Axe falls in stunning Djokovic move
WHEN Novak Djokovic was at his best, Pepe Imaz was the spiritual guru that rescued tennis' unstoppable force. When the former World No. 1's rankings nosedived last year, the Spanish mind coach was reduced to comic relief and the guy that turned Djokovic into some kind of loony nut case.
With the Serbian star returning to the top of men's tennis, Imaz finds himself unemployed.
Djokovic's long-term mentor and returning coach Marian Vajda has given en extraordinary insight into the make-up of Djokovic's coaching team in an interview where he has revealed Imaz is no longer part of team Djokovic.
Vajda, who has worked with Djokovic on and off since 2006, revealed the meditation guru was not part of the coaching shake-up which saw Vajda return to coach Djokovic in April.
It has been a period of near-unprecedented turmoil in Djokovic's player's box.
According to reports, the rising influence of Imaz was the reason former coach Boris Becker, who worked hand in hand with Vajda, also went his separate ways from team Djokovic.
The 31-year-old comeback star then turned to legends Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek in a tandem coaching team in a bid to pull him out of his rankings tailspin.
None of it seemed to help.
Heading into Wimbledon, 2016, Djokovic was unstoppable, riding a wave of success that saw the Serb become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.
Out of nowhere his form disintegrated.
Heading into the 2018 French Open Djokovic had plummeted to a rankings low of No. 22 in the world.
It was at the peak of this slump in March that Djokovic picked up the phone and reached out to Vajda.
The Slovakian coach said this week he had to think long and hard about returning to coach Djokovic, but ultimately decided he could help Djokovic out of his slump and wanted to see his former pupil back in the winner's circle.
Djokovic's vegan diet and his prioritising of Imaz's spiritual practices were the first things to go.
"Yes, I wanted him to finish working with Imaz, but it was not my number one condition," Vajda said
"First I wanted to talk to Novak in person.
"Second, I wanted to make a plan and rules for the following months. We were all together in Barcelona, we sat and talked. I told him that I did not like people from outside the team to influence him, as was the case before.
"Tennis can not be based on philosophy. It is a man vs man sport. If you want to be the best, you have to do repetitions in training, play games and be strong mentally.
"When you see the opponent, you must focus on where to hit the ball, not think about Buddha."
It wasn't as simple as it sounds. While the foundations of Djokovic's training patterns were being turned upside down he almost pulled the pin on his grass court season campaign.
"He was mentally weak at the first joint tournaments," Vajda said.
"But it gradually improved, and at the third event in Madrid I saw the flashes of old good Novak."
With Imaz gone and Djokovic back in his old frame of mind, Vajda turned his attention to getting his charge back in the same physical condition that allowed him to turn into an all-covering brick wall at the back of the court.
Step one was reaching out to his old trainer Gebhard Gritsch. Step two was undoing Imaz's unique diet.
"Gebhard returned him to his physical form very quickly," Vajda said.
"Novak's muscle fibres are ideal for tennis but his muscles needed strengthening. His diet is mainly vegetarian and needed animal proteins. It is impossible without them.
"This is how Novak adjusted his diet, incorporating more fish, because he does not eat another meat.
"Now his muscles are in perfect condition, he follows all the right habits and does what it takes to be a champion. I hope this continues in the US Open."
A few weeks after he almost pulled the pin on the grass court season, Djokovic was crowned Wimbledon champion in a campaign which included one of the tournament's greatest contests when he bested Rafael Nadal in a five-set, semi-final classic spread across two days.
His stunning return was capped off by the moment he was able to celebrate a grand slam title with his son Stefan looking on for the first time.
Djokovic has since declared lifting the Wimbledon gentleman's singles trophy with his son watching on is the single most emotional moment he has had on the tennis court.
It was a perfect moment few experts could have predicted just a few months ago.
A few months ago Djokovic's advisers were still heavily linked to the spiritual teachings of Imaz.
Imaz is a former player who runs a tennis academy in Spain for underprivileged children, called "love and peace" and focuses on "wellbeing, feelings and emotions".
He was responsible for Djokovic performing a heart shape with his hands and presenting it to the crowd as his standard post-victory celebration.
He was also responsible for the famous long group hugs that Djokovic did with his coaching staff at every training session.
He also introduced regular meditation into Djokovic's training schedule.
After Djokovic's stunning Wimbledon success, those days of meditation suddenly seem a very long time ago.