Sharapova and Djokovic in limbo ahead of intriguing summer

Serbian has stripped it down and is looking to start again with a new coaching staff

Unintentionally, of course, Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic have injected the tennis scene with an overload of drama.

When the Russian lost a gripping three-setter to Eugenie Bouchard in Madrid on Monday, it was more than a run-of-the-mill defeat in a preparatory tournament before the second slam of the season. It was a bitter fight between two gritty antagonists, the winner stepping on to the moral high ground with barely disguised glee after previously calling Sharapova "a cheater" and echoing the sentiments that have been simmering in locker rooms around the circuit during her 15-month absence from the sport for using the banned drug meldonium.

They went through the ritual handshake at the end of the match, naturally – not that it in any way disguised the animus between them. Sharapova barely cracks anyway and Bouchard kept it all very cool. However, she opened up later, giving vent to feelings that few have expressed so openly.

“I definitely had some more motivation going in today,” she said. “I had never beaten her before and also given the circumstances. I actually was quite inspired before the match because I had a lot of players coming up to me privately and wishing me good luck, players I don’t normally speak to.”


That last bit nails it, "players I don't normally speak to". The locker room never sleeps, as Boris Becker continually reminds us, and there can be little doubt that Bouchard was playing with the overwhelming goodwill of her rivals to lift her game. She has had a pretty wretched time of it this season, so this was in many ways just the sort of match and result she needed to get back to her best level.

And, mustering all the sarcasm at her disposal, Sharapova said: “I’d be pretty worried about myself if I sat here and said I was pretty happy with losing a tennis match, no matter who I faced, no matter what round it is. I’m a big competitor. Today was just not that day.”

As for Djokovic, like Sharapova, he is in limbo. He has just sacked his entire coaching team after a decade of tight-knit campaigning that has garnered him 12 slam titles, and he seems rudderless in every way. A lot of players – most, in fact – change coaches but this “shock therapy”, as he calls it, looks like an extreme over-reaction to something other than a mere dip in form. No doubt he will find his game before long; whether he can do it on his return to the French Open, where he hit a high point last year, is debatable.

There are a few big-name options Djokovic could approach, including Jimmy Connors, who had an ill-fated one-match stint with Sharapova several years ago, John McEnroe, who briefly worked with Milos Raonic last summer, and Andre Agassi, although he has been away from the hubbub of the game for so long he might find the grind too much. If Djokovic wanted to follow the example of Tomas Berdych – who picked up with Dani Vallverdu after the Venezuelan left Andy Murray – he might consider asking Stefan Edberg if he were interested, and find out exactly what it was the Swede brought to Roger Federer's game in their two years together.

The arrival of Ivan Lendl in Murray's camp – originally in 2012 and latterly since last year, after the Scot split with Amélie Mauresmo – has beyond argument invigorated the coaching scene. Where once low-profile former pros helped out the stars, aided by teams of physios and nutritionists, now the big beasts are a dominating presence. They bring not just their knowledge but also their aura. In Murray's case it has worked wonders for him over the past year, as he clambered to No1 in the world at the very time Djokovic's game was slowly deteriorating, albeit from a very high level.

Lendl gives Murray the sort of stern-faced support that is a stark counterpoint to Mauresmo’s gentler approach, and it has worked. And, just as Murray and Lendl empathised over their shared disappointments in getting a first slam victory, so Djokovic and Agassi might find common ground.

Both have flown high and come to earth with a bit of a bump, the American’s a more severe landing, it has to be said – although Djokovic seems to be struggling with priorities over the past year or so if Becker’s testimony after leaving his employment in December is a true reflection of the Serb’s commitment to his off-court preparation.

Becker, one of the game's candid characters, said Djokovic did not seem to be putting in the necessary work to stay at the highest level after he completed his career slam at Roland Garros, and there are few who would argue with that, because the former world No1 has often struggled for the consistency he once took for granted.

If, as is strongly rumoured, Agassi is to be his chosen guide, it is unlikely the man from Las Vegas would be there for him for more than the four majors and selected Masters tournaments, because he made it clear when it was suggested Nick Kyrgios could benefit from his vast experience that he wanted to spend his quality time with his family.

Whoever Djokovic chooses – and which ever direction Sharapova moves in – this summer should be one of the most intriguing in the game for a long time.

(Guardian service)