Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh
Novak Djokovic, who seems poised to win his 10th Australian Open, was reared on a mountain in Southeastern Europe in a region known for its intense, complex civil and racial rivalries and fierce battles.
One could easily trace its wars back to the start of World War I, and then go further back. Many looked down on the less-than-wealthy region and dismissed it as an outback. Winston Churchill reportedly said, “The Balkans produces more history than it can consume.”
In the ’90s, fierce battles broke out and European and American air forces dropped bombs to try to deter war. On the ground, an eager Belgrade boy practiced his backhand as bombs fell and, when necessary, sought shelter within subway stations.
Soon he’d go to a Munich tennis academy. There, many students, like Ernst Gulbis, enjoyed the good life and partied. But the sinewy Serbian teen remained on his mission: honing his precise, powerful strokes. His family’s life depended on them.
But, around 2006, there was a problem. Two young tennis gods had ascended. Roger and Rafa not only dominated on court – virtually everywhere they were beloved.
In her prime, Martina Navratilova barely dented the crowd’s love of her darling rival, Chris Evert. Similarly, the skinny, short-haired Serb rarely gained the roars of delight that Roger and Rafa evoked. But no matter, he soon began to undermine Federer and Nadal’s duopoly.
“A young guy, 19 years old,” noted master coach Patrick Mouratoglou, “suddenly came out and said publicly, ‘I’m going to beat them.’ And this guy was Novak Djokovic. The tennis world said, ‘What a shame. How could this guy be so cocky?’ It’s not cockiness. It’s confidence. And he happened to do it. Not because he said it, but because he deeply believed it.”
Former Serbian star Janko Tipsarevic once told Inside Tennis, “Novak wants to be the best of all time and nothing else, and is willing to do whatever it takes…Nothing else satisfies his hunger. You saw this with LeBron, Kobe, Ronaldo and Muhammad Ali.” Nole sees himself as a wolf, and once noted that the wolf going up the mountain is always hungrier.
When Novak scored his breakthrough win at the 2008 Australian Open, his mother Dijana reflected on Federer and declared, “The king is dead.”
It was a controversial comment. Then again Novak (and his family and support team) breathe the air of controversy. He embraces crises. He relishes managing them and uses them to power forward.
Today he said, “At the final stages of a Slam, you can expect to have a crisis – one or two or three crises.”
In just this tourney there have been numerous dust-ups: the severity of his hamstring injury, his being allowed to be heckled, his supposedly getting a mid-match secret message on a water bottle and, of course, the appearance of his father with pro-Putin demonstrators that Novak said was essentially an unfortunate, unintended accident, due to the fact that his father didn’t notice that the flags were Russian.
Perhaps more than any other tennis player – Bill Tilden, Ilie Nastase, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, McEnroe, Connors and Agassi – Nole has navigated wide-ranging controversies. Early on, Andy Roddick mocked him for supposedly faking “16 injuries” and the two reportedly had a US Open locker room scuffle.
Often there were complaints that his injuries were exaggerated. Players bristled when he offered his hilarious imitations. He was booted out of the 2020 US Open when he accidentally struck a linesperson with a ball. At the Tokyo Olympics he smashed his racket. During Covid he flaunted safety protocols and hosted the Adria exhibition tour that led to assorted Covid cases. He claimed that positive thinking could transform polluted water, and, most famously, last year he had his Covid dispute with Australian authorities, and was detained and eventually deported.
All the while the oh-so-gifted and complex Nole was a singular seeker, free-form thinker and explorer like few other athletes. He cocooned himself post-match in hyperbaric chambers. He went on internal journeys with a Spanish spiritual teacher, wrote a book on gluten free diets, climbed a French mountain to seek renewal, visited the power points of Bosnian caves, traveled to the Green school in Bali, visted a Buddhist temple in London, reflected on the edge of the Grand Canyon and created a “We ain’t gonna take it any more” player association. The man, who’s now a father of two, seems to live on the cutting edge.
All the while, he and his family and inner circle have created a certain protective me-against-the world mindset, in the tradition of Jimmy Connors and Lleyton Hewitt. Today he confided that his people insulate him from news, “to keep my mind as sane or serene as possible in order to conserve the vital energy that I need for the court.”
And oh has the sublime baseliner been vital! He’s been an unceasing demolition machine. Just ask Tommy Paul, Alex de Minaur or Grigor Dimitrov. At a time when Federer has retired, Nadal is hobbled and new stars are still struggling to emerge, Novak continues to amaze. At 35, he seems as good as ever – if not better.
He still bends low, his forehand punishes, his serve is better than ever, his anticipation amazes. He can win on any surface. In Melbourne he’s won a record 27 straight matches and now is into his tenth final. He’s never lost an Aussie Open final. Despite having missed last year’s Aussie Open and all recent North American tournaments. And despite not getting any ranking points for winning Wimbledon, the guy who has been unbeaten in Australia for over five years, could be No. 1 if he beats Stefanos Tsitsipas. Novak has beaten the Greek in ten of their 12 meetings.
And the conventional wisdom is that by the time this complex, controversial and astonishingly great athlete hangs up his sneakers there actually will be little controversy: the man from the Balkan peak will be widely celebrated as the best player to ever pick up a tennis racket.