Sporting Life

Agassi could give Djokovic a few lessons in comebacks

Antti Ruuskanen, the 2014 European champion who comes from Finland where javelin throwing is a patriotic duty, was asked about the best coaching advice he received. His answer was something even Yoda might not have considered.

"Throw harder," his coach had said. This was in 2013 and it seems like advice that was banal and unscientific. Except that on his next throw Ruuskanen threw a season's best.

Who knows what works for an athlete? Obvious advice or a yelling? Nancy Lieberman, the former basketball player, used to stand over a crying Martina Navratilova when she was training her and shout: "What do you mean you can't do any more?" It worked. Navratilova ran.

Inspiration comes in all tones, metaphors and durations. As Bob Brett, once Boris Becker's coach, tells me, "sometimes all it takes is 5-10 seconds". Other times it can take 15 minutes, which is how long Brad Gilbert took as he sat down with a cold Bud Ice beer and lectured Andre Agassi. When he left to go to the toilet, Agassi - as he recounted in his book Open - said "that's our guy" and hired him.

Now, decades later, we don't know precisely what Agassi said to Novak Djokovic but he's now the Serb's guy. At least for the French Open. Said Djokovic: "I am enjoying every conversation that I have with him. Also, he's someone that nurtures family values, philanthropic work. He's a very humble man, very educated. He's a person that can contribute to my life on and off the court a lot."

This sounds more like a spiritual conversion than an athletic revival but it's the standard speech. When players find a new guide, they sound as if they're born again. To believe a man can restore you, after all, is an act of great faith. If he can't, of course, you can simply fire him.

Agassi's job is to glue Djokovic back together, for the Serb was a perfect tennis jigsaw whose game is now in errant pieces.

 


The writer says Agassi's job is to glue Djokovic back together, for the Serb was a perfect tennis jigsaw whose game is now in errant pieces. PHOTO: AFP

In 2015 he lost six matches all year, a number he has matched this year and it is not even June. From January 2015 to June 2016, he won 17 tournaments and since then he has accumulated only two trophies.

It could be a dip in desire after finally winning the French Open last year or personal issues which have jolted his concentration. The fault always lies with the player whereupon he dismissed his entire coaching staff. The next team might give him roughly the same advice but it will sound new.

What Djokovic, 30, seeks is a comeback and Agassi, once a long-haired sinner, has a distinction in that subject. The American sank to No. 141 in November 1997, returned to No. 1 and won five more Grand Slam titles, two of them after 30. Even for a Las Vegas kid, this was a helluva trick.

Djokovic says Agassi may not stay for the entire Open. Neither may he, for that matter. Not if he plays like he did in the Rome final. At one point he hit a drop shot that almost went wider than the tramlines and then missed a forehand down the line by two feet. Once he had the accuracy of a blindfolded circus knife thrower. Now it is reassuring he is not one.

Djokovic, 30, swore on Sunday and smacked shots with inadequate penetration, the king of last summer now resembling a commoner. What he seeks is a comeback and Agassi, once a long-haired sinner, has a distinction in that subject. The American sank to No. 141 in November 1997, returned to No. 1 and won five more Grand Slam titles, two of them after 30. Even for a Las Vegas kid, this was a helluva trick.

Both men are loosely tied by similarity. Both have won more Australian Opens (Djokovic six, Agassi four) than any other Slam and are on an exclusive list of eight men who have won all four Slams. Both hit backhands which are pure and punitive and construct points which seem like irrefutable arguments in an athletic debate. When Gilbert met Agassi he told him to be "like gravity", which translated to "constant pressure, weighing down your opponent" which is what Djokovic at his cleanest does.

Agassi used to bench press 300 pounds (136.4kg) and Djokovic has a book, Serve to Win, which involves recipes. It's safe to say they understand fitness. It is Djokovic's brain, inside which confidence has eroded, where Agassi will go to work. Athletes may be fierce, resilient creatures yet they are also vulnerable folk who need an assistance beyond "move your feet".

As Rachel Nuwer wrote in the Scientific American last year: "According to findings presented... at the World Class Performance Conference in London, super elites (the best of the best) felt that their coaches fully satisfied their emotional needs by acting as friends, mentors and unwavering supporters - in addition to providing superb technical support. High-performing athletes who were not medalled did not feel that way."

Djokovic will try what is asked of him, though this might not extend to denim shorts and earrings which his coach once wore. Either way tennis will be grateful that he has returned Mr Agassi, a first-time coach and first-rate thinker, to the game. The American is a tennis scholar, though not quite in every field. On forehand matters, for instance, Djokovic might wish to ask for a one-off tutorial from Mrs Agassi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'Agassi could give Djokovic a few lessons in comebacks'. Print Edition | Subscribe