Not many sportsmen read up on electrical engineering, publish cookbooks and connect to nature via meditation. But Novak Djokovic is a tennis player who likes to think outside the service box. Simon Briggs talks to the world’s number 1 tennis player about refusing to follow the pack, and breaking free from Federer and Nadal’s shadow.
"Walk like this, enjoy," Novak Djokovic says. Our interview was supposed to be conducted on a tatty sofa underneath the eaves of the Campo Centrale, Rome's main tennis arena. But Djokovic is sweating after a morning workout, his nostrils flaring as he pumps the air back into his chest, and he doesn't want his muscles to stiffen. So we stride back and forth in the corridors under the stadium, a promenade that offers a glimpse into the crowded life of the world's best tennis player.
One minute Djokovic is acknowledging the open-mouthed stares of a passing tour group, drawing a ripple of awe as he offers a cheery "buongiorno". The next he is joshing with sleepy-eyed Stan Wawrinka, one of the few men with the power to disrupt his own precision-engineered game. He stops regularly to hinge forward at the hips and stretch his hamstrings. And all the while he is rattling away in English - one of five languages he speaks fluently - at such a rate that one of his answers runs to five minutes and almost 700 words.
"I actually have some kind of project in my mind that will come to life sometime soon, about Nikola Tesla," Djokovic blurts out, unexpectedly. "There is something big on the way. It's all in the spirit of bringing awareness about how much he contributed to the civilisation of humankind. He was always very proud of his Serbian roots, and people don't actually know that much about him. I am trying to make people understand - we have lights because of him. The alternative current makes it happen."
Clearly, this is no ordinary sportsman.
Wielding a racket has never been enough for Djokovic. When he first joined the tour, he was known for his japes and impressions of other players, which contributed to his early reputation as a pushy young punk. They also put people's backs up in the locker room, which explains why he shelved his former persona - the Djoker - soon after his 20th birthday.
Now, almost a decade on, he has grown into the sport's most bankable performer, as well as a statesman with a strong nationalist agenda. It makes perfect sense that he should identify with his fellow countryman, the inventor and scientist Tesla - an underappreciated figure in his eyes, whose glory was unfairly eclipsed by Edison's stronger commercial instincts. This is a man, after all, who has spent his whole career in the slipstream of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
"Nadal and Federer were the first two players to really cross over into the sporting mainstream," says Mats Wilander, a serial champion of the 1980s who now follows the tour as a broadcaster. "Novak doesn't have the same respect as them - yet. Those two did such a great job of taking the game outside its regular space: the lifestyle, the look, the fact that you know what you're going to get every time they go on court. It's like a Stones concert. I see Novak more as an indie artist - he has an unpredictability about him, and his fans are diehard fans."
Some great athletes arrive fully formed, like meteors falling from the sky. Not this one. In 1999, at the age of 12, while his exact contemporary and future rival Andy Murray was winning the prestigious Orange Bowl in Miami, Djokovic was just another 5ft (1.5m) wannabe with a racket that looked too big for him. That summer, his parents begged, borrowed and scraped together enough money to send him to a tennis academy near Munich. Its founder, the former Wimbledon semi-finalist Niki Pilic, had little inkling that he was looking at a future champion. "He was moving okay," Pilic recalled recently, "His co-ordination was okay, his serve was okay but nothing special, and he didn't volley much."
Yet this assessment failed to take into account the young Djokovic's greatest asset: his flexible and inquiring brain. Before mindfulness had become a cliche, he was already experimenting with meditation and self-awareness. The subject is exhaustively explored in his 2013 book, Serve To Win - a classic example of his refusal to follow the pack. Instead of releasing a memoir like everyone else, he came up with a zany mixture of autobiography, self-help guide and cookbook. Its subtitle - "The 14-day gluten-free plan for mental and physical excellence" - alluded to the dietary shift that saw him abandon his beloved pasta and pizza in 2010, with the result that he lost 3kg as well as his reputation for fading towards the end of five-set matches.
Djokovic's own journey towards "mental and physical excellence" had begun in 1990s Belgrade, as Yugoslavia collapsed into ethnic conflict. War-torn Serbia was hardly the ideal starting point for a would-be champion. At one point in 1999 he spent 78 nights huddling in a bomb shelter with his family. He emerged only to hit balls on the site of the most recent attack, on the basis that the Nato planes were unlikely to strike the same place twice running.
His training partner and mentor in those days was the former Yugoslav national champion, Jelena Gencic. They had met six years earlier, when Gencic was running a tennis camp across the road from the Djokovic family's pizza parlour in the ski resort of Kapaonik. A solemn little boy arrived one day, carrying a backpack and a racket, and pressed his nose up against the chain-link fence.
In an interview with Djokovic's biographer, Chris Bowers, Gencic remembered, "His ability to keep his eyes focused on me when we were talking. It made me think right away that this was a very unusual boy."
"We talked about life in general," Djokovic recalls now of the seven years he spent with Gencic. "Not just how to hit the inside-out forehand or backhand down the line. We talked about classical music, we talked about poetry, we talked about everything. She kind of behaved like my mother. I owe a lot of gratitude to my own parents because mums all over the world are over-protective of their children, and I was the first son in the family. Obviously I needed permission from my mother to spend this private time with her and to actually have her support me."
If Djokovic is no ordinary player, then Gencic - who died in 2013 - was no ordinary coach. She held down a day job producing cultural programmes for the state-owned network TV Belgrade, and helped to fan Djokovic's interest in Serbian history, music and art - a passion that still suffuses his whole life. When he was invited to nominate a walk-on track by the organisers of one tournament, he eschewed the usual AC/DC or U2 anthem in favour of a traditional Yugoslav folk tune (unsurprisingly, it was never used). "In Serbia, people feel like they are left behind and need hope, someone to really guide them," Djokovic says. "Ever since I reached the top 10 of the world, I've had many, many people come to me, from ordinary people in the street to politicians. They all have one thing to tell me: keep on going, you have all the country behind you.
"At the start, when I was still inexperienced and still trying to form my character, I felt a lot of pressure and responsibility. At times I maybe forced myself to say, 'Hey, Serbia here, Serbia there.' I was trying always to talk about my country. But I carry it now with a greater deal of ease. I enjoy being at the front line of the few people who represent the country of Serbia in the world. How many people have this privileged position?"
The day Djokovic really stepped up as his country's global ambassador was July 3, 2011. Playing his first Wimbledon final, he wrapped Nadal in the web of his intricate strokeplay (an experience that Nadal was forced to go through again at the recent French Open). At the end of his four-set victory, which carried him to number one in the world for the first time, he came up with a celebration never before seen on centre court: he plucked a blade of grass from the lawn and ate it.
After the most glorious hour of his career, Djokovic was expecting a trumpet fanfare. But once the immediate rush had passed, everything went strangely quiet. Andre Agassi has described it as tennis' "dirty little secret" - the hard truth, only fully appreciated by the very best, that nothing changes when you win. Agassi meant it as an existential point, but in Djokovic's case it was a pragmatic one too. He may have been number one, but the world's focus remained on Federer and Nadal. Where they were both endorsed by Nike, he had the niche Italian brand, Sergio Tacchini. Where they were playing on show court at the biggest events, he was still being shunted out to the boondocks.
For all Djokovic's brilliance, you need more than medals to be loved. And the challenge was all the greater because tennis fans had been spoilt by the rich narrative of the previous five years. Federer was a throwback to the sport's golden age, a matinee idol dressed in a cream tuxedo. Nadal, in his bandanna and pirate shorts, looked like an Aztec warrior and swung his bulging left arm like a gorilla. And Djokovic? He had no distinctive image off the court, no unique weapon on it. He was just a sensational tennis player. Once, that had been enough, but his immediate antecedents had raised the bar.
Tennis has always favoured the outsider. And Djokovic has clearly drawn power from his sense of exclusion. In his book, he refers to his favourite Serbian proverb: "When nothing hurts, put a little stone in your shoe and start walking." Over the past seven months, though, something has changed. It is not only that he put together a sequence of seven successive victories at the sport's most prestigious events (before Wawrinka finally snapped it a fortnight ago in a memorable French Open final). There has been a softening, as if he has given up on fighting against his place in the world. It all stems, he says, from his latest responsibility: not to the people of his country this time, but to his son, Stefan, who arrived in October and is named after a dynasty of 12th-century Serbian kings.
"Becoming a father is truly a great joy," Djokovic says. "It gave me a great deal of inner satisfaction and peace that I needed very much. I was hoping that it was going to reflect positively on my on-court concentration and that's what it did. I feel that this can only bring me positives, and that's how it's been influencing me for six months already."
The key to his stability is the waterfront apartment in Monte Carlo that he shares with his son, his wife, Jelena, and his two poodles, Pierre and, inevitably, Tesla. He and Jelena - an economics graduate who now helps to run his charitable foundation for disadvantaged children - were married last July at a Montenegrin island resort; guests included the Serbian world number 33, Viktor Troicki, and Djokovic's own tennis-playing younger brothers, Marko and Djordje. (Neither has yet made much of a mark on the world tour, though Djordje is still only 19 and lives with their parents, Srdjan and Dijana, in Belgrade.) "Jelena is one of the most important parts of my tennis career," he says. "Every successful professional athlete has a strong ego. You need it and it is a reality. But then I go back home and it's not about me anymore. It's about this little creature that is the most beautiful angel, and the most beautiful thing that ever happened to my wife and me. Once I step though that door it's all about the world of family, and that's something that brings me that balance and that serenity that every man needs." With his usual questing intelligence, Djokovic has sought out some unusual solutions to the hurly-burly in the past. During his trips to Wimbledon, he is a frequent visitor to the Buddhapadipa complex - which describes itself as Britain's first Buddhist temple - a few minutes' walk from the All England Club. "I like spending time in the park and hearing the peaceful sounds of the water and seeing people just relax and connect to the nature."
The Buddhapadipa is not used to hosting multimillionaire athletes, but then Djokovic is hardly a typical example. You won't find too many footballers who read up about electrical engineering, publish cookbooks and practise transcendental meditation. Even when he turns his inner Leonardo off and sits down to watch television, he is still monitoring himself for signs of his greatest enemies: negative energy, and - even more chilling for his opponents - wasted potential. "Flash, that's the show my wife and I are watching now," he says with a laugh. "It's an American TV show, a kind of superhero thing. You need to have a filter, something that gets your mind off the tennis and just relaxes and recharges your batteries, so the next day you can be motivated to practise and do the same things over and over again. Because if you are completely in it, if you don't have a social life, if you don't have other interests, it's very hard to maintain this will to win.
"It's like yin and yang," he concludes. "In life it's all about balance. If you want to reach the biggest heights in such a demanding sport you need to be able to holistically approach everything and satisfy your needs - emotionally, privately, professionally. Now I am committing myself, not just as I did for most of my life to tennis, but to my family, to my wife and my baby, and to really be able to win the battle over my own ego."
Again, this is no ordinary sportsman.
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- Canvas, Telegraph