Novak Djokovic surprised everyone when he announced the hiring of six-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker as his new head coach on Wednesday. Marian Vajda, Djokovic’s coach since 2006, will remain with the team but will cede the main job to Becker, who has never had a notable coaching appointment before.
The news left me scratching my head. Here are five questions that keep swirling:
The last two high-profile hires of former Grand Slam champions came from two people who very clearly needed a change and a boost. When Andy Murray hired Ivan Lendl at the end of 2011, he had stalled out trying to break through to win his first major and was the odd man out from the ATP’s Big Three. This past summer, when Maria Sharapova surprisingly hired Jimmy Connors after Wimbledon, she was coachless and looking for someone to fill that role.
Djokovic is far from either of those situations. His highly successful partnership with Vajda continued through the 2013 season. Sure, there were those disappointing losses to Rafael Nadal at the French Open and U.S. Open, and a few more bad losses outside of the Slams than he was used to. But he finished the season in the right way, going on a 24-0 tear and solving Nadal twice. In other words, there was no cause for concern around the Djokovic camp going into 2014, which makes this seem like an unnecessary gamble.
What we don’t know is where Vajda’s head was in all this. Peter Bodo of Tennis.com speculates that Vajda may have been burned out after seven years of traveling the globe with Djokovic. That’s definitely plausible. During the last two years, Vajda has taken a few weeks off here and there to stay home with his family while Djokovic played tournaments. If that’s the case, the move makes more sense and any questions as to how Vajda feels about being put in the garage for a flashier model would be addressed.
The reaction on Twitter has been along the lines of “Wow. That’s interesting. We’ll have to wait and see how that pans out.”
Djokovic is clearly hoping Becker can emulate Lendl's success with Murray – it's a bold, exciting but risky move ..—
Russell Fuller (@russellcfuller) December 18, 2013
Becker to make it his first priority to come up with a stategy for winning this year's French Open. ('Don't touch the net.')—
Kamakshi Tandon (@Kamakshi_Tandon) December 18, 2013
Is this Sharapova/Connors 2.0?
I’ll just come out and say it: Djokovic/Becker is no Lendl/Murray. Lendl came in at a time when Murray had yet to win a Slam. In that way, Lendl was the perfect mentor. “I’ve been there, kid. I know what it takes. Trust me.” And trust him Murray did. But Djokovic is a multi-Slam winner who is chasing a trophy, the French Open, where Becker never even made the final.
Put two champions in a room, and there’s going to be some ego with which to deal. The ego issue is one that people keyed into quickly when Sharapova hired Connors. Can these two intense and ambitious people find a way to work with each other toward a common goal? Again, the Murray/Lendl partnership brought together two people who didn’t love the limelight and were just about the tennis. It was easy to see why that would work. It’ll be interesting to see how Djokovic, a born entertainer who seems to enjoy the attention, handles Becker.
Will Becker have an impact on the mental side?
Becker isn’t known for being a tactical or technical master. He was a fireball on court and a world-class competitor (sounds a bit like Djokovic, doesn’t it?) who was famous for his ruthless killer instinct. That killer instinct is what was missing from Djokovic through the first three-quarters of the season, when he suffered some surprising losses after first putting himself in a winning position. Aside from the loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, where he led 4-2 in the fifth set, there was the loss to Juan Martin del Potro at the BNP Paribas Open, where Djokovic led 3-0 in the third set, and the loss to Tomas Berdych at the Italian Open, where the Serb led 6-2, 5-2.
Is Becker ready to get back into the grind of the tour?
Becker has reportedly committed to be at all four Slams in 2014, as well as Dubai, Miami, Rome, Cincinnati, Shanghai, Paris and London. In addition to attending tournaments, there’s also the issue of working with Djokovic during training blocks. Is the 46-year-old German ready for all of that? He’s spent much of the last decade serving as a BBC commentator and a spokesperson for poker and gambling companies while shaping himself into a TV personality. This is going to be a huge change. I honestly can’t imagine seeing Becker sitting under a towel for four hours while Djokovic grinds out a match under the searing Melbourne sun.
Will the hire help Djokovic’s image in Western Europe?
It’s a tertiary thought, but Becker really could help Djokovic get more of a PR presence in Western Europe. When it comes to brand building, being associated with such a popular figure in the region is no small endorsement in its own way. The spotlight always seems to find Becker. It wouldn’t hurt Djokovic’s image at all to get in on that.