Novak Djokovic Reunites With an Old Coach and Rediscovers His Game

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The outcome of the vote in Marian Vajda’s household in Bratislava, Slovakia, was clear.

It was late March, and all were in favor of Novak Djokovic shaking free of his tennis crisis and returning to the fore. All were in favor of Vajda agreeing to return as Djokovic’s coach after being dismissed less than a year earlier.

“Frankly, they all said that they have a desire to see Novak back again; they said they didn’t see him for a long time on TV,” Vajda said with a booming laugh.

Vajda was speaking in the main Roland Garros players lounge on Sunday after Djokovic had reached the French Open quarterfinals with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Fernando Verdasco of Spain that was not quite as routine as it reads (the first three games alone required 29 minutes).

Djokovic, the 31-year-old Serb who dominated the sport as recently as 2016, is still quite a few big victories from re scaling the summit. He arrived at this French Open seeded 20th, his worst seeding at a Grand Slam tournament since 2006.

Yet there is cause for renewed optimism for Djokovic, which was hardly the case in March as he crashed out of the BNP Paribas Open in Wells and the Miami Open without winning a round.

It seems no coincidence that his run to the semifinals at the Italian Open and return to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros are happening with Vajda back on his team.

Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s longtime coach, pointed to the recent results of Djokovic and Maria Sharapova as evidence that coaching is too often underestimated. Sharapova, who will face Williams on Monday in the fourth round, recently reunited with former coach Thomas Hogstedt, the hard-driving Swede who once helped her return to No. 1 after shoulder surgery.

Cecchinato, who returned to the tour in 2017, declined to discuss that situation after his victory over Goffin. He is certainly no favorite against a resurgent Djokovic. The bigger test would come in the semifinals, where Djokovic would face the winner of the new-wave duel between Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, the two best clay-court players this season not named Nadal.

Thiem beat Nadal in Madrid before losing to Zverev in the final. Zverev then pushed Nadal to three sets in the Italian Open final and arrived in Paris as the No. 2 seed.

But Zverev, a powerful 21-year-old with a complete game, had never reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal until now. To do it, he has had to win three straight five-set matches, rallying from two sets to one down in all of them and defeating Karen Khachanov, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, on Sunday.

It is one thing to be told repeatedly that you have the potential to go deep in a Grand Slam; it’s quite another to actually go out and prove it in best-of-five-set matches under more intense scrutiny than in regular tour events.

“His motion, there was a lot of good things but also some things I didn’t like biomechanically,” Vajda said, adding that the motion Djokovic is using in Roland Garros allows him to hit kick serves more effectively.

Most important, he said, Djokovic was feeling no pain and tennis is truly a top priority. When Vajda rejoined him on April 5 for training in Marbella, Spain, Roland Garros was their first major target.

“I told him he’s not going to be 100 percent, and he’s still not 100 percent,” Vajda said. “He’s maybe 80 percent of his potential, but he’s working constantly, continuously for two months already.”

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