It’s hardly tennis’ first turnaround. Andre Agassi infamously plummeted to No. 141 in the late ‘90s, relegated to the aluminum-bleacher backcourts of the Challenger circuit, only to work his way back to the very pinnacle of the sport. More recently, Maria Sharapova overcame multiple shoulder surgeries to regain the WTA’s top ranking and return to Grand Slam relevance.
However, Novak Djokovic’s lost-soul walkabout over the past year, year-and-a-half, falls into a special category all its own.
In essence, it began at the All England Club in the summer of 2017. He had just begun working with the aforementioned Mr. Agassi. The then-three-time champion would return to the quarterfinals, only to retire from his matchup with Tomas Berdych with elbow woes. He would sit out the remainder of the year to heal up, eventually opting for surgery.
When he arrived in Indian Wells in March 2018, Djokovic was in unfamiliar territory, on the outskirts of the Top 10. Taking the court against 109th-ranked qualifier Taro Daniel of Japan, Djokovic, abbreviated serve and all, looked like an out-of-his-element ATP newbie. Questioning tactics, spraying errors. A five-time champion in the Southern California desert, he was upset, 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-1, in two-and-a-half hours.
Things got so bad that he contemplated quitting. But by summer, he was resembling the Djokovic of old; the guy who in 2011 went 70-6, but a Roland Garros title away from the calendar-year Grand Slam; the steely competitor who in 2015 went 82-6, reaching the final of all four majors, and winning three of them. He would reel off the 2018 Wimbledon and US Open titles. After falling as low as No. 22, he was suddenly back atop the ATP rankings. And he surpassed Pete Sampras on the all-time charts with Slam No. 15 at the Australian Open earlier this year.
“It was quite a journey in the last 12 months. I try to remind myself where I was last year at this time,” reflected Djokovic, top-seeded at the 2019 BNP Paribas Open. “Coming back from a long absence from the tour, bouncing back from surgery — I definitely wasn’t ready to compete at this level last year. I was kind of convincing myself that I was, but I truly wasn’t. Most of my team members at the time were against me playing in Indian Wells and Miami because it was too early after surgery. I don’t regret it, but I should have maybe made a different decision. But I believe it also taught me some valuable lessons that help me to create amazing results in the next seven, eight months and get from No. 22 in the world to No. 1.”
“That was quite unlikely to happen considering how I was playing and feeling on the court, but I’m very grateful for that journey,” continued Djokovic, who after a first-round bye will open against American Bjorn Fratangelo. “I’m grateful also for the fact that my coach, Marian Vajda, and my fitness coach, Gebhard Gritsch, came back to the team. That gave me a sense of comfort and confidence. We built a long-term plan together and set some goals, as well. We exceeded those goals.”
Yes, Djokovic considered throwing in the proverbial towel. At the same time, he says he wasn’t totally surprised by the about-face.
“I always nurture that self-belief and kind of reflect on what I’ve achieved in my career, always having in the back of my mind the memories from those amazing seasons that I had,” he said. “That kind of gives me a reason to believe that I can make it again, that I can play at the highest level, that I can win three out of four Slams in a year. In a way, it doesn’t really surprise me, but it was unlikely considering where I was 11, 12 months ago. Yes, I did go through doubtful moments, questioning everything. Surgery was something that I had never experienced before. I didn’t know what to expect. I just had to acquaint myself with the new sensations — mental, physical, emotional. It was all a great learning curve for me.”
While he comes into the tournament as the clear-cut favorite, his road to a record sixth title won’t come without its obstacles. Djokovic, after all, could face Nick Kyrgios in the third round — a player against whom he’s a winless 0-2. The defiant Aussie is coming off the Acapulco title, and is again playing the kind of tennis that first thrust him into the spotlight when he joined the pro tour in 2013.
“I followed Nick’s results in Acapulco, his wins against [Rafael] Nadal, [Alexander] Zverev — top players,” explained Djokovic. “We’ve always been aware of his qualities and talent. He’s got big weapons in his game. Obviously, one of the best serves on the tour, big forehand, can play well on different surfaces. It’s just whether he’s consistent or not. If I get a chance to play him again, I look forward to that because he’s in form. On the other hand, I’ve started the season very well. I hope I can restart here where I stopped in Australia.”