MONACO — Everything Novak Djokovic does on the tennis court right now should come with the disclaimer: “Let’s wait and see.” At least the former World No. 1, who hasn’t been so since Nov. 2016, seems to be moving in the right direction again.
Call them baby steps, but on Monday at the picturesque Rolex Monte Carlo Masters, Djokovic cruised to a 6-0, 6-1 win over fellow Serb Dusan Lajovic, who seemed happy enough to abide by some unwritten rule that to beat Serbia’s greatest ever would be downright rude.
All out of sorts the last time he stepped onto the match court in a loss to Benoit Paire in Miami, Djokovic looked more solid and confident than he has since beginning his comeback in Australia after six months away with an elbow injury. The problem is, it’s hard to get a read on exactly how Djokovic is really feeling.
Having had a “small surgical intervention” to help his elbow at the start of February, Djokovic said in Miami that he was finally pain-free, but then on Monday revealed that actually, he had still been feeling discomfort in both events and that he had tried to come back too soon.
“(Now) after two years finally I can play without pain,” he said. “Indian Wells, Miami, especially Indian Wells, was not like that. Indian Wells and Miami were really kind of a struggle on the court for me mentally. I know that I can play much better than that, but I couldn’t. I just wasn’t ready. And that’s it.”
There was satisfaction at his performance but listening to him, it was almost like he was priming himself for a fall, knowing there may be more false dawns before he gets back anywhere close to the level he attained while dominating the sport a few years ago.
“I personally feel, and I know that you can also see it from outside, that I’m lacking more of the match play, more of the situations of, you know, competition, playing out points in an official match,” Djokovic said.
“Under the circumstances and considering I haven’t played too many official matches, I thought I played well, started the tournament well. It’s first match on clay. It’s against a very good friend of mine, who obviously hasn’t played at his best, was making a lot of mistakes. Still, I thought all in all, it was a great start of the tournament.”
It was in Monte Carlo this time last year when Djokovic made the decision to split with his long-term coach and mentor Marian Vajda, as well as two other members of his team. A year on and Vajda is back, at least for this week, and when Vajda’s there, all seems happy in Camp Novak.
“It’s a fresh start I think for both of us,” Djokovic said. “I missed him. I have a feeling that he missed me or tennis or both. He knows me better than any tennis coach I’ve worked with. He’s a friend. He’s someone I can share a lot of things with, whether it’s professional or private life. He’s always there for me. He knows me inside out. He knows what I need in order to get to the highest possible level of play. We could not ask for a better start.”
The return of Vajda comes hot off the back of the departure of Andre Agassi, who told ESPN at Miami that they would no longer be working together, adding that they often disagreed on things. Djokovic was at pains to explain that Agassi never had an official contract, that he was only really helping him because he wanted to. Their split — not that he called it that — was amicable, Djokovic said.
There is no long-term commitment yet, but Djokovic must be counting himself lucky that Vajda has been willing to return a year after effectively being dumped. Liked and admired on the Tour, Vajda is a calming influence and someone who understands Djokovic and helped get him to the top.
If Djokovic truly is pain-free and free of fear of injury, then he is on the right track. We’ll get a better idea of his state of mind — and body — when he plays his second-round match on Tuesday against Borna Coric, the Croatian who is on the verge of the world’s top 30.