When he won the French Open last June – capping a long-held dream and holding all four Slams, the first man to do so in 47 years – the world was Novak Djokovic’s oyster.
That now seems like a long time ago. He won only one title, the Rogers Cup, during the second half of 2016 and lost his No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray. (Because he had won so many tournaments in 2015 and had to defend all those points under the ranking system, he actually lost points, nothing failing in tennis quite like success.)
At the Australian Open, he lost in the third round in a tournament that was won by the returning Roger Federer, who defeated Rafael Nadal.
I know the Federinas and the Nadalistas are happy and I wish I could share that happiness, but I’m worried about Nole. He’s been nagged by hand and wrist injuries and personal problems that he, a private man, hasn’t shared with us. He’s broken with coach Boris Becker, who says Nole isn’t practicing enough and spending more time with wife Jelina and their 2 year old, Stefan.
Of course, Becker is the type who thinks no one ever practices enough. He was that intense a player. But that’s a good thing, and I think he was good for Nole. Certainly, Nole has had a great run with him. I thought it was a mistake when Andy split with Ivan Lendl, whom I’ve never admired. But Lendl was a great player and a tough coach. He and Andy got back together and Andy’s No. 1. The proof is in the pudding. Nole needs to reach out to Becker.
But are these the reasons Nole is struggling? We have to remember that during the great run of 2015-16 when Nole seemingly won everything but the French and then finally the French, Fed was out with back trouble and Rafa was in and out with his own injuries. Tennis perhaps more than any other sport is about your opponents and rivals, because it’s so individualistic. It’s the reason I used tennis so prominently in the first novel (“Water Music”) in my series on rivalries, “The Games Men Play.” No one reveals you more quickly than a rival, Aristophanes said. The rise of Andy, the stunning return of Fed and the resurgence of Rafa mean that the Big Four are back in play, and that’s good for tennis.
But their ascendance also challenges the preeminence Nole had. (It’s also a reminder that while they were resting during injuries, Nole, injury-free, was grinding away on the court.) There was no way he or anyone could sustain the run he had, in part because nothing lasts forever but because he had little opposition apart from Stan Wawrinka, and he can’t be discounted any more than a now healthy Juan Del Potro can. The young guns are just not there yet and some of them may never be. It’s still a Big Four world for another year or two, which will challenge Nole as surely as the big servers who can give him trouble in the early rounds of tournaments.
Still, that leaves nagging doubts: Is there something existential? More than any other player, Nole has always been a delicate balance of mind, body, heart and soul. He came from nothing and worse – a war-torn country, Serbia – to become one of the greatest tennis players ever. That’s extraordinary. He’s created a foundation and a base with his wife to take his place some day on the world stage as his country’s president, if he wants to. (He travels with a diplomatic passport.)
He speaks several languages beautifully, studies yoga and ballet, meditates, writes in a journal. He’s not your typical athlete. But that kind of mindset can lead you to overthink or to tune into your emotions too much. And his kind of background means that he more than others plays for the small emerging nation that adores him. That’s a lot of pressure. (It’s part of the reason he lives in Monte Carlo. He wouldn’t know a moment’s peace in Serbia.)
We’ve seen these funks before – in 2012, 2013, part of 2014. And no doubt we’ll see them again. I think Nole will either cycle out of his troubles or recast them in service of his game.
Why do I care? It’s funny. I was a Nadalista who thought Nole was a punk. Certainly, his early career of medical excuses did not suggest he would ever be anything but a solid No. 3. But then he helped Serbia win the Davis Cup at the end of 2010. And then there was 2011, the great breakthrough that saw him succeed Rafa at No. 1 on his way to winning his first Wimbledon.
I didn’t notice at first. I was too busy taking care of Aunt Mary, my beloved Tiny, who died on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, 2011. But now I realize that his rise coincided with my aunt’s endgame and its aftermath. His career became one of my escapes. And it coincided, too, with the presidency of Barack Obama, whom I so admire.
Now, Nole’s struggle is not only a bitter reminder for me of a time of magical thinking that is gone. It’s also a reminder – as we have daily proof – that our world does turn on a dime and success and happiness are fragile indeed.