Back on the tennis tour after more than six months away, Novak Djokovic faces a significant challenge as he attempts to navigate big-match pressure in the prime of his career with a new service motion.
But at least one 30-year-old champion has traveled this biomechanical and psychological road before him and remained a champion.
Maria Sharapova changed her motion significantly after undergoing right shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in 2008, several months after she had won the Australian Open in overpowering fashion, serving particularly well.
“It was hard,” Sharapova said on Saturday night at the Australian Open after losing in the third round in straight sets to Angelique Kerber. “At the time, I didn’t really have many choices because the serve that I had before my shoulder surgery was hurting me after the surgery itself. That’s why I worked through a few different abbreviated motions.”
Sharapova, who had won three Grand Slam titles before the surgery, has gone on to win two more, the 2012 and 2014 French Opens. She has also reached four more major singles finals.
Djokovic’s new, abbreviated motion is also linked to injury, though he insists he has not had surgery. While he has yet to disclose the precise nature of the ailment, he has a right elbow problem, and it forced him to take his first extended absence from the game.
He is still wearing a compression sleeve during his matches, and is now into the fourth round at the Australian Open, his first tournament since Wimbledon last July. On Saturday, Djokovic, a longtime No. 1 now seeded 14th, defeated Albert Ramos-Viñolas, the No. 21 seed from Spain, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3.
At one point on Saturday, the elbow seemed the least of his problems. He took a medical timeout in the second set and lay on the court to have his back and legs massaged and treated at Margaret Court Arena.
But he soon rose and resumed his dominating play. He did not lose his serve once in the match, which was played in much milder conditions than his steamy four-set victory over Gaël Monfils on Thursday, when recorded temperatures on court peaked at 69 degrees Celsius (156 Fahrenheit).
Asked about the on-court treatment, Djokovic answered without being specific: “I’ve never faced a situation where I didn’t compete six months. I mean that’s why I’m kind of forced to be very cautious of what happens day to day, be dedicated to my body and training. It’s nothing major to be concerned about. It’s just things that surface every day. I guess it’s normal. A lot of athletes are facing these kind of levels and stages of pain throughout their body in big competitions, and they deal with it. I deal with it. It’s fine.”
The biggest challenges for his elbow and serve lie ahead. In the fourth round on Monday, he will face Hyeon Chung, an unseeded but dangerous South Korean. Chung, 21, beat the leader of his tennis peer group, Alexander Zverev, in five sets on Saturday.
Djokovic’s serve is significantly different: He no longer drops his racket head low at the start of the motion, which is now more compact. He has said the change, designed to protect his elbow, was the product of discussions with his coaches Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek and his own input.
“It had to come from Novak,” McNamee said. “If not, it is doomed, as he has to own it absolutely or he will revert after a bad loss.”
For now, he is 3-0 with the new serve and hitting first-serve speeds similar, on average, to what he hit in 2016, when he last won this title. Unlike in 2016, though, the speeds have tailed off as matches have progressed.
“The toughest thing about it is, the older you get, you become comfortable with routines and what you’ve done for so long,” Sharapova said. “We like to keep what we know. We want to keep it, especially if it’s helped us and if it’s won us Grand Slams.
“But at certain points in your career, if you’re faced with a challenge, you’re faced with an injury, you have to make those adjustments. If you’re able to break through and become successful with it, win another major, win a few more, it speaks a lot more for who you are as a person, as a competitor.”