What to make of Novak Djokovic bringing Andre Agassi on-board to help him during Roland Garros? Well, at least part of Roland Garros. As Djokovic was quoted yesterday in the New York Times, “We don’t have any long-term commitment. It’s just us trying to get to know each other in Paris a little bit. He will not stay the whole tournament. He’s going to stay only to a certain time, and then we’ll see after that what’s going to happen.”
For many reasons, in a sport like tennis it is very difficult to grasp the nature of the player-coach relationship. In the team sports, even the best players come of age under the supervision of a coach. More pointedly, the team sport athlete is subordinate to the coach – merely to make the team, or be permitted to play a desired position, or learn how to integrate effectively with teammates.
None of that is part of an aspiring tennis player’s evolution. To be sure, there are instructors – that is, experts who offer input on everything from stroke production to fitness to nutrition. But as far as leadership goes, tennis is for players who want to be not just player, but team owner – supremely knowledgeable and self-reliant. A tennis coach is not a football coach – far from being the boss. More often, a tennis coach is more like a consultant, brought in to address an area of interest.
So now, having purged senior guru Boris Becker and longstanding coach Marian Vajda, Djokovic turns to Agassi. Back when Djokovic hired Becker in 2014, Djokovic had recently struggled with closing out big matches, a skill Becker as a player prided himself on. Djokovic is now in a place Agassi often occupied: The search for better form, coupled with a quest to regain confidence.
Over the last decade of his career, fueled initially by the tactical wisdom of his coach, Brad Gilbert, Agassi became exceptionally insightful at breaking down the nuances of matches. This wasn’t always easy to access, as there were often so many outside-the-lines topics that flavored the Agassi story line. But once pried open, Agassi’s tennis mind was to me his most engaging aspect. Longstanding tennis fans might well recall his guest appearance on USA Network alongside my Tennis Channel colleague Ted Robinson and John McEnroe during a 2007 US Open quarterfinal between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. As an analyst, Agassi was concise, nuanced, pointedly clever and deeply insightful. The same held true on those occasions when I’d interview Agassi to discuss his various rivals.
No doubt, Djokovic is eager to have a player as accomplished as Agassi offer insights into his game. This really is the essence of having a former superstar on the team: The chance to hear thoughts first-hand from a decorated and respected champion. On the one hand, this may seem illusory. What truly does Agassi know about winning tennis matches that Djokovic doesn’t? Ditto for Stefan Edberg and Roger Federer. Does Andy Murray need Ivan Lendl to tell him he should go for more on his forehand? And yet, then again, at this high level, the slightest insight and a certain amount of focused engagement can make a major difference. Like Agassi, Djokovic has long been a seeker, exploring various avenues for success in matters of fitness, nutrition and intellectual growth. As a boy, Djokovic’s instructor, Jelena Gencic, encouraged him to listen to classical music and read books. Hand it to Djokovic for yet again seeking a new voice.