Dream Team! Andre Agassi is the perfect coach for a flailing Novak Djokovic
“I hate tennis,” Andre Agassi wrote in his 2007 autobiography Open, a sentiment that makes Sunday’s shock announcement all the more stunning: Novak Djokovic, who’s been in a tennis free fall since winning last year’s French Open and recently purged his entire team including his longtime coach, announced that Agassi, the mercurial tennis star of the 1990s and 2000s, would serve as his coach at next month’s French Open.
Djokovic made the announcement after his latest disappointment – a straight-set loss to 20-year-old Alexander Zverev in the Rome finals, a tournament Djokovic had dominated right up until Sunday’s struggle. It’s the latest blow in his 49-week slump – though at least his failures are coming later in tournaments, a good sign for a man who hasn’t won a tournament since January and was barely a top-20 player during the winter/spring hard-court season but still seems mentally adrift and in need of a major change.
Enter Agassi. His name had been whispered as a potential candidate – Djokovic had said his new coach would be “someone that has been through similar experiences” and since Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are still playing, Boris Becker has already coached him, Stefan Edberg has already coached Federer, that pretty much left Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Agassi. Even so, the name was quickly dismissed as wishful thinking; Agassi has devoted himself to his family (he has teenaged boys) and charitable works (including his successful charter school). Other than some perfunctory appearances at majors, he’s completely removed himself from the tennis world along with his wife, Steffi Graf.
The long-term plans haven’t been announced but Djokovic said Agassi won’t be at the entire French Open (this statement assumes that Djokovic will, I suppose) which you can infer means that, if this partnership continues, Agassi wouldn’t be crisscrossing the globe with the 12-time Grand Slam champion. Instead of an X’s and O’s type of thing, theirs might be (and should be) more of a therapeutic, cerebral relationship. There has been nothing discernibly wrong with Djokovic’s game since he won last year’s French and then went into that tailspin, so it’d stand to reason that his mental game, which has always wavered during his career, has suffered.
In that way, Agassi seems like a perfect sounding board. The American was once in a similar, though by no means identical, situation as Djokovic now finds himself. In his early years as a teen star, Agassi was plagued with self doubt and had trouble finishing matches, conditions not helped by his reputation as a tennis l’enfant terrible, which the press was all too happy to cultivate. The commercials, the slogans; they ensured that every time Agassi lost a match (which happens 10 times even in the greatest years) there’d be some crack about image being everything. He grew to resent the sport his father had forced upon him. It showed on the court.
But Agassi conquered those issues, become a major champion and world No. 1 and then, as his game was reaching its zenith, went into a funk of his own, struggling with injury and attitude, had his famous dalliance with meth use, nearly got suspended by the ATP and was forced to start over his career at the Challenger level, rebuilding his outlook and his game for one of the great second acts in sports history. Agassi, the young, jorts-wearing, neon-blaring, Brooke Shields-dating, lion-maned sex symbol had become Andre, the bald, thoughtful, pigeon-toed veteran who had the same crisp groundstrokes and dominant return of serve, without all but with the passion that always seemed missing.
That’s what Djokovic needs – Novak 2.0. He admittedly lost his way after winning four-straight Slams and capping the career Slam last year at Roland Garros, has sought counsel with a spiritual advisor and genuinely appears flummoxed by his troubles. On Saturday, he issued a 6-1, 6-0 drubbing of the second hottest clay-court player in the world (Dominic Thiem) and the tennis world thought, “he’s back.” Less than 20 hours later, he was listless in an easy loss to Zverev.
Agassi could be just what the shrink ordered. He’s been there. He’s not played to his full abilities before. He’s gone on unintentional mental sabbaticals. He’s hated tennis. And then he’s come back from of all it.
Perhaps most importantly, Agassi is a living example that tennis isn’t everything. In his career, it was a lesson he had to learn the hard way. In his retirement, he’s been able to leave the game behind, content to work on his charter schools and in being a family man. Djokovic, whose wife had their first child last year, just around the time of his slump, could use that example of someone who can compartmentalize sports and life while getting the most from both – leaving it all on the court while he’s still got it and then being able to walk away when it’s over, never looking back.