Novak Djokovic: “I felt without motivation.” Équipe interview with Vincent Cognet and @QuentinMoynet — His questions, his doubts, his bouts with the blues: the Serb answers with a lot of sincerity about the last, sensitive year.

Translation of this Équipe online piece.

Rome was a very important week for you. How much relief did you feel about rediscovering that level of game?

-More than relief, it was the result of very hard work and my confidence in the ongoing process. It’s difficult sometimes in recent times to have a broad perspective. There were days, especially in the last twelve months, where I felt unmotivated because of the injury and the challenges that awaited me. But that’s life! There are days where you just have to grit your teeth and gather all your strength to keep on your path, and others where everything is perfect. It was especially important for me to establish day-to-day goals, to reach my long term goals.. I mean what I had to do with my body and my spirit, improve my game, my conditioning and my mental state to reach the level I wanted. My trajectory has always been rising since I turned pro. I’d never missed a single Grand Slam [before the 2017 US Open]. The last six months of 2017 were very strange for me. Not playing, watching matches on the TV, restarting my training and feeling pain again, it was really a challenge for me. I had to accept it. Those are situations that make you stronger. It was good getting rewarded in Rome after all that I’d been through. It was certainly the best tournament I’ve played in the last year in terms of quality of play. Since the last grass season, in fact.

What are the biggest areas you need to improve? Physically, you seem to be far from how you were a few years ago …

I don’t think it’s the physical. The mental is the most important. I still love the sport. I’m still playing because I still feel the desire. If I didn’t, believe me, I wouldn’t be playing. Being loyal to my character and to my values, never letting anyone influence me and my decisions have always been important to me. I’ve accomplished a lot of things in my career that have made me proud. I could stop my career tomorrow and be satisfied with my record, but I’m not motivated only by winning. I don’t play just to win titles and be world number one. Obviously I would like that! But if I play, it’s because tennis is a great platform to have an influence, especially on children. That’s my objective. All great athletes have the chance to make an impact because of their popularity and successes. I can talk to the media every day. It’s a privilege, even if there are days when I don’t feel like talking to them [smiles]. It’s how I can get my message out: by going on court, by doing what I love, by working, by devotion and fight.

Were you in despair after Indian Wells and Miami, where you were just a shadow of yourself? And how did you overcome that dark period?

I didn’t despair, but I didn’t feel good mentally after Miami, that’s true. Losing in the first round at Miami and Indian Wells, that’s never happened to me before [five wins in Indian Wells and 6 in Miami]. I’ve always loved playing there. So it was a big shock for me, to be honest, not because I of the losses, but because of the way I played. But, after two or three days, I realised that I wasn’t sufficiently prepared. I wasn’t ready physically, at playing level and mentally. I’d had an operation four or five weeks before. I came back too quickly. The doctors did a good job, but no one advised me to come back at Indian Wells. They all told me to wait until Miami or the clay season. I insisted because I wanted to play. I skipped the last six months of 2017 because of my elbow. I took six months to recuperate. I wasn’t operated on because no one told me I should. I started to play again and the pain came back. It was so frustrating! So, I got an operation. I asked myself: “What’s happening? Should I cut out now?” And I was impatient. I know it. I wouldn’t say it was my fault. I thought at the time that it was the right decision. I don’t regret it because I know there was a reason for me playing there, to learn a lesson: be more patient and to deal differently next time. It was serious with my elbow. That sort of operation doesn’t only affect the elbow, but the whole body, my game, my confidence. Everything! When you start to overthink during a match, it’s not good. Everything should be automatic. You don’t have time to reflect at this level. You need to be reactive and play. I started to overthink. “Why am I serving like that? Is it the right racquet? My technique? Am I ready physically? Do I need to change my team?” A million things were happening and I wasn’t mentally lucid enough to face them. It’s different now. I’m starting Roland Garros in in a different mental frame, more positive. I’m more comfortable with my game. I know I can still improve it, it’s not at the level I want, but we get there softly.

Between your title here in 2016 and today, did you have periods when you lost your motivation?

Of course. Quite a few times. I’m like everyone. A lot of champions in a lot of sports ask themselves if they should keep going. And if yes, how? For how long? The balance between family life and professional life? But that’s life! You change as a person, you evolve. Today, I can’t concentrate only on myself and my career. I have two kids and they’re the most important part of my life. Without the slightest doubt. It’s taken me some time to find the right balance: how do you do it? It’s become clearer in the last two months. Before, I had highs and lows. It’s the burden of every athlete on the planet. At bottom, I try to remember to be aware. I play this sport I love and I play it at the highest possible level. There are people on this earth who live in conditions where they have no chance to live their dreams. They weren’t born in the right place, But they’re talented. I know, I come from a country that’s known two wars twenty years ago. All that humbles me. I wouldn’t exchange my life for anyone else’s. I’m just trying to grow.

Why did you chose to recall Marian Vajda to your side? Why at this precise moment? How is he different from other coaches?

[He thinks] I can answer those questions with three words: Simplicity. Clarity. Loyalty. Marian knows who I am, both as a person and as a player. Ten years of working together … When I realised I needed someone to who could help me simplify things, to be very clear about my priorities, Marian was the best possible choice. We share the same dreams. He’s much more than a coach. He’s a friend. He’s shared with me the most extreme experiences on a daily basis. He masters situations. He believes in me. He trusts in me and it’s reciprocal. He’s a man who has values, one of the most positive people I’ve ever met.

That’s far beyond just training sessions.

— Absolutely.

Has he changed the content of your training sessions?

There are always technical details to fix whatever shot we work on. One day, your backhand is impeccable, the next not at all. That’s what practice is for: to maintain a certain level and to feel good on the court. With Marian, we started by going back to basics, to understand well the fundamentals of my game, concentrating on my strong points to bring them back up to the surface. I’ve done it before. We just have to be patient. It takes time to build the body, be confident, be competitive. Marian knows that. I find myself very at ease with him.

Getting back to your elbow problems – in Miami especially, everyone was shocked because they didn’t recognise your backhand any more, your forehand …

Me neither, I didn’t recognise them! [Laughs]

Do you feel better now every day?

Actually, it depends on the day. But on the whole, it’s much better today than it was in Miami, for example. I grew up on clay. I love this surface. I’ve had my best results on hard courts, but Roland Garros is a special place for me. And not only because of my title in 2016. I’ve always had good results here. I can’t even remember when I’ve lost before the second week! [In 2009 when he lost in the 3rd round to Philip Kohlschreiber). The crowd is behind me here. I hope all that all that energy will help me get to the level I want.

What would be a good Roland Garros for you?

I try not to have special expectations. those expectations have been a burden for me for the last five or six months. I know the level I can play at. That’s why the matches in Indian Wells, Miami or Barcelona made things difficult. I didn’t understand it. I started to think about it every single day, to try and improve to reach 100% of what I could do. But, in that regard, I don’t come to a tournament just to participate. I come to win. I hope that my game will fall into place and improve in every round. I hope to put myself in a position to lift the trophy.

 

Translated by MAN

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“I felt at the end of my tether.” Stan Wawrinka, interviewed by @LequipeTestelin in l’Équipe, on the physical and mental fatigue that led to his body breaking down

Translation of the interview with Stan Wawrinka in l’Équipe, print edition Wednesday 10 January 2018, pages 18-19 and online https://abonnes.lequipe.fr/Tennis/Article/Stan-wawrinka-je-me-suis-senti-a-bout/865299 by Régis Testelin.

MONTE CARLO – After five months of suffering, doubt and sweat, who knows if he’ll be able to put on a good performance at the Australian Open? The Swiss hasn’t played since his first round loss against Daniil Medvedev at Wimbledon. In August, he underwent two knee operations, one arthroscopic, another to fix a cartilage hole. Five months later, he’s in Melbourne, where he’s supposed to take part in a “Tie Break Tens” exhibition with Nadal and Djokovic [he withdrew with a shoulder problem – Mark] which might give some indication of his level and perhaps reassure himself. We spent a morning with him in the middle of December at the Monte Carlo Country Club to talk about the injury, overwork and the depression what occasionally hits even the most solid players on the tour.

After three exceptional seasons, your knee gave out. Do you think you pushed too hard?

When you’re always trying to reach as high as you can, you push the machine to the limits. Still, I was careful: I never played four or five tournaments in a row, I always gave myself recuperation periods. But I’ve always known that this sport, at this level, wasn’t good for the body. You know there’ll be problems later on.

Pushing to the limit until breaking, that’s extracting the best from oneself while getting consumed. How is that experienced?

In all sports, when you reach this level, you consume yourself. It’s not by chance that I’m injured at thirty-two, that Novak is at thirty, if Roger and Rafa were. These injuries are results of wear and tear and of numbers. But when you have the chance of getting to the top, it’s a nice wear and tear. Besides, winning is addictive – you always want more. To get more, you need to do more, to do more you push yourself even more, and at some point, it gives out. When you’re on top, everything’s tougher. What I did the last few years was an opportunity, but it was demanding. I get the impression I’m on my way to the cemetery, but I telling all this with a smile [he laughs]. I’m trying to make people understand what we go through.

Do you have the impression of having pushed your body to the burnout point?

These last couple of years, I’ve pushed too far, too long, and the motor often overheated. But it’s not just physical, it’s mental too. People watch us play tennis, but we have a life outside of that which means … I felt at the end of my rope these last years; I had mental gaps. Burnout is too strong a word, because people who burnout live at the extremes. But it happens that I experience feeling at a breaking point, of telling myself “I can’t keep this up”.

It’s the interaction between what’s happening around you and the on-court demands?

It’s of a piece. If you have a full life that wears on you, you’ll get tired on the job. That applies to all trades, but even more in ours. You don’t win Grand Slams without pushing to your personal limits.

Does that mean that you’d like to change some things to better manage?

It’s difficult to change things when I see what doing those things led to: three Grand Slams and a final. That means I did those things well. If I’d rested more, I’d never have gone as far. This injury will make cleaning out all but my closest entourage easier. I won’t be spending energy on people who aren’t closest any longer and I’ll be fresher.

How did you experience this period of inactivity?

Everything weighed on me: walking with crutches, being off the Tour, doubt, not being able to do anything. When you stop for a longer period, it’s very bad for your body. It will take some time, for example, to recover full flexion on my serve. But it’s not just that – rehabilitating my shoulder will also take time. The whole body needs to be reconditioned to being under pressure and tension.

What was the hardest to recover in the last few weeks?

Knee flexion. I can’t get down very low. Reflexive movements are difficult. But, I’m playing well, my shots are good, my tennis is there.

How much were you in doubt?

Inside, I was always sure that I’d find the solution to get to a certain level. Which level, I don’t yet know. But this re-education was tougher than I thought. I wasn’t expecting it. All those phases where you had to reach the limit without going over to protect the knee.

You’ve said that without the help of Pierre Paganini, your fitness coach, you would have quit.

To come back from so far, I need someone who knows my limits. He was a lifesaver because I had moments of depression where I felt alone. What I missed the most was competing, the adrenaline, the excitement, all those things you can only experience first-hand. Stress, even when you feel bad, is basically a good thing. I was in a down period.

Would you say the toughest part to get to a Slam semi-final is behind you or ahead of you?

I’d say behind. Coming to play for two weeks in Monte Carlo in December with the guys, being able to hit with Dimitrov and realising that, despite everything, the level is there, that helped me. From the first training session, I felt that the tennis wasn’t going to be a problem. But when you lose confidence, persuading yourself that you’ll come back is tough.

Knowing that a player like Rafael Nadal came back from long injury periods, does that help?

No. I mean, it’s possible, but everyone’s different. Obviously, it’s tougher coming back from a knee operation than a wrist injury, for example, because with a wrist injury, you can keep working on everything else physical. But, tennis-wise, it’s tougher coming back from a wrist injury, so … Everyone manages their own injury; you can’t compare.

Magnus Norman, who’s been your coach since 2013, suddenly left you in October.

I didn’t see that coming. It was a shock and a disappointment. I’ll always acknowledge what we experienced together, but the timing was difficult. When you start again from zero, you need people around you who know you so you can recover your lost confidence. He has his reasons [spend more time with his family] and I accept them. We’ll delve more into the reasons for the break at a good meal. It will be easier then. Thanks to him, I won three Slams, and they’ll never be erased.

You say you want to play another three or four years. Will one of your goals be detaching more from results and taking advantage of that?

– Yes, but that will be impossible. The more the years pass, the more difficult it is to look back and tell yourself, “OK, I lost but it doesn’t matter.” There’s less time left, and you can’t miss your chances.

Translated by MAN

*Edited to fix an incorrect date.

“To prove to myself that I’m alive.” Marion Bartoli interviewed by @sophiedorgan about her illness, being gaslit in a toxic relationship, and the profound reasons for her comeback

My translation of the interview with Marion Bartoli by Sophie Dorgan in l’Équipe, print edition, Tuesday, January 9, 2017, pages 2-3.

After spending Christmas and New Year with her family, Marion Bartoli returned to the National Training Centre (NTC) to prepare for her return, forecast first for March 7 at Madison Square Garden for an exhibition against the Williams sisters, then officially at Miami on March 21. Tired from a fitness session and preoccupied by a meeting with French Federation officials, she agreed to return at the end og last week to talk about what motivated her comeback.

You announced your comeback three weeks ago. Have you received many messages?

I received messages from Serena and Monica Seles. They were very positive messages. When Serena tells me I’m really a proof of courage, that pleases me very much. The same with Monica Seles, who was my absolute idol when I was small. When she tells me: “You’re a Wimbledon champion, something I never was”, that’s something exceptional. Monica advised me to really take my time. She reckons she came back too soon, with a bit of excess weight, and she paid for it with quite a few small injuries. She told me to be very careful and come back at my in form weight. Advice I’m going to follow.

Any messages from French women players?

No, none [smiles], but I’m expecting some.

And Yannick Noah?

Yes, he sent me a very nice message. He told me he was following my comeback, that he’d heard that I was training very hard, and that he was a captain who’d give me my chance if I deserved it. I think he’ll wait for my results, which makes perfect sense.

What’s your daily routine right now?

When I’m at the NTC, I arrive at 9.00, and I leave at 21.00. I do around 3½ to 4 hours of tennis every day, 2-2½ hours of fitness, then the recovery and the kinesiologists. Between sessions, I take a little siesta just behind [she points to the French club’s sofa at the NTC].

Does that rather monastic life suit you?

I love it. I think all high-level athletes love it. To achieve the top results, you have to live like that. It’s impossible otherwise.

You still have the need to prove things to yourself?

I need to prove to myself that I’m alive.

But your organism still suffered.

That’s why it took me a year-and-a-half to get to the correct energy level.

Were there after effects?

Not any more, but I had them for a very long time. I couldn’t eat what I wanted.

Are you obsessive about your weight?

No, especially after what happened to me [smiles]. That lets me put things even more into perspective. Before, I complained a lot after a hard day of training. Today, I don’t experience it in the same way at all, because it’s nothing compared to what I’ve been through. I’m happy just getting up in the morning, being in good health, having energy and getting through the day. Going radically to works and losing 10 kg in a month, that’s not possible. On the other hand, I stick to my dietary regimen.

No danger any longer of being skeletal, like at Wimbledon?

No. I’d lost a lot of weight before my virus because of my ex, who made my life hell. He was really a total arsehole. I learned a lot there too. Because of my personality, I accepted the unacceptable. I was telling myself, “no, it’s not serious, no, it’s not serious”, and it completely destroyed me. I don’t want to live like that any more. It’s true, I’d lost a lot of weight, I was weak, and with a weakened immune system, I caught a virus in India that finished me. I was already extremely thin, or even skinny, but I didn’t see it.

You kept hearing you were overweight …

When I retired, I was the happiest person in the world. Then I met my old boyfriend in 2014, and every day he told me I was fat. Every day. When he saw a thin girl on the street, he told me, “you see how she’s thin and pretty”. That wasn’t helpful.

You wanted to get thinner for him and it turned out badly?

Once you’re caught in the trap, it’s tough to escape. After, I stabilised at a weight that was weak, but I stabilised. But at ‘Wim’, that was the lowest of the low. I couldn’t swallow anything any more.

After more than a year, there’s no medical risk in training so much?

Today, I really don’t think I’m putting myself in any danger. If I thought I were, I’d stop. I’ve done every medical test, and everything’s OK. If I increase training a bit and I see that it’s starting to endanger my health, I’ll stop my comeback and I’ll say, “sorry, I pictured it, we thought it was possibly, but medically I have a contraindication, and I’m stopping.” It wouldn’t be a personal defeat. It would just be that, at thirty-three, with everything I’ve been through, my body can’t take any more.

Why start with such a big tournament like Miami? Nishikori and Agassi, for example, decided to go through Challengers.

It’s not the same comeback situation. They hadn’t gone through being close to death. Honestly, I’m not going to put up with playing Challengers. I played the $50K’s when I was sixteen. I’m not going to do it at thirty-three. If I’m coming back, it’s to try and play big matches on the big courts and experience those feelings. It’s not a question of ranking. I’m not going to have a twenty-five match schedule.

Do you foresee skipping clay?

If I start in Miami, I won’t skip. I’ll play a lighter schedule, with Madrid, Rome and Roland. If I don’t start in Miami, I’ll skip clay and I’ll do Nottingham, Birmingham and Wimbledon.

Will you play practice matches to gauge yourself?

The period of practice matches in February will be very important. I need to them to reassure myself and see if I have the level. If I take it on the chin 6-1 against girls who are between 15th and 30th, it won’t be possible.

If you play ranked at 100, you won’t come back?

No way. I’m not coming back to be ranked 100. I spent my entire career in the top 20, and at my best in the top 10. If I’m playing top 100 in February and getting my butt kicked by top 30 players, I’ll really need to question myself. If, with no pressure, during practice sets, with my coach behind me, I don’t have the level, I won’t have the match level. I might give myself a longer training time up to grass, and if I then don’t have the level … I’m coming back to have fun, play big matches and enjoy myself.

There won’t be any shame?

Oh yes, I’ll take it very badly [laughs].

Playing ranked 30 isn’t obvious

– If I have the level in practice, but I can’t carry it through to matches, that’s one thing. But if I don’t have the level in practice, that’s something else. Without any pretension, with my career, it seems logical. I’m not coming back at thirty-three to be ranked 80-100. That’s of no interest. At fifteen, a girl can start the year at 80 and end the year at 20, but not at thirty-three. That’s not going to happen.

And you reckon you have the level?

Yes. I’m hitting well. Is that enough for today’s level? I don’t know. It will be important to gauge it.

Is the timetable you set holding up?

I obviously need to lose some weight, between five and seven kilos. I’ve been playing with a seven kilo weight vest. When I lose it, it’ll be easier. Doctors Montalvan and Barbiche are helping me with my nutrition. After what happened to me, it’s even more difficult to manage. They’ve worked out a nutritional plan that suits me and that I can maintain every day. Right now, the whole plan is working out. My weight loss will be the measure of my comeback. I won’t go back on court if I’m not at the right playing weight.

When we remember you at Wimbledon, we can’t help wondering if you’re putting yourself in any danger by coming back.

If I get there, it would mean that I have an inner strength.

But you’ve already shown that!

I’m not so sure [smiles]. I have to prove to myself at least a second time. Not to others, but at least to myself. I let myself be destroyed by someone and I didn’t think that was possible. I let myself be swallowed up. I’m so happy when I’m on a tennis court that I’m reliving happy times every day. They make up for the “unhappy times”, in quotes.

Do you have a psychologist to help you?

No, because it’s so complicated, it wouldn’t be of any use. I don’t feel like it, it would take too much time.

Your ex devalued you so much, you feel the need to rebuild your self-image?

There’s that. There’s a double process in this comeback, and that’s why I’m putting so much force and energy into it. It’s both to escape this illness, to prove to myself that even if I was centimetres from death, I can once again be on a tennis court and fight for three hours to win a three-set match. And the second reason, it’s for everything that devalued me. Every single day, in an insidious way, he made me lower than dirt. I want to prove I can get back up again.

It’s a rebuilding process?

I came out of Wimbledon [2013] telling myself: “ I’ve realised my dream, I’ll be happy ever after.” I had a huge daily joie de vivre. He took it all. He extinguished it bit by bit every day. He even took away my love of playing. Every time we played tennis together, he did everything to beat me playing doubles by putting himself with the best possible player and me with the worst. He did it even with singles. So, he took everything. I managed to get out of it, but it took time. Eighteen months, that’s a long time. I was very young in a real love relationship, living with someone everyday. But I didn’t think I could be walked on – I had character.

There’s a sort of revenge?

Certainly.

The comeback is doubly important for you.

Yes, but, whatever the result, it will be won when I’m on the court. I’ll never forget Wimbledon 2016, I’ll never forget it. When the doctor told me I couldn’t play legends because my heart was so weak, I risked having a heart attack on the court, when it’s been three years since your name was on the board, it’s a punch in the face, it’s violent! … But I was grabbing on to that. That was it. When I went to bed, I didn’t know if I’d still be alive the next day.

 

Translated by MAN