From bone bruising to replenishing the soul – it has been the sabbatical Novak Djokovic had to have.
The Serb had played every major since 2005 and something had to give. Six months ago the relentless grind of the circuit was taking its toll. Previously, he had never had a serious injury – or a lengthy break for that matter – but was now enduring worsening pain in his right elbow. There had to be a circuit-breaker. Djokovic was looking for a sign, perhaps even divine intervention, that recuperation would be his answer.
The messages were impossible to ignore as the pain worsened deep into the tournament at last year’s Wimbledon. He had no option but to withdraw against Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals. Perversely, Djokovic’s contemporary, Andy Murray, hobbled from the courts the same day with injury woes of his own.
“I was carrying this injury for quite some time,” Djokovic says of his chronic elbow complaint that eventually required surgery.
“Wimbledon was just the peak of gradually increasing pain that I’ve carried ??? for a year and a half.”
This week in Melbourne – by far the most successful outpost of his tennis career – the six-time n Open champion springs to life when discussing the positive benefits of rest. Djokovic relaxes onto the couch and reflects on the main emotion that arose from his injury-enforced lay-off: relief – sheer and utter relief.
“I know that I’ve made decisions [in my career] that were not in harmony with my body,” Djokovic told Fairfax Media.
“And this is something that most of the athletes do and it’s very difficult for an athlete to understand when is the moment to stop ??? [and] when is really necessary to take a different stand and recover.
“So I was kind of pushing it forward to the point where I really could not hold the racquet any more.”
A complete break from the game also gave the 12-time major winner a precious commodity: time. He and his wife Jelena welcomed another child to the world during in September, daughter Tara becoming a sister to son Stefan.
Suddenly he had time to think about his standing in the game and the right choices for the rest of his career. He had already overhauled his support staff but more change was coming. With Boris Becker gone and Andre Agassi having been in his coaching corner for the French Open and Wimbledon, Djokovic took the next step and convinced battle-hardened and recently retired Czech Radek Stepanek to join the coaching group.
“I had time while I was off to reflect on my body, on my mind, my spirit, my game [and] my overall life,” Djokovic says.
“And I think it was very, very much needed time for me to think about everything and reset, understand how I want to move forward, with whom I want to move forward.
“For now, I’m really happy with the team of people that I have around me. I’m really glad that Andre Agassi still stayed in the team [and] helping me out, mentoring me and being my friend, first of all.
“Radek [Stepanek] accepted [my offer] to work obviously just as he announced that he was finishing his playing career, he moved into being coach. I think I affected that a little bit.
“It’s a pretty new team, I’m excited for it. I’m embracing it. Let’s see where it takes me.”
Djokovic becomes typically animated, almost preacher-like, when discussing the main learnings from his sabbatical.
A player who famously oozes confidence, Djokovic has a glass half-full answer when quizzed whether his self-belief has taken a hit.
“Living in the present is the biggest present as they say. That’s where you can draw the most energy out of yourself and external energy as well,” the world No.14 says.
“That’s what gives you confidence actually. Because the past is what happens, what has happened already. You can take lessons from that and learn from that to move forward.
“The future is something that you can only hope for. You cannot affect it. The present is where you are and what you can draw from it.”
An ultra-professional to the end, Djokovic also spoke to other top-level athletes curtailed by major injuries during his break.
“What we’re sharing all of us in common is the fact that it’s difficult to predict when to stop. I try to respect my body and treat it as my temple and understand the signals and the messages that it’s sending me,” he says.
Now, 10 years on since 20-year-old Djokovic broke through for his first major – in Melbourne, of course – the Serb could be ready to send some messages of his own to the n Open men’s field.
His situation is uncannily like that of eventual champion and great foe Roger Federer’s one year ago – back to the grind in Melbourne after an injury-induced hiatus, with a dangerous mid-teens seeding (14) to boot.
Djokovic, however, won’t put a marker on what he’ll achieve in Melbourne. It’s much more about getting back on the court.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to be fit to perform well, because I believe in myself, I trust my own abilities,” he says.
“It’s just that, God willing, I’ll be able to be healthy and to play as far as I can play.”
Novak Djokovic was speaking at a ASICS Global Footwear Partner Announcement