Mind matters for defending champions
Novak Djokovic and Garbine Muguruza are looking to rediscover their spark after a trying 12 months - and they appear to be on the right track.
As first-time Roland-Garros champions 12 months ago, Novak Djokovic and Garbine Muguruza’s respective tennis worlds could not have looked brighter as they stood triumphant on Philippe-Chatrier Court.
The Serbian, a runaway world No.1, had just completed the non-calendar-year Grand Slam and with it his career Grand Slam, while Muguruza had dethroned defending champion Serena Williams to land her maiden major.
Be it the burden of pressure, off-court worries, injuries or a combination of all three, few could have predicted the wind being knocked out of their sails so dramatically since.
So dominant was Djokovic at the pinnacle of the men’s game 12 months ago, the subsequent slip to No.2 in the rankings has been profound. He had claimed 16 of his previous 24 tournaments after winning Roland-Garros, and six of the past eight Grand Slam titles, before his season went into free-fall.
The intense effort required to complete the missing piece in his Grand Slam trophy puzzle took a heavy toll - and far more mentally than physically. Personal troubles and a spattering of minor injuries compounded his form slump. He surrendered his Wimbledon and US Open titles, lost the year-end No.1 ranking at the World Tour Finals in London, fell early at Australian Open 2017 and in the past 12 months has won just two titles.
He more recently parted ways with his entire long-serving entourage and linked up with Andre Agassi in a partnership that will commence at Roland-Garros.
For Muguruza, the past 12 months have been a journey of discovery as a first-time Grand Slam champion. Unlike Djokovic, she hasn’t felt the need to shake up her coaching set-up with Sam Sumyk. Yet since her watershed moment in Paris, the Spaniard has reached just three semi-finals from 20 events (Cincinnati, Brisbane and Rome) and despite a brief rise to world No.2 last season, she has not added another title to her tally.
There are signs, however, prospects are on the up for the reigning Roland-Garros title-holders.
“Obviously the level of performance now is better than it was two months ago, so that's a positive thing," Djokovic said after an encouraging run to last week's Rome final.
"I'm trying to channel that in the right way and use it for the confidence. That hasn’t been that high obviously because I haven't won too many big matches this year. But again, I know what I'm capable of, and I trust myself and my own capabilities as a player. And I have played so many matches on the big stage that I know what it takes to win big tournaments.”
“It was a perfect match. Everything that I intended to do, I have done it and even more.”
After a quarter-final defeat to David Goffin in Monte-Carlo and a hefty loss to Rafael Nadal in the Madrid semi-finals, his Rome final was his first appearances in an ATP decider since Doha in January. His semi-final obliteration of the in-form Dominic Thiem in Rome, for the loss of just one game, sounded the most cause for optimism.
“Undoubtedly the best performance of this year and maybe even longer,” he said of the Thiem drubbing, after the Austrian had sent Nadal packing in the quarter-finals. “It was a perfect match. Everything that I intended to do, I have done it and even more.”
Muguruza’s clay-court season was cause for more concern after she crashed out first up against Anett Kontaveit in Stuttgart and followed that with an opening-round loss to Timea Bacsinszky in Madrid. Yet like Djokovic, she rediscovered her game in Rome, landing her first clay-court match wins of the year with a run to the semi-finals - includuing a notable three-set victory over Venus Williams en route.
While finally getting some runs on the board, Muguruza’s body again derailed any progress – a stiff neck forced her retirement against Elina Svitolina. It was her fourth withdrawal this season from 10 events.
Despite her struggles, Muguruza is adamant her mindset is in a better place than it was in the immediate aftermath of her Paris title run. “I will say I'm less emotional. Before it was hard for me to handle the joy, the sadness,” she said. “I'm kind of finding a better balance, and hopefully I can find more and more, because that's kind of my goal, to improve that.”
The burden on a defending champion struggling to recapture that spark will be telling for both over the coming fortnight.
At Roland-Garros, there will be no better gauge on how far their respective mindsets have shifted.