Novak Djokovic’s path to the top of the tennis world was as extraordinary as it was onerous: his first trainer was a woman who not only taught him to play tennis but also introduced him to classical music and poetic art. During bombing raids in the Balkan war, he spent his nights in the air-raid shelter and his days on the tennis court. As the youngest player in the top 10 of the world rankings, he reinvented himself as a tennis player – in order to challenge the seemingly indomitable Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Jörg Allmeroth, one of the most highly acclaimed international tennis journalists, had the following conversation with Djokovic in Dubai and Monte Carlo for The Red Bulletin.
The Red Bulletin: Novak Djokovic, on the fourth of July last year you became the world number one tennis player. You’re one of just 25 people who knows how that feels. Tell us about that.
Novak Djokovic:You know, you don’t wake up every morning and say, hey, you’re such a great guy, you’re the world number one. It’s more a, let’s say, deep satisfaction. You live your life knowing that you have turned the greatest dream of your life into reality. I’m living the dream that I had since I was four years old.
Just as other kids want to become engine drivers or astronauts, you wanted to be the number one in the tennis world rankings... at the age of four?
Yes. But it wasn’t just a dream. Back then I understood the number one as a goal. As something that you have to work towards.
You chose probably the most inopportune time for your mission: when you were 18, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal began their period of domination like no other pair before. From the 28 Grand Slam tournaments from 2004 to 2010, Federer won 15 and Nadal 10...
That makes the satisfaction all the more. I’m aware that nobody believed it would be possible to outperform Roger and Rafa – in this respect, I have achieved the impossible.
Let’s look more closely how it came to this power takeover. Going back four, five years: you’re 20, a much-publicised newcomer, the youngest player in the top 10. You want to go to the top – but up there are two of the greatest athletes known in the sporting world. And you lose major matches against the two. Soul destroying?
And how! You probably remember what I stated as my goals back then: to win Grand Slams and become the number one. Be honest, did you believe me?
Um… not many believed it.
Which was also warranted. I know I said I wanted to go to the top and claim Grand Slam titles, but I didn’t really believe it myself. When I went out to face Roger and Rafa on the court I didn’t have the 100 per cent, the complete and total conviction that I could actually succeed. My respect for them was simply too great.
How do you cast off respect for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?
It didn’t happen from one day to the next, it was a process. And it was tough. I recognised that I had reached a point where I must radically change myself as a professional if I really wanted to get to the top.
As a 20-year-old, as the youngest world-class player, you wanted to throw everything overboard that had brought you so far?
There was no alternative. I wanted to beat Roger and Rafa, and not just anybody. Over the next years I more or less changed everything. I knew that success in modern tennis is not a one-man show – and so I put a team of trainer, physiotherapist, nutritionist, fitness coach around me. I trained harder, but above all much more focused than before. I restructured my season. And I totally changed my eating habits. Thanks to a gluten-free diet I became physically more stable – and that of course gave my game a totally new constancy. Simply because I suddenly didn’t have to fight infections anymore that had constantly forced me to pull out of major tournaments.
You also relinquished your role as the clown of the tennis circus. In your earlier professional years you were very successful in your imitations of Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and others. Where has the Novak Djokovic gone to whom they gave the nickname, ‘The Djoker’?
At a certain point the whole thing became a bit forced. I travelled to a tournament and sooner or later some commentator or announcer would come and say, do Nadal, or do Sharapova for us. I thought to myself then, it’s time to stop.
Shouldn’t tennis be fun too?
Don’t worry, I’m still the same guy as before, anything but dead serious. To shoot a crazy commercial, or joke around with friends, that’s still very much a part of me. But the jokes shouldn’t be at the expense of others.
For years it was regarded as state-of-the-art to play with a poker face – deeply immersed in concentration, no emotion, on no account show feelings. But that’s completely different with you.
It’s good that way. Tennis isn’t a poker game for me. Everyone can see and feel my emotions, and anyone who wants to can share in what I’m experiencing at any given moment. That’s part of my character and I find that belongs to our job: we also have to give the people a good show. We have to inspire and carry them with us.
Do you believe that men’s tennis in the year 2012 is exciting enough?
I think we’re doing a pretty good job.
There are complaints of a little monotony in the names at the top: the major victories go predominantly to you, Nadal, Federer and Murray.
Doesn’t that make it all the more fascinating? It’s crazy that we stay so consistent at the top. Especially when you see how strong the first 100, even 200 players are today. They are all unbelievably good, technically and athletically. There’s not one single game in the year where you might be able to say I’m 80, 90 per cent sure I’m going to win that too. If you are not prepared to go to the limit every day then you’ll lose. Guaranteed.
And so how do you explain your winning streak last year? You’ve had 70 wins from 76 matches played and 10 tournament victories, including three of the four Grand Slams
Hmm… It’s beyond explanation. At some point I even asked myself: is this a dream or is it really true? It was a headrush, an almost surreal time. Like floating on a cloud.
According to many experts, your greatest victory is not one from your 2011 season but the one from last January, in the six-hour final of the Australian Open against Rafael Nadal. Do you agree?
The fans sure get a good run for their money these days, don’t they? [Laughs]. At some point during the match I felt that something special was happening, that this would be match I’d remember for the rest of my life. I had never had such thoughts before. And in the fifth set, crazy, I had the feeling for the first time in my life that I wasn’t on the planet anymore, I was in my very own world. That was an unbelievable experience, as if in a trance.
What do you normally think about during a game?
Perhaps it sounds boring, but I think about the same stuff that all the junior players are spoon-fed: think only about the next point. Only on winning that next point.
Do you in fact notice anything other than the actual duel during a major match? Or do you play with tunnel vision?
It’s not as if your senses are totally shut off. On the contrary. I draw in the atmosphere, the background noise. It gives me motivation and inspiration. But once the ball is in play you forget all about the world around you.
Do you still feel pressure or anxiety on the court today?
Why the negative undertone in the question? Pressure is a privilege! There is no better proof than pressure to show that I’m in a great match and chasing a major goal. I find pressure pushes me more than it holds me. Without the stage fright there isn’t top performance. When everything leaves you cold you know it’s over.
Is it this fire that makes the difference between a good player and an outstanding one?
In big matches it’s not about who hits the ball better – we can all play tennis. And we are all physically fit. The decisive word is ‘momentum’. That’s the difference. The momentum can only be on one side and you have to make sure that it’s your side it’s on.
And how do you do that?
In that you manage, over the entire duration of the match – and that could be four, five, six hours – to stay strong, patient, confident, self-assured. Don’t let yourself become frustrated, not from the good hit of an opponent, not from your own mistakes nor from the wrong decisions of the umpires. The one who manages this best has momentum on their side – and in crucial situations will then do the right thing at the right time.
Your career sounds like the stuff of a great Hollywood script: from Balkan war child to the top of the tennis world... an almost kitschy plot, don’t you think?
It’s a miracle, the whole story is a fairy tale. Absolutely. I could have failed a thousand times.
How important was it for your career that you came from Serbia, a country which has been at war with half the world? Did that release a particular energy?
I’m not a Serbian avenging angel who has set out to conquer the tennis world.
But to be Serbian is not only personally important to you, but it was also part of your motivation, was it not?
My push was to show the world a new face of Serbia. There was Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic who preceded me and enjoyed enormous success as pioneers. Both managed to reach the top of world ranking in women’s tennis in 2008. It was hugely satisfying for us all to see our country suddenly make very different headlines.
Was your hunger for success greater than that of the players from western societies because of the terrible experiences of your childhood?
Probably. We had more to gain. We wanted success so much more passionately than others, yes, that could be true.
How much was the war a burden on you personally? How did you cope with the air raids?
As a child you don’t really grasp the consequences. But you were frightened when the sirens screamed and we had to run into my grandfather’s cellar at night. That went on for a couple of weeks.
It is well known that you trained even during the time of the bombing: nights in the air-raid shelter, days on the tennis court. Unimaginable...
…but true. I continued to play tennis during this time. In fact more than usual because school was cancelled.
Serbia’s President, Boris Tadic, calls you today the “best ambassador of Serbia ever”. You even travel around the world with a red diplomatic passport?
Yes, and I have to admit that little gem has its advantages. I can now sidestep the long queues at customs [laughs].
Why don’t you live in your mother country that means so much to you?
Because it would be practically impossible. At every turn there’d be an incredible ballyhoo, without a moment’s peace. The hype in Serbia is great on the one hand, I enjoy the recognition and popularity and affection, but it’s also overwhelming.
Every so often you still visit your discoverer and first promoter, Jelena Gencic. There’s a BBC documentary in which touching images are shown: the Wimbledon winner proudly presents the trophy to his first trainer. In this clip you somehow seem more like a tennis student than a world star.
For me, Jelena will always be a person who commands respect. The moment you’re talking about was incredibly emotional: I brought her a replica of the trophy we had both always dreamed of. Without Jelena I would never have become the tennis player I am today. She was the first to believe in me and I was only five years old! She told my parents I was a ‘golden child’ and that they should absolutely support me and make sure I stick with tennis. The most valuable tips of my career all came from her.
Do you remember any specific tips?
A thousand things. For instance, she always said that quality comes before quantity when training. For her it was more about what and how you trained, not about how much.
Ms Gencic also insisted on you learning classical music, poetry and foreign languages. Why did she do that?
It was her kind of all-round pedagogical package, her educational method. And the music served as a form of relaxation after the stress of training. Actually, it still does that today. I like to listen to classical music.
Later you went from her to Munich to train under Niki Pilic, who was then a world star coach. Pilic says about you: “I have never experienced a 13- or 14-year-old who was so focused.”
I didn’t want to waste time, not a minute. After all, I was aware of the effort it had cost my parents to send me there. It was my responsibility to do everything I could to use the chance that my parents had made possible.
Were you always particularly ambitious with everything you did?
Always and everywhere. No matter what I did, whether I’m playing a game or skiing, the determination to win is a part of me.
It’s been said you’re a perfectionist – which we’ve heard is not always particularly pleasant for those who work with you.
If you want to achieve seriously big goals you need such a character trait, I’m convinced of this. When you have to tackle people like Federer and Nadal as part of your profession, you can’t afford to make compromises. And you can’t find satisfaction in the small steps.
You have two younger brothers, Marko and Djordje. Both are trying to gain a foothold in professional tennis, as well. Are you more of a burden to your brothers, or a help?
They don’t have it easy. They’re watched at every turn – Marko is 20, Djordje just 16. How should they cope with being measured against the Djokovic name? But they fight, they are trying everything to find their position in life. Whether it’s in tennis or something else. Of course I try to balance the load. I support them as well as I can – and as long as they want it.
You have some incredibly crazy and challenging years behind you. The fight to be number one, the fight for the Grand Slam titles, the fight for Davis Cup victory. Are there some days where you wake up and ask yourself, do I really have to torture myself again on the practice court?
One hundred per cent no. Absolutely not. Every single day I look forward to what is awaiting me on the tennis court. My job is huge fun, in fact my whole life is huge fun.
Even walking on red carpets? How do you like the glitz and glamour part of your job?
Why shouldn’t that be fun? After all, it is recognition for my performance. As number one, I must and should represent my sport on such occasions. I regard it as an honour.
One last request. To someone who has never heard of you before: how would you describe Novak Djokovic to them?
Actually it’s a bit uncomfortable describing myself... but OK. His bad side? He’s sometimes jealous. And sometimes a little too emotional. The good side: He’s a communicative person. Full of energy, full of life. He openly shows his soul to the world. And he’s responsible... and kind.
Photography: Clive Brunskill/Cointour by Getty Images
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