Some coaching relationships are made in heaven (Justine Henin and Carlos Rodriguez), some are made in hell (Maria Sharapova and Jimmy Connors), but the latest one appears to have been made in the tennis Hall of Fame.
Six-time Grand Slam champion and outsized personality Boris Becker has taken on the role of “head coach” for Novak Djokovic. Becker will travel to a dozen events with Djokovic -- including all four Grand Slams.
Djokovic had been coached for years, and happily so, by a man who’s about as different from Becker as you can get, and not just because he never won a major -- or climbed higher than No. 34 in the ATP rankings. Marian Vajda is a low-key, limelight-averse Slovak who guided Djokovic through his rise to the zenith of the game. That process culminated in 2011, when Djokovic won three majors and completed one of the most successful years in tennis history.
Vajda is still part of the team, but he’s stepping back. He said he supports this move because it will give him more time with his family (yep, that’s boilerplate, but not necessarily untrue) -- but also because the brain trust decided that “Novak needed a new head coach in order for him to continue improving certain parts of the game.”
That part is food for thought, for exactly what part of Djokovic’s game is lacking? He is undoubtedly the most well-balanced pro on the tour, with rock-solid groundstrokes, remarkable defensive skills and enough power (and gumption) to take the game to his opponent. To say that Novak’s game needs work is like saying that the smile on the Mona Lisa’s face isn’t quite right, and some artist ought to fix it.
I can think of only two areas where Djokovic might be able to get better, and only one of them is really about his game. At his best, Djokovic was using his serve very effectively, even if he wasn’t raining down aces. And when he’s struggled, it’s been partly because he wasn’t getting enough free or setup points out of his serve.
Becker had one of the all-time great serves -- his serve helped him to his three Wimbledon titles, including one at the record age of 17 -- and he built his aggressive game around that serve. To date, Djokovic has still used his serve mostly as a point starter -- when it’s going well, it helps him take control of the ensuing rally. When it’s not, Djokovic starts off even-steven once the ball is returned.
The other area where Becker might help is a shortcoming that became manifest in 2013, when Djokovic reached three Grand Slam finals and another semi, but walked away with the trophy just once (at the first major of the year, the Australian Open). As tough as Djokovic is (or was, circa 2011), as much as he’s known for flinging his heart, soul and fast-twitch muscles into every match, he left the impression this year that his killer instinct was blunted -- that he was a little more willing than in the past to let the other guy have his way.
Becker, of course, is famous for the pronouncement, “In the fifth set it is not about tennis anymore. It is about nerves.” He had a well-earned reputation as a fierce competitor. If he wasn't a tempestuous, moody character, Becker might have won even more majors on the strength of his joie de combat.
In the months after Djokovic won the Australian Open, he let some opportunities slip away (his French Open semifinal loss to Nadal) and played with less intensity than he mustered on a daily basis in the past (his straight-sets loss to Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final). The way Djokovic snapped back to life after Nadal snatched away that No. 1 ranking in the summer was telling. It confirmed that Djokovic had received the wake-up call.
As Becker famously said, it’s not about the tennis in the fifth set, and that’s a lesson Djokovic seems to need to relearn.