Novak Djokovic's career path, seemingly a runway toward the stars as little as 10 months ago, took another bizarre twist Friday when he fired his entire support team right before the start of what looks like the most critical series of tournaments that he has ever faced.
In a statement published on his website, Djokovic wrote that the parting was "mutually agreed," and he added flowery tributes to his longtime primary coach, Marian Vajda, fitness coach Gebhard Phil Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic. He wrote that the men "are my family and that will never change."
But the family isn't invited to Madrid or any of the tournaments thereafter, including the French Open. The latter is where Djokovic completed his long-sought career Grand Slam last June. It was his 12th major title, but instead of inspiring Djokovic to greater heights, it triggered an unexpected tailspin shaped by complicated personal as well as game-based issues.
Djokovic's latest reaction appears to be a decision to strip away all remnants of what might be described as his pre-2017 tennis life. He's decided to proceed without any formal coaching, as Roger Federer did for a significant periods before he hired Paul Annacone in 2010.
"I have been on the tour long enough to know how to manage daily routines, and I don't want to rush my decision," Djokovic announced. "I will be on the tour alone for a while with support of my family and management."
The timing may seem odd. But as Annacone, now a Tennis Channel analyst, told ESPN.com: "[Djokovic] is obviously cleaning house entirely. Usually you want to keep a confidant around, but even that's hard in an individual sport because it gets too intense."
But the "confidant" Annacone mentions is already there in the form of Djokovic's wife, Jelena. She's pregnant with the couple's second child. In a seemingly well-timed appearance, she was photographed in Madrid just the other day at one of her husband's practice sessions, her baby bump conspicuous. Perhaps the message Djokovic is sending with news of this shakeup and his altered family situation is that his wife is all the team he needs now. He's retreating into a simpler, family-based life. It's a credible move, given his recent history.
The source of Djokovic's troubles date back to July, when he was upset in the third round of Wimbledon amid questions surrounding his personal life. The story did not go away heading into the US Open, though Djokovic did make the final before falling to Stan Wawrinka.
This is the second surprising decision Djokovic has taken on the coaching front in less than six months. Last December, he unexpectedly parted with Boris Becker, the "supercoach" who overshadowed Vajda. Becker had shepherded Djokovic through his most productive period (six major title in three years).
Becker's initial reaction, like the rest of the team's present one, was thankfulness. But perhaps because he's a superstar himself, Becker soon told Sky Sports that Djokovic's problem at the end of the year had less to do with current No. 1 Andy Murray than Djokovic's own flagging work ethic.
Djokovic's loss of motivation after his Paris title last year continues to be an issue. He's won just one tournament in 2017, during the first week of the year. Worse yet, he hasn't looked like his impregnable self in his losses.
"Novak now gets out-ralled," Leif Shiras, a Tennis Channel commentator told ESPN.com. "That's significant for a guy without a big weapon, who once lived by his ability to finish."
"Mutually agreed" can be code for any number of things. In this case, it may be that, like Becker, Djokovic's team grew disenchanted with a drop in his level of dedication. But it's unusual for members of a support team to force a player's hand. They're there to help, and that's the same hand that holds their paychecks.
It's possible Djokovic's complicated inner life, which is influenced by guru-like mentor Pepe Imaz, now has little room left for the locker-room culture. It's likely this split was "mutually agreed" in the same way that you and the IRS jointly decide that you ought to pay your tax bill.
Seldom is it so difficult to tell if a decision is the result of great clarity or profound confusion. Djokovic's actions and results over the next few weeks probably will answer that one.