The mystifying saga of Novak Djokovic and his tumble from the top of the game finally achieved some clarity -- and finality -- Wednesday morning, albeit not in the way the Serbian star might have hoped. Djokovic announced that he's finished playing for the year, in order to heal an aching right elbow.
"After a year and half of carrying an elbow injury that has culminated in the last couple of months, I made the decision not to play any more for rest of 2017 season," Djokovic said in a Facebook Live video post. The right-hander added that he had consulted numerous specialists in different countries and they all agreed that the one thing his elbow needs is rest.
"I will take this time to heal and do different suggested methods of rehab and healing," Djokovic continued. "I will take a couple months without the racket. After that, I'll start to train."
Djokovic has played in 51 Grand Slam tournaments, every one since his first appearance in a major in 2005. His decision was hastened by his loss in the recent Wimbledon quarterfinals, which he characterized as the toughest tournament he's played because of the pain in his elbow.
The revelation that Djokovic, 30, has been playing hurt for about 18 months is somewhat surprising. It's also a handy explanation for the tailspin he went into following his triumph at the 2016 French Open, where he completed a coveted career Grand Slam. But during his slump, Djokovic also admitted that his sometimes puzzling performances were partly a result of an emotional letdown following his victory in Paris, as well as personal issues.
Thus, some obfuscation remains. Just how much each of the factors -- starting with his elbow -- played in Djokovic's demise is unclear. But it's also noteworthy that Djokovic cut loose his entire support team in early May, announcing he wanted to go his own way for a while. It certainly seems an odd decision to take on the cusp of the two summer Grand Slams by someone with a career-threatening injury.
So, some mystery remains around the 12-time Grand Slam champ. His situation leads to yet another challenging question: How much influence did 35-year-old Roger Federer's astonishing comeback this year have on Djokovic's decision? After all, Djokovic is calling it quits at almost exactly the same time as Federer did last year.
Federer pulled the plug on his 2016 season following his semifinal loss at Wimbledon. Federer had undergone minor knee surgery earlier in the year, but his move was driven by his own conviction that he needed to take a long breather in order to get 100 percent healthy, refire his enthusiasm and -- it's now clear -- make some adjustments to his game. The rest, and the tweaks that made him a more dangerous, aggressive player, transformed him from a fading icon into the master of all he surveys in 2017.
"[Djokovic] may have seen what Fed did and thought, 'OK, I can do that too,'" Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst, told ESPN.com. "I'm not sure it's that easy. On the other hand, this isn't some guy ranked No. 40 or 50. You look at his record and think anything is possible."
Gilbert believes Djokovic's decision probably was driven by the desire to avoid surgery on perhaps the most critical part of a tennis player's anatomy, his racket arm. By taking a long break, Djokovic also will avoid the futile stop-and-start struggle that lesser players are forced to wage with injury. That can lead to a loss of confidence -- as well as the operating theater.
Djokovic himself gave a compelling and somewhat out-of-place hint about his motivation near the end of his announcement. It's hard not to think Federer was somewhere in the back of his mind when Djokovic said: "I have time I can dedicate to healing and focusing on certain aspects and elements of the game that I never had time to work on. Now I will have time to perfect them."
Djokovic is clearly thinking about the shape of his comeback, even though he's just now leaving. Whether he can reinvent himself in the manner of Federer probably will be the leading question at the start of the 2018 season.