Andre Agassi's experience can help Novak Djokovic tide over current loss of motivation
Djokovic is also looking for a mature person that can empathise with his journey. He seems to have concluded that Agassi is the man who could address his situation.
One tormented soul to another – that is perhaps how it is best to relate to the newfound relationship between Novak Djokovic and Andre Agassi. The former world No 1 made his first appointment since parting ways with Boris Becker and longtime coach Marian Vajda. Djokovic announced his association with Agassi, starting with the French Open next week, sparking an excited debate in the world of tennis.
Agassi joins a long list of accomplished players walking out of sunset to train and mentor the current crop of top players. The partnership is an exciting development considering the layered narratives that underline the careers of these two modern giants of tennis.
The American went through a heady ride through a career that took him on a roller coaster, going up and down the circuit. During the early stages of his career, Agassi was known more for his flamboyance, hair and clothing, rather than his tennis.
The victory in Wimbledon helped him gain serious acclaim in 1992 and he rode the wave to collect three of the four Grand Slam titles by 1995, rising to the top of the rankings. But he suffered a sudden loss of motivation, not very different from the travails of Djokovic in recent months.
By 1997, Agassi had slipped to 147th in the world, before rising like a phoenix to win five more Grand Slam titles. It is a journey that cemented the legend of Agassi, aided by the fact that he joined an elite club of players who won all four major trophies.
Djokovic is going through a similar slump, even though he is still firmly perched inside the top three of tennis. Having dominated tennis for nearly three years, he hit a trough after completing his collection of the set of Grand Slams by winning the French Open last year.
After losing in the third round of Wimbledon, Djokovic seemed to steady his boat, making a run to the finals of the US Open. But he admitted to a loss of appetite before ending his successful relationship with Becker. Djokovic completed the overhaul when he fired his entire team a few weeks ago, including his coach for 11 years, Vajda.
Djokovic’s journey to dominance, as with Agassi, saw him conquer personal fears and physical strain – working diligently on his tennis aided by a gluten-free diet that allowed him to fight off a string of allergies that plagued him.
The experience of Agassi and his ability to work back from setbacks and a drop in intensity will all resonate with his new pupil. Also, an accomplished player like Djokovic needs the mind of a man he can respect. There will be no lack of that when Agassi arrives in Paris to tutor his student.
Agassi may not have any direct coaching experience. But it is worthwhile recollecting the fact that he fine-tuned his own game under the clinical watch of Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill. The two men have been at the forefront of millennial training methods. Both Gilbert and Cahill have trained athletes in the art of focusing their energies for sustained success.
The lessons that Agassi may have learnt from these two gurus and his own interpretation of their messages will give him a good base to start with the Serbian.
The fact that Agassi has been vocal about Djokovic’s chances of returning to top form will also have paved the way for the following conversation between the two men.
"I give him a high chance of coming back in a hurry," Agassi said, before the Australian Open. "There's no reason why it can't turn around as fast as it seems to have left him.
"We all have our own unique journey. I hit rock bottom over the course of two years and I can assure you Novak won't have to learn in as hard a way as I had to learn but he still has time.
"He's a heck of an athlete and in my opinion one of the greats of all time," he concluded.
Those were words of resounding endorsement from an athlete who had a fine understanding of the troubled mind of a champion.
Djokovic is also looking for a mature person that can empathise with his journey. He seems to have concluded that Agassi is the one man who could address his situation with balance.
"Lots of things," said Djokovic, when asked on Sunday about what attracted him to Agassi. "I have tremendous respect for him as a person and a player. He understands the game incredibly well. On the other hand, he nurtures family values. He is involved in philanthropy. He can contribute to my life on and off the court."
As it is, the one thing that seems uncertain is the extent of Agassi’s commitment to the partnership. The American has his hands full being an entrepreneur and philanthropist with a hands-on approach to his investments. His wife Steffi Graf has also been known to shun attention, leading a near reclusive life with their two children.
Technically, Djokovic isn’t short on ideas. Neither is Agassi, but a large part of their conversation might not circle around technique. It is perhaps the softer aspects of being a player and parent that Djokovic is looking to learn and he wants to lean on Agassi for some wisdom.
It will be interesting to see the equation developing between these two men. Djokovic is currently travelling with his wife, pregnant with their second child, brother Marko and Pepe Imaz, a near father figure to the Serbian. Agassi will have to quickly carve a place for himself that helps him exist in a space that exists somewhere in between the one occupied by Imaz and that vacated by Becker.
The two men will also start right under the glare as they get to work at Roland Garros. Of all things Agassi can bring to the table for Djokovic, it will be the sparks that can ignite the dormant candles inside Djokovic’s belly that will be of most value.
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