Andre Agassi remembers Radek Stepanek as a 6-foot-1 pro from the Czech Republic who fought to keep his career viable despite multiple neck and back injuries. While Stepanek fell into journeyman status as he battled these health issues deep into his 30s, his decision-making on the court never suffered.
So when it came time to look for a co-coach to accompany Novak Djokovic on the ATP Tour in his crucial, upcoming comeback year, Agassi pointed Djokovic toward Stepanek.
Bold move. Stepanek, 39, who signed on with the Djokovic team last week, has had a colorful, sometimes controversial career. To many fans, he’s known mostly for his bizarre victory celebration dubbed “The Worm.”
Stepanek can’t match eight-time Grand Slam champion Agassi’s record. But he had a disruptive style of play and earned a considerable reputation as a student of the game. It was evident in his chameleon-like ability to change tactics in a match, as well as his mastery of the net game. Stepanek’s volleying prowess helped earn him two Grand Slam doubles titles. (The closest he came to singles glory was a pair of Masters 1000 finals.)
Djokovic might want to tap into Stepanek’s expertise in ending points, especially at the net, now that the Serbian former No. 1 has crossed the threshold of 30.
For months, Djokovic wallowed in on-court shortcomings and injuries. What was an aberration became commonplace in his results. Djokovic found himself falling to players such as Tomas Berdych, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin and Nick Kyrgios (twice). Since winning the 2016 French Open, Djokovic has captured just three events, and only one at the 1,000 level.
The most valuable thing Stepanek brings to the table immediately is his hands-on experience with most of the current players, including the elite ones whom Djokovic will have to overcome as he tries to plow his way back to the top on 2018.
Stepanek, who last played a singles match this past January at the Australian Open, is also familiar with how Djokovic’s game will look to rivals and how they might attack it. Stepanek played Djokovic 14 times, losing 13 of those matches.
Stepanek spent only 10 weeks in the top 10 — and that was a decade ago — but he was sometimes accused of stepping over the line, whether it was showmanship or gamesmanship. He no doubt will bring a strong third personality into a team already consisting of two outsized ones. Could that be an issue? Not according to Agassi.
“In my estimation and experience, the best coaches in the world are overachievers,” Agassi told ESPN.com in a text message from Monte Carlo, where Djokovic’s team is currently working out.
“Overachievers need to adapt, to improvise and overcome. They find ways to maximize the upside while containing their downside. Add a strong work ethic with years of success — plus a kind spirit — and that’s what Radek brings to the table.”
Djokovic said he pursued Stepanek on Agassi’s suggestion. It was the kind of pro-active maneuver that is more evocative of an NFL General Manager than a coach of a tennis megastar, even one of the vaunted supercoaches. It reveals the depth of trust Djokovic places in Agassi and showed the degree of commitment Agassi brings to his role as Djokovic’s coach and mentor. This choice might be surprising, but it was not hastily conceived.
Adding Stepanek has solved one of the major challenges Djokovic faced. Agassi is an educator and entrepreneur with a broad palette of interests and obligations. From the start of his relationship with Djokovic last May, Agassi has said his presence at tournaments will be limited, probably to the Grand Slam events.
“I’ve talked about this [situation] with Andre a few times and he was excited about [Stepanek],” said former Agassi coach and current ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert. “If Andre gives his blessing to the guy, that’s 50 times good enough for me.”
Bent on self-reliance, Djokovic fired his entire team in early May of last year, clearing the decks for Agassi’s eventual role. But Djokovic continued to struggle, failing to win an event on clay and meekly surrendered his French Open title. In disarray and suffering from a persistent elbow injury, Djokovic withdrew from the 2017 season following an early Wimbledon exit.
With Stepanek on board, Djokovic will always have a coach on hand as he tries to rebuild his ranking from its present No. 12.
Whatever happens, the Agassi-Stepanek team will be hard-pressed to match the record Djokovic compiled with his last coach, Boris Becker. Together, they won six Grand Slam titles in three years. But Djokovic is in a different place now, recovering from a period of personal turmoil as well as a bum elbow. He’s entering the final phase of his career, just as his new coach is leaving his — and embarking on a new one.
Unlike Agassi, who once sought to flee tennis, Stepanek said when he recently retired that he really wanted to stay in the game.
You might say he’s landed in butter.