Sports

Novak Djokovic: From career grand slam to 'crisis'

Tennis star fired coaching staff, hired Agassi

(CNN) - Novak Djokovic fell to the clay and looked to the sky --- after three hours on court, the elusive French Open title was finally his at the third time of asking.

There were no tears like Roger Federer seven years before him, but this was a moment in history and the boy from Belgrade had become the first player to simultaneously hold all four grand slam titles since Rod Laver in 1969.

"I remember how difficult it was to arrive at that moment," Djokovic told CNN, reflecting on his 2016 triumph ahead of this year's tournament --- which starts Sunday.

"The hours, commitment, and practice. Several years of not managing to make that final step. And then finally being able to make it and sharing that with the closest people in my life.

"It was an unforgettable moment."

Djokovic had fought back from a set down to beat an ascendant Andy Murray, calling upon all his steel and reserve, arriving at the pinnacle of his sport.

But while the outside world looked on and marveled, it would not prove easy to keep on climbing.

In the 12 months since, Djokovic has failed to add to that long-awaited 12th grand slam title, surrendering his world No. 1 ranking to Murray in the process.

In a bid to arrest his decline, Djokovic recently parted ways with his entire coaching team. He's turned to Andre Agassi, hoping for some form of "shock therapy" as he plots his path back to the top.

"I am experiencing a little bit of a crisis, if you want to call it that," he admitted, having confronted what he calls "the other direction" after five years of success.

Djokovic, who turned 30 earlier this month, believes that "finally being able to make it" in tennis' only clay-court grand slam may have diminished his motivation going forward.

"It was a lot of anticipation, expectations and pressure building up each year that I was coming back," he reflected. "It brought a lot of joy but also a lot of relief."

Murray acknowledged the magnitude of Djokovic's four consecutive grand slams at the time, telling the crowd "This has not happened for an extremely long time and will take a long time to happen again."

The Scot was resilient in defeat, stressing "This is his day today."

Not many would have predicted Murray would end the year world No. 1.

Typically, Djokovic would "bounce back" from big finals --- whether victory or gut-wrenching defeat --- "quickly recharging batteries" to return to the court.

He is the first to acknowledge how "very fortunate" he's been to have achieved so much, ever since "practically the beginning" of his career.

But this time something was different.

"There were so many emotions involved and so many things that were on the line," he said. "When I was able to achieve that, I was just so empty."

Djokovic needed time to recuperate and take stock of what he had achieved.

Instead, he was launched straight into the defense of his 2015 Wimbledon crown, before a trip to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics.

And he simply couldn't cope, crashing out to world No. 28 Sam Querrey at the All England Club before falling --- this time in tears --- at the first hurdle to Juan Martin del Potro in the Olympic tennis tournament.

"Superman never loses," they lamented in his native Serbia, bemused and shaken by their hero's new-found fallibility.

But it kept getting worse.

And when he was sent packing from this year's Australian Open in the second round by unheralded wildcard Denis Istomin --- departing at the earliest stage of any grand slam since 2009 --- Djokovic was haunted by doubts he would ever be the same again.

"It's all part of the sport," he shrugged. "I'm feeling much better now than I was maybe three or four months ago. I'm excited to go back to Paris again, obviously.

"It's been a year and it feels like it was yesterday."

'The King of Clay'

It's no coincidence Djokovic won that elusive French Open crown in the year nine-time winner Rafael Nadal withdrew with a left wrist injury in the third round.

The Spaniard, dubbed the "King of Clay," has only ever lost two matches at Roland Garros.

Djokovic has nothing but respect for his rival as he looks ahead to a possible meeting in Paris.

"It's quite incredible that he's going for his 10th title," he enthused. "Rafa has been so dominant there.

The world No. 2 has of course enjoyed his own preeminence on the tour --- not least in Melbourne where he is tied with the great Roy Emerson on six men's grand slams --- but few have ever mastered a surface like Nadal.

"He's been playing some extraordinary tennis this year, very high quality," says Djokovic. "He's definitely going to be the player to beat. He always is and he always was on clay especially in Roland Garros.

"It's going to be an exciting tournament."


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