The Novak Djokovic rebuilding process far from complete

From ESPN - January 12, 2018

Before Novak Djokovic could entertain the idea of returning to top form, the 12-time Grand Slam champion ended 2017 by withdrawing from an exhibition in Abu Dhabi.

It was a fitting end for a player who is coming off the most disastrous year of his storied career. The last competitive match Djokovic played came at Wimbledon this past July. He was facing Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, and after losing the first set, Djokovic hit a sloppy forehand wide in the second, then walked toward the net, shaking his head in frustration.

That was it. His season was over.

He officially made the decision two weeks later, in late July, saying the pain in his right elbow that had bothered him for some 18 months had grown to be too much. The US Open in late summer marked the first Grand Slam he had missed in more than 12 years, a streak of 51 majors played in a row snapped, dating back to the Australian Open in 2005.

But Djokovic is back in Melbourne to start the season. He has added the recently retired Czech player Radek Stepanek to his coaching team and has retained the services of the legendary Andre Agassi as a coach and adviser. Djokovic and Stepanek linked up last spring before the French Open after the Serb split with his longtime entourage, including coach Boris Becker.

Coming into 2018, if Djokovic's elbow (and other Gumby-like body parts) stays healthy, Agassi has sky-high expectations.

"I want him getting better," Agassi told in an interview in November. "He can win without me; he's proven that, but we want him to have the same [kind of] success again. If he does not make changes both emotionally and mentally, he's going to run into the same intensities that led to his fall from being so dominant in the first place.

"You ca not afford to do that in your 30s. You have to figure out new solutions for new problems. I think that's where I have a lot of experience to help him make life a little easier."

The Australian Open is the tournament where a re-born Agassi was as lethal as ever in the latter stages of his career. He won titles inside Rod Laver Arena in 2000, 2001 and 2003, which marked the final three major trophies of the eight that he won in his career. He was 29, 30 and 32 during those championship runs.

Djokovic will turn 31 in May. He's won in Melbourne six times himself.

It's Djokovic's fitness that has brought him to such great heights, most notably a run from the summer of 2014 through to the French Open in 2016 where he won six of the eight Grand Slam he played in, including four in a row.

But then something snapped. Djokovic has never gone into detail, but said that he was dealing with "private issues" during Wimbledon in 2016 when he suffered his shocking loss to Sam Querrey. Djokovic has not won a major since, and at the French Open this past spring, he was humbled by Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals, with some questioning his effort in the third set, which he lost 6-0.

It is that time away -- six months nearly to the day come the start of the Australian Open -- that the now world No. 14 hopes refreshes him mentally and physically. He is an athlete who relies on his body perhaps more than any other in this sport.

"His game is certainly tied to his fitness," said former touring pro Leif Shiras. "The level of fitness is higher on tour all the way around, and Novak has this willingness to go one shot deeper in the rally, to use his legs. That is going to be important for him: Can he be healthy? He's not like [Roger] Federer who can attack at will. He lets the point develop a bit. It demands a pretty high level of sophistication."


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