Novak Djokovic will start the defense of his French Open crown with eight-time major winner Andre Agassi by his side.
The former top-ranked Serb, who has struggled with a loss of form since completing the career Grand Slam of all four majors last year at Roland Garros, made the surprise announcement after a one-sided loss to a younger rival in the finals of the Rome Masters.
“I spoke to Andre the last couple weeks on the phone, and we decided to get together in Paris,” Djokovic said in a news conference Sunday after losing 6-4 6-3 to 20-year-old German Alexander Zverev on the clay of the Foro Italico.
On May 5, Djokovic announced he had split from his entire coaching team — including his tennis coach of seven years Marian Vajda – to rediscover what he called “the winning spark.”
Three-time Wimbledon winner Boris Becker, who left the Djokovic coaching set-up at the end of December after three years by his side, welcomed the news, saying on Twitter that hiring Agassi was an “excellent choice”.
World No.2 Djokovic, who turned 30 Monday, said in Rome his arrangement with the former world No. 1 was an informal one for now without a long-term commitment.
“We are both excited to work together and see where it takes us,” Djokovic said. “It’s just us trying to get to know each other in Paris a little bit.”
Married to 22-time grand slam singles champion Steffi Graf, Agassi has devoted most of his time since his retirement 11 years ago to education in his hometown of Las Vegas and raising the couple’s two children, who are now teenagers.
In January, Agassi told reporters in a video conference during the Australian Open it would take something special for him to get back on the Tour.
“I have no interest in imposing what I believe on someone,” Agassi said. “I would have a lot of interest in somebody’s desire to want to make themselves better and possibly me being a vehicle that’s best to help them take those steps.
“Those would be the two working components that would either keep me from coaching or make me ever do it.”
Although Djokovic said he didn’t know Agassi, 47, well before he approached him for a coaching job, there are some similarities.
A child prodigy pushed by an ambitious father, Agassi was a Wimbledon champion at the age of 22 and became one of the game’s biggest stars thanks to his flamboyant personality, rock star looks and aggressive playing style.
Five years later, he dropped out of the Top 100 as he struggled with motivation and recreational drug use, according to his autobiography “Open”.
But he rekindled his passion for the game in his late 20s, and would win five more majors between 1999 and 2003 before retiring at the 2006 US Open at the age of 36 as one of the sport’s most outspoken and popular players.
“Obviously, Andre is someone that I have tremendous respect for as a person and as a player,” Djokovic said. “He has been through everything that I’m going through.
“He understands the game amazingly well.”
‘He should win all the time’
Talking to CNN’s Open Court in July, shortly after Djokovic was beaten in the third round of Wimbledon by American Sam Querrey, Agassi declared himself a fan of the Serb.
“Anybody that knows me, knows that I think he should win everything all the time,” Agassi said in July. “That is how he separated himself from everybody. Wimbledon was a surprise, I don’t know the reason. He’s so good that I can actually make the statement that there’s got be a reason why that happened. There just got to be.”
He added: “With that being said, you’ve got to be doing it every day. You can’t have a bad day. I used to have plenty of them. It seems like if he has one of them, it’s shocking. So you hope they don’t happen in the biggest moments. But I do think that he is that much beyond his peers that if he can just pull it together a little bit he’ll be back on top in a hurry.”
Djokovic is hoping some of Agassi’s life experience will rub off on him.
“He’s a person that can contribute to my life on and off the court a lot,” he said.
The French Open starts on May 28.