Novak Djokovic is back competing at this week's Shanghai Masters after recovering from injuries that had racked him through the summer and through his loss to Stan Wawrinka in the U.S. Open final. The world No. 1 is vowing a new mindset in his return.
“I don’t think about any trophies or number ones in the world, rankings, anything like that. It’s completely different,” Djokovic said to the AFP media via the Hindustan Times. The Serbian star expressed his difficulties since Wimbledon admitting that his “must-win mindset... is not working for me any more.”
It’s a surprisingly candid look inside tennis’ most dominant player, who had come off the greatest 18-month stretch in the Open era as the only male player to ever win the Grand Slam on three different surfaces.
It’s been four months since Djokovic won the French Open and reached the pinnacle of his career with his 12th major title. Since, he has descended to Earth with an exhausting series of trials—ranging from personal problems, significant injuries and upset losses to spirited opponents.
Djokovic is, perhaps, the most complete player to ever play tennis—maybe the greatest of all time—but he’s recalibrating his approach to playing and winning. One way or another, he’s going to pay the price.
Within every legendary champion is a person. Yes, Djokovic, like his legendary equals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, has his own special qualities that have made him into a terrific athlete and human. He’s gracious to fans, takes time to appreciate young kids and is polite to the crowds that either cheer or root against him all over the world.
In particular, Djokovic has built his superstar against the blessings of tennis fans who would have preferred that Federer or Nadal extended their reigns. He's often been unappreciated, and despite his willingness to reach out, he’s had to battle for major titles with unbelievably fierce poise. Could anyone else have fended off the collective resistance of patrons at Wimbledon 2014, Wimbledon 2015 and U.S. Open 2015 who cheered resoundingly for the immensely popular Federer?
Djokovic has built his legacy through adversity, pressure, heartache and relentless attention to improving the details of his game. The years have been fruitful, but they've also tormented his best efforts, such as watching his Roland Garros title bids end in anguish while Nadal bit into nine Musketeers' Cups.
He has learned that he can never let up on his quest to win the majors, and he knows firsthand the pains in getting to the top.
By summer 2016, the winning had consumed him. His comments to AFP make this clear:
I was extremely motivated to do well there (Olympics Games, where he lost his first-round match to Juan Martin del Potro), but I lost that equilibrium. I lost that balance, because I exaggerated with the way I pushed myself in that kind of preparation and I really, you know, wanted it too much maybe.
Now Djokovic is determined to rewind the tape, to play and enjoy tennis and push aside the obsessiveness to win at all costs. “I try to be in this moment and take things slowly,and, you know, I’m not rushing anywhere,” he added. “I’m not in a need, you know, to achieve anything.”
Maybe this is what he needs to find healing and peace after pouring his body and soul into being a modern legend. Maybe he needs to remove the pressures from himself that demand too much and from media and fans who scrutinize any of his performances that are less than perfect.
It’s the classic Faustian bargain. The way to the top requires every ounce of an athlete’s commitment, and any hesitation will cover it up like a cloudy day.
Djokovic is one of the select few who has conquered every battlefield and fulfilled—even surpassed—the loftiest dreams of tennis stardom.
What does it matter if Andy Murray soon knocks him off for the No. 1 ranking?
Maybe life will go on if he relinquishes his Australian Open kingdom to another.
Perhaps he will gracefully bow down to the future Alexander the Great.
The Champion’s Conundrum
The short-term adjustment, or rather regrouping, for Djokovic is necessary to play this week, to finish out the season with a sense of joy that has no doubt always been a part of his growth through a life of tennis. He needs to feel that he is doing things the right way in his approach to tennis and that balance that he seeks. This is no time to embrace the dark side like the renegade Anakin Skywalker.
But make no mistake about it. When the next title opportunity is on the line, perhaps this weekend if Murray is standing on the other side of the court eager to claim the No. 1 ranking, Djokovic is not going to stand by and let Murray take the spoils.
Winning will have to consume him if he wants to remain as successful as he has been. The way to be the best in the world is to beat the world. Anything less, and someone else with the hunger to be the next great champion will not hesitate one moment to take King Novak’s crown.
Djokovic is a great champion because he’s talented, he's dedicated to tennis and he’s supremely competitive. That’s not a switch that can be turned off unless it’s all the way off, as in retirement. He’s not a role player, and he won’t accept that as long as there's one chance in a thousand that he can win one more major title.
A champion's hunger is never satisfied, well beyond his career peak. We’ve seen it over and again with aging champions who go to any measures to recapture past glory. Boxers who come out of retirement for another ill-fated match. Golfers who hang onto the Senior Tour. Aging rock stars who cannot stop touring several decades after their music has risen to the heavens.
No, Djokovic is wired differently than the other merely good stars. When it comes to winning, he understands that the price demands more than divided attention or playing for recreational enjoyment. It requires everything, and “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” to quote legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine.
There are only a handful of tennis legends who have ever been in Djokovic's shoes, and they often show up at major finals peering out from the front rows, reminiscing about their glory years and wondering what it would be like if they could play in 2016.
Don’t count on Djokovic packing it all in or letting up one percent when the next great opportunity bounces in front of him like a lazy, lofting short ball. Then, he will revert back to the mindset that he knows best. He will crave winning that next major title as much as ever, perhaps more than ever after his relative struggles over a summer he would like to forget.
His sentiments are genuine right now and necessary for him to move on, but the healing is just an interim period for his next great chapter.