Novak Djokovic, the seemingly lost world No. 2, who was on top of the tennis world as recently as five months ago and has now been plunged into a crisis of confidence, parted ways, amicably it seems, with his coach of three years, Boris Becker. It comes as little surprise given the disastrous back half of 2016 Djokovic had but opens up myriad possibilities about what the landscape of the sport will look like in 2017. Will Djokovic, who’s been known to go through lulls in matches and in his career, get back to the top and exhibit the confidence that helped win him six of eight Grand Slams over the past three years or is he irrevocably on the decline at 29, like so many players before him.
While the future is riddled with questions, the past shouldn’t be. The Djokovic/Becker pairing was a rousing success. Djokovic won six of 12 majors with Becker in his box. He was victorious in 16 of the 27 Masters 1000s/ATP Finals he played – the best stretch for any player in history. Once he regained the top ranking in the middle of the first year together, Djokovic stayed atop the sport for all but the last five weeks of this season. And, perhaps most importantly, Djokovic finally won the major that had eluded him before Becker’s arrival. That French Open title, earned Djokovic the career Slam and had to fill a little bit of a professional void for Becker – it was the only Slam he never won.
It was as dominant a stretch as men’s tennis had seen in almost 50 years. Djokovic was on a 28-match major win streak, had his Djoker Slam and became just the third man since 1970 to win the Australian Open and French Open. The Grand Slam seemed very much in play. And then it all fell apart.
Djokovic lost a tight third-rounder at Wimbledon to Sam Querrey in the kind of match he’d survived a half-dozen times over his run of dominance but couldn’t on those two days (multiple rain delays turned it into a three-part match). It was like the tennis gods conceding to mathematical probability. You can’t win ’em all.
Then there was the first-round Olympic loss – a stunner, but was it really? Djokovic had the worst draw in the field, getting an unseeded Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, as he was coming back from injury, and lost two tiebreaks in the best-of-three match.
He made it to the U.S. Open final and lost to Stan Wawrinka which, oddly, felt like the loss that sent him over the edge. There’s no shame in losing in a major final but it was the culmination of a dreadful summer that sapped Djokovic’s mental strength and physical dominance. When he lost the No. 1 ranking to Murray in the fall and was beaten by the Brit in the ATP World Tour Finals, it was an inevitability.
It’d be a disservice to Becker to only remember how things ended. Should a terrible final act threatens to obscure the brilliance of everything that led up to it? (Fans of Lost or How I Met Your Mother can relate.) The answer is no.
Rather, the last six months should serve as a reminder of how quickly it goes and how a fine a line there is between victory and failure. In late-2013, Djokovic was an ageless 26 and seemed to have most of his tennis future ahead of him. But he was at a delicate point in his career, having had a disappointing last two years (especially following up his historic 2011). Djokovic needed something fresh. So he took on Becker, the German tennis great, with hopes of regaining the world No. 1 ranking from Nadal and finding that extra level to start winning Grand Slam finals again. He did.
Now, just three years later, he’s a 29-year-old player in a sport where turning 30 seems to flip a switch that turns legends into mere mortals. Novak Djokovic isn’t at a crossroads – he’s well past that point now. His final act will be years in the offing (see: Federer) but it’s what Djokovic does now that’ll have lasting repercussions with his career and legacy. How will a man on the back side of his career deal with his tennis mortality?
What comes next?