Novak Djokovic still searching for lost mojo

Novak Djokovic told the media gathered for the start of the Monte Carlo Masters on Sunday that he hoped that the tournament would mark the start of "another tennis life."

That new existence began in nervous fashion Tuesday, as Djokovic barely survived a 2½-hour battle against Gilles Simon, a man whom Djokovic had beaten 10 consecutive times going all the way back to the fall of 2008.

Djokovic ultimately prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, but not without a lot of help from an unlikely accomplice across the net. Simon punched through with a critical third-set break to find himself serving for the match at 5-4, thanks to an error-strewn game by Djokovic. But Simon's nerve failed and he dropped the next three games without incident.

If this is an indication of what the new life Djokovic hungers, he may find himself mulling that proverb, "Be careful what you wish for, it may come true."

Lately, Djokovic has been echoing the men he hunted and ultimately haunted, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, declaring that he is going to cut back on his commitments and focus less on the quantifiable aspects of success.

"My career is in a slightly different rhythm from the previous year," Djokovic recently told the Serbian website Novosti. "I decided to cut down the rhythm, to preserve my health and prolong the career and to dedicate myself more, at the cost of not having to win every tournament I play."

The desire for Djokovic, who's almost 30 and has a family, to prolong a career is code for playing fewer events. Although Djokovic is usually present for the full work week whenever he plays, he's already down to about 15 tournaments a year. It's hard to see much fat to trim.

Yet Djokovic also said he wants to "dedicate myself" more, which suggests he wants to ramp up his efforts on the fitness and conditioning fronts. That makes sense in the context of the criticisms lodged at the end of last year by the "supercoach" with whom Djokovic unexpectedly parted with last year, Boris Becker. Becker had shepherded Djokovic through the wildly successful period during which he won six of his 12 Grand Slam titles.

In an interview with Sky TV at the start of the year, Becker suggested that one reason Andy Murray was able to displace Djokovic at No. 1 was a decline in Djokovic's once-storied dedication to practice and a Spartan fitness regimen.

The reality is that Djokovic was a meager 12-3 before the start of Monte Carlo this year, with just one minor title earned way back in January. Last year he was 28-1 at this juncture (the loss was a match in which he retired with an injury), with a Grand Slam and two Masters 1000 titles stowed away.

Given the way he is playing, cutting back on his schedule won't just prolong his career, it will harm it and tarnish his reputation. He also has to deal with a growing line of players hoping to collect a little payback now that he's not the chest-beating, bellowing, dominant force of yore. He knows it, too.

"When you start to lose, other players start to see you as someone vulnerable," Djokovic told Novosti. "It happened to Federer and Nadal, too, and you have to deal with it."

Djokovic is entering the phase of his career where much will depend on how he deals with this challenge. For better or worse, he seems to have turned a corner. His intensity level may never be the same again. He speaks with many rhetorical flourishes and employs the vocabulary of self-help manuals, but it all amounts to what he undoubtedly describe as his "evolution."

Back in the winter, he told the Serbian talk show RTS that while he'd like to be No. 1 in the world again, it isn't the "main priority." The problem is, without motivation of that kind, it becomes a lot harder to get through matches like the one Djokovic survived Tuesday in Monte Carlo.

Djokovic ought to be able to perform at his peak in Monte Carlo. He's had ample time to recover mentally from those back-to-back beatings inflicted on him by Nick Kyrgios in his past two tournaments. Djokovic must be physically well-rested, as he's played just one singles match (a Davis Cup gimme) since mid-March. He's playing this week on the closest thing he has to a home court, and revels in it.

"This week I can sleep in my own bed and I am with my loved ones," Djokovic said Sunday.

Just how well Djokovic sleeps in that bed will be determined by whether his close escape Tuesday gives him confidence or adds to the growing sense of his vulnerability.