One day in June 1992, a skinny five-year-old boy stood behind the fence of a tennis court in a small mountain hamlet in Serbia watching a junior tennis clinic. The coach, Jelena Gencic, had a background in art history and moonlighted producing arts and culture programming for Serbia’s state-owned television network. Gencic invited the boy to join the clinic. She knew talent when she saw it — Gencic coached Monica Seles early in her career. By the end of his first afternoon of drills, as the story goes, Gencic knew she had a world-class talent on her hands.
The boy’s name was Novak Djokovic (the name means son of Djoko in Serbian, Djoko in this case being Djoko Damjanovic, one of Novak’s paternal ancestors) and his parents owned a pizzeria and pancake restaurant across the road from the tennis courts. As Chris Bowers reports in his book Novak Djokovic: The Sporting Statesman, Gencic marched the boy over to his parent’s restaurant and told them, “You have a golden child… by the time he’s 17, he’ll be in the top five in the world.”
Novak bloomed later than she predicted — his ranking ranged from No. 515 to No. 128 at 17. But consider how prescient and audacious Gencic’s prediction was. At the time, Yugoslavia had splintered and the Balkan wars of the 1990s would cripple the region for most of the decade.
By any measure, Serbia was a poor country at that time, with a per capita GDP of just $2,767. But here we are nearly 30 years later confronting a remarkable feat that even Gencic couldn’t have imagined: the boy from a humble background, who emerged from war-torn Serbia, has now been No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings for an astonishing 311 weeks — longer than anyone else in the sport.
The same qualities that Gencic noticed in his very first lesson are the ones that have propelled his remarkable career: the footwork, the concentration, and, above all else the hunger to succeed. Just 26 men have reached No. 1 since the FedEx ATP Rankings were established in 1973. With all due respect to those champions, none were quite as hungry to stay at the top as Novak Djokovic.
"You have a golden child… by the time he’s 17, he’ll be in the top five in the world."He’s fought off the competition with vigour and panache, ruffling feathers at times along the way. He treated us to hilarious impersonations of other players, his parents made brash predictions that seemed improbable but all came true. He ate blades of grass on Centre Court at Wimbledon, he tore his shirts after wins like a pro wrestler, he implored crowds to recognise his brilliance and blew them kisses too. He kicked ass, made no apologies, and spoke from the heart.
The Sultan of Serbia was back on course, and in 2019, he blew past Connors and Lendl. In 2020, he defended his throne, going 41-5 in the strangest and most mentally challenging season in tennis history, racing past his boyhood hero, Pete Sampras, along the way. He spoke to the American legend about the difficulties of staying on top at the Nitto ATP Finals in London, expressing wonderment at how Sampras managed to finish as the year-end No. 1 six years in a row.
“Staying No. 1, ending the seasons as No. 1, as Pete said, is a paramount achievement and the amount of dedication that you need to undergo in your life and the way you have to organise yourself, not just on the court, but off the court, is tremendous,” he said.
As he coped with that stress over the years, there has always been one big fish — an elusive white whale named Roger Federer — to pursue. The Serb has been stalking Federer for his entire career. Roger first rose to No. 1 at 22, Novak at 24. Novak hit 100 weeks on top at 26, Federer at 24. Federer hit 300 weeks at 31, Novak at 33.
Though he could very well win more majors than any player in history, Djokovic has been swimming in the wake of Federer and Nadal for years. Those legends have legions of passionate fans, who naturally have rooted against the upstart Serb, whose emergence dented the prospects of their heroes.
Slaying fellow fan favourites empowers Djokovic, who defiantly raises his chin and his game when needed. He was underestimated for much of his early career, which makes his achievements even sweeter. And so, when he passed Roger Federer this week for most weeks at No. 1, it’s really a culmination of a lifetime of work, sacrifice and devotion to his craft. The record clearly means the world to him.
“In our sport, winning [the] most Grand Slams and being No. 1 for as long as possible are [the] two biggest goals,” Djokovic said after passing Sampras last year.
No one has had to work harder to get to the top than Djokovic. Early in his career he didn’t get lots of free points on his serve, and he rarely blasts an opponent off the court with 90 mph forehands. He has an all-around game propelled by world-class fitness and movement, but his greatest strength has always been mental. His uncanny ability to focus and stay cool on the big points, and to go into ‘lockdown mode’ during tie-breaks, has made him the player he is.
Remarkably, Djokovic has stayed on top for so long during tennis’ golden era, battling and often overcoming two of the greatest legends in the sport, and a host of other future hall of famers, like Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem and others. He has a winning career mark against all those players, not to mention Federer and Nadal, too.
"It really excites me to walk the path of legends and giants of this sport."
Along the way, he’s inspired an incredible tennis boom in Serbia and around the Balkans. There are now seven juniors from the former Yugoslav republics (four of them from Serbia) ranked inside the Top 100 of the ITF World Tennis Tour Junior Rankings.
Coming into the 2021 season, a number of prognosticators thought that challengers like Thiem and Daniil Medvedev may wrestle the No. 1 ranking away from Djokovic this year. The Serb responded by winning his ninth Australian Open title, dismissing Medvedev in straight sets in the final.
If Djokovic hears the chorus of naysayers writing premature tennis obits for him, look out. At 33, he’s still in tremendous shape. And his dedication to fitness, nutrition, and yoga will likely leave him ready to compete at the highest level for years to come. He’s six years younger than Federer and the prospect of him following the Swiss’s example and playing for several more years should concern any other player with designs on the No. 1 perch he considers his throne.
But will he remain hungry enough to push well past 311 weeks on top? Why not? There are still records to be broken. He’s now within two majors of Federer and Nadal in the all-time Grand Slam titles chase, and he still needs 28 more tour-level titles to eclipse Jimmy Connors’ all-time mark of 109, though Federer and Nadal aren’t done winning either. Ultimately, his assault on the sport’s record books rests on endurance, a quality he has demonstrated in spades for years.
In any case, even if he never wins another match, Djokovic’s story is one that’s been great for the sport. During his early years on tour, his fitness level wasn’t what it is today, and he had to retire from a number of matches. At one point, he opined that perhaps he was born at the wrong time and implied that he might never supplant Federer and Nadal.
But he evolved into the toughest, most unflappable competitor in the sport. The fact that he could emerge from a war-torn country with little tennis infrastructure, from a family of modest means with no deep ties in the sport, illustrates that tennis’ next great champion could come from any corner of the world. Gencic spotted the potential in him at an early age but nevertheless, Djokovic wasn’t born a champion. He fought to get to the top, bettering himself at each hurdle, and battled harder to stay there than anyone ever has before.
“It really excites me to walk the path of legends and giants of this sport,” said Djokovic. “To know that I earned my place among them by following my childhood dream is a beautiful confirmation that when you do things out of love and passion, everything is possible.”
(4 July 2011 to 8 July 2012): After four consecutive year-end finishes at No. 3 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, Djokovic took his game – and ranking – to new heights in 2011, when he won three Grand Slams and five ATP Masters 1000 titles en route to a stunning 70-6 match-win record on the season. The Serbian started the year with a 41-match winning streak and soon after climbed to World No. 1 for the first time following his first Wimbledon title run. During his first period as World No. 1, Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in back-to-back Grand Slam finals at the 2011 US Open and 2012 Australian Open.
(5 November 2012 to 6 October 2013): Less than four months after surrendering the top spot to Roger Federer, Djokovic returned to World No. 1 ahead of the 2012 Nitto ATP Finals. The Serbian marked the beginning of his second stint at No. 1 with an unbeaten 5-0 run to the trophy in London, his first of five titles during his reign. During the 2013 season, Djokovic claimed his third straight title at the 2013 Australian Open and ended Rafael Nadal's eight-year reign (2005-’12) as Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters champion.
(7 July 2014 to 6 November 2016): Djokovic’s third stint at the top of the FedEx ATP Rankings was his most successful, including becoming only the fourth player to hold the No. 1 ranking for an entire season (2015). The Belgrade native won 21 tour-level trophies from 26 finals during this period, including five major championships, two Nitto ATP Finals crowns and 11 ATP Masters 1000 titles. Djokovic also became the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time with his maiden title run at 2016 Roland Garros. Throughout this spell at No. 1, which ended at the hands of Andy Murray in November 2016, Djokovic compiled an incredible 167-17 win-loss record (.908). Incredibly, he would have held the No. 1 ranking for two straight years had he won the 2016 Nitto ATP Finals title match against Murray.
(5 November 2018 to 3 November 2019): Djokovic’s fourth period at No. 1 was highlighted by success at Grand Slam and ATP Masters 1000 events in 2019. The 6’2” right-hander became the first player to capture seven Australian Open titles with a stunning straight-sets win against Rafael Nadal. Djokovic also made history at Wimbledon, as he saved two championship points and became the first player to win the trophy in a 12-12 final-set tie-break against Roger Federer. Djokovic also picked up Masters 1000 crowns in Madrid and Paris.
(3 February 2020 to 22 March 2020) + (24 August 2020 to present): Following his eighth Australian Open triumph, Djokovic began his fifth stint at World No. 1. Either side of the FedEx ATP Rankings freeze — due to the COVID-19 pandemic — the 33-year-old has maintained his position at the top to surpass Roger Federer’s previous record mark of 310 weeks at World No. 1. Djokovic, who triumphed in Cincinnati and Rome upon the resumption of the ATP Tour, equalled Pete Sampras' record of six year-end World No. 1 finishes. He returned to Melbourne this past February and lifted his 18th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.