Tribute: Novak Djokovic, Serial Champion
Novak Djokovic has today completed his ascent of the sport’s equivalent to Everest by drawing level — for the first time — with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 Grand Slam titles. Capturing a sixth Wimbledon crown on Sunday certainly isn’t the endpoint for the biggest name in Serbia, who has made no secret of his motivation to create history in his dominance of the sport over the past decade. “I'm not chasing anybody,” explained Djokovic earlier this week. “I'm making my own path and my own journey, my own history.”
Nobody could question the dedication and professionalism of Djokovic when he made his ATP Tour debut 17 years ago, four years before he captured his maiden Grand Slam crown at the 2008 Australian Open. The early talk was about how his forehand was prone to breaking down or his serve was attackable, how he’d get tight, experience mid-match ailments and breathing problems. Of course, the Serbian evolved and continually made small adjustments to his training, nutrition and technique in order to join Federer and Nadal as a serial champion.
A mental resilience had been forged as a child while NATO forces bombed Belgrade in 1999, when Djokovic and his younger brothers would shelter for months in their grandparents’ flat, hours away from where their parents, Srdjan and Dijana, worked at the pizza restaurant of the Kopaonik ski resort. It was all to fund tennis practice sessions at different clubs, Djokovic’s subsequent move to the Niki Pilic Academy in Munich at the age of 13, and to fuel the family debate about which of their three sons — Novak, Marko or Djordje — would become the best prospect. “Never give up is in my genes,” admitted Djokovic last week. “The way I grew up in difficult times for my country means failure was never an option for my family. We had to find the basic needs to survive and that has strengthened my character.”
"When I was a little boy, I used to make the Wimbledon trophy out of materials in my room, imagining I'd be standing here one day"— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 11, 2021
You've come a long way, @DjokerNole ☺️#Wimbledon pic.twitter.com/uXYIbAYbsa
Of course, the eldest Djokovic son rose to the top with his shot depth, accuracy and placement, his elastic physique and ability to slide on every surface. He won his first major title at Melbourne Park in January 2008 when Federer had won 12 Grand Slams and Nadal had three to his name. But two-and-a-half years later, shortly prior to switching to a gluten-free diet, Djokovic had his doubts. Not about his future rise to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, long-predicted not only by himself and by his beloved childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, but over just how many Grand Slam titles he might win in the future.
Speaking exclusively to ATPTour.com in a small interview room at the All England Club in June 2010, Djokovic, who that fortnight fell in the Wimbledon semi-finals, said, “In this era, with great players like Roger and Rafa, it will be difficult to consistently win big titles. I hope I could win four of five, but I know just how hard I’ll have to work for those.”
The floodgates inevitably opened once Djokovic led Serbia to the 2010 Davis Cup title and his transformation into a world-beater took shape. With a 41-match winning streak to start the 2011 season — second only to John McEnroe’s 42-0 opening to 1984 — it ended, as it did for the American, at Roland Garros. But Djokovic’s rise to World No. 1 for the first time was assured, one month later, with his first Wimbledon title. “He always had that glint in his eyes that he would give his everything to be No. 1,” his childhood friend, Viktor Troicki, told ATPTour.com recently. “He believed that he could be the greatest of all time. He was always determined to be No. 1 and worked towards it.”
Once at the summit of men’s professional tennis on 4 July 2011, Djokovic’s assault on the record books officially began and to-date he has won 19 of his 20 Grand Slam trophies in the past 11 seasons. “Once I’m on the court, I try to lock in and exclude all the distractions,” said Djokovic, who has a recorded 968 tour-level match wins. “I feel like over the years I managed to develop the mechanism to do that.”
The wider public soon gained an insight into Djokovic’s hunger and dedication, his intelligence, resilience and perfectionist nature, how well he dealt with the media and made generous charitable donations. On-court expectations further increased following his first great year in 2011. He captured three major trophies in a season once more in 2015, compiling an 82-6 match record, and by then former World No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic had started the drum for his friend to be considered “the best tennis player of all time... just you wait and see!”
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'I'll Try, Without A Doubt' For Calendar-Year Grand Slam
The following year, Djokovic won the first two Grand Slams before coming unstuck against Sam Querrey in the Wimbledon third round. The calendar-year Grand Slam, achieved by two men only, Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969), was off, but Djokovic learned his lesson about the importance of rest and better tournament scheduling. When Djokovic dropped to World No. 22 on 21 May 2018 as a result of a right elbow injury that required surgery, some observers believed that the Serbian’s peak-performance days were numbered — at that time, 12 major trophies would be his lot. Yet the great champions respond to setbacks and Djokovic soon worked his way back to No. 1.
Federer had won his 17th Grand Slam in July 2012 at Wimbledon, but for his own push onto 20 crowns he remodelled his backhand to seal back-to-back Australian Open titles in 2017 and 2018, and also a record eighth title at the All England Club in 2017. Nadal has continued to carry his injury ravaged body and reworked almost every aspect of his game to earn six more major trophies in the past four years — including a record-extending 13th Roland Garros crown in October 2020. Djokovic has collected eight Grand Slam trophies in the past four seasons.
In that time, Djokovic has become the first player to win all nine ATP Masters 1000 titles (and he's done it twice!) and currently shares the same number of Masters 1000 silverware (36) with Nadal. He has positive ATP Head2Head records against both Federer and Nadal, and also broke Federer’s record for most weeks at No. 1 in March this year (Djokovic has been No. 1 for 329 weeks over five different stints as of 12 July). And in 2021 he is also set to eclipse Pete Sampras’ tally of six year-end No. 1 finishes (1993-1998). Prior to today, the Serbian had trailed his great rivals, 39-year-old Federer and 35-year-old Nadal, in one important, category: Grand Slam titles.
Last month, Djokovic became the first man to win all the four major championships twice in the Open Era (since April 1968) — something that Federer and Nadal have not achieved during their own illustrious careers. By winning this year’s major titles at the Australian Open (d. Medvedev), Roland Garros (d. Tsitsipas) and Wimbledon (d. Berrettini), the calendar-year Grand Slam is on. “It would mean everything,” said Djokovic, who has won 35 of his 38 matches in 2021. “That's why I'm here. That's why I'm playing.”
Djokovic will certainly not wish to suffer the same fate as Australians Jack Crawford and Lew Hoad, who arrived at Forest Hills, the former venue of the US Open, with three of the season’s four major titles in the bag. Crawford suffered from asthma in the muggy heat of the 1933 US Championships final and lost energy to lose to Fred Perry in five sets. Hoad experienced lower back pain shortly after he captured the 1956 Wimbledon title, and was subsequently upset by his good friend, Ken Rosewall, in the US final two months later.
With the prospect of picking up an Olympic singles gold medal in Tokyo a few weeks away, Djokovic will leave nothing to chance, and he will first hope that he can extend his 18-match winning streak. If he arrives in New York City in good shape for the US Open, the 34-year-old will first need to deal with the weight of expectation like never before. If he succeeds, Djokovic will emulate Steffi Graf, the former WTA Tour No. 1, who in 1988 won all four majors and the Seoul Olympics gold medal. At that point, Tipsarevic's prediction that Djokovic will go down as the greatest player of all time will look stronger than ever.