Bitterly disappointed a few weeks ago after having lost yet another Australian Open final—the fourth of his career—Andy Murray implied that Novak Djokovic had engaged in a bit of distracting gamesmanship during their clash for the championship. After the two split a pair of tiebreakers, Djokovic looked physically wobbly, but he rebounded magnificently to win the third set, and he pulled away impressively to sweep 12 of the final 13 games in a four-set victory.
When Murray was asked if he thought Djokovic was deliberately misrepresenting his state, the Scot told the reporters assembled for his post-final press conference: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I have no idea. . . I hope that wouldn’t be the case.”
“I don’t know” is very different from “I doubt it.” Or from “I don’t think so.”
It was a surprising reaction, considering how close these two men were as junior players, and even as full-fledged pros: At least until Djokovic’s glorious 2011 season, he and Murray were considered a kind of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid operating in the world where the law was in the hands of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Thus, Murray’s reaction laid the foundation for a potential controversy. But when Djokovic was asked in the same room later if gamesmanship ought to be an issue between friends, he took the high road: “I’m not going to talk bad things about him in the press or find any excuses or something like this. In the match like this a lot of emotions go through, a lot of tension. It’s not easy to keep the concentration 100 percent all the way through.”
Never mind this turning of the other cheek, or the even-handed dismissal of so unpleasant a charge. Djokovic actually ends up making an excuse for Murray’s loss of form and subsequent veiled accusation—how else can you interpret the Serb’s remark about the challenge of remaining fully focused?
This anecdote opens a nice little window on the personality of Djokovic, and just how far it has developed by the end of his first decade as a pro. He once was a callow youth, famous for making outlandish, unsubstantiated claims of superiority—never mind that he would later be vindicated. He was once accused of harboring flight and fight reactions in near equal measures, hence his once common claim of physical disability ailments. At best, Djokovic seemed a borderline hypochondriac. At times, he also seemed rough-edged and arrogant.
Things certainly are different now.
Beginning with his watershed year of 2011, Djokovic has shown that it isn’t just on the tennis court that he’s become the equal, on any given day, of Federer or Nadal. Time, success, experience, and marriage have smoothed many of the burrs in his personality. Always a man of convictions, he’s now a little less definitive and a little less aggressive about expressing them. He’s always liked to talk, but now he’s a better listener. Djokovic conquered the world four years ago, winning three Grand Slam titles and hardly losing a match, but he’s also learned from it, and become a man of it. And now that he’s a husband and father as well, he seems to have found his ultimate niche.
“As my life progresses, there are circumstances, situations, events that define these beautiful moments,” Djokovic said after winning his fifth Australian Open, trying to explain why this most recent Grand Slam triumph seems to have “deeper meaning” and more “intrinsic value.”
“Getting married and becoming a father in the last six months was definitely something that gave me a new energy, something that I never felt before. And right now everything has been going in such a positive direction in my life. I’m so grateful for that. So I try to live these moments with, you know, all my heart.”
It isn’t always easy for an elite player to navigate the process of growing up. Nobody knows that better than Djokovic, who was floundering for a period after he won his first major in Melbourne in January 2008.
Djokovic played 11 Grand Slam tournaments after that breakthrough without winning another. He always seemed to be in the hunt, but he always came up short. Yet he was marvelously consistent, making four semifinals and a final in that stretch. He cracked the Top 10 at No. 6 in April 2007, and he hasn’t been ranked lower since. At times, though, Djokovic seemed satisfied with that output, more interested in winning the public’s affection than the big titles. He became famous for his impersonation of rivals, while Federer and Nadal became famous for winning Slams.
Djokovic in those days acted and often played as if there he were in no particular hurry to become great. As if he had all the time in the world. As if he could waste chances. And waste them he did. There was no better example than in the 2007 Wimbledon quarterfinals, in which he took his foot off the gas, began to shilly-shally, and allowed Marcos Baghdatis to wipe out a two-set deficit before closing the Cypriot out, 7-5 in the third. Djokovic would then default to Nadal in the semifinals, citing a blister on his toe. He’d wasted a lot of energy in the Baghdatis match; more so, he wasted an opportunity.
Things changed in 2011, although it’s more accurate to set Djokovic’s epiphany in late 2010, when he led Serbia to its first Davis Cup victory. The accomplishment turned him from a national celebrity into a national hero in a war-torn nation yearning for one. It also appeared to provide the unquantifiable missing ingredient that kept Djokovic from realizing his full potential. From that point on, he was a different player.
Making a new, heightened commitment to fitness and nutrition, Djokovic arced through 2011. He compiled a 41-match winning streak and by the end of the U.S. Open was 64-2. Fatigue and injuries caught up with him in the fall, but he still finished the season 70-6 with titles at three of the four Grand Slams (he was beaten in the semifinals of the French Open by Federer). He also bagged a five Masters 1000 tournaments.
In the 16 Grand Slam tournaments following the aforementioned 11 failed attempts (a losing streak that ended at the 2011 Australian Open), Djokovic won six Grand Slam titles. He was also a runner-up five times and a losing semifinalist on three other occasions. He hasn’t been outside of the Top 3 since October 2009.
Yet Djokovic was just 7-7 in major finals at the end of last year, which indicated that the 2015 Australian Open might prove to be a turning point—one for the better, it turned out. The win implies that Djokovic has a legitimate shot at closing a still significant gap with Nadal, who has 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and Federer, who owns 17.
Djokovic is 27, just one year younger than Nadal. But the effortful nature of Nadal’s game is beginning to tell on him, while Djokovic has remained largely injury-free. As he said, “I’m not injured and I have no major concerns for my body, so I don’t think I’m paying the price for a lot of tennis.”
Federer is 33, and his age is becoming an ever larger factor. Murray is Djokovic’s true rival, but Djokovic holds a comfortable 16-8 lead in that rivalry (5-2 in majors). These details, along with the way Djokovic has handled the various transitions in his career, suggests that the Serbian star stands on the threshold of a personal golden age.
After the final in Melbourne, Djokovic mused: “I believe in the healthy lifestyle that I had in the last couple years, for which I had to make a lot of sacrifice. . . in terms of my free time, in terms of some delicious meals (Djokovic subscribes to a gluten-free diet). But still I enjoy what I eat; I enjoy what I drink; I enjoy the life that I have. It’s my choice. So I can’t sit here and complain about my life where I’m actually saying it’s the best life I can have. As everybody else, I’m trying to be the best that I can be. That’s why I pay so much attention to it.”
The way Djokovic spoke suggests that the best is yet to come. More important, the way he’s played and handled himself sends the same message.