Can Djokovic find his way back to greatness?


Novak Djokovic stood on the red dirt floor of court Philippe Chatrier, bruised, battered and utterly forlorn. It was almost over.

A year ago -- at almost exactly the same time -- he was poised to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time, a feat that would render his career Grand Slam complete. Now the defending French Open champion was about to lose his 2017 quarterfinal to 23-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem. There was no coach in his player guest box, no physio or trainer. Just stony-faced family members and Pepe Imaz, a spiritualist.

Once famous for pounding his chest, ripping open his shirt or bellowing with alpha-dog rage, Djokovic was about to lose in straight sets, 6-0 in the third. He was giving up. Quitting. No mas. Nowhere to turn for help.

The collapse was all the more poignant because this was meant to be the tournament where Djokovic -- with the help of a one-man cavalry comprised of Andre Agassi -- was going to turn his frustrating season around. He was going to prove that his recent struggles were more of a glitch than a crash -- a mere reaction to his glut of recent success. The French Open was his last chance to avoid the awful question that had been hanging over his career like an ominous storm cloud: Where does Novak Djokovic go from here?

Literally, the answer is Wimbledon, which is where Djokovic's troubles began last year. He was upset in the third round by Sam Querrey amid sensational rumors (later confirmed if not explained by Djokovic) of a crisis in his private life. That was the beginning of Djokovic's great unraveling.

Djokovic lost the 2016 US Open final to Stan Wawrinka and, not long afterward, ceded his No. 1 world ranking to Andy Murray. Leading up to Roland Garros he'd won just one tournament, a minor event in the first week of the year. The French Open would be a great place to begin reweaving the tapestry.

It didn't happen. Djokovic just doesn't seem ready to compete with a mind fully dedicated to the task at hand. He resembles a reluctant warrior who, rather than slumping, has become preoccupied with what some might call his "personal journey." Hardly a press conference passes without Djokovic waxing philosophical about "evolving" or life in general.

This deep dive into his own psyche is one of the main reasons Djokovic was so keen to bring Andre Agassi aboard as his coach. It is also why Agassi decided to help Djokovic, in whom Agassi undoubtedly saw traces of his former self: a disenchanted, confused person seeking something more than he was getting out of tennis and life.

As Djokovic told reporters at the Rome Masters: "Also [Agassi is] someone that nurtures the family values, philanthropy work. He's a very humble man, is very educated. He's a person that can contribute to my life on and off the court a lot. I'm very excited to see what is ahead of us."

Djokovic's hunger for guidance raises a very real, practical problem. Just how much time and energy is Agassi willing to devote to a mentoring Djokovic, and how comfortable would Agassi be with any kind of serious exposure to Djokovic's way of life? If Agassi was a rebel who had a dysfunctional relationship with his father, Mike, the Djokovics run a tight family operation. That may even be part of Djokovic's basic problem.

Agassi leads a rich life filled with activities unrelated to tennis. It's hard to imagine him spending a great deal of time sitting in a tournament guest box chit-chatting with Djokovic's omnipresent parents or the resident guru, Imaz.

Boris Becker, Djokovic's former coach, has already sounded some alarms about the Serb's immediate future. Commenting on Eurosport a few days ago, he pointed out that Agassi had left Paris by the time Djokovic lost to Thiem because he had other obligations.

Becker added, "[Djokovic] has to find a new tour coach. It is said that there were conversations with some coaches who will support him, but this has to happen fast and not during Wimbledon, because Djokovic has to take advantage of the next three or four weeks to come back."

But Djokovic might not share Becker's sense of urgency. He's been talking a lot about "life" during these difficult times -- a period when another player in his shoes might be zeroed in on less universal themes, like forehands, backhands and fitness.

Djokovic told reporters as he left Paris that he was hoping to get together with Agassi at Wimbledon. That isn't much of a plan, but then Djokovic doesn't seem to be very sure of what he wants or where he goes from here, either in tennis or -- as he keeps saying -- "life."

It's often said that you have to hit rock bottom before you start back for the top. It doesn't sound as though Djokovic has touched bottom yet. That's the challenge of a deep dive.