Approaching the end of a season he calls his greatest yet, Novak Djokovic says he wants to finish on a high in London.
It was around this time four years ago that Rafael Nadal shook his head and admitted there was nothing he could do: Novak Djokovic was simply too good.
“It’s probably the highest level of tennis I ever saw,” said the Spaniard of the man who beat him in six finals, on three different surfaces, in 2011. That same year, Djokovic won three of the year’s four Grand Slams [Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open], compiled a 41-match winning streak lasting half the season and lost just six times in 76 matches. In short, it was a season widely regarded as one of the best ever in men’s tennis.
But now it has competition, from Novak Djokovic: the 2015 edition. We meet the world number one in Paris before his successful defence of his Paris Masters title. Last weekend, he beat Andy Murray in the final to become the first player to win six Masters 1000 titles in a single season. It takes his 2015 tally to 10 titles, with one still to play for at next week’s ATP World Tour Finals at London’s O2.
“In terms of the Grand Slams, this has been a better season than 2011,” says Djokovic. He refers to the fact that he reached the final of all four majors this year, whereas in 2011 he fell in the semi finals of the French Open, to Roger Federer. His win-loss record this season reads 78-5. But, numbers aside, Djokovic says there are other reasons why he ranks this year ahead of 2011.
“It’s about the overall feeling of my game – the way I play and the way I feel on the court,” he says in an exclusive interview with Sport. “I’m a more complete player physically; technically I’ve improved since 2011, and mentally I’m more stable.
“And in my private life, everything has been happening with the blessing of getting married and becoming a father [Djokovic married Jelena Ristic, his girlfriend of almost 10 years, in July 2014; the couple had their first child, Stefan, the following October]. I feel more balanced in my professional and private life – it feels more fulfilling.”
This is Djokovic’s first full season tackling the ATP’s relentless 11-month schedule as a dad – a juggling act he says has breathed new life into his tennis.
“My wife and my boy travelled with me to all the Grand Slams except Australia,” he explains. “They’re not on the road with me all the time because it’s difficult to keep changing environments with a baby, but it has given me a new perspective in life. It allowed me to discover a new emotion, a new dimension of love that I used in a very good way with my tennis. Everything made more sense because I’m not only playing for myself – I have my own family, and my boy.
“Fortunately, I have great support from my wife for what I do, which is very important, and we work as a team. As soon as I go home, I put my racket to one side and it’s all about family.”
Everything for a reason
Djokovic himself comes from a closeknit family that’s forever bound by the harrowing experience of living through two wars in Belgrade. It has left Djokovic with vivid memories of running into bomb shelters during the nightly NATO bombings in 1999, and standing in line to collect the family’s bread and milk rations. It’s a life from which his current situation [plush house in Monaco, yearly earnings of around $15m] is so far removed that he must often feel as though he has lived two separate existences.
“My parents made a great sacrifice to allow me to play this sport,” he says, reflecting on the decision of his father Srdjan and mother Dijana to let him leave home at the age of 12 to move to a tennis academy in Germany. “It took a lot of belief and a lot of faith. Not just in my own skills, ability and talent, but also in the people around me who were convincing my parents it was right to support me at a time when economically, it was very demanding for our standard of life. But they had this belief and gave me the fighting spirit and never-give-up mentality that helps me still today.”
Working on his game day in, day out at the Pilic Academy [run by former Croatian player Nikola Pilic], did Djokovic believe he would reach the pinnacle of the sport he grew up watching on TV from a tiny room above his parents’ pizza parlour in the remote mountain town of Kopaonik?
“I dreamed it,” he says with a smile. “I envisioned it. But I was also trying to be down to earth and realistic, coming from a small country like Serbia that didn’t have a tennis tradition.”
One thing Serbia did have was Djokovic’s first coach, Jelena Gencic – the woman who told his parents that they had a “golden child” on their hands after she spotted the six-year-old at one of her tennis clinics. When Gencic passed away in 2013, it left Djokovic devastated at the loss of the childhood mentor he credits with teaching him “everything about playing tennis and how to behave”.
Indeed, it is her name he brings up when we discuss his meticulous approach to the game and everything surrounding it [in Djokovic’s 2013 book, Serve to Win, he reveals details of his gluten and dairy-free diet, his devotion to Eastern philosophy and medicine, and why he prefers for his urine to have “a bit of colour.”]
“I inherited that way of being from my first coach,” Djokovic explains. “She was also very analytical. Every exercise or drill that we did on the court had its purpose. She taught me to always be prepared for practice, to warm up properly, to recover and stretch. She had this holistic approach, so it’s a mindset I’ve also had since I was seven years old.”
He still does many of the things Gencic taught him now, he says, if in a slightly different way as he and his team have evolved. One thing remains:
“We still keep this strong link between ourselves because, at the end of the day, it’s a team sport as well. When I’m alone on the court, of course I have to do the job myself. But I have this small corner where my team is sitting. Sometimes it’s sufficient for me just to look at them and make eye contact with Boris [Becker] or Marian [Vajda, another coach] – that’s enough for me to know that I’m not alone.”
The German influence
It has been almost two years since Djokovic approached six-time Grand Slam winner Becker about becoming his head coach. Since then, he has reclaimed the number-one world ranking [which he lost to Nadal after a disappointing 2013], and added four more Slams to his record, taking his tally to 10. While the German has been a legend since his playing days, he had never coached a top player before Djokovic came calling. But it was Becker’s vast on-court experience that Djokovic says led him to hire the former world number one.
“He has the mental ability to handle really stressful situations on the court in the big matches,” he says. “Especially those that are for big trophies. He’s won many of them himself, so he understands the challenge that is waiting for me on the court. We had a lot of talks about this particular matter, and I think this is where his contribution has shown the most in my game and in my success.”
The transition from being a famously successful player to coaching one is not always straightforward. Djokovic admits even he was unsure how Becker would handle the change in mindset at first, but says it quickly became clear he needn’t have been:
“He kept a distance at the beginning, especially for the first four or five months we worked together. He accepted his role was more of an observation role to start with, because he wanted to understand me and my ways of thinking, my work ethic and the way I communicate with my team.
“I appreciate that very much, because it was something that maybe you don’t expect somebody that is a great in the sport to do. To really take a step back and understand that it’s my career that is most important here, and that he has to switch his priorities and ways of thinking and channel his energy into my development and improvement. In the beginning, it took a little bit of time, but now we have this great harmony in the team.”
In an interview with Sport earlier this year, Becker claimed that he and Djokovic shared many personality traits, including being opinionated, outspoken and emotional. Djokovic laughs at the list, but says that growing up in Germany meant he found it easy to adjust to Becker’s mentality.
“I know that Germans are very self-disciplined, very professional and serious,” he says. “They set a goal and they work every day towards that goal. It’s that mentality that has helped me keep my commitment to the sport. But Boris has a great balance in his personality, too. He’s professional and somebody who deeply analyses your personality, but he’s also easygoing. He’s a storyteller.”
Becker’s role in Djokovic’s exploits this season cannot be underestimated. He has helped make the 28-year-old dominant in an era featuring two players many believe are among the finest ever to play the game. It’s almost as if he makes it look easy.
Creating a monster
But Djokovic reminds us that he has had his struggles this year: losing the French Open final to Stan Wawrinka and going two sets down to giantserving Kevin Anderson in the fourth round at Wimbledon [pictured, above], before coming back to make it safely through to the quarter finals.
“Maybe people don’t notice it, but you do go through certain mental challenges and obstacles you need to overcome,” he says. “Situations where you need to face adversity in your own mind, but also face what your opponent puts in front of you.”
Djokovic sees the positive in matches such as the Anderson struggle: “They really challenge you in every way.” But, he quickly adds, straightforward matches are far more preferable: “You want to be consistent and solid throughout the entire match. You want to impose this kind of presence on the court where the other player feels that he needs to play his best in order to win against you. That’s an optimal state, and of course it’s not always possible. But generally it was the case for me this year.”
Think back seven or eight years and it was Federer who was in Djokovic’s position, finishing the year as world number one for four years straight [Djokovic has finished on top for four out of five, with Nadal interrupting his run in 2013] and dominating the Grand Slams – the French Open aside. The expectation that he would win every tournament he entered became so great that the Swiss once claimed, after losing to Djokovic in the semi finals of the 2008 Australian Open, he had “created a monster”. It’s a feeling Djokovic says he can empathise with.
“Because of all the expectations and the high standards you set for yourself, you need to be able to develop this kind of automatic approach,” he says. “You need a really strong mind to help you battle these kinds of expectations.
“One of the biggest differences between tennis today and tennis 20 or 30 years ago is the media, which is all around you with smartphones giving you access to online news and social networks. All this stuff adds pressure, which you don’t need because it demands more energy from you. It’s a tough era to be in, but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved with my team. I know what it takes to be here.”
Djokovic comes to London for the ATP World Tour finals keen to finish the season in the manner he’s played the entire year.
“It doesn’t make too much difference for me whether I’m stepping on court for a Grand Slam final or for the World Tour Finals,” he says. “I try to win every match I play. But if I don’t, then of course it wouldn’t ruin my season because I still think it’s the best season I’ve ever had.
“That releases a bit of pressure, but as the world number one and defending champion [he’s bidding for his fourth title in a row and fifth overall], there is an additional responsibility to play well. You have to accept who you are and why people are paying for tickets to watch you play. They want to see you play your best tennis, so I’ll try to use every last drop of energy I have to do that.”