There are many different ways to prepare for major tennis competitions, but it is rare for them not to involve rackets or balls. “Laundry, garbage, cleaning,” Novak Djokovic said on his arrival in Britain this week when asked how he had been gearing up for Wimbledon, which starts on Monday.
“I needed some time off – more mentally rather than physically. I regrouped, spent some time with the family and got my thoughts off tennis.” Meanwhile, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the three other members of the so-called “Big Four” of men’s tennis, have been warming up in time-honoured fashion by playing in tournaments – and winning.
Tennis has come to expect the unexpected from one of its most remarkable champions. Djokovic, aged 28, is unlike any other player. He studies Eastern medicine, practises meditation and at Wimbledon often visits a local Buddhist temple. He enjoys classical music and poetry. He has published his own book, Serve to Win, in the form of a self-help lifestyle guide, complete with exercise routines and recipes based around the gluten-free diet which turned his career around.
He has set up a foundation, run by his wife, for the benefit of impoverished children, especially in his native Serbia. Novak and Jelena became parents themselves last year, naming their son Stefan after a succession of Serbian kings from the Nemanjic dynasty between the 12th and 14th centuries.
Djokovic finds time to play some tennis too. In a golden era for the sport, he is the undisputed world No 1. Federer and Nadal, nearly six years and one year older respectively, have won more Grand Slam tournaments, which represent the pinnacle of the sport, but in the past five years no man has matched Djokovic’s record. Over the next fortnight he will be seeking a third Wimbledon title and to extend his run of 50 victories from his last 53 matches.
Great sporting champions usually come from countries with a pedigree in their sport. Lionel Messi is from football-mad Argentina. Usain Bolt follows a great tradition of Jamaican sprinters and Tiger Woods is a product of golf-obsessed America. Djokovic, however, was born in a country with barely any tennis history. To call him a one-off, nevertheless, would be wrong. Serbia, a country still recovering from the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s and with a population of just seven million, has, remarkably, produced four recent world No 1 tennis players. Djokovic has been the most successful, but Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic both topped the women’s world rankings and Nenad Zimonjic reached No 1 in doubles.
The hardships which Serbs endured during those years of strife seemed to instil a fighting spirit and an unerring commitment in a whole generation of tennis players. Djokovic and his family sheltered every night in the basement of his grandfather’s flat during Nato’s bombing raids on Belgrade in 1999. He still practised his tennis, but moved to a different site each day to escape the bombs.
Djokovic’s tennis career had begun six years earlier in the mountain resort of Kopaonik, where his parents owned a pizzeria. Jelena Gencic, who had played a significant part in the careers of Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic, ran tennis camps there. One day she noticed a small boy – Djokovic – peering through the fence. She invited him to play tennis that afternoon.
Gencic recalled: “He arrived exactly on time. He had a bag with him. I asked to see what was inside it. There was a racket, a bottle of water, a towel, a banana, an extra shirt and a cap. I said to him: ‘Did your mother prepare your bag?’ He was quite angry. He said: ‘No, it was me. It is me who is playing tennis, not my mother.’ He told me later that he had watched tennis on television and seen what players took on court.”
Djokovic had never played tennis before, but showed immediate talent. “After three days I met his parents,” Gencic recalled. “I said to them: ‘You have a golden child.’” It was the start of a remarkable relationship between Djokovic and his “tennis mother”. Whether she was encouraging his interest in classical music, Pushkin’s poetry or languages, Gencic, who died two years ago, always tried to develop Djokovic’s mind as much as his tennis.
Having been an outstanding junior, Djokovic quickly made an impact at senior level. He won his first Grand Slam title, at the Australian Open, at 20. For the next three years he was a permanent member of the world’s top four, but struggled to emerge from the shadow of Federer and Nadal. His physical prowess also came into question. He suffered breathing problems and often retired mid-match after running out of steam.
Two events in 2010 changed everything. In the summer a nutritionist told Djokovic he was intolerant to gluten, a protein found in wheat and other bread grains, and to dairy products and tomatoes. When he changed his diet he quickly felt fresher, more alert and more energetic. From being a player with suspect fitness, he soon became arguably the greatest athlete in world tennis, combining stamina and strength with extraordinary speed and flexibility.
Proof that he had finally overcome his physical problems came at the 2012 Australian Open. Having taken nearly five hours to beat Murray in the semi-finals, Djokovic beat Nadal in the final, which at five hours and 53 minutes was the longest in Grand Slam history.
The second event was Serbia’s 2010 victory in the Davis Cup, the annual competition for national teams. Led by Djokovic’s example, Serbia won the historic trophy for the first time. It was a victory that brought joy to a country where the scars from years of conflict had been slow to heal. Meanwhile, the inspiration Djokovic drew from the triumph prompted his annus mirabilis in 2011. He won 43 matches in a row and 10 titles, including the Australian and US Opens and Wimbledon.
Djokovic has chosen to live in Monaco, but takes great pride in being his country’s greatest ambassador. When he returned to Serbia after his 2011 Wimbledon triumph, an estimated 100,000 people welcomed him home. A fierce patriot, he has not been afraid to speak out on political issues. Six years ago he made a speech via a video link at a rally in Belgrade protesting about Kosovo’s moves towards independence.
His relationships with other players have been mixed ever since some took exception to his mickey-taking impersonations of them. Boris Becker, his coach, admitted recently that Djokovic and Federer “don’t particularly like each other”. Over the years, the Serb’s calls for the trainer have infuriated some opponents, who have seen it as gamesmanship. “He’s a joke when it comes to his injuries,” Federer once said.
Some of the public, too, remain ambivalent about Djokovic, whose chest-thumping and bellowing roars can smack of arrogance and unnecessary belligerence. Despite his success, he has never matched the worldwide popularity of Federer and Nadal. John McEnroe, who remembers trying to break the grip of Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, sympathises. “Novak has these two guys that are arguably the two greatest players ever that he’s trying to be on an equal footing with and that’s a hell of a tough thing to do,” McEnroe said.
“But he’s got a chance to be considered one of the all-time greats.”
A life in brief
Born 22 May 1987, Belgrade, Serbia.
Family Father Srdjan and mother Dijana owned a tennis academy and three restaurants. Married to Jelena Ristic; they have one son, Stefan.
Education Belgrade Sport High School; from age 13 he attended Pilic Academy in Munich, Germany.
Career Turned professional in 2003. Won his first ATP title in 2006. Has since won the Australian Open five times, Wimbledon twice and the US Open once.