It was five years ago this week that a lost Serb with a sore elbow emerged from the fog and landed in the seaside city of Eastbourne. Looking to reignite his season after 12 months of struggle, Novak Djokovic would break ranks with the Big 3 and become the first to play an official tournament the week before Wimbledon since he, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal took over the sport in the mid-2000s.

“Seven years, I think,” Djokovic said wistfully to begin his pre-tournament press conference. “Last time was in Queen's 2010 that I have played before Wimbledon.”

The former world No. 1 was indeed a rare sight in the pre-Wimbledon grass-court swing, typically opting for an exhibition at The Boodles rather than commit to a more official preparation.

“You get really some good matchups, but you don't play for points,” he explained after his opening round win over Vasek Pospisil. “It's still a match, so your score is being called, which is good for a player mentally and to get some match play and play points on the grass. But in the other hand, you don't feel that pressure of ‘I need to win.’”


That strategy had typically worked—by 2017, Djokovic had laid claim to three Wimbledon titles—but the last year had seen a dramatic reversal of fortune since completing the Career Grand Slam at Roland Garros. He passed the quarterfinals just once at his subsequent four major tournaments, lost his No. 1 ranking to rival Andy Murray, and was dogged by rumors of an elbow injury—one that required treatment at the 2016 US Open and forced him to withdraw from the 2017 Miami Open.

Ever resourceful, Djokovic persisted with personnel and schedule changes meant to return him to the trajectory that had helped him hold all four majors at once and maintain his bid to outpace Federer and Nadal in the ever-present GOAT debate.

He had captured the media’s imagination before Roland Garros when he announced the addition of Andre Agassi to his team; a combination of the sport’s best baseliners was both the latest in the supercoach trend and an opportunity for Djokovic to work with an icon who had endured his own mid-career slump.

“Getting to know him in Paris, I can see how much he cares about the game, how much he knows the game,” Djokovic gushed. “It was very interesting to hear his perspective on tennis before and now, current tennis, how he analyzes my game and what he sees with things moving forward to improve and try to get back on the level desired.”

Their first outing nonetheless suffered an abrupt end in Paris—at the hands of Dominic Thiem, who fed him only the 10th bagel set of his career in the quarterfinals—and Agassi was absent in Eastbourne, vowing to rejoin Team Djokovic at Wimbledon.

Flanked only by his physio and agent, Djokovic’s typically jovial social media presence took on a more somber tone in Eastbourne, reflective of his more introspective mood.

“I'm aware of the fact that I'm not at the level that I was in the previous years, but, you know, sooner or later this kind of circumstances and experiences had to happen, and eventually I had to deal with this kind of challenges. It came right now and I have to accept it.

“I have to try to work on the court and off the court in order to figure out a way how to get back on the desired level. I'm in the process. How long it's going to take, I don't know. I mean, I can't predict the future, but I can do something that it is in my power, and that's to really be as committed as possible when I'm playing, you know, when I'm on the tour, when I'm training.”


Djokovic ultimately put together a committed week in Eastbourne, securing him only his second title of the season without the loss of a set. But the elbow injury only got worse by the time he arrived at Wimbledon, and a quarterfinal retirement to Tomas Berdych foreshadowed his decision to shut down his 2017 season—hoping rest alone would heal his body.

It wouldn’t. He finally submitted to surgery the following season and almost immediately returned to his best, winning eight majors in five years.

Now up to 20 Slams in total, the triple-defending Wimbledon champion has long since returned to his preferred grass-court prep, playing an exhibition this week at Hurlingham. But his week in Eastbourne remains an instructive footnote on the Novak Djokovic timeline: a look at a champion in crisis doing all he can to rise again through trial and error, and inviting the world to watch.