Novak Djokovic: Patriot's game
The world No 1 is fiercely proud to be from Serbia and to be improving his country's profile, he tells Paul Newman. And he knows that winning the French Open – and therefore holding all four Slams – will do his cause no harm at all
Novak Djokovic will stand on the brink of history when the French Open begins on Sunday. It is 43 years since one man held all four Grand Slam titles – Rod Laver won a pure Grand Slam in 1969, claiming the four majors in the same year – and Djokovic, the champion of Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, is now just one win away from that goal.
The 25-year-old Serb does not shy away from questions about the enormity of what he might achieve in Paris in 16 days' time, but as he leans forward in his seat in an office at the Foro Italico, where he was beaten by Rafael Nadal in the final of the Rome Masters earlier this week, you become aware that there is something even bigger he is looking forward to this summer.
There is arguably no greater patriot in sport than the world's No 1 tennis player and his eyes lit up when he revealed that he had been invited to carry the flag for Serbia at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics.
"Just the thought of carrying the flag there, it's mind-blowing really," Djokovic said. "It feels incredible, I remember being at the opening ceremony in Beijing, and how incredible it was to be part of that opening ceremony, in front of 90,000 to 100,000 people, and God knows how many millions watching around the world."
Djokovic has consistently said that the biggest turning point in his professional career was when he led Serbia to their first Davis Cup triumph two years ago. He has ridden a wave of confidence ever since. He did not lose another match for six months. Even when the run finally ended – Roger Federer beat him in last year's French Open semi-finals – he was soon back on his winning rampage, lifting the next three Grand Slam titles to put himself within touching distance of emulating Laver.
Doing Serbia proud is what motivates Djokovic most. Growing up during the Balkan wars and Nato's bombing of Belgrade helped to shape his character, which drew strength from his strong family bonds. When his grandfather died last month he was distraught. Djokovic remembered, in particular, the days when his family would shelter from Nato's bombing raids in his grandfather's Belgrade basement.
Djokovic has never been afraid to wear his heart – and sometimes his politics – on his sleeve. Four years ago he recorded a speech which was broadcast at a political rally at which Serbs opposed the idea of Kosovan independence. Today he heads a charitable foundation which provides opportunities for underprivileged children in Serbia, which is one of Europe's poorest countries and is still rebuilding its economy following the years of strife. Djokovic believes passionately that his country has had an undeserved bad press – and wants to change that through his words and deeds.
"Many [Serbian] people have hopes and good positive energy nowadays – and a lot of those hopes actually come from sport," he said. "This is one of the greatest assets our country has, if not the greatest. The president [of Serbia] has talked about it. That's why as athletes from Serbia we all feel an extra responsibility to represent our country wherever we go – not just by playing somewhere, but always talking about it. I believe my country deserves more than it gets at this moment press-wise and hopefully it is going to turn around."
Djokovic said Serbia has helped to make him who he is. "I am proud of where I come from," he said. "We are very emotional people. I believe not just the tennis players, but all the successful athletes that come from my country have had success mostly because of our mental strength, and through overcoming the really difficult times in the last 20 to 30 years that our country faced.
"We struggled very much with wars, embargoes and sanctions, economic and political issues and inflation. It was a really difficult time to become somebody. You want to try to just survive and live another day. Not many kids were daring to dream about something big. At the start for me as well it was difficult to have these dreams. Growing up in that environment was not easy. But I believe that with my example I can send the right message to the young kids in Serbia and help them out and allow them to dream.
"Because everybody should dream, everybody should believe in their dreams. Why not? I don't believe if you have a goal or a dream as a kid that you want to realise, that it's impossible, or you seem too arrogant to say that. I just believe that if you want something, you should try. Everybody should try. If I managed to do it, from this situation in this country? It seemed so impossible at that time that everybody laughed at it. Now that it is, that should serve as a good example to others."
Having achieved success, Djokovic is determined to remain close to his roots. "I do not want to position myself in any way as somebody who is untouchable," he said. "I came from these people, I lived through every single moment of the wars with those people, and I know how they feel and how they are, especially the people who didn't have an opportunity to be successful in what they do."
On the court, nevertheless, there have been times over the last 18 months when Djokovic has seemed untouchable. He has become world No 1 by thrusting aside two of the greatest players in history in Federer and Nadal who, along with Pete Sampras, are the only other men since Laver who have won three Grand Slam singles tournaments in a row.
Serena Williams is the last person to have held all four Grand Slam titles at the same time – an achievement she labelled "the Serena Slam" – and the American said it would be "unbelievable" if Djokovic could emulate her feat. "If Novak can do that then he can join my club and we can be best friends," she said with a smile in Rome last week.
Djokovic admitted that he has dreamt about completing his Grand Slam collection in Paris – he could not recall the score in his dream "but I did remember myself lifting the trophy" – and that he did think from time to time about how it might feel.
"It's something that has been in my head for a while," he said. "Obviously, I want to win the Roland Garros title and I will go with this mindset this year to Paris. I feel confident. I feel that I have enough qualities to win against anybody on this surface on any given day. But there are so many great players, I think it's going to be very hard."
Although Nadal will be the favourite to win his seventh Roland Garros title and Djokovic has never reached the final in Paris, the Serb is a fine clay-court player and loves the tournament. "Wimbledon was actually always at the top of my dreams list – because it's the pinnacle of our sport, the most historic and prestigious tournament – but next to it, my favourite is Roland Garros.
"I've reached a couple of semi-finals there and maybe now this year is an opportunity for me to go out there and try to get my hands on the trophy. If I don't, obviously it's not going to be the end of the world. I am only 25 and, if I am healthy enough, I hope to have many more years to achieve this mission."
And if he did win, would he have space at home for yet another trophy? "Trust me," Djokovic smiled. "If I need to rent a new room especially for that trophy, I will do it."
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