racquet technology, coupled with the use of polyester strings, allows players to hit at faster swing rates and smash the fuzz off the ball for prolonged rallies that thrill fans but slowly wear on bones, muscles and ligaments. The running aspect of tennis has been heightened, as well. In fact, it’s a running game now more than at any time in history. All of those details directly influence body mechanics and their longevity.
Given those dimensions of the game, which some would call advancements, Djokovic is simply trying every way possible to extend his career and return to the dominance he demonstrated from July 2014 to November 2016, when he was No. 1 in the world.
“Of course I want to return to the winning form, to win again, to win the trophies,” Djokovic said. “But now it is not the time to talk about it. At this point, I’m focusing on recovery.”
He added, “My elbow is hurt due to excessive playing, and it troubles me constantly when serving, and now when playing forehand as well. Unfortunately, such injuries are often encountered in a professional sport, and I am very proud of the fact that I have been free from serious injuries during all these years.”
This year has been an unmitigated disaster for Djokovic. He has won only two titles: Doha and Eastbourne. He won seven titles each year from 2013-2014. In 2015, he won 11 titles, which included the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, one away from a calendar-year Grand Slam, a feat last accomplished by Rod Laver in 1969. In 2016, Djokovic won another seven titles, plus his first Roland Garros.
At 30 years old, Djokovic will have to alter his tournament schedule, limiting the number without regard to fines he’ll incur from the ATP. Federer has taken that tack, and look what he produced this year: two Grand Slam titles coming at the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Federer didn’t play any clay-court tournaments, either, opting instead to concentrate on Wimbledon. With Djokovic’s dominance in Melbourne (six titles) and his love for the venue, he’ll have to hit the courts running if he wants to prove time off equals a reversal of fortune.
Djokovic also announced Wednesday that Andre Agassi will be his ‘head coach,’ after initially taking the position with no commitment.
“We’ve been speaking regularly,” he said. “Andre was with me in Toronto and he helped me find doctors, specialists in treating elbow injuries. During this short period of time, we’ve been getting to know each other and building trust and understanding. He supports my decision to take a break, and remains my head coach. He is going to help me get back into shape and bounce back strong after the recovery period.”
Although Agassi is the best example to follow on a comeback trail, Djokovic still has to deal with Djokovic. He obsesses about his popularity, desiring to be as well-loved as Federer. The climb to that pinnacle of admiration may be for naught. Not even Rafael Nadal is as beloved as Federer around the world. He has been one of the few athletes to transcend the label of tennis great to international celebrity. Djokovic will never fill those shoes.
However, he fills the father shoes and will once again, as does Federer with two sets of twins. During Djokovic’s hiatus, he and his wife, Jelena, will welcome their second child.
“These are things that fill me with greatest happiness and delight,” he said. “I’m confident I will be ready for start of the new season.“
We’ll see. Djokovic won’t drop out of the top 10 until after the U.S. Open. It will be the first time he’ll slip outside that elite group since 2007.