A second wind for Djoker, tongue in cheek for Agassi

On clay this year, Djokovic has won only 44% of the total average adjusted return points. Even on serve, Djokovic has dropped to 67%, his lowest average serve performance since 2010.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic would hope to make the most of his association with new coach Andre Agassi as he struggles to stave off poor form.   -  AP

For about a decade from the late 1990s, Andre Agassi was Boris Becker’s nemesis. The latter’s booming serve was capable of blowing anybody off the court but not Agassi. The American’s return, considered the best in that era, worked only sporadically against the greatest of serve masters Pete Sampras, but almost always against Becker. After having lost his first three matches to Becker, Agassi won 10 of the next 11.

Not many could deconstruct how Agassi read Becker’s serve. It is perhaps best explained in the words of the man himself. “I watched tape after tape and I started to realise, he had a weird thing with his tongue,” Agassi said years later. “I am not kidding. He would go to his rocking motion, his same routine and just as he was about to toss the ball, he would stick his tongue out and it will either be right in the middle of the lip or to the left corner. So if he was serving in the deuce court and he put his tongue in the middle of the lip, he was either serving up the middle or to the body. If he puts it to the side, he was going to serve out wide.”

“The hardest part wasn’t returning his serve,” Agassi went on. “The hardest part was not letting him know that I knew this. I had to resist the temptation of reading his serve for the majority of the match and choose the moments when I am going to use that information. I told Boris about this after his retirement. ‘Did you know you used to do this and give away your serve?' He fell off the chair and he said, 'I used to go home all the time and just tell my wife 'it’s like he reads my mind' and little did I know that you were just reading my tongue!”

It is the sort of tennis intelligence Novak Djokovic, who is currently in the midst of his worst career-slump, would no doubt like to tap into. And in joining forces with Agassi ahead of the French Open, of which he is the defending champion, he has sought to do exactly that.

“He's someone that inspires me a lot,” said Djokovic. “One of the things I felt like I needed is new inspiration, someone that knows exactly what I'm going through on the court [and] off the court. He has been through all these transitions, he has been in my shoes before playing Grand Slams, being the best in the world, and facing all the challenges that are present in tennis, in professional sport.”

For Djokovic this is no ordinary dip. In the aftermath of completing the career-Grand Slam at Roland Garros last year, there was a perceptible lack of motivation. It was even understandable for there was nothing left to be won. The three-year long association with Becker had delivered the desired results and it was time to move on. When the German was appointed, it was more to impart a cutting-edge to Djokovic’s game than to add new dimensions. Game-wise Becker and Djokovic were as chalk and cheese as it could get, but the two did combine for six Major wins.

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However, in the months since then, even as his biggest rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have found their second, third and fourth winds, Djokovic’s game, especially his return, has plummeted alarmingly. On her blog ‘On the T’, Dr Stephanie Kovalchik, a data scientist for the Game Intelligence Group and a Senior Sport Scientist, Tennis Australia, quantified Djokovic’s fall.

On clay this year, Djokovic has won only 44% of the total average adjusted return points. The term ‘adjusted’ refers to an attempt by Dr. Kovalchik to account for opponent difficulty and make the numbers more comparable across matches. Nadal in contrast has won a miraculous 51%.

Even on serve, Djokovic has dropped to 67%, his lowest average serve performance since 2010. On clay, a serve may not be as useful as it is on faster courts because the slowness of the surface reduces the ace count. But for a player like Djokovic, who doesn’t hit as many aces, it’s an effective tool to set up the third shot, which is often a put-away if one serves well.

A microcosm of this changed dynamic played out in Nadal’s 6-2, 6-4 demolition of Djokovic in the semifinal at Madrid Masters where the Spaniard won a whopping 77.8% of first serve points and allowed only two break-points. Djokovic won a paltry 56.4% of his first serve points.

So after having alluded to “personal issues” at first, for which as a remedy he brought in the mysterious self-styled spiritual guru Pepe Imaz, who specialises in meditation and ‘extremely long hugs,’ Djokovic now finds his game following his disturbed state of mind.

On paper this appears to be the perfect setting for Agassi to come in and leave his mark. No one understands a game based on a peerless return of serve as much as Agassi. Not many players apart from Djokovic in his prime-have seen the ball so well, taken it so early and moved so quickly as Agassi. No one knows better about emerging out of a slump in the late 20s as Agassi. And there is no one who has mastered the art of work-life balance as much as him.

“We can relate to each other in many different ways from many different sides,” Djokovic said. “That's why I'm very excited for him being here, because it's a great opportunity for me to learn.”

The partnership, as of now, isn’t long-term. Though Djokovic admitted to discussing things with Agassi on a daily basis during the Madrid and Rome Masters, it’s highly unlikely that the eight-time Major winner will once again be ready to embrace the rigours of the tour. He might not even stay for the entirety of the French Open. But it’s no reason to stop the relationship from working.

“I hope to see one or two of Novak's matches and try to bring to him what I can because even a small remark can do a lot,” said Agassi. In this, the 47-year-old is speaking from experience. In 1992, when Agassi famously beat an ageing John McEnroe in the Wimbledon semifinals before going on to win the title, McEnroe had suggested that Agassi shorten his backswing and take the ball early. It’s a technique which characterised Agassi’s play till he retired.

“Tennis is about problem-solving,” Agassi said while explaining his edge over Becker. “You can’t solve a problem unless you have the ability or empathy to perceive all that's around you. The more you understand what the problem is through other people's lens, the more you can solve for people in life and in business.”

It was an approach which worked wonders during his playing days. Now, as the tennis universe waits with bated breath, Djokovic’s only hope will be for it to be equally successful in his case.

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