Vogue - Hot Shot: Novak Djokovicby Vicki Woods
This lean, mean tennis machine, poised to spring for the top spot, is Novak Djokovic, currently number two in world tennis. Thanks to a suddenly superhuman serve (after several uneven years, his first-serve percentage is a neat 65), plus the court-covering power to return the craziest shots, he is on a wild roll. Since beating Andy Murray in straight sets for the final of the Australian Open, he has notched a winning streak of 24 matches. Last time anybody had a start-of-year streak like that, it was Ivan Lendl, 1986. (The year before Djokovic was born.)
Easily the world’s most famous living Serb (Q. Who is the president of Serbia? A. Me neither), Djokovic lives in the pretty principality of Monaco, where the tennis club is spectacular, the winters are balmy, and Monegasques are cool. He, on the other hand, is so hot (both on court and in person) that he can visit his native Belgrade only on a quick in and out, lest his countrymen mob him to pieces.
We meet at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, halfway toward the final. His fourth-round tie with fellow Serb (and 2010 Davis Cup teammate) Viktor Troicki was slated, as befits the second seed, for court numero uno, the Stadium. Rain delays have pushed the day’s most coveted ticket to a little outer court, the Grandstand. Since everyone wants to see Novak in action, I stick fast to a (damp) concrete perch for six hours straight to prevent the hordes clamoring at the gate from taking my place. During each break of play, a loudspeaker booms: “Please REMEMBER that the rain-delayed match between Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki will be played HERE in the GRANDSTAND and not in the STADIUM,” which provokes cries of “Serbia, Serbia” (pronounced Srrrrb-ya) by young girls wrapped in flags of red, blue, and white with gold bling. (When Djokovic is asked at his champion’s press conference, “Where did you find all the Serbians?,” he laughs and says they found him.)
The best feeling Djokovic has had on the tennis court, he tells me later, was Serbia’s first-ever Davis Cup win. I’m surprised because, at his exalted level, tennis is always High Noon, is it not? Two duelists, one winner, roll credits? He says no, nothing compares with the Davis Cup. Not winning two Grand Slams, not “beating the top players, Roger, Rafa.” “We’re individual athletes, and everything we do, we do by ourselves,” he says. “But the success you have there, you don’t get for yourself. You share it with your people and your teammates.”
Photographed by Norman Jean Roy
It was Troicki who snatched victory against France’s Michael Llodra by pulling out one of those miraculous performances that live in national legend. Which is why tonight’s Serb-on-Serb duel turns out to be highly emotional. Between friends. When the loudspeaker booms: “Here is what you’ve been WAITING FOR . . .” there’s a visceral roar. Everyone can see Novak’s eyes widen at the nearness of the crowd as he walks out, exposed, onto the small, almost school yard–size court. (He told me later: “Taking the towel, you’re a yard away. You feel their breath.”)
It was, despite the humidity, a fast, clinical, one-way match (6–3, 6–2). The players met at the net for a man-hug as savage as some of the serves. The girls from Serbia were hoarse. They’d been rooting for Troicki. When I said, Your guy lost! they said, NO, SERBIA WON. The guy with the mic was giddy: “Wow! Hey! Novak! What’s going on? Used to be the Big Three! Then it was the Big Two! Now it seems to be just you by yourself!” Djokovic, high on victory, grabbed the mic from him and burst (not untunefully) into song: “It’s . . . a . . . wonderful, wonderful world.”
For him it clearly is. An open threat to Nadal and Federer—one commentator joked that it’s now a “trivalry”—Djokovic has matured a lot from the callow kid (the “Djoker”) who dazzled with on-court brilliance some of the time and kidded around annoyingly for much of the time (though his spot-on impersonations, on YouTube, of fellow players still make me laugh). He gets how to finesse the dumb or snippy questions at his post-match press conferences. The maturity extends to his game: He counters his opponents’ weaknesses with utter cunning (think of his relentless destruction of Nadal’s backhand in the Indian Wells and Miami finals; similarly, he pulverized Federer’s at the Australian Open). He is in fabulous form. Fierce, fast, and forceful in attack and defense.
Novak Djokovic was born in Belgrade in late May 1987. He and Andy Murray, born a week earlier, are nearly twins. (Nadal is eleven months older; Federer, at 29, is a different generation.) Djokovic’s parents ran a café in a famous mountain resort above Belgrade; when he was four, tennis courts were built opposite, and Jelena Gencic, an inspired tennis coach, ran a tennis camp there one summer. When she spotted Novak, she said he’d be the best player in the world one day. At five, he modeled himself on Pete Sampras, packing extra shirts and a water bottle in his bag. By the time he was nine, Gencic was coaching him two or three hours a day, and monitoring his diet, class grades, and bedtime. When Novak was twelve-and-a-half, she contacted Croatian tennis legend Niki Pilic at his tennis academy in Munich. Whenever school was out, Pilic took Novak into his family and coached him. (Djokovic says, “He’s one of the most influential people in my career.”) This is the cute bit of his backstory.
The nightmarish bit is the spring of 1999, when NATO, under the good offices of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and the like, bombed Belgrade for eleven weeks. Novak lived it, daily, in a small apartment, with his mother and father and younger brothers, Marko and Djordje. “Four, four,” he says, to indicate the four-year age gap between the brothers. I say his mother must be a good planner. He hoots. “My mother is a special story. She went through so much to bring us up, four men at home, especially when our country was going through really difficult times.” He tells me without rancor about the day he turned twelve: “They were singing ‘Happy birthday to you,’ and I see a plane flying over—eeeeevroom!” He skims the table with his hand and shakes his head. Fixing his green eyes on my face, he says that though it was “a very emotional period for our country,” he always tries “to look on the positive side.” Djokovic’s English is terrific (he speaks four languages), but his words can seem blah on the page. Face to face—not so much. He means it. “All of us who went through that came out with their spirit stronger,” he says. “And now we appreciate the value of life. We know how it feels to be living in 60 square meters being bombed. And we know how it feels to be here.” His eyes blaze as he looks around the Ritz-Carlton lobby with all the pride of a man in his 20s who has both faced the threat of death and earned his worth. And who’d deny him?
Djokovic is really close to his family. His parents used to travel with him, but less so now. “I have two younger brothers [both up-and-coming tennis players], so they’re taking care of them more than me, and they should. And I like it. I went through that period already.” His family is also planning to add a tennis academy to Tennis Center Novak, which they built to house the Serbia Open. “To bring that possibility to kids in Serbia so that they don’t have to move outside the country in order to try to develop a tennis career,” says the much-traveled 24-year-old.
Djokovic lives in Monte Carlo full-time with his girlfriend of nearly six years, Jelena Ristic. She doesn’t go with him everywhere, “because she’s very ambitious; she has her own goals,” he says. She has an economics degree from a private university in Milan and is currently taking a master’s in Luxury Goods & Services at the University of Monaco. “She’s been a great support to me,” says Djokovic. “She’s been the source of energy. Of love. It’s something that keeps me going, you know?”
Aside from amore, has he made any other changes to his regimen to help bring such an extraordinary winning streak about? Nothing major, he says. But he has brought a nutritionist onto his team who has changed his diet. “It’s very simple.” Oh, yes? He says tranquilly that everyone has weaknesses for chocolate, sweets—something. “And if you can mentally overcome this greed and eat only the food that is good for your metabolism, then you will have the best results.” Indeed. “Not just in tennis but in life as well,” he says. “Mentally, you’ll be fresh, you’ll be happier, you’ll be calmer. Physically, you’ll be stronger, faster, more dynamic, your muscles will work better. That’s what I feel,” he says composedly. He was tested for food intolerances, so the Novak Diet is basically gluten-free with plenty of protein plus vitamins on the side. And even though he lives in Monte Carlo, a land flowing with good red wine (Djokovic: “I love wine—I used to drink a glass a day”), he’s given it up. He lost some weight on this diet, he says. “I am very skinny.” You have a tiny waist, I say. He giggles: “A very tiny waist.” He is very skinny: weighing, halfway through the Sony Ericsson Open, 176 pounds at six feet two. That’s around ten pounds lighter than the other three. (Andy Murray is 185 pounds and six feet three, Rafa 188 and six feet one, and Federer 187 and also six feet one.) It shows in his play—lightfooted, quicksilver, deadly: “I am fast and very powerful on the court, so this is what matters.”
In late afternoon, before the Miami quarterfinal, Djokovic’s publicist, Benito Pérez-Baradillo (also publicist to Nadal; how tense is that?), walks me through the sweaty subterranean tunnels underneath the Stadium Court toward the players’ entrance. Suddenly we are standing in the dueling pit itself, where Novak is practicing with Ivo Karlovic for tonight’s match against unseeded South African Kevin Anderson. This is such a fabulously privileged place to be that I am hopping with excitement, as is ESPN’s sideline reporter, Brad Gilbert (former player! former coach to Andre Agassi!), who gives the provenance of his candy stripe–pink shirt (“Charvet!”), marvels aloud about Novak’s winning streak (“On a roll!”), and shares tennis stats like they are popcorn: Kevin Anderson is six-feet-eight-inches tall (“Eight!”) but this guy (Ivo Karlovic, who is whacking murderous serves in our direction) —“is six feet ten! Tallest man in tennis! He made the fastest serve in history—156 miles per hour! They’re friends!” Benito smiles. “Who says Serbs and Croats can’t be friends?”
Karlovic is here, Djokovic tells me the next day, because “he has by far the best serve in tennis.” Djokovic asked him to come: “So I can visualize the height and speed of the ball. And it was good! Because it worked!” he says. “I was getting Anderson’s serve quite OK yesterday, even though he was serving really fast.” Getting it “quite OK”? It was 6–4, 6–2.
So far, this year, Djokovic owns the hard court. But clay season is next, and he has never beaten Rafa on clay. “I like clay!” he tells me. “In Serbia, 95 percent of the courts are red clay. But it’s definitely difficult when you have an opponent such as Nadal, who is physically very superior on the court,” he says. “Kind of a wall.” Djokovic’s campaign to breach that wall should have begun at the Monte Carlo Masters—on his own home turf (actually, clay)—but he pulled out, to rest a knee injury. When I call Benito for an update, he says the knee needs resting after four punishing months; also, that Novak lost four to five pounds in the heat of Miami and needs to recover before the Serbia Open, in Belgrade. Djokovic won this once before, but he would be thrilled to add a hometown victory to his 2011 winning streak. In a chirpy e-mail, he says: “To be able to do it again and go through those feelings again would be amazing. I am working on my physical condition and gaining weight and strength again to be ready.”
Djokovic really likes his job—the one he wanted when he was seven. He likes the medieval knight-errantry aspect of it, and the jousting, the derring-do. “Tennis players,” he says, “we’re always playing in center courts that feel like arenas. And when we get on the court and the crowd cheers your name or salutes you—it’s like you’re a gladiator in the arena. And everyone is cheering—and you’re fighting, you’re screaming, during your strokes—it feels like you’re an animal, fighting for your life.”May 19, 2011 7:07 a.m.
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