Before Novak Djokovic could entertain the idea of returning to top form, the 12-time Grand Slam champion ended 2017 by withdrawing from an exhibition in Abu Dhabi.
It was a fitting end for a player who is coming off the most disastrous year of his storied career. The last competitive match Djokovic played came at Wimbledon this past July. He was facing Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, and after losing the first set, Djokovic hit a sloppy forehand wide in the second, then walked toward the net, shaking his head in frustration.
Roger Federer faces a potential semifinal against Novak Djokovic, while Venus Williams has a tough opener vs. Belinda Bencic as the Australian Open draw was announced.
While the second-seeded Federer won’t have an easy path to the finals in Melbourne, it’s last year’s runner-up on the women’s side who faces a serious opening-round obstacle.
World No.1 Rafael Nadal has fine-tuned his game ahead of the Australian Open with an exhibition match against Dominic Thiem.
That was it. His season was over.
He officially made the decision two weeks later, in late July, saying the pain in his right elbow that had bothered him for some 18 months had grown to be too much. The US Open in late summer marked the first Grand Slam he had missed in more than 12 years, a streak of 51 majors played in a row snapped, dating back to the Australian Open in 2005.
But Djokovic is back in Melbourne to start the season. He has added the recently retired Czech player Radek Stepanek to his coaching team and has retained the services of the legendary Andre Agassi as a coach and adviser. Djokovic and Agassi linked up last spring before the French Open after the Serb split with his longtime entourage, including coach Boris Becker.
Coming into 2018, if Djokovic’s elbow (and other Gumby-like body parts) stays healthy, Agassi has sky-high expectations.
“I want him getting better,” Agassi told ESPN.com in an interview in November. “He can win without me. He’s proven that, but we want him to have the same [kind of] success again. If he doesn’t make changes both emotionally and mentally, he’s going to run into the same intensities that led to his fall from being so dominant in the first place.
“You can’t afford to do that in your 30s. You have to figure out new solutions for new problems. I think that’s where I have a lot of experience to help him make life a little easier.”
The Australian Open is the tournament where a reborn Agassi was as lethal as ever in the latter stages of his career. He won titles inside Rod Laver Arena in 2000, 2001 and 2003, which marked the final three major trophies of the eight that he won in his career. He was 29, 30 and 32 during those championship runs.
Djokovic will turn 31 in May. He has won in Melbourne six times himself.
It’s Djokovic’s fitness that has brought him to such great heights, most notably a run from the summer of 2014 through to the French Open in 2016, where he won six of the eight Grand Slams he played in, including four in a row.
But then something snapped. Djokovic has never gone into detail, but he said that he was dealing with…