The mystery behind Novak Djokovic’s struggle has been one of the biggest storylines of the 2018 season. An encouraging start at the Australian Open—following a six-month layoff with an elbow injury—disappeared with the need for a “small medical intervention” and back-to-back opening round losses in Indian Wells and Miami.
More troubling than the results was Djokovic’s performance under pressure in those matches. When nerves got the best of him at key junctures against Daniel Taro and Benoit Paire, it had a compounding effect. Either a self-flagellating streak or diminished mental and physical prowess saw him blithely accept losing circumstances when in years past he would have battled to the end.
To try to turn things around for the rest of the year, Djokovic repeated an old-age trick: changing his team. He stopped working with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek, and is back with his old coach, Marian Vajda, at least temporarily.
It's possible Djokovic identified more with Agassi’s story than Agassi’s coaching. If it was change he sought then, he found it in the most distressing ways: the strengths of his game (his backhand and fitness) turned to weaknesses, and he altered his service motion for reasons that are still unclear.
He'll need to rediscover his old self as he gets going in the clay-court season, which is obviously going to be more physically demanding than the hard-court season was.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion is only 30—there's good years left in him, as proven by his older rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Reuniting with a familiar face in Vajda would indicate the Djokovic of years past is someone Djokovic is trying to reconnect with. Fans want to see the real Djokovic back—the one who held all four Slams for the first time since Rod Laver and overwhelmed players with his consistency and tenacity.
As Djokovic attempts to right the ship and get back to basics, the clay season, starting for him in Monte Carlo next week, is sure to add another intriguing chapter to his rollercoaster season.
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—ATP Houston Outer Courts (4/9-4/13)
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