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Djokovic: Head Of The Class

DEUCE

Djokovic© Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic's 41-0 record to begin the 2011 season was second-best to just John McEnroe's 42-0 start in 1984.

Novak Djokovic has long been a student of the game. Now he's using his high tennis IQ to reach new heights in an era once dominated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Climbing Mount Everest might have been an easier challenge for Novak Djokovic than removing Roger and Rafa from atop the tennis summit. During their reign at the top we were often teased with greatness; a Russian here, an Argentine there, a Frenchman everywhere. Finally, one man stepped forward, a Serbian by the name of Novak Djokovic.

It wasn’t as if Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal just handed over the keys to the No. 1 ranking. No, Novak had to wrestle it away from their powerful clutches. Some say it started with the 2010 Davis Cup win in Belgrade. What then followed was an incredible string of 41 straight wins to start the 2011 season. Then there was this matter of three out of four Grand Slam titles. Even the toughest critic has to admit that Novak Djokovic has been great for tennis.

“Djokovic sees formulas, angles and solutions to problems well before the rest of the class”

It took him a while, though, didn’t it? During the years that he was biding his time at No. 3 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, the critics couldn’t be silenced. Whenever he dropped his head, they said he wasn’t fit enough, or worse, that he wasn’t tough enough. They even hinted that he had become content with fortune and fame.

What they didn’t count on was his intelligence. “Novak is an extremely smart person and besides his talent he has a very high tennis IQ,” states Niki Pilic, the Yugoslavian former pro who coached Novak during his teenage years. 

It is that intelligence that allows him to process information. For example, Novak knows that when Rafa goes high heavy to Roger’s backhand he wins 84 per cent of the points. And he also knows that if he can flatten out his backhand drive up the long line and stretch Rafa, forcing him into that awkward slice backhand, it will soon be done and dusted in his favour. A lot like the protagonist in the movie, A Beautiful Mind, Novak Djokovic sees formulas, angles and solutions to problems well before the rest of the class.

DjokovicWith Novak we also get a champion who wears his emotions on both sleeves. Whether he is standing on the wings of a plane filming a commercial, cracking one-liners with Conan O’Brien, or doing an impromptu Serbian folk dance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Novak entertains. His dances are a bit goofy, but we love it because of that sunbeam smile of his that races around the stadium igniting us in applause.

“He was always a very emotional child,” remembers Jelena Gencic, the coach who discovered both Novak and Monica Seles. “Every day during our tennis camp I would walk with the kids in the forest after tennis. And I saw that Novak was picking these wildflowers and putting them together. One day I asked him, ‘Novak for whom are you picking these beautiful flowers?’ And he answered to me, ‘For my mother.’”

Gencic says she knew almost immediately that little Novak was destined for greatness. “When little Novak came to me I needed only one week with him to be sure,” says Gencic. “On the fifth day I asked him in front of his parents, ‘Novak do you want to spend the next seven, eight years training very hard every day, sometimes with smiles and sometimes with tears?’ He said, ‘Yes, I want to be great.’ He was only six years old but he had the eyes, and the heart and the soul of a champion. I was so sure that he would make it.”

“With Novak we get a champion who wears his emotions on both sleeves”

After evening practice, young Novak would often accompany Gencic back to her Belgrade apartment to watch video footage of tennis champions in action.

“Maybe that is how he became so good at imitating other players’ movements,” says Gencic. “He loved so much watching videos of the great champions like Agassi, Sampras and Edberg. He would say to me, ‘Please, Jelena, explain to me how Sampras can hit the running forehand parallel?’ Then I must explain to this little boy which leg to stop with and which leg to transfer weight forward with and so on. And you know, he never took his eyes off of mine the entire time I am explaining to him the technique. This child was so hungry for tennis knowledge.”

Fast forward to 2011. What was it that really changed for this Serbian player and propelled him to the top of the sport? Fellow Serb and pro player, Dusan Vemic, has been watching Novak train since he was six years old. The two are close friends and Vemic is often seen alongside Novak’s entourage in the player’s box.

Djokovic“Basically, he found the perfect balance to enjoy the sport of tennis,” Vemic claims. “Which is working hard, eating well, representing himself and his country and all those things. I believe that finding his service rhythm made a big difference to his tennis. Then he matured a lot in one year. Also, he found his food intolerance: the famous gluten-free diet that made him breathe more easily, lose five pounds in weight and generally improve his physical ability and recovery time.”

Vemic says his countryman draws immense support from the Serbian fans that follow his career. “He feeds off the entire energy of Serbia. He is seen as half a saint in our country. And he is always giving back to the community.”

Now that Djokovic has achieved that perfect balance, the tables have turned and the hunter has become the hunted. Which begs the question: How will he respond? Can he cap off his incredible year by winning the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals

This story also appears in the official Barclays ATP World Tour Finals tournament programme, which can be purchased here: http://www.pplsport.com/ATP/.

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