Novak Djokovic of Serbia during his game against Nick Kyrgios of Australia at Indian Wells.
Novak Djokovic of Serbia during his game against Nick Kyrgios of Australia at Indian Wells. PAUL BUCK

What's happened to the great Novak Djokovic?

TENNIS: Novak Djokovic has gone from being tennis's king to its joker in 2017. So far it has not been a good year overall.

Djokovic recently made significant changes to his support team, including axing coach Marian Vajda, who had been with him since 2006, before he was a major champion.

Gebhard Gritsch, who spent eight years as fitness coach, and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic also exited Team Djokovic. Novak said it was "shock treatment", a radical move to reignite his 2017 season, and address a dramatic change of fortunes.

Djokovic has been on a slide that started at the Rio Olympics last year.

The Serbian was the defending Olympic champion, having claimed the gold in Beijing four years earlier. But in Brazil he crashed out in the first round to Juan Martin del Potro.

He would lose his No.1 ranking to Andy Murray at the Paris Masters and fell again to the Brit at the ATP World Tour finals.

The five-time Australian Open champion then bowed out of the Melbourne Park tournament in the opening days, falling to Denis Istomin, ranked 117. It was his earliest exit from a grand slam since 2008.

Djokovic was once the world No.1 for 122 weeks in a row. He practically won everything through a dominant spell from 2011-15. Now, he can't seem to string the wins together.

Tennis legend Boris Becker is someone Djokovic has turned to in the past to help keep him at the highest level. Their partnership generated much success.

The pair split late last year and Becker told the New York Times that matters off the court were plaguing the Serbian.

Becker said it was like Djokovic was playing "with the handbrake on", and that tennis didn't seem to be all that important any more.

 

Novak Djokovic reacts after winning a point against Feliciano Lopez at the Madrid Open.
Novak Djokovic reacts after winning a point against Feliciano Lopez at the Madrid Open. Daniel Ochoa de Olza

"Obviously the second half of last year, there was a different priority," Becker said.

"Novak was the first one to admit that, and I think that was the main reason for me to stop (coaching Djokovic) because I thought my job isn't that important any more."

Reports suggest Djokovic will continue on without a coach for the time being; others suggest he could link back up with Becker, or another legend in Andre Agassi.

Djokovic is still ranked No.2 in the world - a relatively good problem to have. But, with a heap of rankings points to defend, there's a fear he won't even qualify for the year-end ATP Finals.

But while everyone is willing to write him off, long-time rival Rafael Nadal says Djokovic isn't finished just yet.

Many were happy to write off Nadal and Roger Federer in recent years as well, but both played out the final of the most recent major tournament - the Australian Open.

"Ninety-nine per cent of players would love to be in his position," Nadal said.

"Let's respect his level right now because it's true that perhaps it's not as high as he used to be, but I can tell you it's (been) a lot of years.

"I know because I've been in his skin, too. Being up there during every single week, being No.1 every single week, it's nearly impossible.

"When you win every single match in every tournament that is abnormal. In history we have never seen what he achieved during those years."

There's few that know Djokovic like Nadal. Nadal reversed a seven-match losing streak against Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Madrid Open this week, prevailing 6-2 6-4. Their showdown was their 50th career meeting.

 

Spain's Rafael Nadal (left) after winning his semi-final match against Serbia's Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Open.
Spain's Rafael Nadal (left) after winning his semi-final match against Serbia's Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Open. Sergio Barrenechea

Nadal will be there again when tennis heavyweights descend on Roland Garros for the French Open later this month. But is Djokovic still a contender?

It's easy to forget he is the defending champion, having broken through for his only French Open title last year.

There are signs he's turning the corner as well. His semi-final loss to Nadal was his first appearance in the final four of a major tournament since he won the Qatar Open in January.

"It was still very good to play the semi-finals of a big event and against a rival," Djokovic said after the Nadal loss.

"I had not had that feeling for a long time so it's been a positive week."

Nadal hasn't lost a match on clay this season and will go into Paris as the red-hot favourite.

Could the 2017 tournament be the resurrection of Novak Djokovic?

No one expected Djokovic to walk away with the crown last season either.

Tennis expert Jon Wertheim says he can. In his Sports Illustrated column the tennis writer said Djokovic's decline could be a clear sign of either "a slump to something deeper".

"We're in mid-May already and, at this rate, Djokovic doesn't even make the ATP World Tour Finals. So, yes, by conventional metrics, this has gone from a slump to something deeper, something perhaps even existential," Wertheim wrote.

"From Serena to Sampras, to even Federer/Nadal, it's hard to name a player who hasn't had a form slump and then resurgence.

"Djokovic defends his title at the French - hardly out of the realms of possibility - and this story is being spun much differently. So don't despair, not yet anyway."

Is it a slump and resurrection or is it a shift away from tennis being a priority for Djokovic like Becker suggests? Only time will tell us.

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