Qualifying begins: 26 June
The Draw: 30 June
Pre-event Press Conferences: 1 & 2 July
Order of Play: 2 July
Championships begin: 3 July
COME BACK FOR LIVE SCORES & LIVE BLOG FROM 26 JUNE
An extract from 'The Quest', French tennis reporter Carole Bouchard's inside story of Novak Djokovic's historic 2016 French Open victory and his struggle to maintain form at Wimbledon...
Chapter 10, The Price To Pay
We were talking for a little while about that final match, about the emotions that were running through him, about the joy and the fulfillment it brought, when I had to ask him if it had sunk in, if he had time to realize what a historical feat he had accomplished, and if it played a part in his complicated end of season. A heavy sigh came as he thought about the answer. “Honestly...” he started before pausing, “No, I didn’t. And the reason why I didn’t realize what I had achieved and it didn’t sink in, is because I didn’t give it time. And all those issues I’ve had in the last five months of 2016 are because, after such a great roller coaster ride and after giving so much effort in the 15 months leading up to Roland-Garros and then winning it finally, if I look back now... I don’t regret anything, because I really believe everything happens for a reason. But you know it would have probably been better if I had taken some time off, maybe even skipping Wimbledon because it just required more time for me to recharge my batteries, and I didn’t. So I had to (he snaps his fingers) kind of switch back my mind and Wimbledon was around the corner.”
And it wouldn’t go well as Novak would be beaten by the US player Sam Querrey in the third round (7-6(6), 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(5)), in two days, after way too many ups and downs, after unusual mistakes too, after the rain again coming into to play, and against an opponent who was among the trickier ones to play on grass with his huge serve and forehand. A match not played on the centre court but on court 1, where maybe it had also been tougher to really get into the feel of the event. Everybody thought he’d again get out of this “right before the cliff moment” when he served for the fourth set but it wasn’t to be. He would himself call this loss “a shock,” and that was the right word for someone who until then had looked unbeatable in the first weeks of Grand Slams as he hadn’t lost that early since the 2009 French Open. For someone who had made history again at this Wimbledon after clinching his second round win: he had now won 30 matches in a row in Grand Slams, the new record of the Open Era.
But truth is that, if physically Novak and his team were in London to play Wimbledon, mentally they maybe weren’t totally there. And at this level it’s about close margins at the top so if you blink, you’re done. Djokovic was blinking, and he couldn’t stop it even when he wanted to. The three weeks between Paris and London hadn’t helped that much, especially as the week after Paris had been a sort of coma. “After that win I went to the sea for holiday with my family,” Marian Vajda told me. “I was just lying there, and they were saying ‘Come on, move!’ but I stayed like that basically for one week (he lies on the couch, arms wide open). Completely out.” And, like Novak, he couldn’t compute exactly what had happened in Paris.
He knew it was big of course but it was so huge that his brain couldn’t fully take it in. “Had it sunk in? Probably not because next was Wimbledon, next was Rio and the US Open. Always something. We had a party and Boris was like ‘let’s go for another!’ and we were like ‘Boris, calm down please, we have just finished the French Open, I am tired, I can’t speak, I can’t even walk, I can’t lift anything, it was amazing, and you’re talking about Wimbledon!’ (Vajda has a laugh attack) That was Boris’ personality. But Novak wanted to enjoy what he had achieved. Up to that point we did excellent, but I think it’s normal that then he released himself completely. Too much, a little bit, but it’s normal.”
Sure, Becker wanted to think about Wimbledon, wanted to get ready to roar there too, but it wasn’t the complete image. Becker, too, was in a way stuck in Paris. There was this little voice in his mind that started to talk louder and louder. So maybe by pushing for Wimbledon, it was his way to fight that little voice. “After the final I wasn’t too emotional,” he told me. “I almost felt that it was the end of the road. I was alone at the hotel Molitor, having a last whisky, and then I was emotional because I felt also this ‘what’s next?’, ‘How can I motivate him or myself?’ Sure we got to Wimbledon, but it had this different vibe so I also felt that this is the end of the road.” Their road would end months later as Becker wouldn’t be head coach anymore at the start of the 2017 season. The little voice in his mind and probably Novak’s as well had won.
They took some time to fully understand each other but once it was done, around the 2014 Wimbledon victory, they became one of the most successful associations in tennis history. But their relationship was also intense, as Becker doesn’t hide the fact that coaching Novak Djokovic isn’t a walk in the park. “Novak is always very challenging, which keeps it fresh,” Becker told me with a smile. “There’s not a dull moment, there’s not one thing that we’ll do the same every week. That’s exhausting, stressful but that’s the exciting part: you never know what you’re going to get. You, as a coach, you have to improve as well, because whatever I said two years ago doesn’t work now. So it really keeps you on your toes.” There’s still a true fondness when Becker talks about Novak, something bordering on admiration too. Tennis legends recognize each other, no doubt about that.
This Wimbledon exit was a shock for Novak and the team, so it brought them brutally back to earth. Waking them up from that Paris dream. Like shaking them by the shoulders to open their eyes. And still they had tried their best to keep them open since Paris, but it was too hard, as Miljan Amanovic also recalls. They were swept into an emotional tornado and even if they knew it, they couldn’t really find the way out. “The day after the final, I was not aware of this, of all we had achieved... You’re already packing, going to the airport, coming back home. Then next day you are ready to jump into civilian life and then you forget it until you get people messaging you. And they are saying you can rest now, but in fact you can’t because Wimbledon is just around the corner. We didn’t have time to enjoy, to really feel it. People were calling me, sending texts saying ‘do you realize what you guys did! You must be proud!’ But there was no time! The momentum for feeling and for joy was not in that moment because next is Wimbledon and you have to refocus again. For me it’s easy. But for him, looking back at all he’s done...This took so much energy and it’s really hard to focus again. We tried our best for him not to feel we were nervous in Paris, and here now we were a bit more relaxed but at the same time, how not?” Indeed.
And it was something Djokovic really tried to fight against. It’s just that he simply couldn’t go on anymore, that at some point the struggle would overtake him as he explained to me through the 2017 clay season. “I was enjoying practice sessions, before Wimbledon, Olympic Games, after that and also at the end of the year where I was very much struggling to be mentally present but at the practice sessions I was there, completely, and I was enjoying, and I wasn’t overstressed. I was just right in that balance. But once I would start hearing the score and getting into the official match, I would start struggling to find that spark and drive. I was trying... I was going from one extreme to another: ‘OK, now I don’t care but I actually care and then I care too much’. I couldn’t really find a middle.”