Thoughts on Nole's first match, and immediate future, as a solo artist

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What does Djokovic on his own look like, and play like? We got our first glimpse on Wednesday. (AP)

“I’m completely confident in myself,” Novak Djokovic said before his first match in Madrid, “and I believe in the process of change.”

Djokovic, of course, was referring to the very big changes he made last week, when he parted ways with his longtime coach, Marian Vajda, as well as the fitness team that had been with him for the last decade. Djokovic portrayed the move as having been in the works since the end of 2016.

“It was a mutual decision,” he said. “It was not only my decision. We gave it a last shot, I think, in the last couple of months. We talked about what, I guess, the future brings for us at the end of the last season.”

Djokovic has been a believer in the process of change, and the benefits of trying new things, in the past. He has brought on Boris Becker, worked with Todd Martin and consulted with Mark Woodforde on various parts of his game. He has put more distance between himself and his parents over the years, and hasn’t been afraid to experiment with new diets and training techniques. But he has always had his core group with him; moving on from them, as he turns 30, is the most radical transition of his career. Djokovic says he’ll take his time finding a new coach, but he did hint that he would like to work again with another elite champion.

“I assume its going to be someone that has been through similar experiences like I have,” he said. “Not too many people in the past of tennis have managed to get to that stage and play at that level, so I’ll see.”

The first name to come up, in The Daily Telegraph this week, was Andre Agassi’s. That’s only a rumor, and you do get the feeling that Djokovic doesn’t want to jump into anything new, partnership-wise, right away. But Agassi would make sense. He’s a smart guy, and something of a rarity: a great player who is articulate about the details of the sport. Agassi also played a baseline game reminiscent of Djokovic’s. Still, any Djokovic coaching talk, about Agassi or otherwise, is speculation for the moment. He seems happy to fly solo for the first time. 

What does Djokovic on his own look like, and play like? We got our first glimpse on Wednesday in his 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 win over Nicolas Almagro. With no coaches to commiserate with, or glare at, after his missed shots, Djokovic was calmer in general. There were none of the emotional highs and lows that we’ve come to expect from him, no sense that he was working through his early nerves before relaxing into the match. He was sharp at the start, and even when he gave up that lead and fell behind 0-3 in the third set, he didn’t explode or grow outwardly frustrated. 

As for his play itself, there wasn’t much difference from what we’ve seen recently. After a clean first set, his level dropped in the second. He made routine errors from both sides and gave Almagro just enough hope to keep him in the match. Almagro had won just one set in their previous four meetings, but he’s a streaky shot-maker who was playing on the biggest stage in his home country, and a good run of form from him wasn’t a surprise. And neither was his inability to keep that run going. From 3-0 up, Almagro started to think, started to doubt and stopped taking the ball as early or as confidently, and his typically risky shot selection came back to haunt him.

If there was a reason to like Djokovic’s performance on Wednesday, and to think that this change might be good for him, it was the way he ended the match. When Almagro held serve with an ace to go up 5-4 in the third, it was easy to imagine the shaky Djokovic we’ve seen of late losing the next game and the match. Instead, he played a purposeful four points and held at love. At 5-5, Djokovic stepped into two returns in a way that he hadn’t for much of the day, forced the action and broke. Finally, at 6-5, Djokovic surprised Almagro with two second serves to his forehand side, and Almagro missed the return both times. 

Will Djokovic continue to be calmer on his own? Will that help him weather bad patches of play? Or will not having his team with him hurt him, because he’ll be more bottled up and less fired up? An extremely tight three-set win over Nicolas Almagro is hardly a breakthrough, but every match he wins on his own should make him feel more comfortable with his new situation. 

“I’ve played so many years on this level that I’m feeling comfortable on the tennis court, regardless of these current changes,” Djokovic said. “Generally, I mean, I haven’t forgotten to hit the tennis ball.”

Simplifying things usually helps tennis players; these are people who gravitated to a solo endeavor in the first place. If Djokovic can get back to just doing what he said—hitting a tennis ball—he should be just fine. Not many people have ever hit them better.

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