Agassi arrival no surprise for Becker

Novak Djokovic (right) and his coach Andre Agassi during a training session.
Novak Djokovic (right) and his coach Andre Agassi during a training session.PHOTO: REUTERS

German says chemistry is right as vulnerable Djokovic tries to revive form at French Open

LONDON • Boris Becker had kept his ear to the ground, so he did not stop in his tracks when he heard that Novak Djokovic will have Andre Agassi as his coach when the world No. 2 begins the defence of his French Open title next week.

"It doesn't come as a surprise," Djokovic's former coach said. "I've heard the name for a while. I look at information from Novak and his team and I am close with him. I applaud the decision. I think it's an excellent choice."

The announcement came after Djokovic's one-sided defeat by the exciting young German, Alexander Zverev, in the final of the Italian Open on Sunday.

Djokovic arrives in Paris still searching for his best form, despite hints of it returning in Rome last week, and bruised from the humbling turbulence which has seen him concede his No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray, suffer early exits at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and descend into a funk that has left him vulnerable to threats from rising stars like Zverev.

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On and off the court, the Serb has looked spiritually troubled at times. But he has opted for ruthlessness in his quest for rejuvenation.

The process of renewal began with him ending his three-year association with Becker in December and, when that move did not have the desired effect, he opted for the "shock therapy" of sacking his entire coaching team this month, closing the chapter on a decade of relentless success.

TURNING THINGS AROUND

He realised he had to change something. When you have such a long, successful career, not every year can be perfect. It's called evolution, it's called maturity. They have to fight themselves.

BORIS BECKER, Djokovic's former coach.

The only man left standing is the mysterious Pepe Imaz, who is seen as more of a life coach than a technician.

Hinting at tensions within the camp, Becker refuses to speak about the Spaniard. "I know Novak for too long," the German says. "I don't think it's right for an insider to speak about the whole picture. I'm happy Andre is there. The rest of the team is Novak's decision."

Becker is intrigued by the nascent partnership with Agassi, his old sparring partner.

The arrangement might not extend beyond a few matches at the French Open. Agassi is a family man who might not fancy a permanent role on the tour.

Yet, Becker believes the pair could hit it off in Paris. "Andre's personality and character, his aura, the fact that he is involved in the Novak Djokovic foundation is very important, I think it's an excellent fit," Becker says. "Ideally I would have liked them to start in Monte Carlo and not for the first tournament to be in Roland Garros. It would have given them a bit more time to get used to each other.

"But I wish them all the luck in the world and hopefully they have a successful relationship. A lot depends on the next two weeks. But I know Andre very well. I think this could be a winning combination."

Becker said the chance to work with Djokovic would have been too good to turn down. "It depends who calls," he says. "Novak Djokovic is not anybody. He is one of the best of all time. I had a similar situation four years ago. He calls you, you want to pick up, you want to meet him and discuss tennis."

As Becker discusses Djokovic's tennis, he sees signs that the passion and fire is returning to the Serb's game. It disappeared after he won last year's French Open.

"I was a player - you go through your emotions, you go through ups and downs and eventually you come back. With Novak it has taken a bit longer than I anticipated but I think he is in a good way now," said Becker.

"He realised he had to change something. When you have such a long, successful career, not every year can be perfect. It's called evolution, it's called maturity. They have to fight themselves.

"Novak today is a different guy than when he was 20, he has different priorities. But deep down he loves tennis, he loves to compete, he loves to win and that will never change."

With Murray struggling, Roger Federer has removed another obstacle from Djokovic's path by skipping the clay season. Yet, Becker is not alone in picking out Rafael Nadal as the man to beat.

After dominating in Barcelona, Madrid and Monte Carlo, the king of clay is chasing his 10th French Open title. Can Djokovic stop him from completing La Decima?

"The Novak of old?" Becker says. "Definitely. I saw flashes of the old Novak in Rome, especially in the semis and quarters. But I would put Rafa ahead of Novak at the moment."

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2017, with the headline 'Agassi arrival no surprise for Becker'. Print Edition | Subscribe