For many years, Novak Djokovic utterly dominated professional tennis and would routinely, and almost nonchalantly, win the biggest prizes that the game had to offer. It all seemed so easy for the Serbian native. Blessed with superb athleticism, Djokovic covered the court like no player had ever done before, and his truly splendid defensive skills and counter-punching style fit ideally with the increasingly slower courts of the modern age.
For some years, it felt as though Djokovic was invincible. No matter what artillery the chasing pack, led by Federer, Murray and Nadal, fired at him, the Belgrade baseliner was invariably able to fend them off, particularly over the longer best-of-five set format used at the most important tournaments. And yet, despite this dominance, it seemed as though something was missing from the Djokovic narrative. Fans seemed unable to fully connect with this elite sportsman, with Nadal and Federer receiving far more prominent support in their head-to-head battles with the Serb. It was almost as though the apparent ease and serenity with which Djokovic displaced these two icons at the summit of the world rankings precluded him from capturing as affectionate a place in the hearts and minds of tennis fans. However, the recent journey Djokovic has been on to overcome his unexpected demise and set about rediscovering his best form has been nothing short of compelling and undoubtedly justifies his standing as one of the game’s most revered players of all time.
The 2016 ‘French Open’ marked a seminal moment in Djokovic’s career. At this tournament, Djokovic fulfilled his lifetime ambition of winning the career ‘Grand Slam’, an exceptional feat achieved only when a player has won all four of tennis’ ‘Major Championships’. For five years the ‘Coupe des Mousquetaires’ trophy was the sole missing piece in Djokovic’s quest for the ‘Grand Slam’, and, for five years, Djokovic chased that trophy like a man possessed. He pushed his body to the edge of its limitations, embarking on an intense dietary regimen and adopting a gruelling game-style best suited to the clay-courts of Roland Garros. With impeccable discipline and renowned mental fortitude, Djokovic finally won the coveted tournament which had eluded, and yet motivated, him for so long.
Following the achievement of this long-term goal, a void developed in the renowned player’s life. Understandably, the almost inhumane effort exacted by Djokovic began to take its toll, with the man himself noting: ‘I am mentally and emotionally exhausted since Roland Garros.’ He became more cognizant of the broader things in life which he had hitherto neglected and spoke of the need to strive for a better life ‘balance’ and more holistic contentment. Before long, highly reputable tennis guru Boris Becker ceased to be part of Djokovic’s coaching team, with the German bemoaning, on his departure, Djokovic’s cavalier attitudes towards practice and training towards the latter half of 2016. Astoundingly, Djokovic also soon dismissed his fitness coach (Gebhard Gritsch), physiotherapist (Miljan Armanovic) and head coach (Marian Vajda), three men who had guided him through his entire professional career, and replaced them with Pepe Imaz, a Spanish gurulike apostle of ‘peace and love’ with very limited experience of working in tennis. It was not long before this new-found, highly philosophical Djokovic saw his results rapidly deteriorate on the tennis court.
Early defeats at Wimbledon and at the Olympics contributed to Djokovic surrendering an 8000-point lead atop the world rankings to Andy Murray by the end of 2016. Further, Djokovic was embarrassingly defeated at the hands of journeyman Denis Istomin, in the second round of the Australian Open at the start of 2017. Consecutive straight-sets defeats to Nick Kyrgios followed in the Spring, before a crushing loss to Dominic Thiem at the French Open left Djokovic without possession of any of the major titles he had held simultaneously just a year previous. As he searched for a new means of fulfilment and a broader appreciation of life, he had lost his edge on the tennis court. Where once unwavering passion and determination had characterised Djokovic, he now cut a forlorn, incredibly subdued figure who had seemingly fallen out of love with the sport. This apparent mental frailty was compounded by lingering physical ailments, namely a persistent elbow injury which greatly hindered Djokovic’s ability to endure the lengthy baseline exchanges so crucial to his game at its peak. The pain was so severe that he was forced to retire from his Wimbledon quarter-final after merely one hour’s play. In an effort to recuperate and allow the injury to heal naturally, Djokovic took six months off from the tennis circuit, but the early signs of the Serbian’s comeback were ominous and gloomy. From Djokovic’s outings at the start of 2018, it was clear that the injury had not healed, with the six-time Australian Open champion in visible discomfort during his tame defeat in the early rounds of the very tournament he once ruled. Serious debate ensued as to whether this once formidable player would ever return to anything like his best.
With his career in serious jeopardy, Djokovic underwent surgery on his problematic elbow in a final effort to nullify the pain. Fortunately, the surgery was successful, setting him on the pathway to recovery. In the tournaments immediately following the operation, Djokovic’s results remained dispiriting and sub-standard. But it was glaringly obvious that the man himself was in a much better place. The apparent apathy which had accompanied his losing performances in the previous two years had subsided, with the occasional angry outburst and racquet-smashing episode demonstrating that Djokovic’s inner inferno was reignited. On a personal level, publicly-mooted speculation about Djokovic ’s marital issues dissipated, as he announced the birth of his second child with his wife, Jelena. Overall, Djokovic was now injury-free and a much happier figure on the court. With the return of his former coaching team (spearheaded by Marian Vajda), all the ingredients were in place for a Djokovic revival. In his own words, it was now all about ‘trusting the process.’
It was on the European clay-courts last Spring that Djokovic’s recovery gained real traction, as he notched up impressive wins against top players like Kei Nishikori and Borna Coric. But, to the surprise of many, the Serbian great subsequently fell to a shock defeat at the French Open at the hands of the unheralded Italian, Marco Cecchinato. Djokovic knew that his level of play had all but returned to its former levels. But this defeat showed that he was not yet mentally in a position to deliver consistently high-level performances over the two weeks of a Grand Slam. He had wilted under the pressure of once more being among the favourites to win such a prestigious tournament. It was in the wake of this sobering defeat that Djokovic absconded to Mont Sainte-Victoire in the south of France on a hiking mission with his wife, Jelena. In a calm, tranquil environment, the global superstar ‘breathed in new inspiration, new motivation’ and ‘thought of tennis and of the emotion that it provokes in me.’ The answers to these deep questions were stark and lucid: ‘It was all positives. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport.’ He realised how fortunate he is to be playing the sport he loves for a living, as well as acknowledging how tennis has offered him an escape route from his poverty-stricken, war-torn birthplace. A new-found sense of awareness and appreciation descended upon Djokovic. Never again would he allow his mental commitment and attitude on the tennis court to waiver.
With the final piece of the Djokovic-comeback puzzle complete, it was only a matter of time before this fallen champion’s dominance was restored. At SW19 Djokovic claimed his third Wimbledon title, in a run which included an epic semi-final against his old nemesis, Rafael Nadal. This match, lasting over five hours, tested all of the physical and mental resolves which Djokovic had gradually rebuilt throughout the course of his recovery. The tennis legend would later add to his major tally at the US Open and finish 2018 as the undisputed world number one. There can be no denying that these phenomenal results, a product of the very challenging, yet highly gratifying journey which he had been on, carry far more weight and meaning than those accumulated in the early stages of Djokovic’s career. Where once fans had struggled to truly connect with a single-minded, machine-like Serbian, the 2018 Djokovic was a far more complete, substantive person. The public had witnessed the previously unflappable tennis player overcome adversity to become a true sporting icon. Ultimately, Djokovic has emerged from the enriching journey he has been on as a more well-rounded individual, appreciative of his talents and of the good fortune in life. The modern-day Djokovic is warrior-like on the court, whilst being incredibly humble and thoughtful off of it. For years, Djokovic longed for the kind of partisan support enjoyed by fellow greats, Nadal and Federer. His compelling evolution as a player, and now as a person, ensures that the Djokovic shall now receive it. As the great man himself concluded: ‘Life showed me that it takes time for good things; it takes time to really build them.’ Never were truer words spoken.
By Jack Stokes – Sports CoEditor