He’s hit every high there is in tennis, but the in the past few months Novak Djokovic has also had to endure some of the lows. They say the only way is down once you reach the top, but the Serbian insisted on Thursday that he is as hungry as ever and determined to fight his way back to the pinnacle of the sport.
Djokovic was seemingly unstoppable as of June 2016. He finally achieved his lifelong dream of winning Roland Garros, completing the career Grand Slam, and had a healthy lead on his closest competitors in the Emirates ATP Rankings. But a shock third-round loss to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon led to a frustrating second half of the season.
By anyone else’s standards, it was still a hugely successful campaign for Djokovic, winning the Toronto crown and finishing runner-up at the US Open and ATP Finals. But the Serbian admitted he was not himself on court as he surrendered the No. 1 spot in the Emirates ATP Rankings to Andy Murray at the end of the season.
"I don't regret things in life,” said Djokovic, who was in a reflective mood at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. “Maybe I should have had a longer break after Roland Garros, to have more time to recharge emotionally in every aspect of my being. It didn't happen, I kept on going and I don't regret it because I believe there was a lesson to be learned from that.
“I think having those four or five months in the second half of 2016 was actually very important for me, for my growth as a player and as a human being. I learned a lot. I keep going. I'm obviously motivated to keep playing on a very high level.
“I had a couple of months where I wasn't myself on the court and now I'm in a better place,” the Belgrade native continued. “I hope and believe that I'm heading in the right direction.”
Djokovic started 2017 on the right note, beating Murray in the Doha final. But despite a second-round exit to Denis Istomin at the Australian Open and defeat to Nick Kyrgios last week in Acapulco, Djokovic is satisfied he has the right feelings again on the tennis court.
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"I feel much better in terms of game, in terms of mental side, than I was some months ago,” said the 29 year old. "Generally, if I see myself with a broader perspective today and comparing myself to the end of last season, I'm a different player. I feel more comfortable, more fresh. I look forward to competing and I feel more confident on the court.
“I had to re-motivate myself and get back on track and I feel like right now it's much better than it was.”
Recalling an analogy that he made 12 months ago at Indian Wells, where he likened himself to the wolf atop the hill, watching the pack approaching, Djokovic said the tables have turned now. "I'm one of the wolves going up now. I'm hungry. But I'm not the only one.
“If I'm not hungry to have success in this sport, I wouldn't be sat here talking to the media and playing this tournament. I've achieved so much in my career that I'm obviously very content and I could easily stop today and say, 'it's been enough'. But I keep going because I have that drive in me still and I have that flair. As long as that's present, I'll keep on playing."
There are few better places for Djokovic to rediscover his top form than the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, where he has a 47-6 match record and has lifted the trophy five times. But the draw has done the three-time defending champion no favors. He finds himself in the ‘group of death’ – the bottom quarter of the draw, which also features Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It’s a challenge the right-hander is embracing.
"I haven't had too many draws like that,” admitted Djokovic, who starts his bid against either Kyle Edmund or Gastao Elias before a potential third-round clash with Juan Martin del Potro. “It’s quite amazing to see that many quality players in one section of the draw. It is what it is. Obviously Nadal and Federer are just starting to re-build their rankings. We'll see what happens in the first few days of the tournament and we'll have some very strong matches. This is probably one of the toughest draws we've had.
"It's a very strong field. This is one of the strongest tournaments we have in the sport. Everyone wants to do well. The draw is something you have to accept and deal with.”