Mailbag: Novak Djokovic is in the midst of a slump—but a resurgence is sure to follow

Wednesday May 10th, 2017

The most recent SI/Tennis Channel tennis podcast featured Chris (Mad Dog) Russo, a true sports original. His Sharapova rant at the 21:00 mark—spoiler: he supports her return—is worth the price of admission.

We have a new special guest this week.

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

To give this question some context, I am Novak Djokovic’s No. 1 non-Serbian fan. When Novak lost early at Wimbledon 2016, I didn’t think much of it. Querrey was always a bit of an underachiever, and Novak was emotionally exhausted from the monumental effort of winning his first Roland Garros. Losing the U.S. Open final? No big, Stan is a giant in the big matches. Going title-less indoors, a stretch he used to dominate? Hmmm … losing early in Australia? Uh oh. Firing his entire team and surrounding himself with his brother (who never won an ATP-level match) and a creepy hippy dude who believes “telepathy, telekinesis which includes levitation, and many more things are all possible”? CALL 9-1-1!! My question to you is: Am I overreacting? Or is this drastic and seemingly desperate move as bad as I (and countless other Novak fans) fear? Do you have any inside scoop on this rather (euphemism alert!) puzzling turn of events?

Thanks in advance. 
—Signed, Novak’s number one fan who is not of Serbian descent (but you can call me Rudy)

• We probably got a dozen forms of this question last week, after Djokovic consciously decoupled (uncoupled?) with his longtime brain trust. And overall, Rudy seems to capture the existential outlook of so many Djokovic fans. I rejoiced when he finally won the 2016 French Open. I was willing to accept the Wimbledon defeat—a Career Slam tax, so to speak—even though the circumstances were odd. I winced when he left the court crying after his first round Olympic defeat, but, hey that was DelPotro on a hard court. I was surprised at the U.S. Open but, what a strange tournament. Losing the top ranking to Murray was disappointing. The early loss in Australia was mystifying. But now, with 2017 slipping away….two losses to Kyrgios?....cleaning house, the way Trump cleaned out yates, Bharara and Comey?….almost 11 months into this slump?….are we in crisis mode?

Ought we really to CALL 9-1-1—or the Belgrade equivalent—as Rudy and his all caps suggests? I guess I have two answers. A year ago, Djokovic was the tennis cynosure, a good bet to win THE Grand Slam. Since Paris, his game has fallen like Groupon’s valuation. Beyond that—and clearly beyond his results—Djokovic’s demeanor is different. Undeniably, the trendlines are going in the wrong direction. We’re in mid-May already and, at this rate, Djokovic doesn’t even make the ATP World Tour Finals. So, yes, by conventional metrics, this has gone from a slump to something deeper, something perhaps even existential.

Yet I see these personnel moves less as a sign of desperation and more of a sign of action. Like any executive running a business in decline for almost four quarters, Djokovic assessed his staffing needs, channeled his inner McKinsey consultant, and made some changes. Is it curious that he parted with his long-time training team but kept—levitated within the org chart, you might say—Pepe Imaz? Perhaps. But more than anything, Imaz seems to have a branding issue. He calls himself a guru, which triggers eye rolls and concerns about a lack of pragmatism. The guy played tennis at a high level and once reached No. 146. It’s not all Zen aphorisms and telepathy.

Tennis
Djokovic splits up with his longtime coach Vajda

As for whom Djokovic hires now, we’ll see. The Agassi rumors are flying fiercely, but two figures close to Agassi have dismissed those. Agassi doesn’t want the travel and the tedium and time away from home. (It was pointed out as well that Jaden Agassi is a promising baseball player and Andre wants to be in those bleachers, not the stands of Shanghai or Cincinnati.) Maybe Agassi can serve in an advisory. Just don’t call him a guru.

There’s no applying gloss to Djokovic’s decline. It’s been remarkable. But it’s in keeping with tennis’ cycles. Agassi, ironically, is the first name invoked. But from Serena to Sampras to even Federer/Nadal, it’s hard to name a top player who hasn’t had a slump and then a resurgence. Djokovic defends his title at the French—hardly out of the realm of possibility—and this story is being spun much differently. So don’t despair. Not yet, anyway.             

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Is that Bouchard's comeback to the top of tennis or just a one-off win fuelled by her recent spat? Where does Sharapova go from here?
@aftab_hader75

• Let’s pause here for a moment. The pre-match sniping between Sharapova and Bouchard became the storyline. But this second-round match in Madrid was one of the more captivating sports battles I’ve seen in a long time. Swings in momentum. A generally high level of play. Thrusting and parrying. A score of 4-4 in the third set when it simply becomes a “who-wants-it-more?” referendum. Really this was sports as its best. (I don’t limit this to tennis.) I’m telling you this ranks as one of my favorite matches of the year so far.

Both your questions came to me as well. The easy answer: “We shall see.” Bouchard can use this win as a flame accelerant. She not only played at a terrifically high level. She not only hung in and fought, which hasn't always been the case in her tight matches over the past few years. She used the ambient (melo)drama and pressure—much of it self-generated—and benefitted. That marked her best win in years and she ought to be able to draw on that.

Tennis
Sharapova more disappointed to lose early than to detractor

As for Sharapova, she was clearly displeased. And you suspect it was made worse by the opponent, a figure who, days earlier, assaulted her honor. But stepping back, Sharapova can (cliché alert) take away plenty of positives. In her second event back, she beat a semifinalist at the previous major (Mirjana Lucic Baroni) and then played a high-level, three-hour match against a class opponent. Sure, the equivalent of ring rust showed in the end. Sure a player known for her fighting was outfought. But if I’m Sharapova, I take a deep breath and continue on, knowing I ain’t far off from my top level.

I am the most computer illiterate member of my posse. By far. I struggle with microwave ovens and remote controls. Yet I became so incensed by the WTA television policy (and my inability to watch the Bouchard/Sharapova duel) that I actually hacked my way to a solution.
Sincerely, just a boy from Evansville Indiana named Jay Lassiter. 

• Let’s start with the important matters:

Evansville, Indiana. Home to:

  1. Don Mattingly
  2. The best scenes in “League of Their Own.”
  3. Walter McCarty, former NBA player and current Celtics assistant
  4. More fast food restaurants per capita than any other city in America.
  5. All of the above.

I’ve heard from literally hundreds of you about the WTA’s coverage this spring. Know this up front: as someone on the Tennis Channel payroll, I’m in thoroughly conflicted position. In broad strokes: the WTA rights were for sale. Several parties, including Tennis Channel, made offers. Those offers were not accepted. That’s fine. Happens all the time. You think your home is worth X. A potential buyer think it’s worth Y. Sometimes you negotiate. Other times it doesn’t work out.

The problem here is the execution of the BATNA, as they say in business school. (Best alternative to no agreement.) The WTA’s promise of streaming has not materialized. The carriage on BeInSports has, by multiple accounts, been problematic and wanting in promotion. The overarching sense is that—coupled with the lack of Eurosport coverage—the WTA has taken a big step back this year in terms of exposure and visibility. Maybe this works out for the WTA. Maybe the decision to retain rights and chart their own path will look wise in retrospect. Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t consummate. Maybe a superior deal can be reached next time around. (Selfishly, I hope it’s the return of women’s tennis to TC.)

But right now there are a lot of dissatisfied fans/consumers. Which is never good, but is especially problematic in 2017 A.D., when media strategy so critical, consumers have so many options and those damn millennials are so fickle. And I would argue that the networks are no more to blame than rejected homebuyers are to blame for unsold properties that go abandoned.   

Tennis
Mailbag: The economics of tennis and why the sport loses out on young athletes

       

Jon do you know if he fired his guru? Or kept him?
@pongster68

• This obviously refers to Pepe Imaz. Note the decal on Djokovic’s Fiat: “Amor & Paz”

Them’s guru words.

As discussed in last weeks Mailbag, the maternity policy should raise a few eyebrows. Besides setting a 12 month limit for maternity leave, the player returns to a position with fewer benefits (no seeding) and less earning potential (the Special ranking is only good for eight tournaments a year). Given that the WTA is a business built around female employees and has fought for equal pay at the Grand Slams, why does it penalize players who do take maternity leave? Essentially the WTA is telling the players, your prior success on the tour doesn't fully matter, you can take unpaid maternity leave, be sure to come back by the time we tell you, but into a lesser position than when you left. Not exactly a model of a maternity friendly corporation. Thoughts?
Ken Wells, Gardiner, Maine

• Interesting. The difference is that most conventional workforces are not “points-based.” When you come back to your job as a lawyer or journalist or physician, you are not, necessarily, bumping into a colleague who has been amassing points—the real occupational currency—in your absence. 

The WTA’s policy seems to be a fair compromise. There is a maternity policy of sorts—a generous one, at that. (Twelve months is downright, you know, Scandinavian.) But it also seems to acknowledge rights of the players who do not go on leave and were busy accumulating points.  

Tennis
Mona Barthel wins Prague Open for fourth WTA title

Congrats to Mona Barthel winning Prague as a qualifier. You have championed her as one to watch, could she be a dark horse going into the French Open? With the field wide open, she might be able to make a deep run.
Jonathan L.

• We say it once, we’ll say it again: you abandon Mona Barthel at your peril. Seriously, she’s a tall, big-slugging player who doesn’t close strong. But I suspect you’re better off putting chips elsewhere. Speaking of….

I may watch too much tennis but aside from the resurgence of RF and RN who has made a bigger move in the men's game than the unheralded PABLO CARRENO BUSTA? Pablo has advanced deep into several tournaments and played some inspired tennis against several opponents. I wouldn't be surprised to see Pablo make a deep run in Paris. I love Fed but tennis has gotten stale, we need more names and players with guts. Pablo digs deep I like his game, at least this year. Thanks for all the tennis content you provide.
Javier Cervantes, Park Ridge, Ill.

• Want to hear something funny? In the previous sentence, my grammar-check doesn't recognize the word “content” in this capacity. It’s like underlining “sustainability” or “metric.” Get with it, Microsoft Word.

Where were we? Oh, right. Pablo Carreno Busta. He of the ALL CAPS. Totally with you. Very strong player. His ranking (18) is less than his age (25) and he plays an awfully nice game of doubles as well. Also has that ideal tennis physique, 6’2”, 170 lbs. or so (78 kg. for those metric fetishists.) Beat the Memorial Day rush and reserve PCB as your French Open dark horse.

Tennis
Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Chris Russo

Not one mention of the great start Brian Baker has had this year on the doubles circuit? He and Nicola Mektic took the title in Budapest and Memphis, are into the semis in Munich, and are up to No. 13 in the team rankings, and he and Daniel Nestor had a semifinal finish in Miami.
Helen of Philly

• We love this story It’s like the “Ash Barty returns” of the men’s tour. The Tennis Fates owed Brian Baker in a big way. (Former junior champ whose singles career was beset by a relentless string of injuries.) At age 32—which is hardly ancient, especially in his two-man discipline—he has reinvented himself as a doubles player and is up to No. 31.

While we’re here, props to Ryan Harrison. Teamed with his recent groomsman, Michael Venus, he won the Estoril doubles title on Sunday.

Hello can you speak English?
Miss Rima Bakarat

• Working on it. This term “span folder” is eluding me.

Shots, Miscellany

• Longtime reader Ivan H. asks what your preferred court surface says about you.

• This week’s winner for tennis attire:

• Hat tip to the ITF for heeding the suggestion that they differentiate between full-time pros and hobbyists when making their anti-corruption announcement. The first three lines of last week’s press release: Konstantinos Mikos banned for life for tennis corruption offences….1536-ranked player made corrupt approach and held tennis betting accounts…..Greek tennis player Konstantinos Mikos (25) has been banned for life after being found guilty of four offences under the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program (Program).”

Knowing that Kostantinos the Korrupt is ranked outside the top 1500—the most prize money he ever made in year was $2,984—tells the casual fan (and monitor of the news wire) that this is a regrettable act but not exactly a black eye to the highest echelon of the sport. Again, it’s essential that when the tennis Vice Squad sends out these releases, there’s a differentiation between conventional pros and the tennis hobbyists. These guys are no closer to Roger Federer than guy in the Glengarry Glen Ross are to Steven A. Cohen.

• Sloane Stephens has been granted a wild card into the main draw of the 2017 Connecticut Open presented by United Technologies.

• This week’s unsolicited book recommendation, The Worlds We Think We Know by Dalia Rosenfeld.

• Non-tennis but here’s a must-read by Scott Price. 

• Press releasing: The USTA today announced that eight top junior girls qualified for the 2017 Team USA National Junior Team, a training program designed to give a collection of America’s best young players, born in either 2001 or 2002, opportunities to train together during the summer and travel to play against top junior competition from around the world.

Players qualified for the team through meeting one or several results- or ranking-based criteria, or through a playoff, which was held last week at the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla. Players were invited for the playoff based on tournament results, USTA national or ITF world ranking. 

Tennis
Ilie Nastase banned from attending this year's French Open

• Chris N. has this weeks reader riff:

Not so much a question as a reflection on some concerns with doping in tennis. With Sharapova's comeback and Bouchard's comments not attempting to dance around the issue, should we look very closely at the problem of legal performance enhancement and proprietary secrets in training? I think this problem is at the root of Bouchard's view, that Sharapova was enhancing performance by having meldonium prescribed against normal use, so it would appear clear that it was not a typical medical prescription (the drug is not supposed to be taken so extensively). Bouchard's view could be it's not a matter of upset with the meldonium being taken after January 2016, but that it was taken at all and in the manner it was taken. I'm thinking also of players like Djokovic using devices like the CVAC machines. (The fantastically named) Dick Pound, formerly of WADA, had said the devices are clearly against the spirit of fair competition in sport, but a ban could not be issued because a test cannot be developed, at present. The only check on this would seem to come from fan and media disapproval at high volumes—The Wall Street Journal reported a huge change in W-L against top 10 players after the CVAC use started, but to my recollection this was not greatly discussed at the time. (Easy to find these articles via Google search).

I grew up as a Nordic skier and competed at provincial level in Canada. My romanticized youth included notions of world-class athletes training just like me, only stronger and better. I think just because WADA can't ban something (or because they eventually do, but not for a long time) does not mean fans and media should be easy on athletes looking to gain unnatural advantages. I'd like to see more transparency in world-class athletes and they way they train. Nadal has previously called for open publication of the testing records including TUEs, and I would add to this that anti-doping could be observing training sessions. (If a player wants altitude training, then no CVAC—train up and down a mountain). It also seems the frequency of use of the CVAC was being obscured at times, and it's suggested this was for proprietary training reasons (so the opposition would not know). However, if an athlete is hitting the track and working the body, there are no secrets, just the hard work going in.

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