It started with a few upsets. Novak Djokovic, the all-time No. 1 earner in men’s tennis history, lost in the second round of the 2017 Australian Open. He failed to get past third and fourth rounds respectively in his next two matches at the Mexican Open and Indian Wells Masters.
The final straw came after a quarterfinals loss to David Goffin at the Monte-Carlo Open. A year before, he held all four Grand Slam championships, but his play was dwindling fast. He decided to jettison his old coach Marian Vajda in May 2017, as well as fitness coach Gebhard Phil Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic.
Despite previously helping the Serb to 12 Grand Slam titles, Vajda had to go in order to, as Djokovic put it, “find the winning spark on the court again.” Only weeks later, he announced the end of his 2017 season due to elbow injury, stating that he would be coached by the legendary Andre Agassi.
Vajda, originally born in the old Czechoslovakia but a resident of Slovakia, had jumped onboard team Novak in 2006, overseeing the bulk of Djokovic’s success. As a player, he won two ATP tour titles, sported a 119-152 record and made Slovakia’s Davis Cup team in 1994.
He found a rebirth in his tennis career as a coach, but had previous issues being Djokovic’s main coach. In 2013, the Serb briefly inserted Boris Becker as his head coach, while Vajda remained on the training staff. This set up the seeds for Vajda’s and Djokovic’s separation in 2017.
The early returns didn’t go well.
The injury continued to be an issue, so he underwent surgery in Jan. 2018. As Djokovic admitted, the elbow had been a problem for the better part of two years. When he emerged from the ailment in April 2018 at the Monte-Carlo Masters, Vajda was by his side again.
What happened? Djokovic lost belief in himself, as his time with Agassi led to the worst record in his career and diminishing health. In addition, Vajda notes that his mentee’s mental strength was diminished due to Pepe Imaz, a spiritual guide often ridiculed as a “hugging guru” by Tennis 365.
When Djokovic called Vajda to gauge interest in reuniting, getting rid of people such as Imaz was a key condition.
“Yes, I wanted to quit (working with Imaz), although that was not my primary condition,” continued Vajda. “The first condition was to see Novak personally.
“He called me from the Dominican Republic. We talked for around an hour. I caught him full of doubt. Novak asked me what I thought of his tennis. He was not sure about the way his game should look. He suggested I could coach him again. He felt he could not find the right team.”
After some struggles on the clay, Djokovic finally started returning to form. He reached the final of the Queen’s Club Championships, losing in five sets to Marian Cilic. Soon after, he added a Grand Slam title to his belt at Wimbledon.
He needed to oust rival Rafael Nadal in the semifinals in a five-set marathon that lasted two days. Winning that was key to his recent confidence boost, says Vajda.
“The biggest change for him, I think, was his win over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon,” he told Ubitennis. “It was an unbelievable match. I think after that he got belief and lost the fear of losing.”
A few months later, Djokovic won the U.S. Open over Juan Martin del Potro. As the calendar turned to 2019, he won in straight sets over Nadal at the Australian Open. The redemption arc was officially complete.
“I’ve known him for many years, but I never expected him to return back to that way so fast,” Vajda told Ubitennis. “I had a feeling that I was starting all over again with a new Novak because he had doubts after the (elbow) injury.
“The toughest part was the comparison between now and the past. He always compared himself to a champion and it took a while to get there.”
For his efforts, Vajda won the 2018 ATP Coach of the Year.
Against Federer on Sunday, it’s not just about redemption. It’s about continuing to track down the Swiss’ Grand Slam titles record. With Federer at 20 and Djokovic now at 15, the chase is afoot.