On Friday, 11 months after winning the French Open and capping the greatest Grand Slam run in modern tennis history, Novak Djokovic hit the reset button on his career, firing longtime coach Marian Vajda and the rest of his team after a stunning career free fall that’s seen him suffer the biggest upsets of his career, lose his spot at No. 1 after having the biggest lead in ATP rankings history and seemingly lose all the confidence and mental fortitude that helped make him the best tennis player in the world.
Djokovic made the announcement on his website, saying he needs a “spark” and that the split with his coach, trainer and physio was amicable. “Without their support I couldn’t have achieved these professional heights,” Djokovic wrote. “It was not an easy decision, but we all felt that we need a change.”
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And he’s right. It’s a rare example of change simply for the sake of change being the right move. Vajda has been with Djokovic since he was a fiery, listless teenager, known as much for his mid-match breakdowns and post-match antics as he was for his surprise Australian Open title in 2008, which came when he was 20 years old. (No one younger has won a major title since.) He’s seen Djokovic through three seasons of failing to get back to that summit; through his breakthrough in 2011 that began with a 41-match winning streak and ended with three Slam titles; through his post-2011 malaise that saw him fall in five of six major finals. It continued with Boris Becker’s arrival in 2013 and through that magical 2015-16, when Djokovic won four straight Grand Slam titles, had almost double the rankings points of No. 2 Andy Murray, earned the career Slam and was as dominant in majors as Roger Federer ever was, even during the G.O.A.T’s prime.
And then came the slump.
Djokovic lost in the third round of Wimbledon last summer, his earliest Slam exit in seven years. He didn’t get out of the first round at the Olympics. And at the Australian Open, a tournament he’d won five of the past six years, he was taken out on Day 3 by journeyman Denis Istomin. At his three tournaments since then, Djokovic didn’t win a match past the round of 16, losing twice to Nick Kyrgios and once to David Goffin.
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It was the way he lost those last three that was most striking. The other defeats all had the feel of a Game of Thrones finale — the slaying of a king. It took opponents playing at the highest level of their lives to down the mighty Djokovic. But his last three defeats were different — a vulnerable, shaky tennis player losing the kind of matches that vulnerable, shaky tennis players do. I struggle to even call them upsets.
Despite the post-Slam tribulations, Djokovic’s nosedive had only been relative to his recent greatness. During this drought he’s made the U.S. Open final, won a Masters event in Toronto and was undefeated at the year-end ATP World Tour Finals before losing to Murray in the final. Then, in the season-opening event in Doha in the first week of January, Djokovic exacted a little revenge, defeating Murray in a memorable three-set final. Melbourne is when the Djoko-slump turned into a full-fledged crisis.
From Wimbledon 2007 to last year’s French Open, Djokovic had a streak of making 28 straight major quarterfinals — second only to Federer all time. Then, in two of his last three Slams he’s failed to even make the fourth round. That’d be like Tom Brady and the Patriots failing to make the playoffs this year by going 2-14. He hasn’t made it out of the quarters at any tournament since. The results — going from winning four straight Slams to not making any semifinal in the last four months — are as disparate as any in memory.
For a time, you could rationalize Djokovic’s dip. His career has seen him hit tremendous highs and crushing lows. He runs hot and cold and though he was never hotter than last spring and never colder than this winter. Djokovic is pushing 30, a time when tennis players have to tweak their games to make the inevitable concessions to age.
The losses — to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, to Juan Martin Del Potro at the Summer Games, to Stan Wawrinka in New York, Roberto Bautista Agut in Shanghai, Marin Cilic in Paris and even Istomin in Melbourne were, on their own, understandable. Querrey and Istomin played the matches of their lives. Wawrinka won his third Slam title. Del Potro and Cilic are major champions as well. And as for losing to the No. 19 Agut — being upset in a semifinal by a top-20 player in the late-season Shanghai event is hardly a cause for tennis panic. But added all together in a span of a few months and with Djokovic acknowledging being mentally lost and enlisting the aid of a self-help guru; it becomes more than troubling. Friday’s purge simply confirmed it all.
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Djokovic needed to do something — anything — to change the narrative. There have been acknowledged injuries and personal issues (as well as rumors about both) but starting from scratch with a new team is a tacit acknowledgement that the problem is bigger than he’d been letting on. Maybe pushing out his longtime coach and friends isn’t the cure-all he hopes it’ll be, but at least he isn’t standing still. Simply hoping things become different isn’t an option when Novak Djokovic’s clock is ticking and his foes are peaking as he sputters, limping toward 30 and lost in a tennis wilderness.