Novak Djokovic: From mountainside court to the peak of the sport

The new world No 1 and Wimbledon champion tells Paul Newman how a chance encounter at new tennis facilities when he was just six set him on the road to glory

Novak Djokovic can party with the best of them and Wimbledon probably expected to see a bleary-eyed champion when he returned to the All England Club yesterday morning. Not a bit of it. The Serb said he had been tucked up in bed by 1am, at a time when the wine was still flowing at the Champions' Dinner in the West End.

"I haven't had time for celebrations," Djokovic said. "The obligations for the Wimbledon champion are quite rough. I had the official dinner which was nice, but it was long and I was too tired to celebrate."

The new world No 1, who was presented with a cake decorated in Serbian red, white and blue on the players' lawn on his return to Wimbledon, is likely to make up for lost time, although the biggest celebrations will probably have to wait until after this weekend's Davis Cup tie in Sweden. Nevertheless, a hero's welcome was awaiting him in Belgrade last night as the 24-year-old headed home, 24 hours after claiming his first Wimbledon title with victory over Rafael Nadal.

"It's a bit early to realise what I've done," Djokovic said. "I'm still euphoric, I'm still having the adrenaline rush and in the great joy of winning Wimbledon and having a great season so far. I have Davis Cup coming up this weekend, then after that I have two weeks of rest. I will go down to the beach, leave my rackets in the room and close my eyes under the sun. Then I might reflect on everything that has happened."

During that period of reflection Djokovic will no doubt think back to some of the crucial early turning points in his life. Yesterday, for example, he recalled how he might never have played the sport had three tennis courts not been built near to his parents' pizzeria at Kopaonik in the Serbian mountains.

Jelena Gencic, who discovered Monica Seles, was holding a tennis camp there one day when she spotted six-year-old Djokovic watching through the fence. She asked him if he would like to play and he returned that afternoon with a bag he had carefully prepared himself. He had even packed a towel and a banana. Within a month he was in the top group of players and won the tournament at the end of the camp, beating a 14-year-old girl 6-0, 6-1 in the final.

"If those three tennis courts had not been there God knows if I would have started tennis, because nobody in my family had ever touched a tennis racket before me, so there was no tradition whatsoever," Djokovic said. "I would have become a skier or a football player or a regular student.

"My dad was a semi-professional footballer and a very good skier, a professional. He, my aunt, my uncle were all at the top of the former Yugoslavia ski squad, competing in big competitions. That is why I have such a passion for the mountains and why I started playing tennis in the mountains. When my dad stopped skiing he opened a restaurant and my uncle opened a boutique selling winter clothes. They became ski instructors and opened their own school. That's why I was there.

"That is destiny in life. When something is meant for you to do, it is meant for you to do. To become a champion you have to go through ups and downs in life and go through some situations which appear to be very lucky."

Skiing remains a passion. "In the last four years I've skied maybe once, but I ski whenever I can," he said. "The rules about skiing being prohibited don't apply to me. I don't accept that in contracts!"

Football, too, is in Djokovic's blood. "As a kid, even though I loved playing tennis I had regrets about not being a footballer. I loved football. I love it today as well. I always enjoy watching that sport."

Djokovic's ascent to world No 1 was confirmed in yesterday's updated ranking list. With 13,285 ranking points he is more than 2,000 ahead of Nadal, another 2,000 clear of Roger Federer, the No 3, and a further 2,400 up on Andy Murray, the No 4. The rankings are based on a rolling 12-months points total, with a Grand Slam title worth 2,000 points and a Masters Series title 1,000.

The Serb is likely to pull even further clear in the months ahead. He has only 3,390 points to defend between now and the end of the year. After the Davis Cup and a holiday he will make his next appearance in what has often been his most profitable part of the year, the outdoor hard-court season.

He will not be resting on his laurels. "I want to improve," Djokovic said. "The example for me is Nadal. A few years ago we all knew how dominant he was on clay, but maybe not so much on the other surfaces. Nobody thought he could get any better, but he did. Me too. I still consider myself as a player with something to prove and want to improve my game."

Djokovic is especially pleased with the way he responded after Federer ended his remarkable 43-match winning run in the semi-finals of the French Open last month. "After having the incredible year and the incredible run to then lose at Roland Garros in a really epic semi-final to Federer, a great match, I'm really proud of how I recovered from that," he said. "I managed to come back in great style and win Wimbledon in a great way and that's something I maybe wasn't managing to do in the past. Now I'm able to mentally switch off and recover quickly."

Ending the Nadal-Federer duopoly is another source of pride. "For a while I've been working on figuring out a way to win against those two guys and win majors," Djokovic said. "We all know how good they are, how they always raise their level of performance on the big occasions and they are always playing their best tennis in the last four of a Grand Slam. Everybody knows that in the last five or six years, that is the case.

"I knew that if I had to win against them, in the semi-finals and finals in Grand Slams, I had to raise my game, to play on top of my game and improve. They made me improve. I have made that mental switch. I believe in myself on the court much more than I did."

Did Djokovic believe that Murray, a long-time friend since their days together on the junior circuit, could make a similar step up? "It's just a small percentage, the next final step he needs to make. The first Grand Slam is definitely the toughest one to win. But Wimbledon is nothing like any other tournament and people have to realise that.

"It occupies three weeks. You have to come the week before and have to prepare and you have to come through the pressure and expectations, especially if you're a top player and especially if you're in his position, as a home favourite, somebody who everybody expects to win for Britain. But he handles the pressure very well. Obviously, sometimes it gets to him. But he has the quality. That's a fact. He has the quality to win a Grand Slam, any Grand Slam, because he is an all-round player."

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