Novak Djokovic may not admit it but when he announced that Boris Becker was joining his team last December, the latest in a series of big-name coaching appointments on tour, he would have hoped to have amassed a little more silverware by now.
Instead Djokovic heads to Indian Wells this week in the unusual position of chasing his first title of the year.
Having been dominant at the Australian Open for so long, he was felled by eventual champion Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarters and on Saturday, he found himself eclipsed by an inspired Roger Federer in the semi-finals of Dubai, a tournament he’s won four times in the past.
Djokovic was understandably defensive when questioned on his slightly substandard start to the year.
“Look, I haven't repeated the same success I had last year, and maybe the year before that, but that's normal in sport, you know,” he pleaded.
“You can't always expect, to do well in certain tournaments. When you lose against a better player, you shake hands and that's it. You move on and try to take the best out of it. Right now, I know what I need to work on.
I'm going to try to get as much practice as I can and hopefully I can do well in the States.”
Djokovic will certainly feel he has much to prove over the next month, first in California and then in Miami. A repeat of last year’s shock defeats to Juan Martin Del Potro (in the Indian Wells semi-finals) and Tommy Haas (in the last sixteen of Miami), would leave some sizeable question marks over his form going into the clay-court season.
The gulf between him and current world no.1 Rafael Nadal has widened considerably since the start of the season with the Spaniard making his third Australian Open final and then picking up a title in Rio De Janerio last week but Djokovic says he’s not panicking.
“I just lost to Roger.
That's not a bad loss,” he said. “It's always tense between us. It's always goes down the wire, you know. Really unpredictable what can happen. I’ve practiced a lot, I’ve been putting a lot of hours on the court, trying to develop my game, trying to get myself in the right shape, and it's going to click sooner or later.”
At the moment Djokovic says that the main problem is taking that form from training into the match environment and that’s more of a mental one that anything else.
“It's quite different when you’re on the practice courts and you're playing points, and when you have thousands of people watching and you're playing in an official match,” he said.
“Mentally it's quite different. That's something that is going to come with me playing more and more matches. Usually I play Davis Cup between Dubai and Australia but this year I felt like mentally I needed to take some time off from tennis and really recharge.”
And Djokovic said that Becker certainly won’t be going the same way as Jimmy Connors who lasted just a few weeks last summer before being discarded unceremoniously by Maria Sharapova.
These things take time and Djokovic feels that people are expecting too much right now.
“Everybody has been asking me every day what have you been improving?” he laughed. “I think people are expecting me to start playing with my left hand or something, I don’t know!
We’re working on certain details in my game, but it's nothing significant that I'm going to change.
I'm not going to start serve-volleying. But we’re working on my positioning on the court. And as I’ve repeated about one hundred times from the beginning of the year, it takes a little bit of time for us to get to know each other and really feel the benefits of our partnership.”
Nadal and Andy Murray have chopped and changed with their February schedule over the past few years with Murray making his debut in Acapulco over the past week.
While Djokovic has been a fixture in Dubai for most of his career, he says that sometime soon he will follow Murray to South America.
“I will go eventually,” he said. “Especially after my visit to South America in November after the Davis Cup final last year when I went to play a couple of exhibition matches in Chile and Argentina, and it was an incredible time.
Two years ago I played in Brazil too. So I love the people there. The energy is fantastic, very positive, and I really will look to adjust my schedule so I can go there eventually sometime. But it just doesn't depend only on me, even though it's me playing and it's an individual sport, but there is a big team of people behind me that are obviously deciding together with me what's the best schedule and what we need to play.”