Novak Djokovic is controversial, but he doesn’t want to be.
The world No. 3 has a strong desire to be his sport’s superior player, but he can’t yet stomach everything that comes with it — to be in the spotlight every waking moment, good and bad.
In public, the 21-year-old Serbian can’t be the funny guy anymore. There will be no more hilarious impressions of his friend Maria Sharapova’s serve, of his rival Andy Roddick’s twitches, of a frenetic Nadal tugging at his wedgies and especially of his locker room nemesis Roger Federer, flicking his hair or clapping his racket in celebration.
“I’m in the transition,” Djokovic told IT. “It’s not easy because I’m very emotional. Some things really hurt me, and maybe I express myself a little bit too much — people didn’t get used to that. But at the end of the day, you sit and think to yourself, ‘I’ve reacted the way I felt that’s right.’ Maybe it’s wrong, but you learn from your mistakes. That’s why life is testing us all the time.”
Djokovic has gone from being the tour’s boy wonder after winning his first Grand Slam title at the ‘08 Australian Open, to the most vulnerable member of the sport’s so-called Big 4, which also includes Rafael Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray.
Since winning his first major, Djokovic has been a trademark up-and-down player. After winning the ‘08 Indian Wells title, he could surely claim the unofficial moniker of best player of the first quarter of last season, and the relentless baseliner looked like he might be prepared to knock Federer and Nadal out of the two top spots.
But then he began to wear down, partly due to the tremendous pressure he put on himself to snag the No. 1 ranking. A title run at the Rome Masters Series was followed by a brutal loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, which was followed by an upset at the hands of Marat Safin at Wimbledon. Then Nadal stepped on him again in a terrific Olympic semi.
Nearly spent but still determined, the Serbian reached the U.S. Open semis, but after confronting a hostile (“Andy’s our man”) nighttime crowd after his quarterfinal victory over Roddick, he didn’t have the will to defeat Federer again and was buried.
Before his match against Djokovic, Roddick had been asked about his foe’s latest injury. By that time, Djokovic had developed a reputation for retiring too frequently, and the American wondered in a joking manner if his foe might have the “bird flu or SARS.”
Roddick’s typically caustic comments were well publicized and cycled right back to Djokovic, who was enraged. After he won the quarterfinal, he went right at the crowd and well lubricated boos reigned down from the rafters.
“Maybe the experience from the U.S. Open with Andy was something that I really didn’t wish for and really didn’t look for,” Djokovic said. “But it hurt me. His comments hurt me in that moment, and it was a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, there was a lot at stake; it was the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, lot of emotions, lot of frustrations going on. At the end of the day, maybe if you could turn back things, maybe you wouldn’t do something like that, but I just felt emotion in that moment.”
Even before he won his first major, he was criticized for bouncing the ball too much before serving and for saying that the then untouchable Federer was vulnerable. His parents, father Srdjan and mother Dijana, were said to be overly enthusiastic while watching their son courtside. Last year, an irritated Federer even hushed them (“Quiet!!!”) during a Monte Carlo match.
But the Djokovics are from a different part of the world – Serbia, where beating one’s chest while celebrating the righteousness of the homeland is part of every day life. There are outspoken Serbs like the Djokovics, who attend political rallies supporting their country’s controversial claim that Kosovo is part of its territory, and others, like Ana Ivanovic’s family, who tend to speak more to peace than to confrontation.
But despite their personality differences, Ana and Novak remain close, having known each other since they were four, as Ivanovic’s father and Djokovic’s uncle went to school with each other.
One day at a 12-and-under tournament in Serbia, the two went out to warm-up prior to one of Ivanovic’s matches. “I had quite an easy opponent and I warmed up with Novak and I gave 100 percent and I couldn’t move in the match and I lost,” recalled Ivanovic with a laugh. “I wanted to beat him but he’s a boy and stronger and I was running crazy and it was unbelievable hit, but afterward I was gone.”
Djokovic clearly recalls the contest and the days he spent laughing with his childhood friend, long before she won the French Open and became No. 1.
“I remember her parents coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, what a serve you have!’ It’s fun because we have great friendship all our life. We’ve been through a lot, and it’s fantastic to see somebody that you’ve grown up with doing so well. We talk and remind ourselves of stories and situations we have before – matches, and practices, makes you laugh, makes you say – ‘Wow, it was so long time ago.’”
Then, there was no discussion of Serbia climbing to the top of the tennis world. Novak and Ana lived middle-class existences, and even their driven parents had no idea that they would excel, not when they were scratching out livings in war-torn cities and mountain areas. But the kids had an inkling of better days ahead.
“You could see that desire in her and myself, that there was this hunger for success, this hunger to succeed and that’s exactly what brought us here,” Djokovic said. “We didn’t have good conditions at all to grow up, to practice. We got coaches, we were lucky to have some people that really were good for us at certain stages and taught us. But it’s more parents who really helped us out a lot. Her parents and mine are very strong personalities, very active, very helpful. They were never pushy — on my side, they never pushed me to play because nobody played tennis in my family. But they were just supporting the fact that I love playing so I’ve been grateful for that.”
Djokovic isn’t sure that after he retires, whether he’ll go into politics, but credit him for not putting his head in the sand like a lot of 21-year-olds do by joining the ATP Players Council, where he sits with his rivals Nadal and Federer. He’s also become an active businessman, as he and his family bought an ATP tournament and will run the first time event in Belgrade in May, an accomplishment he is most proud of.
He’s not committing to a second career in Serbia’s political hotbed, but he’s not counting it out, either.
“You don’t know where the holy path will take you,” he noted. “But for now I love being in sport and love this surrounding. But on the other hand, traveling, meeting new people, you can learn so much from this sport, from this way of living.”
Djokovic learned a big lesson last year, when his impersonations – those wildly entertaining, near perfect characterizations that had the crowds in stitches. But some top (slightly up tight) players weren’t exactly chuckling, especially Federer. And when Roger talks, people listen.
“It’s not just players,” Djokovic said. “It was a lot of speculation, and I just didn’t like the fact that people thought I’m doing that to make fun of somebody…I don’t blame anybody, but it’s all in the circle of positive, and laughing and smiling and enjoying life.”
“I don’t want to do it more because I don’t want to create unbalance and turn the people against me for no reason. I’m really in a good relationship with most of the players. I’m an honest guy, I open up and I say what I need to say. And this is the philosophy of my life – be what you are.”
Unfortunately, some other things were beyond his control. There was the conclusion of Djokovic’s extraordinary ‘08 Aussie Open title run, which included a remarkable upset of Federer in the semis and beat down of big Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final.
A couple of hours after that match, Dijana was approached by IT and, full of celebratory fervor, issued a line in reference to Federer that still haunts her son to this day: “The king is dead. Long live the new king.”
When reminded of the comment, Novak spoke of his mom’s honesty and openness. “I think you can see that in me as well. You can see the connection.”
But outright honesty and a win-at-all-costs attitude can be costly, which is why Djokovic is still trying to fashion a personality that will allow him to be liked on court and off.
After the U.S. Open fiasco, Djokovic scraped for much of the fall, but he finally picked himself off the canvas and won the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.
Then came his Aussie Open title defense and his body failed him miserably, as he retired in the quarters against Roddick due to heat exhaustion when many felt he should have played on. He won the Dubai title, but at Indian Wells, he fell to Roddick again, admitting he played miserably.
At this point, going up against America’s top player in the U.S. appears too much for him, not because Roddick has a larger skill set, but because Djokovic has essentially psyched himself out, thinking that crowd is out to get him.
Djokovic is certainly good enough to eventually grab the No. 1 ranking and win more Slams. He’s a tremendous defensive player who is capable of going on the offensive when his foes least expect it. When his head is in matches, he’s a master of point construction. He’s extremely fast and sturdy and has improved his first serve and volleys a great deal.
But the Serbian — who shares a PR manager with Nadal — has slipped behind the Spaniard, owning a 4-11 record against him (all those wins coming on hard courts). If he can’t start taking bites out of Rafa’s legs, there’s no way he’s going to reach No. 1.
“Rafa’s improved drastically on hard courts and fast surfaces,” Djokovic said. “It’s amazing, his dedication. It’s fantastic the way he’s motivated, the way he behaves on the court, so focused, sportsmanship, and everything in general. No bad words for this guy. But look, we are rivals at the end of the day. I’ve beaten him a couple of times on [hard courts] which is encouraging. But even on clay I don’t think he’s unbeatable. No one is unbeatable. Physically, everybody is very fit, hard workers, focused. The difference is mental ability. The difference from the five to six guys on top and the rest, in these certain moments, you know how to play, how to behave, how to act on court. That’s the advantage.”
A pretty intelligent and privately thoughtful guy, Djokovic knows how to win and has the tools to do so, but if he’s unable to successfully negotiate a personal transition that he’s comfortable with, he may never achieve his goals.
“Everybody is different,” he said. “It depends from which part of the world you are coming. I’ve been through some things that people never will, probably. I came from a country, which is going through a lot of tough times — wars. I’m going to say to myself, ‘Look, maybe these things were meant to be, and these things help me know to appreciate the life much more. I know that being positive and enjoying the life is something that everybody wishes for.”