It's been nearly a year since we last saw the near-unbeatable game of Novak Djokovic, but with the Euro-Slam season beginning next week in Paris, he's taking additional steps to recapture his lost form. On Sunday, he announced he will be working with Andre Agassi on a provisional basis, starting at the French Open. This raises an immediate question: Does Djokovic want more help with his game or with his life?
"Lots of things [attracted me to hiring Agassi]," Djokovic told reporters after his loss to 20-year-old No. 16 Alexander Zverev in the final of the Rome Masters 1000 on Sunday. "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."
Djokovic's assessment, while dead-on accurate, raises some warning flags. Agassi is a hands-on entrepreneur, as well as a philanthropist and a passionate advocate for education for at-risk children with a focus on charter schools. He is married to Steffi Graf, the semi-reclusive former pro who won 22 Grand Slam singles titles. They have two children, including a son who is a promising baseball player.
By contrast, Djokovic, who turns 30 on Monday, is a player adrift, despite the effort he has put into portraying himself as a man of substance and an ambassadorial presence. His private life has come under scrutiny. Just recently, Djokovic fired his entire coaching staff, and he has been traveling with just his wife, Jelena (who is pregnant with their second child), his brother Marko and manager and guru-like adviser, Pepe Imaz.
You have wonder: As much as Agassi might admire Djokovic and empathize with his floundering, just how deeply does he want to get involved in the complicated Serbian star's life?
As former No. 1 and Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin said during a broadcast on Sunday, "It's almost like Novak needs a life coach, somebody who's been in his situation."
Part of the problem: Djokovic already has one life coach in Imaz, whose mental hold on Djokovic and New Agey bromides about peace and love and spiritual tranquility might conflict with Agassi's read of Djokovic's situation. Other impediments might include a lack of cultural ties or shared roots, generational differences and even attitudes about parental roles.
Agassi was famous for excommunicating his overbearing father, Mike, from his life for a long period; Djokovic's parents are such ardent fans and supporters that Roger Federer once warned them to "be quiet" during a match.
So why would Agassi take on this job?
The most obvious reason is compassion. Answering Djokovic's cry for help, if successful, would be a very Agassi-like thing to do. It would also give Agassi a temporary, fittingly unique place in the game again.
Agassi is famous for having created a spectacular career, despite fighting against the very nature and demands of the profession. He won eight Grand Slam titles, a career Grand Slam and an Olympic singles gold medal. He also spent 101 weeks ranked No. 1. Yet at one point in late 1997, Agassi's ranking fell to No. 141. Critics said Agassi was finished, but he went on to win five of his eight majors after that lapse.
Agassi will be Djokovic's second "supercoach," succeeding Boris Becker. The German icon left the team in December because he felt Djokovic was no longer training with sufficient dedication. If Djokovic sees parallels that would make him a natural fit with Agassi, the current world No. 2 is probably flattering himself in some ways -- and selling himself short in others.
Agassi rocketed to fame thanks to his flair and showmanship. Djokovic tried to take a similar path, only to be met with less enthusiasm. But the defending French Open champion has taken better care of his game. He has ended the season ranked No. 1 in four of the past six years. If a lack of motivation is a problem, and that appears to be the case, it would be best to nip it in the bud.
That might be where Agassi can provide the most help.