Novak Djokovic reminded everyone that he is still a major force to be reckoned with as he won the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells on Sunday, holding off a rejuvenated Roger Federer in the final to win his first title of 2014. His first few months of the year have been dominated by his appointment of Boris Becker as “head coach” but it was his long-serving coach, Marian Vajda, who was present in the desert and perhaps that says a lot.
Djokovic and Vajda have been together for almost a decade and the Slovak has been absolutely integral to the Serb’s success. Laid-back and calm, nothing seems to faze him, not even the apparent “demotion” to a back seat behind Becker, who was front and centre, in front of the cameras and behind them, in Australia at the start of the year.
The line from the Djokovic camp, when Becker was hired, was that the German would add that extra mental edge he needed to win more grand slam titles. Vajda would take a step back and only travel to a handful of tournaments, enjoying the extra time with his family.
It always struck me as odd that Djokovic should appoint Becker, not just because the German has no coaching experience (in reality he is probably more of a sounding-block than actual coach) but because there was very little wrong with his game. The desire to always improve is admirable and vital, of course, but it was not as if Djokovic was struggling. He won one grand slam title in 2013, reached the final of two others and but for a brain freeze in the final set of the semi-finals of the French Open against Rafa Nadal, might well have won that, too, completing the career grand slam in the process.
If Djokovic thinks Becker can help, then that’s half the battle, a placebo effect, almost. Apparently, Becker and Vajda are in regular contact and the Serb is wise enough to keep Vajda on side, for you never know when he may need him on a full-time basis again. It happened when Djokovic hired Todd Martin a few years ago and the Slovak was humble enough to accept the situation. In this age of superstar, multi-millionaire players (and sometimes coaches), it’s refreshing and surprising to find someone willing to take a back seat, perhaps to see the bigger picture. Vajda must have very little ego, and that’s impressive.
Djokovic is not yet playing the tennis he was over the past few years but winning in Indian Wells will have been a massive confidence boost for him and Vajda should take at least some of the credit. The world No 2 was able to find a way through and dig deep when he needed to, not panic in the face of potential defeat.
For the time-being, Becker is the main man, though, as Djokovic said after his win over Federer. “People (will) of course always question if Boris should be there or not be there now that Marian, the first tournament he won the title with me, and Boris didn’t do that in Australia and Dubai,” he said.
“But it’s the start of the season. We are all working together as a team. It doesn’t make any difference now. Boris is the head coach and Marian respects that, I respect that, and we hope for success.
“Marian is definitely somebody that knows me so well, and I won every title in my life with him. We have been working together for eight years, and he’s been more than just a coach to me. He’s a great support, a mentor, an older brother, a father, whatever you want to call it. We have a great relationship. He knows me very well. And Boris is new to our team, so it’s still a process of getting to know each other.”
Djokovic is ambitious and hungry for more titles and is ruthless enough to make changes when he thinks he needs them. The chances are that at some stage, he and Becker will part ways. He’s lucky then, that Vajda is there when he needs him.