‘I FELT LIKE I HAD FAILED MY­SELF’

‘I needed to recharge. In­jury was an ex­cuse to be ab­sent from the tour for a bit’

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Atp Tour Finals 2018 - Si­mon Briggs

‘Ijust cried for two or three days.” So says No­vak Djokovic, the new world No1, as we speed through the streets of Paris in a shiny SUV. “I cried af­ter I had the surgery on my el­bow. Ev­ery time I thought about what I did, I felt like I had failed my­self.”

It is a sur­pris­ing ad­mis­sion of vul­ner­a­bil­ity from one of sport’s most im­pla­ca­ble com­peti­tors. But then Djokovic has a va­ri­ety of per­sonas: not just the rag­ing bull who rips his shirt to shreds af­ter a sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory, but the sen­si­tive type who swears by med­i­ta­tion. Some­times, you won­der if even he knows which ver­sion will wake up to­mor­row.

The con­ver­sa­tion has set­tled, as so many con­ver­sa­tions with Djokovic do, on the sub­ject of his re­cent ti­tle drought. This is a man who usu­ally at­tracts tro­phies like a pow­er­ful mag­net, so a two-year run with­out a ma­jor was dif­fi­cult for ev­ery­body to com­pute, es­pe­cially Djokovic him­self.

The lean times be­gan in the sum­mer of 2016, and only came to an end at Wim­ble­don four months ago. Dur­ing that frus­trat­ing spell, his win per­cent­age slipped from around 90 to a more hum­drum 76.

Cast­ing around for so­lu­tions, he sacked all his coaches, in­clud­ing long-time men­tor Mar­ian Va­jda. And as gossip swirled about ten­sions in his mar­riage, he ad­mit­ted that “pri­vate is­sues” had been a fac­tor in the slump.

In the cir­cum­stances, you might have ex­pected Djokovic to come away from Fe­bru­ary’s el­bow op­er­a­tion with a smile on his face. Many play­ers would have felt a sense of lib­er­a­tion – at least, that was Andy Mur­ray’s ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter hip surgery the pre­vi­ous month. Yet his dom­i­nant emo­tion was guilt.

“I was try­ing to avoid get­ting on that ta­ble be­cause I am not a fan of surg­eries or med­i­ca­tions,” he tells me now. “I am just try­ing to be as nat­u­ral as pos­si­ble, and I be­lieve that our bod­ies are self-heal­ing mech­a­nisms. I don’t ever want to get my­self in the sit­u­a­tion where I have to have an­other surgery. But I think it was a call that I had to make. I was not ready to take an­other six months or 12 months. I needed to get back on the court and that was the com­pro­mise.

“At the time I was filled with mixed emo­tions. I was doubt­ing. I was also be­ing a bit afraid of whether I am go­ing to re­cover at the fullest. Be­cause you never know how your body will re­act to very ag­gres­sive med­i­cal treat­ment.

“Luck­ily for me the surgery was done right, very well. But I was feel­ing guilty for maybe a month or two af­ter­wards – through March and April this year. And then there was one point where I was like, ‘OK, right, I just have to ac­cept that what’s done is done, you can’t re­verse time to change events’. I could choose to be grate­ful or I could be re­sent­ful, and I didn’t want to be trapped in that emo­tion.”

Djokovic has un­con­ven­tional views about medicine. In 2010, he was di­ag­nosed with gluten in­tol­er­ance via a hare-brained process called ki­ne­si­ol­ogy. To test his re­ac­tion to wheat, Djokovic held a piece of bread while a nu­tri­tion­ist pulled down his other arm. And while the science may have been du­bi­ous, the al­lergy turned out to be real enough. Surf­ing on a new wave of en­ergy, the wheat-free Djokovic lifted the Davis Cup at the end of that same sea­son, fol­lowed by three of the four ma­jors in 2011.

The de­bate over

Pepe Imaz, a for­mer

top-150 player who be­came close to Djokovic in 2016, is more equiv­o­cal. Apart from be­ing a ten­nis coach, Imaz is also a new-agey guru who be­lieves in “long hugs” and a strict ve­gan diet. But there were times last year when Djokovic looked ex­ces­sively thin. One of Va­jda’s first sug­ges­tions in April, when he re­turned to the camp, was that his client should cease col­lab­o­rat­ing with Imaz, and at least start eat­ing fish.

Dur­ing the form dip, Djokovic’s player box could have been fit­ted with a re­volv­ing door. In ad­di­tion to Imaz, he ex­per­i­mented with a pair of first-time coaches: eight­time grand slam win­ner An­dre Agassi and then Czech dou­bles mae­stro Radek Stepanek. With the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, though, he con­cedes that there was a cer­tain fu­til­ity to these ap­point­ments.

“I wasn’t men­tally in the right place,” he says.

It was not the gluten that had got him this time, just the grind. “Af­ter I won Roland Gar­ros [in 2016] I did burn out emo­tion­ally,” he says now. “I was sur­prised. I thought it would never hap­pen be­cause I never have an is­sue to mo­ti­vate my­self. I love to hold the racket, I never need to force my­self.

“But there was a dif­fer­ence be­tween play­ing and com­pet­ing. When I started to hear the score and I needed to com­pete and I needed to travel to tour­na­ments, that’s when I felt empty. For the first time in my ca­reer, it was a

strug­gle to be there. I felt, ‘What am I do­ing?’ And it took time for me to bal­ance ev­ery­thing out, to cen­tre my­self in ev­ery way.

“In­jury came aboard as well, and

it es­ca­lated ex­actly in that time around when I won Roland Gar­ros; that time when I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some emo­tional im­bal­ance. For a year I was un­der med­i­ca­tions,

try­ing to play with an­ti­in­flam­ma­to­ries.

“But I didn’t need only a break from my in­jury, I needed to recharge men­tally as well, emo­tion­ally. I just felt that I played for so long that I needed some­thing like that, and an in­jury was an ex­cuse to be ab­sent from the tour for a lit­tle bit.”

The op­er­a­tion – which was car­ried out af­ter months of con­sul­ta­tion with “six or seven dif­fer­ent or­thopaedic sur­geons” – was clearly a turn­ing point in Djokovic’s sea­son. Maybe even for his ca­reer. Yet the same could be said about the mo­ment in late spring when he phoned Va­jda. It marked the end of his post­sur­gi­cal in­tro­spec­tion – a time when Djokovic ad­mits that he lacked di­rec­tion.

“I feel like In­dian Wells and Mi­ami [the two big Amer­i­can hard-court events in late March] were the low points men­tally for me,” Djokovic says. “I just felt re­ally help­less on the court. I wasn’t ex­pe­ri­enc­ing pain, but the game was not there. I was com­pro­mised, my ser­vice mo­tion was chang­ing week to week, and then I ac­tu­ally un­der­stood what other play­ers were go­ing through that had ma­jor in­juries.”

Frus­trated all over again, he con­sid­ered re­boot­ing his ap­proach to the game. “I thought maybe I should pri­ori­tise dif­fer­ently, go and play cer­tain events and cer­tain sur­faces where I feel more com­fort­able, not hav­ing the same sched­ule that I used to have for a decade.” But then, as the Bud­dha-like Va­jda preached pa­tience and for­bear­ance – two virtues with which Djokovic had lost touch dur­ing his glory days

– the clouds be­gan to lift. He beasted com­pa­triot Du­san La­jovic for the loss of just one game at the Monte Carlo Mas­ters, a tour­na­ment staged a stone’s throw from his apart­ment. Even at Roland Gar­ros, where he threw a tantrum af­ter a quar­ter-fi­nal exit, you could see the old fire was back. By the time Wim­ble­don ar­rived, Djokovic was start­ing to purr like a vin­tage Jaguar. The two-day, five-hour semi-fi­nal against Rafael Nadal was an old-fash­ioned brawl, stat­ing the case for best-of-five-set ten­nis in mag­nif­i­cent style. And then, with the rais­ing of the Gen­tle­man’s Sin­gles Tro­phy (left), the right­ful or­der of this ten­nis decade was re­stored. Re­mem­ber that, since 2010, Djokovic has won an av­er­age of al­most one-and-ahalf slams per sea­son. Ten­nis fans nod­ded in recog­ni­tion as he saun­tered through the US Open, dom­i­nated Shang­hai, and fi­nally took out Roger Fed­erer in an­other ti­tanic col­li­sion in the Paris Mas­ters. The statis­tics told us that what he was do­ing was un­prece­dented. No one in the Open era had climbed from out­side the top 20 to fin­ish the same sea­son as No 1. But the sur­prise was not that Djokovic was back on top of the world; more that he had ever been away.

“All in all it was just a year full of twists and turns, that is end­ing in a re­ally great way for me. I have learned that who is in your ear is very im­por­tant. Who you sur­round your­self with. And an­other les­son is that, even when you reach your com­fort zone, I don’t be­lieve you stay there for more than a day. When you wake up the next day, you might be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some dif­fi­cul­ties – men­tal, phys­i­cal and emo­tional – that you haven’t had yes­ter­day.

“To take one ex­am­ple, I was un­able to play un­less I took a pill, which in the short term is a quick fix but in the long term is ac­tu­ally go­ing against your health and well­be­ing. I did that for a year. A lot of ath­letes ac­tu­ally do that for an en­tire life.

“If I ever get my­self into this sit­u­a­tion again, I will def­i­nitely ap­proach it dif­fer­ently. So I truly be­lieve in the holis­tic ap­proach to life. I be­lieve that ev­ery day is an op­por­tu­nity to grow, and a chance to get to know your­self and evolve.

“Maybe I am get­ting into more philo­soph­i­cal and spir­i­tual stuff but we have the an­swer in­side. We can al­ways find it if we search for it.”

Tun­nel vi­sion: No­vak Djokovic is a fierce com­peti­tor but he has ad­mit­ted to self-doubt af­ter his el­bow in­jury

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