Novak Djokovic has emerged from the shadow of Federer and Nadal, but can he learn to act like a champion?
by Lauren Collins September 2, 2013
He is an athlete, a professional tennis player. He is six feet two inches tall. He weighs a hundred and seventy-six pounds. His legs, gummy and striated, bring to mind a pair of Twizzlers. He is a lover of animals. With his narrow neck and solid pelt of hair, he looks a bit like Pierre, his toy poodle.
He has a goofy sense of humor. A few years ago, he became famous for his imitations—Rafael Nadal picking at his wedgie, Roger Federer prancing swaybacked along the baseline. At an exhibition in Bratislava last year, he stuffed his shirt with sweat towels and hitched up an imaginary skirt. That was Serena Williams.
He speaks five languages beautifully. He never met a meme he didn’t like. The other night, after a match, he pulled an Afro wig out of his racket bag and danced to “Get Lucky.” A book he recently enjoyed was “The Secret,” by Rhonda Byrne. He absolutely believes one hundred per cent in that kind of philosophy of life. You attract things the way you think. You are what your thoughts are!
He is Serbian, but he lives in Monte Carlo. After he won Wimbledon, in 2011, a hundred thousand people gathered to celebrate in front of Belgrade’s Parliament. He wore a white blazer. It was the best night of his life. The President of Serbia told “60 Minutes” that he could win the nation’s highest office. At one point, a rumor went around that he had bought up the country’s entire supply of donkey cheese.
For eighty-five weeks, he has been the No. 1 tennis player in the world. In addition to Wimbledon, he has won thirty-six other A.T.P. singles titles, including a U.S. Open, and three Australian Opens straight. In 2011, he played what some people think is the best season of tennis in history, winning seventy of the seventy-six matches he played and recording a forty-one-match winning streak. He hasn’t lost before the semifinals of a Grand Slam in three years.
He bounces the ball a million times before he serves. His play is plasmatic. He seems to flow toward the corners of the court. He is an origami man, folding at the waist to dig up a drop shot, starfishing for a high forehand return, cocking his leg behind his head in an arabesque as he blasts a backhand down the line. He lunges, he dives, he beats his pecs. He once yelled—in Serbian—“Now you all will suck my dick!”
He is dominant, but he is not universally adored. His showy personality and subtle game are a niche taste. Haters call him Djokobitch. Jerzy Janowicz, the Polish player, said recently that he was “a fake.” But now, with the waning of the Federer-Nadal duopoly, which has fixated tennis for the past decade, the love he craves is within his reach. This week, at Flushing Meadows, where he was once booed, Novak Djokovic will attempt to assert his sovereignty.
The Friday before Wimbledon began, Djokovic was sitting at an outdoor table at Le Pain Quotidien, on Wimbledon Village High Street. He looked as though he’d just towelled off and stepped into a watch ad. His clothes were from Uniqlo, his sponsor: trim trousers, blue leather shoes, blue linen blazer, good white shirt. His nose had caught the sun. When he sat down, he said to the waitress, “Maybe a water, please, would be nice. Still water—not too cold.” (He avoids ice water—it inhibits the flow of blood to the muscles.) He also ordered a mint tea.
Two weeks earlier, Djokovic had lost, painfully, to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the French Open. The French Open is the only Grand Slam that is played on clay, tennis’s slowest surface. It is also the only Grand Slam that Djokovic hasn’t won. (It seems impossible, but Pete Sampras, Djokovic’s childhood idol, never won there, either.) Nadal, who is nearly untouchable on clay, which he grew up playing on, in Mallorca, had won the French Open in seven of the past eight years. But he had been out for seven months with a knee injury, and Djokovic, surging, had beaten him, for only the third time on clay, a month earlier at Monte Carlo. (Djokovic’s career record against Nadal is 15–21.) Djokovic was scarily fit, and he was no longer distracted by a series of health problems that had afflicted his father in 2012. There was talk among the tennis cognoscenti about the prospect of his surpassing his 2011 season.
Over a gruelling four hours and thirty-seven minutes in Paris, Djokovic had failed to prevail by the slightest of margins. Up a break and tied at deuce at 4–3 in the fifth set, he attacked with the diabolical incrementalism of a medieval torture master, stretching Nadal ever wider across the court, then charging forward to put away an easy overhead, after which he tripped and accidentally tapped the net, forfeiting a crucial point. The set, the match, and the coveted title soon fell away. Djokovic had been so upset that he booked a last-minute vacation and retreated to Corsica with his girlfriend of eight years, Jelena Ristic.
But now, resurfacing in England, he seemed at ease. The day before, he had played an exhibition match at the Boodles Challenge, in Buckinghamshire, against Grigor Dimitrov, a twenty-two-year-old Bulgarian comer known as Baby Fed. The stands were filled with suburban women. During the changeover between games, the crowd had kept up a slow clap. As the noise mounted, Djokovic stood up. Like a magician revealing a marvel, he peeled off his top—poof, abs!—and whirled it above his head, gyrating his hips. Then he pointed at Dimitrov. “We’re too sexy for our shirts!” the next day’s Daily Mail headline read. “Djokovic and Dimitrov send crowd into raptures by comparing torsos in Wimbledon warm-up.”
Djokovic seemed pleased that his impromptu striptease had caused a sensation. “They put in a photo?” he asked, at the café, stroking Pierre, who whimpered on his lap. “I heard many comments during that match yesterday. It was a lot of entertainment and fun—and, also, getting the crowd involved in the tennis match like never before!”
Djokovic’s reputation as a ham—his other nickname is the Djoker—obscures a difficult heritage. He was born in May of 1987 in Belgrade, which was then part of Yugoslavia. His parents, Srdjan and Dijana, owned a pizza parlor and snack bar in the mountain resort town of Kopaonik. Novak (Nole to his family), the eldest of three sons—Marko, who is twenty-two, and Djordje, who is eighteen, also play professional tennis—enjoyed what he described as a “beautiful” childhood. “You know, I grew up in restaurants,” he said, recalling afternoons spent washing dishes and dolloping Nutella on crêpes. “The job I’ve done most often was with my father, cleaning the snow in front of our restaurant with the shovel.” Once, it snowed so much that they chiselled a picnic table out of ice. Djokovic’s opening line as a trainee waiter: “Good afternoon, welcome to our restaurant. What would you like to drink? I might seem young, but I will be able to remember your orders.”
It was a fluke that Djokovic started playing tennis. His father had been a competitive skier; the family was athletic, but racket sports were not a part of its repertoire—nor, particularly, of that of Serbia, which, as a nation, favored team sports. For some reason, the government decided to build a tennis complex in Kopaonik, an improbable development that Djokovic interprets as a sign of providence. Djokovic loitered around the courts until Jelena Gencic, a pro who had once coached Monica Seles, finally invited him to join her clinic. He showed up the next morning, and by the end of the week Gencic was proclaiming that “the golden child” possessed “the biggest talent I have seen since Monica.” (Gencic became a lifelong mentor to Djokovic, encouraging him to read poetry and to listen to classical music; she died a week before the Nadal match, at the age of seventy-six.)
When Djokovic was six, he told his parents that it was his mission to become the No. 1 tennis player in the world. When he was eleven, NATO began bombing Belgrade. Each night at eight o’clock, as the air-raid siren sounded, the family would run to an aunt’s apartment building, which had a bomb shelter. For seventy-eight nights, they crouched in darkness, praying amid the screams of F-117s. Djokovic kept up his tennis throughout the bombardment, playing on cracked courts bereft of nets. He writes, in “Serve to Win,” published this month by Ballantine, “We’d go to the site of the most recent attacks, figuring that if they bombed one place yesterday, they probably wouldn’t bomb it today.”
In the aftermath of the war, as sanctions crippled Serbia’s economy, the family struggled to support Djokovic’s ambition. Srdjan recently told the Serbian newspaper Kurir, “We lived seventeen years in rented accommodations, landlords evicted us. I could not sleep at night and I was walking down the street. Sometimes the police arrested me. . . . After I explained, we’d sit in the station, laughing and drinking brandy until the morning.” The family debated whether to flee to Germany, or Britain. “But in the end we decided we needed to be with our people,” Djokovic told me. Gencic told Srdjan and Dijana, “If you want him to keep progressing, he has to leave the country.” Srdjan sold the family’s gold and borrowed money from a loan shark. Novak went to a tennis academy in Munich.
Tennis, perhaps alone among sports, does not necessarily thrill to a hard-luck tale. It is an oddity of Djokovic’s career that his story is not primarily told as an inspirational one. Along with Venus and Serena Williams, he is the player that a certain sort of enthusiast—“tennis ninnies,” as the writer Stephen Rodrick has called them—cannot abide. The objection to him involves his extreme self-belief, supposedly unbecoming in a tennis player of his accomplishments, when it is the very thing that has enabled them. At the café, Djokovic mentioned that he had just watched a documentary on the Williams sisters. “I can identify with that,” he said. “They came from poor neighborhoods, without really any kind of conditions to become what they have become, but their father and close family believed in them, and now they rule the world.”
Wimbledon is the rare hallowed site that exceeds its reputation for grandeur. Hydrangeas line the walkways. The hush is only more touching for being a parody of itself. Demonstrating the English flair for imposing class systems where informality might otherwise flourish, badges dangle from the lapels of men in panama hats, identifying them as debenture holders, or non-voting investors in the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which was founded in 1868 as a croquet association. (Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who brought tennis to the club, originally tried to call the game Sphairistiké, alluding to a Greek word for “ball.”) The place where the line judges eat is called the Officials’ Buttery.
Djokovic, who rents a house down the road from the club each year, has called Wimbledon his favorite tournament. The year he won, he crouched, plucked a tuft of grass from the court, and stuffed it into his mouth. “I felt like an animal. I wanted to see how it tastes,” he later explained. (It tasted “like sweat.”) Chris Evert, Cliff Drysdale, and Brad Gilbert, among other analysts, were picking Djokovic to win the title. He had been spotted at a local Buddhist temple, meditating under a tree. An air of calm expectancy surrounded him. There had been a bumper crop of strawberries.
The day before Wimbledon began, Djokovic was practicing on the club’s back courts.
“Speak to me in German a little bit, man!” he yelled as he fired serves at Tommy Haas, the world’s thirteenth-ranked player and his hitting partner for the day.
Djokovic’s team—an omnipresent clique consisting of Marián Vajda (his coach, Slovakian), Dusan Vemic (the assistant coach, Serbian), Gebhard Gritsch (his trainer, Austrian), Miljan Amanovic (his physiotherapist and confidant, Serbian), and Edoardo Artaldi (manager, Italian)—hovered on the edges of the court like bouncers, hands clasped behind their backs. (Jelena Ristic is also an indispensable part of his entourage.) The men had more hair on their faces than on their heads. The only chink in the tableau of steely professionalism occurred when, once the session was over, Djokovic toted away his shoes in a crumpled shopping bag.
I asked Artaldi whether Djokovic had recovered from Paris. “The French is over,” he said. “One of his capabilities is to forget.”
Djokovic’s first opponent was Florian Mayer, an ungainly German whose service motion looked as though he were scraping a bow across a cello. Djokovic played commandingly but dispassionately. When a high short ball floated his way, he tapped it over the net, as though his challenger didn’t quite merit the exertion (or the small amount of risk) that a slam would have entailed. He was a McKinsey man, hitting his percentages. His approach was scientific. He brought to mind a diagram on the side of a workout machine, isolating the necessary muscles required for each stroke, and no more, as he dismantled Mayer in fifty-seven minutes.
In the second round, Djokovic faced Bobby Reynolds, a journeyman American making his Centre Court début at the age of thirty. Reynolds told me later, “I would have had to have played an unbelievable match, and he would have had to have played C-level, for me to have even had a chance.”
Reynolds could hardly analyze the match, because, as he pointed out, Djokovic’s game has no obvious flaws. The way to beat Federer is well known, if difficult to execute: hit high to his backhand. (All the better if you play left-handed, like Nadal.) Nadal’s serve, particularly his second serve, can be unintimidating. The same is true of the Scot Andy Murray, the third-ranked player. But Djokovic’s game is encrypted in versatility. He has few tendencies. He can hit powerfully on both the forehand and the backhand sides, cross-court and down the line, with varying spin and pace. In isolation, you might take Federer’s serve, Nadal’s forehand, or Murray’s backhand over any one of Djokovic’s strokes, but, while Djokovic’s opponents are only infinitesimally better in the areas in which they exceed him, they are poorer at the things they do worse. Nick Bollettieri, the tennis coach, has called Djokovic “perhaps the best put-together player that I’ve seen in over sixty years.” Reynolds told me, “If there’s one thing I can say that I had any success with, it was serving straight into his body. But you have to be so precise—if you miss by, like, a foot, then it’s one hundred per cent in his strike zone.”
Djokovic’s nominally defensive play—his ability to transform into winners shots you think he can barely get his racket on—is the most distinctive element of his style. “When he’s on defense, he can actually win the point with one shot; that’s an evolution of the game,” Andre Agassi has said. His quicksilver conversions of vulnerable moments have the added benefit of tormenting his opponents. Tim Mayotte, a leading American player in the eighties, who is now a coach at the Mayotte-Hurst Tennis Academy, in Queens, told me, “I think his defense is just astonishing. To be able to take points that feel like they’re yours, stay in the match, and turn them around—that would just drive me loco.”
A classic Djokovic point: 2011, the semifinals of the U.S. Open, Federer serving for the match at 5–3, 40–15 in the fifth set. Djokovic had fought his way back from a two-set deficit. The crowd was egging on the rivalry while remaining, as ever, solidly behind Federer, the lordly seigneur of tennis for nearly ten years. “There is near-hysteria here,” a commentator intoned in the broadcast booth. Djokovic, with ice in his eyes, pushed his tongue into his bottom lip and gave a macho jerk of his chin.
Federer served wide into the deuce court. Djokovic swung and hit an impossibly angled cross-court forehand across the net—a blazing vector that just seared the line. The sheer insolence of the shot seemed to rankle Federer into collapse. “Are you kidding me?” Federer complained, after losing the match. “I mean, please. Look, some players grow up and play like that. I remember losing junior matches, just being down 5–2 in the third and they all just start slapping shots. It all goes in for some reason, because that’s kind of the way they grew up playing when they were down.”
Djokovic entered the Top 100 in 2005, at the age of eighteen, but, prior to his spectacular 2011 season, he was considered—even by himself—something of a choke artist, an erratic malingerer whose fitness and focus wavered at crucial moments. In “Serve to Win,” he catalogues his implosions: in 2005, at his first appearance in the French Open (after winning the first set against the eighth-ranked Guillermo Coria, he wilted and resigned); three months later, at the U.S. Open (“I lay on my back like a beached whale,” winning the match after calling an unsporting four time-outs); in the final of the Croatia Open, in 2006 (“Something was pinching my nose closed, bear-hugging my chest, pouring concrete into my legs”). In the book, Djokovic calls his affliction the Curse, suggesting an unpredictable scourge, but it struck most often when his game was failing.
In 2007, Djokovic became the third-ranked player in the world. In 2008, he won the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam. But no matter what he tried, and he tried a lot—lifting weights; biking for hours; changing coaches; undergoing nasal surgery, to improve his breathing; moving his training camp to Abu Dhabi, in the hope of acclimating to the heat—he could not break through to the highest level. He was No. 3 in 2008, 2009, and much of 2010. The Crassus of tennis, an eternal ankle-biter, he got little respect. “There were two men in the world who were the best—Federer and Nadal—and, to them, I was nothing but an occasional annoyance, one who might quit at any moment when the going got tough,” Djokovic writes.
Djokovic’s dodgy conditioning suggested a sort of moral flabbiness, a lack of mettle, that made him unpopular with some of his peers. The usually courtly Federer said, when asked about Djokovic’s injuries in 2007, “I think he’s a joke.” In 2008, Djokovic was set to meet the American Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. At a press conference before the match, a journalist brought up the subject of Djokovic’s health:
JOURNALIST: When asked about his injuries today, you know, mentioning the right ankle, supposedly the left ankle—
RODDICK: Yeah, I know, both of ’em? And a back?
JOURNALIST: And a back.
RODDICK: And a hip?
JOURNALIST: And a hip.
RODDICK [sneering]: And a cramp.
JOURNALIST: O.K., yeah, yeah. Do you get the sense right now that he is—
RODDICK: Bird flu.
JOURNALIST: Yeah, a lot of things?
RODDICK: Anthrax. SARS. Common coughing cold.
JOURNALIST: Do you think he’s bluffing? That seems to be what you’re saying.
RODDICK: Nah, if it’s there it’s there. There’s just a lot. He’s either quick to call the trainer or he’s the most courageous guy of all time. It’s up for you guys to decide.
Djokovic ended up defeating Roddick, a crowd favorite at Flushing Meadows, in a raucous evening match. Afterward, he gave a courtside interview. In response to a boilerplate question, he said, “Well, obviously, you know, Andy was saying that I have sixteen injuries, so obviously I don’t, right?” The stands erupted in jeers. Djokovic looked uncomfortably defiant, as though he had provoked a monster whose strength he had not quite known and now, a little scared, or sad, he felt forced to maintain his bravado in order to see out the fight. The interviewer noted that a New York crowd can turn quickly. Djokovic shrugged. “Well, they’re already against me, because they think I’m faking everything, so it’s all right.” It’s excruciating to watch the video, which captures the discrepancy between Djokovic’s desire to be fêted as a winner—he had, after all, won—and the crowd’s perception of him as a punk.
During his period of attempting to exorcise the Curse, Djokovic brought in Todd Martin, the former No. 4 player, as a second coach. “I think one of the attractions was that they were looking for someone who was calm,” Martin told me. “Because, at that time, his surroundings were not calm.”
If Djokovic was a family business, the corporate culture had become overwrought. Srdjan and Dijana were nervous about whether their many years of sacrifice were going to come to fruition. His longtime collaborators were “incredibly emotional,” Martin recalled. “This is everybody’s child, and they all had a lot vested in the success of this individual.” Still, Martin said, “the team was, is, and always will be excellent. I thought Novak’s way of doing business probably needed to change more than anyone else’s.”
Martin recalled his attempts to prepare Djokovic for the 2010 Australian Open with a mixture of exasperation and affection: “Novak was very anxious about being in the heat in Australia, and because he felt like he didn’t breathe well, and the heat got to him, he would not practice. Literally, he would just go and basically stand on the court for an hour until he felt like I could possibly be appeased. And I said, ‘Listen, if we’re not going to practice you have to do something other than be inside in the air-conditioning. Why don’t we go play nine holes of golf?’ It was just excruciating heat. But I had told him, ‘You need exposure to the heat in order to prepare for competing in the heat.’ ” Martin and Djokovic went to the golf course. Every time Djokovic hit a shot, he would yell “Ex-po-sure!” at the top of his lungs.
Several weeks later, Djokovic had reached the quarterfinals. He was playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a French player who was then ranked tenth. Tsonga had won the first set; Djokovic took the second in a tiebreaker, and won the third, 6–1. Then, in the fourth set, with Tsonga up 1–0, Djokovic began to hyperventilate. He ran to the locker room, sank to the floor, and vomited into the toilet. He lost the match after double-faulting at 1–3, 0–40 in the fifth set, a moment that he calls “the lowest point of my career.”
In the third round of Wimbledon, Djokovic faced Jérémy Chardy, a French player who has been ranked as high as twenty-fifth. Djokovic lost six points on serve in the entire match.
Next up was Tommy Haas, his hitting partner from the weekend. Djokovic won the first three games in ten minutes. Another demolition.
Tomáš Berdych, a giant from the Czech Republic, fared only slightly better, despite having beaten Djokovic in straight sets at Wimbledon in 2010. Pummelling Djokovic with forehands to the baseline—one gargantuan rally lasted thirty shots—Berdych managed to stretch the first set to sixty-three minutes, surrendering in a tiebreaker. Berdych coupled his power with a balletic aspect, leaping into shots like a satyr. Djokovic was a break-dancer, contorting himself into splits that stretched parallel to the court.
Djokovic possesses the best return of serve in tennis. His reflexes in this match were freakish, as though he were a missile shield. The final point of the second set was illustrative. Tim Lewis wrote, in the Guardian, “The Czech crashed down a one-hundred-and-twenty-five-mph hammer blow and stood back to admire his handiwork. The ball practically decapitated Djokovic but he somehow returned it. It landed mid-court, but a shocked Berdych, his feet an illegible squiggle, could only blast a forehand into the net.” The exchange was a real-life enactment of a commercial Djokovic once made, for Head, in which he succeeds in firing back a shot so putatively decisive that his opponent has already turned around and started walking away from the net. Berdych served as fast as a hundred and thirty miles an hour but managed only six aces; Djokovic, serving ten miles an hour slower, tallied sixteen.
Part of the poignancy of sports is the mismatch they create between physical maturity and emotional development. An athlete’s career is unlikely to flower in perfect concert with his self-knowledge. Imagine if politicians, or businessmen, reached the height of their professional powers just a few years after adolescence. Internet moguls do, but, unlike athletes, their tenures are open-ended. Rafael Nadal writes, in his 2011 autobiography, “I am very, very keenly aware of how short the life of a professional athlete is, and I cannot bear the thought of squandering an opportunity that might never come again. I know I won’t be happy when my career is over, and I want to make the best of it while it lasts.”
Djokovic and his family were slow to internalize the codes of tennis, a sport that derives its prestige from its sense of itself as a gentleman’s game. Among the offenses regularly cited by Djokovic’s detractors is the fact that his parents, cheering him on at a match, wore T-shirts imprinted with a picture of his face. Modesty is a fetish in tennis. “I would like to see him show a bit more humility, like Nadal and Federer,” Roy Emerson, the Australian former champion, said, of Djokovic, in 2011. “There is too much of this chest thumping and roaring when he wins.”
It was true that Djokovic’s parents could be mildly obnoxious. (“The king is dead, long live the king,” Dijana said, in 2008, after Djokovic beat Federer, predicting that her son would soon be No. 1.) His entourage did not exude dignity. (To celebrate his 2011 victory at the Madrid Open, they draped the Serbian flag over a Lexus. While Djokovic cheered, Marián Vajda, his forty-six-year-old coach, climbed on top of the car and began humping the hood.) He could be annoying, with his bluster and his cheesy pranks. (He once pretended to show a reporter his vibration dampener and then hit him in the crotch, gasping, “That’s a basic joke of tennis! Sorry,” as he doubled over in hysterics.) His sensibility recalled the soccer stadium rather than the country club. He seemed the type of person who, at a magic show, would die to be picked for audience participation. “He was like the guy who’s a bit uncomfortable at the cocktail party and had to do something different to try to be at ease,” Thomas Ross, a longtime agent, told me. If Federer was the foxtrot, Djokovic was the Harlem Shake.
One could also detect a tinge of cultural superiority in the disapproval that wafted toward Djokovic from the guardians of the game—a suggestion that he was perhaps not a real European, an old-regime, advertiser-pleasing, tradition-respecting champion in the mode of the feisty Spaniard or the elegant Swiss. According to Ross, Djokovic’s sponsorship portfolio—he signed with Uniqlo in 2012, after the sports-apparel company Sergio Tacchini reportedly fell behind on bonus payments—is not all one would expect of a player who has been No. 1 for several years. Last year, Djokovic switched agents, moving from C.A.A. to I.M.G. According to Forbes, he makes fourteen million dollars a year in endorsements, compared with Federer’s sixty-five and Nadal’s twenty-one. “I think he’s gotten a raw deal,” Martina Navratilova, who defected from Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1975, told me. “Some of that stuff gets lost in translation. It just comes off a little bit more cocky than you mean it.” Djokovic told me, of his missteps, “I was somebody that was coming up and showing no fear on the court and trying to be very confident in my statements.” He continued, “Some people saw it as ignorance and arrogance, but I didn’t ever feel that way. I felt only confident in knowing what I want to achieve and what I want to do.”
Djokovic has also faced the challenge of coming of age in the era of Federer and Nadal, who have nurtured the greatest, most sentimental rivalry in the history of tennis, and, possibly, of sports. The paradox of Djokovic’s career is that the better he does the less he is liked, at least among those who cling to the binary model perpetuated by Federer and Nadal. By a fault of timing, he is the forever crasher, the automatic odd man out. “Why did people not like Kobe or LeBron as much as they liked Michael Jordan?” Todd Martin said. “Because, in some way, they don’t like the comparisons that are made between them? I think it’s going to be a long, long time before we find two dominant figures in our sport that have the respect of everybody as much as Roger and Rafa.”
In the Wimbledon semifinals, Djokovic faced Juan Martín del Potro, a big-hearted, six-foot-six Argentinean with a puppyish air that belied his grit. The match, the longest semifinal in Wimbledon history, was a marvel of huge strokes of extreme precision at exorbitant speeds. Del Potro’s flat, steaming forehands were so effective that Djokovic, every few points, was forced to seek asylum at the net. For his part, Djokovic turned grass into clay, treading like a panther across a surface that Andre Agassi, in his memoir, likens to “ice slathered with Vaseline.” The rallies were primal. Watching them made your guts hurt.
The match was somehow both brutal and congenial. With Djokovic serving at 15–15, 2–3 in the fourth set, del Potro hit a down-the-line forehand that seemed to just nick the baseline. When the line judge ruled it out, del Potro crossed the court to solicit Djokovic’s advice on whether he should challenge the call. (Djokovic thought that he should, but del Potro declined.) After the chat, he tugged on the zipper of Djokovic’s shirt, making everybody laugh. In the fourth set, in a tiebreaker, del Potro saved two match points. Djokovic outlasted him, eventually winning 7–5, 4–6, 7–6 (2), 6–7 (6), 6–3. The back-and-forth was so depleting, so tense, that, at one point, del Potro, having failed to run down a ball, stepped up onto the wall in front of the stands, pantomiming surrender. “I had to hit five or six big forehands, and it’s not enough to win the point,” he told me later. “I said, ‘O.K., it’s too much, it’s too good!’ ”
When I asked Djokovic about his striptease at the Boodles Challenge, he said, “It felt great on the court, because I got to expand my vision and focus, not just on the dimensions of the tennis court but outward, to the stands.” He pointed out that we think of tennis as a two-person contest, but that, at any given time, there are actually a dozen people on the court. Del Potro said, of the Wimbledon showdown, “I think it was the best match of my career. Something special happens with Novak—only with him. My feelings are much easier, more comfortable and fun.” If Federer and Nadal are the stars of a buddy film, Djokovic is the leading man in an ensemble cast, raising his competitors’ games, and his spectators’ spirits, as he presides over a sort of tennis-in-the-round.
Djokovic’s life changed when Dr. Igor Cetojevic, a physician and acupuncturist, picked up his television remote. It was January of 2010, and Cetojevic, surfing channels in his living room in Cyprus, flipped to the Australian Open. Cetojevic was not a tennis fan, but his wife was, and he was happy enough to spend a few minutes cheering on a fellow-Serb. Except that the fellow-Serb was melting down, in the midst of his dire match against Tsonga. The commentators, who could see that Djokovic was having trouble breathing, speculated that asthma was the cause.
“It’s not asthma,” Cetojevic said, turning to his wife. “I think I can help him.”
Six months later, Cetojevic met Djokovic in Split—he asked some friends who knew Srdjan to arrange the introduction—and announced that he was fairly certain that Djokovic’s mysterious breakdowns were the result of an imbalance in his digestive system. Cetojevic had been able to make the diagnosis at a distance of thousands of miles, he told me, on the basis of his study of Chinese traditional medicine. He recalled, in an e-mail, “Most asthma symptoms appear in the early morning, and Nole’s match was in the afternoon. If he really had an asthmatic condition, he would not have been able to play two excellent sets in the quarterfinal match of the Australian Open before the breathing difficulties appeared.”
Cetojevic suggested that Djokovic undergo a series of tests. For instance, he asked Djokovic to put his left hand on his stomach, extending his right hand straight out and pushing up while he pressed on it from above. “This is what your body should feel like,” Cetojevic said. Then he gave Djokovic a slice of bread and told him to hold it against his belly, while again straightening his right arm. In “Serve to Win,” Djokovic writes, “With the bread against my stomach, my arm struggled to resist Cetojevic’s downward pressure. I was noticeably weaker.”
Cetojevic concluded, “This is a sign that your body is rejecting the wheat in the bread.”
Cetojevic suggested that Djokovic eliminate gluten from his diet. After commissioning some blood work, he recommended that Djokovic also eliminate dairy products and cut down on tomatoes. (In solidarity, Miljan Amanovic, Djokovic’s trainer, underwent an assessment and had to forsake egg whites and pineapple.) The program was hard to fathom—his parents owned a pizza parlor!—but Djokovic was desperate enough to try it, and, once he did, he experienced it as a complete rebirth. As he recalls in “Serve to Win” (subtitle: “The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence”), “I was lighter, quicker, clearer in mind and spirit. . . . I could tell the moment I woke up each morning that I was different than I had been, maybe since childhood. I sprang out of bed, ready to tear into the day ahead.” One day, as an experiment, he ate a bagel. He writes, “I felt like I’d spent the night drinking whiskey!”
Now that he had the Cure for the Curse, Djokovic rededicated himself to tennis. Whether the new diet was a panacea or a placebo—or whether the reboot was due to something else entirely—it launched Djokovic into an elevated phase of his career. By July, he had lost eleven pounds. Finally, he prevailed at Wimbledon. “Here, on the biggest stage in tennis, I could sense the whole world realizing that, at last, I had truly arrived,” he writes, of his 2011 victory over Nadal. In January of 2012, after Djokovic beat Nadal again, to capture his third Australian Open, he allowed himself a single square of chocolate, his first in a year and a half.
The life style of an élite athlete rivals that of an inmate for abstemiousness and monotony. (Tennis players seem to spend half their lives in the shower.) If many of his competitors reside in a county jail of their own making, Djokovic inhabits a supermax prison. A typical day:
7:30 Wake-up. Tepid glass of water. Stretching. A bowl of muesli with a handful of mixed nuts, some sunflower seeds, sliced fruit, and a small scoop of coconut oil. Chew very slowly.
8:30 Meet with coach and physiotherapist. Hit with training partner. Drink two bottles of energy drink, adding a hydration drink with electrolytes if it’s humid.
10:00 Stretching. Check color of urine.
11:00 Sports massage.
12:00 Lunch. Gluten-free pasta with vegetables.
1:30 Work out. Drink organic protein shake made from water mixed with pea protein.
3:00 Hitting practice.
5:00 Business meetings.
7:30 Dinner. No Alcohol. No Dessert. Protein. Vegetables, but not beets, potatoes, parsnips, squash or pumpkin, which are too high in carbs.
His associates guard the details of his training program as though they were nuclear codes, but Gebhard Gritsch, his trainer, did allow that Djokovic prefers to exercise outdoors. “We are not so keen about gyms,” he told me. “We do a lot of stuff in nature, and I think we are different from other players in this regard. There’s a mental advantage, but also a coördinative advantage, because the challenges are much more complex in the real world as opposed to the controlled environment of the gym.”
In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that Djokovic had been trying to improve his performance by sitting in a CVAC pod, an “egg-shaped, bobsled-sized” hypobaric chamber that, according to the company that manufactures it, can increase muscle tone, and perhaps even stimulate stem-cell production. (The machine, which costs sixty-five thousand dollars, belongs to Gordon Uehling III, a New Jersey tennis coach and friend of Djokovic’s.) While the pod wasn’t illegal in tennis, it wasn’t exactly kosher; as the Journal noted, the World Anti-Doping Agency has ruled that such apparatuses violate “the spirit of sport.” Djokovic’s lab-rat-like regimen, combined with his clinical style, prompts critics to label him a “manufactured player,” as Simon Barnes wrote in the (U.K.) Times. This is an aesthetic objection, rather than an accusation of malfeasance, but it helps to explain why Djokovic, despite his primacy, still strains for the adulation that seems to be the birthright of his peers.
“Over the course of the last few years, I’ve developed the ability to cope with stress and emotions and to understand myself and the way I work,” Djokovic said on the phone in August. Gebhard Gritsch told me that, prior to his magical season in 2011, Djokovic had undergone “a very advanced process in maturing.” Gritsch said, “An example of this is very simple—since the middle of 2010, there was not one time where he said, ‘Ah, again, do we have to do this and that?’ The opposite—he would say, ‘Should we do more?’ ”
I asked Djokovic if he had registered the criticisms of his attitude. He said, “I never wanted to step away from who I am and what I do and what I want. I wanted to fully commit to this life, and, on the other hand, I needed to understand how I needed to go about things on and off the court in order to be the world’s best, and that’s where the adjustment comes.” (So, yes.)
Djokovic can be the idiot, but he is also the savant, a self-aware self-improver fascinated by the workings of the human psyche. He seeks enlightenment with the same broadmindedness that he applied to getting in shape. Most nights, he writes in a journal. He does not see a regular psychologist, but he incorporates elements of philosophy, positive thinking, inspirational speaking, animism, and meditation into his routine. “My girlfriend and I have been creating some mood boards!” he told me. At one point, I asked him about the Winston Churchill quote (“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”) that serves as the epigraph of “Serve to Win,” and he quoted Plato on altruism before launching into a homily:
It’s important to be humble, and important to be very open-minded toward all the people in the world. It doesn’t matter who it is, really, or how much amount of success that person has made, because you don’t measure the person through the success the person has made, but through his behavior. There is one actually great quote from Pavle, our Orthodox priest—we are not Catholic, so we don’t have a papa. He’s our spiritual leader, in a way. He passed away in 2009, and he’s actually one of the greatest people that, really, Serbia ever had. Because he was a very modest man—his sister was very ill, so he would go every day with the public transport to visit her. He never used cars; he always talked to the people. So, one great quote—he says to one kid that was saying to him that he has the best grades and so much success in the school. So Patriarch Pavle said, “That’s all great, I congratulate you, but it’s not the grades that make you a man, but your behavior.” So that’s what I try to implement in my life.
He seemed so keen to soak up knowledge, and then to demonstrate it, that he reminded me of a much more polite Kanye West, his eagerness for a shortcut to gravitas occasionally leading him to stumble over his ambition. He is not without a susceptibility to mumbo-jumbo, but his intentions are generous. “I believe that food can deliver positive or negative energy,” he writes in “Serve to Win.” “Before I tell you why, remember what I said: ‘Have an open mind.’ ” The revelation is that he once saw an experiment in which “a researcher” filled two glasses of water, swearing at one of them and whispering kind thoughts to the other. After a few days, Djokovic writes, the latter was “tinted slightly green,” while the other “was still bright and crystal clear.”
Djokovic is a devout member of the Serbian Orthodox Church. At Le Pain Quotidien, I asked him about a bracelet he was wearing—a black cord with a charm in the shape of a cross. He said that he had got it, along with a large wooden cross that never leaves his neck, at Hilandar, a monastery on Greece’s Mt. Athos, which was founded in the twelfth century by St. Sava, the first Serbian Orthodox archbishop. (In 2011, the church awarded Djokovic the Order of St. Sava, its highest distinction, praising his “active love towards Mother Church” and his “fervent and persistent helping of the Serbian people.”) In 2009, Djokovic travelled to Hilandar with his father, his uncle, and his brothers. He called it “the most holy place I ever visited in my life.” He recalled, “The only thing we did is pray all day, walk around, do some maintenance, and eat twice a day, at 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. It makes you go back to your roots and back to yourself.”
The church, in its commendation, acknowledged Djokovic’s value as an envoy: “This young Serb, the most outstanding athlete and ambassador of Serbia in the world.” Djokovic is the most famous person in Serbia; he is also the world’s most famous Serbian. This means that, in addition to being a very good tennis player, he is expected to massage the expectations and pieties of his varying constituencies while carting around a load of heavy historical baggage. Jon Wertheim, of Sports Illustrated, wrote a blog post that read, “Ask yourself: What’s the worst thing you could say about Djokovic in 2011? He once used a controversial egg contraption? He faded in the fall? His parents stopped showing up wearing those supercool T-shirts?” One reader, an Albanian, replied with a blog post of her own, calling Djokovic “a dangerous Serbian nationalist.” She argued, “Djokovic is intentionally emphasizing only Serbian suffering while refusing to acknowledge Serbian crimes.”
Djokovic is undoubtedly patriotic. I asked him whether he thought he had helped transform Serbia’s image, and whether Serbia’s image needed transforming. “Yes,” he said. “I don’t even try to judge these people, but I believe they are just misinformed. It’s all a product of the bad press that Serbia has been getting in the last twenty years.” He continued, “I’m not here sitting with you saying Serbia is the best country in the world—I’m saying Serbia does not deserve this kind of treatment from the world press. Me, as somebody who grew up in Serbia, who knows the history of our country, I know how much injustice has been done to our people.” He spoke of media brainwashing and of the public’s refusal to listen to “the longer side of the story, which is true.” In a speech recorded in 2008 on Serbian television, he declared, “We are united and we are ready to defend what belongs to us. Kosovo is Serbia.”
Perhaps unfairly, I asked him later whether he agreed with the Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic’s decision to apologize, in April, for the massacre of eight thousand Muslims that Serbian troops committed at Srebrenica in 1995. “Let’s not talk about that, please,” Djokovic said. “I really don’t want to get into this subject, because anything and everything I say can be understood in a very wrong way, and the only thing that I can say is that war is the worst thing that one person can experience.”
Victoria Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and David Cameron joined 14,997 others in the stands at Centre Court on July 7th to see Andy Murray and Djokovic compete for the Wimbledon championship. Murray, from Dunblane, Scotland, was vying to become the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry, in 1936. (Before Murray came along, the state of British tennis was so dire that, each year at Wimbledon, no matter who was playing, someone would invariably yell “C’mon, Tim!” in honor of Tim Henman, who made it to the semifinals in 2001.) The British public’s desire for a Murray victory had reached Serbian levels. “Andy, Make Our Day,” the front page of the Observer read, while the Independent on Sunday pleaded, “Now’s the Day, Now’s the Hour.” The Sun on Sunday distributed Andy Murray masks.
The match itself was something of an anticlimax. Djokovic, spent from his encounter with del Potro, never generated much momentum. The outcome seemed a foregone conclusion after Murray, with his roadrunner serve, delivered an ace at 6–5, 40–0 to win the second set. Less than an hour later, on match point No. 4, Djokovic hit a backhand into the net, giving Murray the championship at 6–4, 7–5, 6–4. (In contravention of stadium rules, Alex Salmond, the secessionist First Minister of Scotland, unfurled a Scottish flag.) Djokovic had seemed less than Zen during the match, but he delivered a gracious tribute to Murray, who has emerged as the less gutsy Nadal to his less regal Federer, playing to the heart-warmed fans. “He absolutely deserved this win,” he said, of Murray. “He played incredible tennis. And congratulations to his team, and to all of you guys in the home country. It was an absolute honor and pleasure to be part of it.”
“Is there a classier player in tennis than Novak Djokovic?” Jim in Fulham wrote to BBC Sport. “Three hours of dealing with an annoying crowd, and he is only complimentary to his opponent. True champion.”
Djokovic is on the verge of capturing the respect that has eluded him for much of his career. He seems to become more statesmanlike with every match—a grass-stained Mark Zuckerberg, outgrowing the gawkiness that characterized his early years. Even Roy Emerson offered a glowing assessment of his comportment. “He has definitely changed,” Emerson told me, in August. “I watched him play Murray at Wimbledon, and he seems to have grown up, and actually conducted himself terrifically in the final. He seems to be moving in the right direction.”
The night after his loss at Wimbledon, Djokovic put on a tuxedo and took a car to the Roundhouse, in North London, where he was hosting a gala in order to raise money for the Novak Djokovic Foundation. The foundation, which is run by Jelena Ristic—she has a master’s degree in management from Bocconi University, in Milan—focusses on early-childhood education. Djokovic writes, in a letter that is posted on the foundation’s Web site, “It is very important for me to start building my philanthropic legacy now, while I’m young and have a lot of people’s attention.”
The program featured a cocktail hour—the Top Spin (gin with lime juice), the 40–Love (strawberry liqueur and Prosecco)—followed by dinner, a performance by a mentalist, and a live auction, which would, by the end of the evening, raise nearly two million dollars. At eight o’clock, Djokovic stood with his parents, greeting such guests as Naomi Campbell, Goldie Hawn, Gerard Butler, and Andy Murray’s mother, Judy. (A diplomatic touch.) The grocery magnate Ron Burkle, who was listed as an event chair, advises Djokovic in an unofficial capacity. The foundation’s “global fundraising chairman” is a Serbian movie producer named Milutin Gatsby, who had brought in Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, as a “global ambassador.” (Fergie said, of Djokovic, “I think he has a very pure heart.”) As dinner began, intense music sounded, and images from Serbian history—the inventor Nikola Tesla; a bombed-out Belgrade—filled a large screen. Djokovic took the stage after the montage and said, “I come from Serbia, where many kids do not dare to dream, but I always thought I might dream big, and I also have very big dreams for my foundation, and for my country as well.”
Ristic, who was sitting at the head table, resplendent in a striped Oscar de la Renta ballgown, held up her iPhone. “She’s just filming everything,” Djokovic said, and turned to her. “So maybe you can put down the camera, because I’m talking about you,” he said. “I need to look into your eyes. Thank you, my love—you truly bring emotional stability and big love that, hopefully, we can share forever.”
Djokovic, unlike Nadal, foresees a happy future after tennis. “I see myself forming a family first of all,” he said, during our phone call. He was in the midst of speaking about how his family was, at last, ready to buy a house when a voice cut into the line. “We have a car waiting,” his personal assistant said, and the line soon went dead. ♦