This time last year, Novak Djokovic was about to complete his fourth consecutive Grand Slam win—as dominant a run as the tour has ever seen. But this year, since the first week of January, he has yet to get further than the quarterfinals of any tournament at all.
What happened in between? What’s the explanation for this sudden collapse? Djokovic is still only 29, which is no death sentence in the modern game, and he’s arguably still the most fit and flexible player around. There have been plenty of murmurs, but here’s what’s known:
- Djokovic was upset by Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon as well as Juan Martin del Potro in the first round of the Olympics, and lost to Stan Wawrinka in the U.S. Open final.
- Djokovic vaguely attributed attributed his subpar Wimbledon performance to “private issues” in his life and denied any physical problems.
“I apologize but it’s tough to go back now and talk about that ... It was nothing physical. It’s not an injury. It was some other things that I was going through privately ... It is resolved and everything is fine. I am in a position, like everybody else, like all of you, we all have private issues and things that are more challenges than issues, more things that we have to encounter and overcome in order to evolve as a human being.”
- Djokovic withdrew from the China Open, citing an elbow injury.
- Djokovic discussed extreme mental pressures and said that the top ranking and Grand Slam titles were no longer priorities for him.
“I psychologically felt huge pressure, and now I’m no longer thinking about the number of titles. If they come, super, I will accept them ... After all, tennis is not the only thing in the world.”
- Djokovic showed up at to the Shanghai Masters and Paris Masters with his coach Boris Becker conspicuously absent. In Shanghai he lost to Roberto Bautista Agut (who he’d beaten in all five of their previous encounters), and in Paris he lost to Marin Cilic (who he’d beaten in all fourteen of their previous encounters).
- Djokovic surrendered the No. 1 rank to Andy Murray after a hard-fought ATP Finals.
- Djokovic parted ways with Boris Becker, his coach of three years—the most successful years of his career. Becker described the previous six months as “challenging on many levels,” and suggested that the star’s focus had wavered:
“He didn’t spend as much time on the practice court in the last six months as he should have, and he knows that ... Success like this doesn’t happen by pushing a button.”
- Djokovic seemed to want more direct control over his regimen and schedule, per a Facebook post that announced his split with Becker:
“The goals we set when we started working together have been completely fulfilled, and I want to thank him for the cooperation, teamwork, dedication and commitment. On the other hand, my professional plans are now directed primarily to maintain a good level of play, and also to make a good schedule and new goals for the next season. In this regard I will make all future decisions.”
- Djokovic grew closer to Pepe Imaz, a former tennis pro turned spiritual advisor, and peddler of New Age positivity. Imaz calls for peace and love—for a while you could regularly spot him in Djokovic’s box wearing a “amor y paz” shirt—and long hugs. An excerpt from his tennis academy’s homepage:
Human beings have infinite capacities and skills, the problem is that our mind limits us. Telepathy, telekinesis and many more things are all possible. The problem is that we have never been helped to develop these skills, on the contrary we have been made to believe that these things are impossible.
- Djokovic and his wife Jelena accidentally livestreamed a small dispute on Facebook, in which she accuses of him of being rude for taking the camera without thanking her.
- Djokovic was targeted by Serbian tabloids, which suggested that he had been unfaithful to Jelena.
- Djokovic started 2017 by beating Murray at the Qatar Open, but since then has not beaten any player ranked higher than No. 19 in the world. Even his wins have been tough; he’s dropped a set in 11 of his last 15 matches.
- Djokovic sounded especially contemplative at the start of Indian Wells, though he would go on to lose in third round of a tough draw:
“I don’t regret things in life ... Maybe I should have had a longer break after Roland Garros, to have more time to recharge emotionally in every aspect of my being. It didn’t happen, I kept on going and I don’t regret it because I believe there was a lesson to be learned from that.
“I think having those four or five months in the second half of 2016 was actually very important for me, for my growth as a player and as a human being. I learned a lot. I keep going. I’m obviously motivated to keep playing on a very high level.
“I had a couple of months where I wasn’t myself on the court and now I’m in a better place ... I hope and believe that I’m heading in the right direction.”
- Djokovic withdrew from the Miami Open, again citing an elbow injury.
- Djokovic has lost to Denis Istomin, then ranked No. 117; Nick Kyrgios (twice); and David Goffin, the smaller, weaker version of himself. He had never lost to Istomin or Goffin in his five previous matches versus each.
Between his disappointing on-court performance and his curious off-court remarks, there feels like a story here that no one is telling. If you know or have heard anything, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tip us in an anonymous, secure, and untraceable way with our SecureDrop system.