Novak Djokovic’s path to the top of the tennis world was as extraordinary as it was onerous: his first trainer was a woman who not only taught him to play tennis but also introduced him to classical music and poetic art. During bombing raids in the Balkan war, he spent his nights in the air-raid shelter and his days on the tennis court. As the youngest player in the top 10 of the world rankings, he reinvented himself as a tennis player – in order to challenge the seemingly indomitable Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Jörg Allmeroth, one of the most highly acclaimed international tennis journalists, had the following conversation with Djokovic in Dubai and Monte Carlo for The Red Bulletin.
The Red Bulletin: Novak Djokovic, on the fourth of July last year you became the world number one tennis player. You’re one of just 25 people who knows how that feels. Tell us about that.
Novak Djokovic: You know, you don’t wake up every morning and say, hey, you’re such a great guy, you’re the world number one. It’s more a, let’s say, deep satisfaction. You live your life knowing that you have turned the greatest dream of your life into reality. I’m living the dream that I had since I was four years old.
Just as other kids want to become engine drivers or astronauts, you wanted to be the number one in the tennis world rankings... at
the age of four?
Yes. But it wasn’t just a dream. Back then I understood the number one as a goal. As something that you have to work towards.
You chose probably the most inopportune time for your mission: when you were 18, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal began their period of domination like no other pair before. From the 28 Grand Slam tournaments from 2004 to 2010, Federer won 15 and Nadal 10...
That makes the satisfaction all the more. I’m aware that nobody believed it would be possible to outperform Roger and Rafa – in this respect, I have achieved the impossible.
Let’s look more closely how it came to this power takeover. Going back four, five years: you’re 20, a much-publicised newcomer, the youngest player in the top 10. You want to go to the top – but up there are two of the greatest athletes known in the sporting world. And you lose major matches against the two. Soul destroying?
And how! You probably remember what I stated as my goals back then: to win Grand Slams and become the number one. Be honest, did you believe me?
Um… not many believed it.
Which was also warranted. I know I said I wanted to go to the top and claim Grand Slam titles, but I didn’t really believe it myself. When I went out to face Roger and Rafa on the court I didn’t have the 100 per cent, the complete and total conviction that I could actually succeed. My respect for them was simply too great.
How do you cast off respect for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?
It didn’t happen from one day to the next, it was a process. And it was tough. I recognised that I had reached a point where I must radically change myself as a professional if I really wanted to get to the top.
As a 20-year-old, as the youngest world-class player, you wanted to throw everything overboard that had brought you so far?
There was no alternative. I wanted to beat Roger and Rafa, and not just anybody. Over the next years I more or less changed everything. I knew that success in modern tennis is not a one-man show – and so I put a team of trainer, physiotherapist, nutritionist, fitness coach around me. I trained harder, but above all much more focused than before. I restructured my season. And I totally changed my eating habits. Thanks to a gluten-free diet I became physically more stable – and that of course gave my game a totally new constancy. Simply because I suddenly didn’t have to fight infections anymore that had constantly forced me to pull out of major tournaments.
You also relinquished your role as the clown of the tennis circus. In your earlier professional years you were very successful in your imitations of Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and others. Where has the Novak Djokovic gone to whom they gave the nickname, ‘The Djoker’?
At a certain point the whole thing became a bit forced. I travelled to a tournament and sooner or later some commentator or announcer would come and say, do Nadal, or do Sharapova for us. I thought to myself then, it’s time to stop.
Shouldn’t tennis be fun too?
Don’t worry, I’m still the same guy as before, anything but dead serious. To shoot a crazy commercial, or joke around with friends, that’s still very much a part of me. But the jokes shouldn’t be at the expense of others.
Read the full interview in July's issue of The Red Bulletin.