Novak Djokovic turned 30 on Monday, which in tennis terms is more than old enough for a mid-life crisis, especially given his recent struggles.
Hence something bold and completely different: Earlier this month he excused his entire coaching staff and later announced he will be advised during his French Open title defense by eight-time major winner Andre Agassi.
Why not? After winning the French last year to own all four Grand Slam titles, Djokovic has not won one since. And in Agassi he can study someone whose career arc included a far deeper trough than what Djokovic faces now.
On a call with reporters to preview the French Open, which begins Sunday, ESPN analysts Brad Gilbert — Agassi’s former coach — and Chrissie Evert endorsed the idea and seemed as intrigued by it as the rest of tennis is.
“Andre played his best tennis from 29 on; Djokovic just turned 30,” Gilbert said. “Today’s 30 is like 25 used to be. He brings an incredible amount of knowledge, wisdom, passion. I think more importantly at the start it’s just getting to know each other, feeling each other out.”
Gilbert said part of the challenge for Djokovic will be regaining the mojo he had a year ago that not only worked for him but also against his opponents, like the old Tiger Woods intimidation factor in golf.
“I think a lot of times in tennis you build up this equity when you win a lot,” Gilbert said. “You take a couple of losses, the locker room takes on a different complexion in their feeling in playing that person. Instead of dreading playing that person, all of a sudden there’s some opportunity. Is he a little bit down?
“I think that he made an unbelievably bold move getting rid of his entire team. I think this could be potentially very exciting bringing on Andre. He’s looking for some motivation.”
Evert, a seven-time French Open winner, said if nothing else, Djokovic might find a soulmate of sorts in Agassi.
“They both are known for their laser-like focus; they’re both very Zen-like in the way they play, their returns,” Evert said. “I think it’s a perfect choice for him at this time. But I think it’s going to be, again, more of their deep talks rather than strategy that’s going to get him out of this slump.”
She added, “I don’t want to use the word ‘spiritual,’ but there’s something about the both of them, they always seem to be trying to be more evolved, be more focused. It’s like they’re deep thinkers. I think he’s picked somebody in Andre who he aspires to be like. They have a lot in common in that way. Hopefully it will do the trick.”
Gilbert said when Djokovic is on his game, “nobody plays closer to the style that Andre played.”
Fellow ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said she saw in Djokovic’s decision a desire to channel the style for which Agassi was known.
“I think Djokovic is telling us that he wants to be able to play that kind of aggressive, baseline, attacking relentless tennis the way Agassi played,” Shriver said.
Still, Gilbert reiterated that the French is about getting acquainted as much as technical adjustments. “I think for Andre, it will be incredibly important spending some dinners together, getting quality time, understanding,” Gilbert said.
With Djokovic’s prospects uncertain and Roger Federer taking the clay season off, Rafael Nadal is heavily favored to win his 10th French title.
Gilbert said Nadal’s serve has been sharp, in terms of placement and variety. Evert agreed, and said everything else seems to be in sync as well.
“It’s the best we’ve seen him play in a few years,” she said. “He’s ironed out all the problems he’s had with his confidence and his movement . . . He’s got a little more strength to all his shots, not only the serve, but his groundies. He’s just timed this perfectly well.”
Shriver said Nadal has benefitted from adjusting to tennis’ version of baseball’s pace of play initiatives.
“When the game kind of sped him up, they started to enforce the time rule, coincided with when he got more anxious,” she said. “I feel like this is a guy who has as many rituals for preparing for each point as anybody who has ever played. I think he’s kind of redone and settled back into a little quicker tempo between points. I think that’s helped him.”
As for Federer, seemingly no one in tennis begrudges him taking a pass on clay to focus on preparing for the grass season and Wimbledon. He turns 36 in August.
“Roger Federer has built up an incredible amount of equity to know what’s the best thing for him,” Gilbert said. “Nobody knows their body better than him and his team.”
Said Evert, “I think it was a 100 percent right decision for him . . . You get to 35, 36, you’re leading in all Grand Slams, you have earned the right to pick and choose what you want to do.”