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Novak’s Odyssey

Djokovic© Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic is the 25th different player to hold down the No. 1 position in the South African Airways ATP Rankings.

Dusk is spreading over the Arabian desert and at Dubai’s Aviation Club, the site of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Novak Djokovic and team are sitting up straight around a poolside table. A couple of hours earlier, in his first tournament since winning the Australian Open, he scrapped through a tough three-set win over Feliciano Lopez. Despite the victory, the mood at the table seems to be one of concern. 

“Normally, we do not have these meetings during the tournament, but rather before the start of the tournament or before we travel anywhere,” says Djokovic. “We try make sure that the organisational and analysis part is good and that the communication between the team members is clear. It is really important to have good relations between the members of the team so everyone can produce their best work.”

Whatever alarm flag that shot up which caused the meeting must have been solved, because since then Djokovic went on a tear, going undefeated until the semi-finals of Roland Garros. After Dubai, it often looked like he was incapable of losing a set, much less a match. That very thing even attracted the attention of those at the Monte Carlo players’ party, where Team Djokovic’s quality control meetings were parodied by good friend Janko Tipsarevic.

At the end of 2009, Novak Djokovic said, “To reach that goal [World No. 1], I’m going to have to be very successful at the major tournaments. I haven’t done a great job at the Grand Slams, which wasn’t the case in the last two years.”

Despite making the final of the US Open (l. to Nadal) and a semi-final loss at Wimbledon to Tomas Berdych, the major highlight to 2010 was leading Serbia to the Davis Cup title. Whether that served as a catalyst to his incredible run through 2011 is anyone’s guess, but it is a pretty good starting point.  You could say that Novak was now starting to tick off some boxes from long ago laid plans.

Novak’s journey began at the age of six years old when he was brought to Serbia’s Jelena Gencic’s attention. It was Gencic who discovered Monica Seles.

“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.”

Oftentimes after evening practice, young Djokovic would accompany Gencic back to her Belgrade apartment so he could watch videos of men’s and women’s tennis champions.

“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 him the technique. This child was so hungry for tennis knowledge.”

“There is one other thing that we used to do,” continues Gencic. “I used classical music to teach him visualisation. We would listen to a composition and afterwards I would ask him what he heard and what he felt. One time after listening to Tchaikovsky 1812 overture he says to me, ‘My heart feels blissful. And my skin is like the flesh of a goose.’ Can you imagine a seven year old boy feeling and saying such things?”

“I remember her setting up bars very high for me early in my career,” Djokovic recalls of his time with Gencic. “She always made me look at all the champions of the men’s and women’s game at the time to try and analyse their games to always try to have the winning attitude. And she also taught me to have a lot of confidence in myself and be very dedicated to the sport.”

While his improved serve, fitness and weight loss get much of the attention, those that know him best point to his mind and intelligence as his real weapon.

“I think his mindset now is just that he is a much better poker player,” says Mats Wilander. “He might be bluffing on the inside, but he is not bluffing on the outside. No one knows what he is thinking, he has a great poker face. And he has matured tremendously. If he was a five or six mentally before then he is a 10 now.”

Former World No. 1 Thomas Muster knows a thing or two about chasing legends from his time playing with Pete Sampras.

“I feel that he has really grown into his boots the last couple of years,” says Muster. “He has been delivering the results. He lost quite a bit of a weight and he is more flexible, with more range, and when he runs he gets more balls back. You can tell that there has been a lot of work going on in his camp. He has moved into a league of being a true star. Now things will get even tougher as the challenge and desire will be to remain No. 1.”

Muster mentioned something that all the coaches and players in the locker room have noticed this year. Team Djokovic has been hard at work. Everything from specialised balancing drills in the gym to regulated nutrition to pre-match visualisation sessions in private rooms has all contributed. But also, players point out his more offensive tactics during the point.

“Obviously, his serve is much improved,” observes Goran Ivanisevic. “But he is much more aggressive than last year. In my opinion, he was a bit too defensive in the past because he was so great at it. But now, he is much more aggressive. He attacks so much better.”

While his game and results speak volumes, it is his personality that has attracted a legion of fans around the world. Whether it is imitations of his fellow players, commercials, or his often colourful entrances onto center court, Novak Djokovic is an entertainer. Mansour Bahrami is one who can appreciate what Novak brings to the fans.

“He is great for tennis,” says Bahrami. “He does great imitation of all the players, which I think it is fantastic. During the tournaments his focus is great, and he is even more serious this year. The difference between us is that he is a great player and good entertainer. I am only an entertainer. When Novak wins tennis matches he makes people smile.”

And so far in 2011 Novak Djokovic has given tennis plenty of reasons to smile. Though Mats Wilander cautions that while achieving the game’s No. 1 status is a truly great achievement, it is not all fun and games.

“Going from world number three to one is much easier than going from one to three,” says Wilander. “It is great to be chasing. That was easily the best year of my career. The pressure of No. 1 can really mess with your head.”

That is a bridge that Novak Djokovic will happily cross now.
“I have always been going towards that lifetime goal and that is to be No. 1,” admits Djokovic. “To be the best is what drives me.”

Congratulations Novak Djokovic. The odyssey is complete and the dream has finally become a reality. 

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