The quest for Roland Garros changed everything for Novak Djokovic
- Everybody–including Novak Djokovic—underestimated what would come along with finally winning the French Open title in 2016.
What do you do when you’ve achieved greatness? Very few athletes in sports history have had to wonder about that. Sure, it seems to be a good problem to have, but in Novak Djokovic’s case, it demanded an adjustment period. In June 2016, the Djoker finally did it: He won Roland Garros. After chasing the title for a decade, after being so close so many times, after all the heartbreaks, he finally put his hands on the trophy and achieved his career Grand Slam. Not only that: he became the first player in 47 years to win four consecutive major titles.
Djokovic and his team gave everything for that trophy and when the dust settled shortly after, they suddenly felt empty. The Serb was left at a crossroads.
“It all caused me to feel a little bit unbalanced, a little bit shaken,” Djokovic said in Madrid in early May about the 2016 French Open. “And then it took me a long time, up until recently, to rebalance myself mentally, emotionally and start finding that spark again. I had to redefine everything.”
Roland Garros will always be a pivotal moment in Djokovic’s career. It will always be one of his greatest accomplishments. It will always make him smile. But there was a price to pay for that triumph.
"I didn’t even realize in the end when I won it how much energy I had spent and how mentally it was both satisfying and draining at the same time,” Djokovic said of Roland Garros in 2016.
As Djokovic looks to resurrect the magic in Paris this year after a shaky start to the season, we reflect on his French Open title. In the new book The Quest, author Carole Bouchard digs into the mind of one of the sport’s greatest champions to find out from him and his team what really happened before, during and after that French Open.
The following is excerpted from The Quest: Novak Djokovic's decade of chasing at Roland-Garros came to an end, unlocking history by Carole Bouchard. © Carole Bouchard, 2017. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Everybody, Djokovic included, had underestimated what would come along with the Parisian triumph. When you've been running after something for years, when you gave everything for it, when finally your puzzle is complete and when it comes after months or even years of domination, sure there's a good chance you'd feel so free that you'd still surf that wave. But there's also a big chance that you're suddenly going to wonder what's next, that suddenly the focus that came to you so easily, so perfectly mastered is going to rebel a bit. That your body and your mind, pushed again and again under loads of stress, are simply going to tell you, "You know what, I'm taking a break.”
After Paris, Djokovic was asked to bounce back, to forget about a loss and to go and catch new glory at Wimbledon. He knew how to do that. But this time he had won Roland Garros and he had no experience for how to deal with it. It was unknown territory for him as would be this whole end of season. His job and tennis history were asking him to move on, move on, move on, so he tried. But it wasn't working. And if it wasn't working, it was also because you can't move on from a page that isn't ready to be turned. Djokovic and the French Open weren't over, so how could Djokovic move on? How could he turn his head to Wimbledon (which he had already won three times) when he still needed to pinch himself to believe what he had achieved in Paris? It wasn't human. It wasn't possible.
We were talking since a little while about that final match, about the emotions that were running through him, about the joy and the fulfillment it brought when I had to play the "Debbie Downer" a bit and ask him if it had sunk in, if he had time to realize what a historical feat he had accomplished, and if it played a part in his complicated end of season. A heavy sigh came as he thought about the answer.
"Honestly," he started before pausing. "No, I didn't. And the reason why I didn't realize what I had achieved and it didn't sink in, is because I didn't give it time. And all those issues I've had in the last five months of 2016 are because after such a great rollercoaster ride and after giving so much effort in the 15 months leading up to Roland Garros and then winning it finally, if I look back now…
“I don't regret anything, because I really believe everything happens for a reason. But you know it would have probably been better if I had taken some time off, maybe even skipping Wimbledon because it just required more time for me to recharge my batteries, and I didn't. So I had to [snapping his fingers] kind of switch back my mind and Wimbledon was around the corner.”And it wouldn't go well, as Djokovic would be beaten by U.S. player Sam Querrey in the third round at Wimbledon, 7-6(6), 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(5), in two days, after way too many ups and downs, after unusual mistakes too, after the rain again coming into to play, and against an opponent who was among the trickier ones to play on grass with his huge serve and forehand. It was in a match not played on the Centre Court but on Court 1, where maybe it had also been tougher to really get into the feel of the event. Everybody thought he'd again get out of this "right before the cliff moment" when he served for the fourth set but it wasn't to be. He would himself call this loss "a shock," and that was the right word for someone who until then had looked unbeatable in the first weeks of Grand Slams, as he hadn't lost that early since the 2009 French Open. For someone who had made history again at this Wimbledon after clinching his second round win: he had now won 30 matches in a row in Grand Slams, the new record of the Open Era.
But truth is that, if physically Djokovic and his team were in London to play Wimbledon, mentally they maybe weren't totally there. And at this level it's about close margins at the top so if you blink, you're done. Djokovic was blinking, and he couldn't stop it even when he wanted to. The three weeks between Paris and London hadn't helped that much, especially as the week after Paris had been a sort of coma.
"After that win I went to the sea for holiday with my family," Marian Vajda told me. "I was just lying there, and they were saying 'Come on, move!' but I stayed like that basically for one week. Completely out." And, like Djokovic, he couldn't compute exactly what had happened in Paris.
He knew it was big of course, but it was so huge that his brain couldn't fully take it in.
"Had it sunk in? Probably not because next was Wimbledon, next was Rio and the U.S. Open. Always something. We had a party and Boris was like 'let's go for another!' and we were like 'Boris, calm down please, we have just finished the French Open, I am tired, I can't speak, I can't even walk, I can't lift anything, it was amazing, and you're talking about Wimbledon!'” Vajda said laughing. That was Boris' personality. But Djokovic wanted to enjoy what he had achieved. Up to that point we did excellent, but I think it's normal that then he released himself completely. Too much, a little bit, but it's normal.
Sure, Becker wanted to think about Wimbledon, wanted to get ready to roar there too, but it wasn't the complete image. Becker, too, was—in a way—stuck in Paris. There was this little voice in his mind that started to talk louder and louder. So maybe by pushing for Wimbledon, it was his way to fight that little voice.
"After the final I wasn't too emotional," he told me. "I almost felt that it was the end of the road. I was alone at the hotel Molitor, having a last whiskey, and then I was emotional because I felt also this 'What's next?', 'How can I motivate him or myself?' Sure we got to Wimbledon, but it had this different vibe so I also felt that this is the end of the road." Their road would end months later as Becker wouldn't be head coach anymore at the start of the 2017 season.
They took some time to fully understand each other but once it was done, around the 2014 Wimbledon victory, they became one of the most successful associations in tennis history. But their relationship was also intense, as Becker doesn't hide the fact that coaching Djokovic Djokovic isn't a walk in the park.
"Novak is always very challenging, which keeps it fresh," Becker told me with a smile. "There's not a dull moment, there's not one thing that we'll do the same every week. That's exhausting, stressful but that's the exciting part: you never know what you're going to get. You, as a coach, you have to improve as well, because whatever I said two years ago doesn't work now. So it really keeps you on your toes." There's still a true fondness when Becker talks about Novak, something bordering on admiration too. Tennis legends recognize each other, no doubt about that.
This Wimbledon exit was a shock for Djokovic and the team, so it brought them brutally back to earth. Waking them up from that Paris dream. Like shaking them by the shoulders to open their eyes. And still they had tried their best to keep them open since Paris, but it was too hard, as Miljan Amanovic also recalls. They were swept into an emotional tornado and even if they knew it, they couldn't really find the way out.
“The day after the final, I was not aware of this, of all we had achieved… You're already packing, going to the airport, coming back home. Then next day you are ready to jump into civilian life and then you forget it until you get people messaging you. And they are saying you can rest now, but in fact you can't because Wimbledon is just around the corner. We didn't have time to enjoy, to really feel it. People were calling me, sending texts saying 'do you realize what you guys did! You must be proud!' But there was no time! The momentum for feeling and for joy was not in that moment because next is Wimbledon and you have to refocus again. For me it's easy. But for him, looking back at all he's done…This took so much energy and it's really hard to focus again. We tried our best for him not to feel we were nervous in Paris, and here now we were a bit more relaxed but at the same time, how not?" Indeed.”