Story highlightsFormer No. 1 Novak Djokovic has slipped to 22nd in rankings But he showed flashes of old form last week in Rome Boris Becker says quarterfinal result would be good for Djokovic Rafael Nadal is the heavy favorite to land record-extending 11th title
(CNN)If world rankings told the whole story, you’d think Novak Djokovic’s slump shows no signs of easing.
But the pure statistics might just be blurring the picture for the struggling 12-time grand slam champion. Follow @cnnsport Even though the Serb found himself outside the top 20 this week for the first time since he was a precocious 19-year-old in 2006, his last outing on a tennis court suggests a brighter future. And with the French Open starting Sunday, the upturn may well continue some five kilometers west of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, Djokovic says spirits are high heading into Roland Garros, the grand slam he conquered in 2016 for the last of his major titles. Read More”Looking back two or three months, this is the best that I’ve felt on the court, by far,” Djokovic, just turned 31, told reporters at the Italian Open Saturday after testing heavy French Open favorite Rafael Nadal before losing the semifinal 7-6 6-3.READ: Who can stop Rafael Nadal in Paris?‘Machine-like at brilliant best’Rome is dubbed the “Eternal City” and when Djokovic claimed the French Open to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight grand slams, it felt like his dominance would last forever.
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) May 19, 2018 His peak level arguably usurped his two main rivals at their best, Nadal and Roger Federer, against whom he still holds winning records. However, what he called “private issues,” an injury to his serving elbow that required surgery this year and seemingly a shift in attitude — the ruthlessness on court vanished — all contributed to the unexpected downturn. “The fact that he was machine like at his brilliant best, it was the total of hours, thousands and thousands of hours of practice,” six-time grand slam winner Boris Becker, part of Djokovic’s coaching setup in his heyday, told CNN Sport. “If you haven’t done that for a year or even longer, then ultimately even though it’s Novak Djokovic, a perfectionist, he will look ordinary. “And I think it’s not that easy being the best. You have to do a lot of sacrifices, a lot of repetition, a lot of work and that’s why only a few reach the summit.” READ: 10 best French restaurants in Paris Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?Rafa Nadal celebrates defeating Stan Wawrinka in last year’s French Open final to extend his record to 10 wins at Roland Garros in Paris.Hide Caption 1 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?Close to 15,000 people packed into Roland Garros’ Philippe-Chatrier court, the only main grand slam court without a roof, to watch Nadal make history as the only player in the modern era to win the same grand slam 10 times.Hide Caption 2 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?In 2017 a record 472,000 people attend the French Open, which oozes Parisian chic at is a springtime rite in the capital. Hide Caption 3 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?Players are often seen bashing the tournament’s signature red clay off their shoes. Hide Caption 4 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?Jelena Ostapenko won her first grand slam title at the French Open last year, defeating Simona Halep to become the first Latvian to win a major. Hide Caption 5 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?Serena Williams was absent from last year’s draw, but is set to make her first grand slam appearance since giving birth to her daughter as world No. 453. Hide Caption 6 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?Maria Sharapova has won two of her four grand slam titles in Paris, the most recent of which came in 2014. Hide Caption 7 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?Famous faces are often seen in the stands at Roland Garros. Actress Nicole Kidman is pictured here at last year’s men’s singles final. Hide Caption 8 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?No Frenchman has triumphed on home clay since Yannick Noah in 1983. Hide Caption 9 of 10 Photos: French Open 2018: Title No. 11 for Rafa?Nadal, who recently broke the record for most consecutive set wins on a single surface, is hot favorite to take this year’s title. Hide Caption 10 of 10Something had to giveDjokovic only won two small tournaments in 2017 — his last title was last July — and he has failed to exceed the quarterfinals at a major since the 2016 US Open.
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) May 22, 2018 This March, he fell in the second round of both Indian Wells and Miami, two of tennis’ most prestigious events, which he has won a combined 11 times. “I saw the matches in Miami and Indian Wells and I was a little bit worried,” added Becker.Something had to give — and it did for the man dubbed “Superman” in Serbia. Djokovic ended his partnership with tennis legend Andre Agassi in April. Out, too, went the flamboyant, former world No. 8 Radek Stepanek as his coach. Instead, he reunited with long-time coach Marian Vajda, as well as fitness trainer Gebhard “Phil” Gritsch. Djokovic’s relationship with Agassi had seemed an ideal fit since the American sustained a similar dip in his career before undergoing a renaissance that included three Australian Open titles. Melbourne was Djokovic’s stronghold through 2016. Agassi has also helped thousands of underprivileged children to get an education in Las Vegas, where he resides, and elsewhere in the US, and Djokovic’s foundation assists preschool aged children. READ: Why spring is the best time to visit ParisJUST WATCHEDNovak Djokovic wins French OpenReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH
Novak Djokovic wins French Open 01:26Acrimonious Agassi split?When Djokovic confirmed the coaching changes days later on his website, there was praise for Stepanek yet barely a mention of Agassi. The 48-year-old Agassi said in a statement to ESPN that the pair “too often found ourselves agreeing to disagree.””I don’t know anything that went on but you have two of the greats who have every right to have strong views about the game and how to go about being one’s best,” Todd Martin, another ex coach of Djokovic’s and Agassi’s former Davis Cup teammate, told CNN Sport.”You’ve got west at the ‘nth’ degree coming from Vegas and the east. “And then you have lives. Andre has forged an amazing life for himself, both with his family and with his work in education.”If they agreed to disagree, that’s a big sacrifice and that doesn’t make any sense for someone like Andre.” JUST WATCHEDAndre Agassi: Graf pushed me to coach NovakReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH
Andre Agassi: Graf pushed me to coach Novak 04:20An interview request made for Agassi by CNN.com was declined by one of his representatives. Djokovic and Vajda, meanwhile, share a close bond. Martin witnessed it in the eight months he spent coaching Djokovic with Vajda beginning in 2009. “Marian has been there for him through thick and thin from a very early age and their relationship is father-son, older brother-younger brother, uncle-nephew, and everything in between,” said the twice grand slam finalist. “There’s a lot of emotion in that relationship.”Becker was “happy” to see Djokovic’s old gang back, although he ruled out his own return. Now the head of men’s tennis in Germany and a mentor to world No. 3 Alexander “Sascha” Zverev, he said: “I don’t read a very, very good book twice.”READ: Rafael Nadal — ‘Living with pain and painkillers since 2005’ Photos: The King of Clay over the yearsA lot has changed since a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal became only the second man in history to win Roland Garros at the first attempt. The bulging biceps, long hair and headband remain, but the Spaniard’s sense of style has certainly changed.Hide Caption 1 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2005 – Nadal went into his first French Open as an inexperienced 18-year-old and emerged a grand slam champion — beating Roger Federer in the semifinals on his 19th birthday. The 2005 season was the birth of what would go on to be Nadal’s classic look: sleeveless top and three-quarter length shorts.Hide Caption 2 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2006 – By the following year, Nadal had cemented his place among tennis’ elite and was developing a fearsome reputation on clay. This time wearing a slightly less garish light blue, Nadal picked up his second consecutive French Open title by becoming the first man to beat Roger Federer in a grand slam final.Hide Caption 3 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2007 – In 2007, the then 20-year-old Nadal’s status as the ‘King of Clay’ was sealed. Defeat to Federer at the Masters Series in Hamburg ended an 81-match unbeaten streak on clay, which remains a men’s Open Era record today. At that year’s French Open, Nadal opted for the reverse of 2006’s top-bandana combo — this time with matching trainers to boot.Hide Caption 4 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2008 – A year later, Nadal opted for a variation on his debut French Option look, this time sporting an all-green combo. Nadal reached world No. 1 for the first time in his career in 2008, helped by his fourth consecutive Roland Garros title — matching Bjorn Borg’s record of consecutive trophies, while also becoming only the seventh man to win a grand slam without dropping a set.Hide Caption 5 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2009 – Nadal’s first dramatic transformation came in 2009. Gone were the sleeveless shirts and three-quarter lengths, in came the sleeves and fluorescent, clashing colors. Perhaps it was the sleeves restricting the powerful arms (or maybe a knee injury), but Nadal suffered the first of only two French Open defeats. Despite a shock fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling, Nadal set a record of 31 consecutive wins at Roland Garros.Hide Caption 6 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2010 – In 2010, Nadal bounced back from the 2009 disappointment with a daring multicolored number. He went on to exact revenge on Soderling, beating him in the final after the Swede had upset Federer in the quarterfinals. Federer’s failure to reach the semis meant Nadal regained the world No. 1 spot, while it was also the second time he won the French Open without dropping a set.Hide Caption 7 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2011 – The following year, Nadal dialed down the brightness, instead choosing to return to one of his earliest Roland Garros styles. And it worked — he maintained his No. 1 ranking throughout the clay court season and beat perennial rival Federer in the final.Hide Caption 8 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2012 – Perhaps in an attempt to gain the upper hand on opponents by blending into the clay, Nadal opted for an orange-ish-red look for the first time at the French Open. It appeared to work, as Nadal dropped just 30 games in the first five rounds, before beating Djokovic in four sets in the final to claim his seventh Roland Garros title and surpass Borg as the tournament’s most successful player.Hide Caption 9 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2013 – The 2013 French Open was the debut of Nadal’s latest wardrobe change: the short shorts. In an all-Spanish final, Nadal defeated David Ferrer in straight sets — although bizarrely dropped from fourth in the world to fifth after his victory.Hide Caption 10 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2014 – Perhaps a sign of entering into his late 20s, Nadal’s colors switched from fluorescent to more mellow tones. Despite being hampered by injuries and suffering surprise defeats early in the clay court season, Nadal grinded out arguably his most impressive Roland Garros victory. Another victory in the final against Djokovic took him to 14 grand slams (level with Pete Sampras) and it was his fifth straight French Open triumph.Hide Caption 11 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2015 – Nadal’s struggle to find form continued into 2015’s clay court season, dropping outside of the world’s top five for the first time since 2005. Looking like an athletic version of the Cookie Monster, Nadal crashed out of the French Open in the quarterfinals to Djokovic. It ended his 39-match unbeaten run and marked just his second defeat on the Parisian clay.Hide Caption 12 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2016 – The following year, the shorts got even shorter and the two-tone top returned as Nadal exited the French Open in the third round — although this time it was a wrist injury that defeated him. Despite the disappointment, there was another milestone for Nadal as he became only the eighth man to reach 200 grand slam wins.Hide Caption 13 of 14 Photos: The King of Clay over the years2017 – Nadal debuted his strong blue look against Benoit Paire in the first round and the King of Clay went on to complete “‘La Decima” of 10 Roland Garros titles.Hide Caption 14 of 14 Paris breakthrough Despite the promising showing in Rome, a French Open rematch against an in-form Nadal is a different proposition.However, in his pomp, Djokovic tormented Nadal: He compiled a pair of seven-match winning streaks against the Spaniard. And although he faded in the second set in Rome, Djokovic believes there was little to separate him and the “King of Clay.” “I don’t think that there was too much of a difference, which is great for me, because Rafa is, of course, the best player ever to play tennis on clay courts,” said Djokovic. “I thought the level of my tennis was very high.”JUST WATCHEDBoris Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon quizReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH
Boris Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon quiz 01:30Martin doesn’t discount a Djokovic run past the quarterfinals in Paris, assuming he benefits from a gentle start to the fortnight. “I think the resiliency on the physical side, which leads into the resiliency of the emotional side of things, will dictate his success,” said Martin, the chief executive of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. “If he can win his first nine out of 10 sets or similar, then I could see him doing a little bit better” than the last eight. How far will Djokovic go in Paris? Have your say on our Facebook page Becker says a quarterfinal result in Paris would mark a “total success.” Anything more and it’s a “breakthrough.” Visit CNN.com/tennis for more news, features and videos “And I wish him nothing but the best,” said Becker. “If he plays against anyone, I want him to win — except Sascha Zverev.”