Is it desperation or determination, that is the question
Depending on how you interpret a sportsman’s decision to break successful habits of old, it is possible to view Novak Djokovic’s acceptance of a wild-card into the Aegon International held at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne, in one of two ways. You might be part of the camp that perceives Djokovic as passionately determined to regain his form on grass before competing in the most revered event on the tennis calendar, doing everything in his power to give himself the best possible chance of winning the Wimbledon Singles Championship for a fourth time. It is easy to see the intuitive appeal of this line of thought. Djokovic hadn’t planned to play any Wimbledon warm-up event, but felt compelled to do so for the first time in seven years because he felt that he is literally having his worse season since, well… 2010. On the other hand, you might be persuaded by a more Swiftian view that would condemn Djokovic for ‘vulturing’ Eastbourne; in other words, criticizing the world No.4 for attempting to pick up easy points against sub-par competition and avoiding a sterner test of his abilities. This would apply to you if you consider the idea of 2017 Djokovic being a serious contender for Wimbledon as totally far-fetched. There is a smidgen of truth to this sentiment. Realistically speaking, Djokovic could easily have played against a middling field in Stuttgart or ‘s-Hertogenbosch if he wanted to build some confidence on the turf before confronting a tougher challenge at either Queen’s or Halle.
In actuality, the intentions behind Djokovic’s choice to play the Aegon International, as well as other choices he has made in recent months, have proved inscrutable. The sequence of events starting with Djokovic firing his entire coaching team, then hurriedly collaborating with Andre Agassi at the French Open and ending with him surrendering, for lack of a better word, his French Open title to Dominic Thiem, was puzzling to watch unfold. In addition, there is the small matter of what to make of Pepe Imaz, Novak’s spiritual-guru-turned-travelling-companion, whose influence seems to have impacted the Serb’s psychological orientation to a significant degree. There are a lot of questions surrounding the 12-time Grand Slam winner’s commitment to tennis that remain unanswered and my feeling is that Djokovic himself is still undecided as to where his priorities lie.
Djokovic had the following to say about the ATP 250 tournament in Eastbourne: “This will be my first trip to Eastbourne, I have heard great things about the tournament,” a statement which doesn’t reveal much about where he is at mentally and physically as Wimbledon approaches. Perhaps it is for his own good that he is treating the Aegon International like just another tournament instead of heaping pressure on himself by announcing that he is ‘back’ and ready to unleash his best form. Bravado is not what Djokovic needs right now; instead, an objective assessment of his circumstances will help to reveal whatever troubles are holding him back. Such a process is one that Andre Agassi, his interim coach and mentor, can surely assist him in.
Whether or not Djokovic is the undisputed favourite to lift the trophy at Eastbourne is a topic up for discussion. He is seeded first, Gael Monfils second and a trio of Americans, John Isner, Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey make up the rest of the top five seeds. Djokovic receives a first-round bye and will be hoping to kick-start his tournament with a win over Vasek Pospisil, an opponent whom he has a perfect record against in terms of sets and matches won. Assuming he takes care of Pospisil, Djokovic will then be pitted against an American hopeful in the quarters: Donald Young or Jared Donaldson.
If he wins the title at Eastbourne convincingly, Djokovic should be considered the third most likely of the big four to win Wimbledon. Whatever transpires in the next seven days, he is definitely behind Federer on the list of favourites and, by dint of the natural compatibility of his game with the low bouncing lawns, Andy Murray as well. Rafael Nadal was unstoppable during the dirt-ball season but be wary of being fooled- the king of clay has not been sighted at the second week of Wimbledon since 2011.The decline in the quality of his first serve return has been masked on the clay and slow hard courts up to now; should he run into someone who can exploit this weakness, another first week exit isn’t beyond the pale of my imagination. If he manages to survive into the second week, then Nadal’s chances increase substantially. I still put Djokovic ahead of Nadal on grass but only by a hair because his return game is not what it used to be. It will be easier to make predictions once the draw is announced but speculatively, this is how I would rate Djokovic’s hopes of winning a 13th slam in three weeks’ time if he impresses at Eastbourne.
Another point of interest
The Aspall Tennis Classic at the Hurlingham Club will get underway this week, with top-tenners Murray, Nadal, Milos Raonic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all confirmed to be participating in the exhibition event. Like the Boodles Tennis Challenge, which will be attended by Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and Juan Martin Del Potro, the Aspall Tennis Classic is a less pressurized means to fit in some reasonably competitive match play before Wimbledon.