Will Novak Djokovic Benefit from Split with Boris Becker?December 8, 2016
Around and around the coaching carousel spins this offseason. Several stars on both the men's and women's side made changes in recent weeks, none resonating more than Novak Djokovic's decision to part ways with Boris Becker.
In the not-so-distant past, Djokovic and Becker were thick as thieves, with the Serb the most dominant force in tennis. But all good things come to an end. Mired in a slump, Djokovic faces a future without Becker by his side.
Will this move provide the spark he so desperately needs?
When they began working together at the end of 2013, Djokovic already had six Grand Slam titles to his name. He wanted more, frustrated by four losses in major finals the previous two seasons. In hiring Becker, Djokovic sought to gain an edge at the latter end of tournaments, turning to someone who could relate to those situations.
The move paid off handsomly. In their three years together, Djokovic elevated himself to rarified heights. In total, he captured six more majors with Becker, as well as two year-end championships and 14 Masters Series titles. Notably, Djokovic completed his long-awaited quest for the career Grand Slam at this year's French Open.
With Becker, he transformed from a great player into one of the greatest ever.
But they had reached their peak together at Roland Garros. In the last few months of their cooperation, Djokovic's results declined sharply.
From embarrassing losses on big stages, languid performances and an increased volatility, he looked distracted and lost that mental sharpness we had come to expect. During that tailspin, his seemingly insurmountable lead over Andy Murray vanished, and Djokovic lost his cherished No. 1 ranking.
Following weeks of speculation that they might split up, Djokovic officially announced the decision on his Facebook page.
Novak Djokovic announced on Facebook that he and Boris Becker have jointly decided to end their cooperation. pic.twitter.com/bDkoYlJRh5— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) December 6, 2016
Djokovic took the diplomatic route, but given Becker's comments to Sky News (via Sky Sports' Michael Kelleher), it's obvious that tension existed behind the scenes:
I think the last six months have been challenging on many levels. Our hands were tied a little bit because we couldn't do the work we wanted to do.
He didn't spend as much time on the practice court in the last six months as he should have and he knows that.
Success like this doesn't happen by pushing a button. Success like this doesn't just happen by showing up at a tournament. You have to work your bottom off because the opposition does the same.
To what extent the "private issues" Djokovic alluded to after his third-round Wimbledon loss factored into his downturn isn't clear. But the tone of Becker's words indicate friction between the two about their approach to the game.
This fall, Becker's presence in the box diminished as Djokovic incorporated the spiritually oriented Pepe Imaz into his camp. Losing his cool with an increasing regularity, Djokovic turned to Imaz to find more peace with himself. Perhaps turned off by that decision and sensing his voice diminished, Becker's departure felt inevitable once Imaz showed up.
In a post for Tennismash, former player Todd Woodbrige saw this move as a logical one for Djokovic.
"Quite clearly, in Novak’s words it has come down to resetting and reassessing his goals," Woodbridge wrote. "Given the way he played over the past 6 months—looking stale and tired—it’s probably a change that is needed."
Whether his longtime coach Marian Vajda stays on board is another matter.
Vajda, in an interview with Le Parisien's Carole Bouchard (h/t Tennis World), alluded to Djokovic being burnt out this summer, weighed down by stress and the enormous expecations on his shoulders.
"He put a lot effort and in Paris you saw it. Then the concentration dropped, and after many years you knew it could come."
It's up to Djokovic to trigger that passion again if Becker and Vajda are indeed correct about his focus slipping. If he wants to.
Motivations change as we grew older, and with a family and his 30th birthday around the corner, Djokovic could be in the middle of a paradigm shift and re-evaluating what kind of role he wants.
Held up on a pedastal as this cyborg-like demigod, Djokovic showed cracks in the foundation this year and reminded us he's human after all. That increased fragility heading into the 2017 season blurs his forecast.
As he stares up at Murray, the two-time defending Australian Open champion has a lot to play for in the near future. Without Becker, he lacks a key ally in the fight.
Their once-magical pairing ran its course. Rather than be a slave to continuity, Djokovic made the difficult decision to switch things up. That takes audicity, a sign he's not content with the status quo.
Djokovic purged a crucial figure from his team. The loss of Becker's voice and wisdom won't be easily replaced, and he'll now have to look inward more for solutions to the questions facing him. Maybe that simplified approach is exactly what he needs to get back on top.
All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.
Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.