Team Djokovic Taking Its Time

2015 Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award winner Novak Djokovic’s coach Boris Becker is thrilled his charge is nominated again for the 2016 version of the award.  Speaking to Becker says:  ‘He’s played 88 matches, has won 82, He won three out of the four Grand Slams, reached the final of the French Open, he’s won seven other tournaments.  Very few players, if any, had a year like that.  You mention Roger Federer’s year, of course, in 2004, but the list is very short and Novak is proud to be in that group.’  The six-time Major winner says the Serb’s incredible motivation to win is what sets him apart:  ‘It’s not the first time he’s winning Grand Slams, but he keeps on getting better and better.  Most players when they’ve won so much already, they lack a little bit in hunger, but Novak’s different.  You know, he puts his life completely under a big umbrella of tennis.  He’s happily married and proud father of their first born son.  His private life is very settled, he’s very comfortable, very much in love.  I think he can focus all the other energy only on tennis.’

The German has formed a formidable partnership since taking over as the world number one’s coach.  Becker says he is just hoping to help:  ‘I hope I gave him the few per cent that was needed when he first appointed me as his coach.  But I’m not doing this alone.  This is a real team effort.  I have an assistant coach, conditioning, a physio.  There is a whole management team and we all work together.  I’m, maybe, the most famous face of them, but it’s a proper team.  We call each other Team Djokovic.  I hope I make a difference every single practice that I do with him, but obviously he is judged by how long he’s number one since I came to the team, how many Grand Slams he’s won, and a few times he’s lost.  You gotta go with the headlines.  So beating Roger in last year’s Wimbledon final, but especially beating Roger in the very difficult environment at the US Open final, were the two most satisfying moments, I think, for both of us.  Because you know it was a proper tennis war, especially in New York, where the whole stadium was pro Roger.  Just a couple of hundred Serbs and us were supporting our man.  And for him to come through that environment was very unique.  I don’t know how he’s done it, honestly.’

Becker says like any team, there are goals in mind at the start of a year:  ‘We certainly have our priorities, our highlights, but it always starts with the next match.  You know, you’re only as good as your last match.  A lot of people have asked us this year ‘OK, how do you want to top last year?’  I say it’s not about last year, it’s about now.  It’s about trying to do the best we can.  It’s match-by-match, tournament-by-tournament.  If we have this conversation at the end of November, and he’s won a couple of tournaments again, we are all happy.’  The German won six Majors, including three Wimbledon titles.  His charge has been particularly dominant in Melbourne, winning six Australian Opens in nine years. 

The German says:  ‘Emotionally he comes back to Melbourne, remembering that was the first Grand Slam he’s ever won. S o he has a good feeling once he sets his foot on court.  The surface suits him, it’s medium pace, I think the Australian supporters really love him and he gives it back.  And after the winter break, you’re always eager to play.  You’re fresh, you have recharged your batteries and you want to play well.’  Coach Becker also believes an elusive clay court Major win at Roland Garros cannot be too far away.  He says:  ‘He won in Rome and in Monte Carlo and coming off the hard court season he won in Miami and he won in Indian Wells.  In the real world you don’t win every tournament so coming into the French I was a little worried he was already at his peak.  I knew he had to play Nadal in the quarter-final, the nine-time French Open champion, and Novak had never beaten Rafa at the French.  So I thought that was already a final in a way.  And Novak played the best match he’s ever played against him.  He won in straight sets.  So he played his best match [of the championship] on a Wednesday.  Then, on the Friday, he played Andy Murray in the second semi-final.  Novak won the first two sets, lost the next set, and then they had to finish on Saturday, which gave him one less day to recover.  So when he had to get up early and finish the last set with Andy, Stan Wawrinka was taking it easy.  So coming into Sunday, I felt that the tank was already half empty and as the match went on Stan got stronger and stronger and Novak just got a little tired.  He’s human.’

The six-time Major winner says there will be no change in strategy come this year’s event in Paris:  ‘No, we have a very similar schedule this year.  He’s not thinking about the French until he plays his first match in Paris.  You know no tournament was ever won on statistics.  No tournament was ever won going back through history.  You have to perform every day to the best of your ability and let’s see what happens.’  Becker says being a tennis coach is very different from other sports:  ‘Being a coach of a tennis player is a very personal relationship, different to a football coach who has to deal with 22 players.  In tennis it’s a one-to-one situation and in order to help him, I have to understand what he’s going through.  So he has to tell me about his feelings.  A tennis match is often decided by your mental attitude and your ability to concentrate and rise to the occasion.  For me to give him the right tips and strategy, I need to know where he’s at.  So he has to trust me 100 per cent with everything.  You have to be friends from the first day, I mean you have to be very comfortable.  Obviously, you don’t become friends overnight, even though we knew each other for years.  So it’s a process.  But you know eventually, after a couple of months and a couple of situations together, we both realised that this is a great match and we can really benefit from each other if we are open.  And I think that happened in the first couple of months.’

Is there a difference between winning Wimbledon as a player and a coach?  Becker says:  ‘It’s very different, yet it’s very similar.  When I’m coaching and when I’m sitting at the Wimbledon Centre Court in the players’ box, I feel like I’m playing.  I feel like I’m 17 or 18 again, with the same enthusiasm, same fire and the same will to win, but at the same time, thankful that I don’t have to do it again, because I’m too old for it.  So I’m happy I can put my faith into my player, but the emotions are unbelievable.  You know, for me, winning Wimbledon as a player and as a coach, it’s just the ultimate thrill.’  Djokovic has been in irresistible form and many are predicting he could become the greatest ever and surpass Federer’s record of 17 Majors but Becker says it is too soon to have that conversation:  ‘I think, at the moment, that’s far-fetched.  That’s not something we talk about.  That’s not on our agenda.  That’s quite frankly, not our goal.  Our goal is to play this year, as well as possible.  Win as many tournaments, hopefully win as many Grand Slams as possible – and that’s it.  Once Novak’s career is over, when he’s 35, or 37 – I don’t know how long he wants to play – then you talk about this.  Is that theoretically possible?  Of course.  Is he healthy enough, good enough?  Of course.  But, he’s only got 11.  A lot of people have tried and a lot of people have failed.  It’s very difficult to win one Grand Slam, let alone five.  So let’s not overplay things.  It’s still a long way.’

Photo credit: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images For Laureus