- Monte Carlo, Monaco
In any other era, Novak Djokovic would be hailed as standing tall above his sport. Whether it’s good luck or bad luck, Djokovic has found himself playing in the same era with several other all-time greats and has therefore had to share the limelight with them. Yet his dominance of men’s tennis since the start of 2011 means that the competition he has faced might yet make future generations see Djokovic as the greatest ever tennis player.
Novak Djokovic - more than just a Tennis Player
In the most competitive period in the 150-year history of the modern-day form of tennis, Djokovic has dominated the biggest tournaments. Of the 42 Grand Slam events played between the 2011 Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2021, he won 19 of them. And he topped the world rankings for much longer than anyone else in history.
To many, the pinnacle came in June 2016, when he not only completed his career Grand Slam by winning the French Open, but became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles at the same time. Although his form dipped after that triumph due to a mixture of injuries and off-court issues, he bounced back impressively to win eight more majors in 2018-21, return to the top of the rankings, and fall just one match short of emulating Laver's calendar year Grand Slam when he lost in the US Open final of 2021 having won in Melbourne, Paris and London.
Djokovic is a complex but positive character. The product of modest surroundings, he was a child with immense curiosity, a work ethic to match, and a belief in his own ability that included going onto a Serbian children’s TV programme at the age of seven to say with a totally straight face – and a cap facing backwards – that he was going to win Wimbledon.
Novak Djokovic`s first Coach
The person who most shaped him was Jelena Gencic. A tennis coach from a highly educated family who had never had children of her own, she was conducting a tennis clinic in the mountain resort of Kopaonik where the Djokovic family had a pizza restaurant when a five-year-old boy put his face to the fence and watched for an entire morning. When she approached him in the lunch break, it was clear he was interested, so she invited him to join. That afternoon, Djokovic’s tennis career began.
Gencic, who died during Roland Garros in 2013 (the news was kept from Djokovic until after he had played his third round match), claimed she saw his talent from day one. She told his parents they had ‘a golden child’; they were happy to believe her and let her coach their son. She remained his formal coach until he was 12 and needed a more international coaching framework.
But Gencic did more than just coach Djokovic. She says she recognised that he was destined for greatness, and felt part of her job was to prepare him for that. She encouraged him to listen to classical music, to read poetry, to take an interest in scientific discoveries and philosophical arguments.
He refers to her even today as his ‘tennis mother’, but she was more than that – she helped shape the mind that is open to many unique, interesting ideas.
There has always been a strong philanthropic side to him. He has a foundation that not only gives money to a number of charitable causes, but also sets up programmes to help with education and skills training to create opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters in Serbia.
Although seen as something of an on-court warrior and flag carrier for Serbia – whose modern-day sovereignty is still less than 30 years old – Djokovic has a benevolent temper and a willingness to see the good in people. He is a practising Christian who believes in being a good citizen, and above all a good father to his two children.
There is a common myth on the tennis tour that Djokovic only switched to playing with HEAD rackets in early 2009, but he had played with HEAD in his junior days. He was then offered a lucrative contract by another racket maker, but at the end of the 2008 season he wanted a racket with which he could conquer the world, and returned to HEAD. All his 19 majors between 2011 and the middle of 2021 were won with a HEAD racquet in his hand - making Djokovic and the SPEED racquet series endoresd by Novak Djokovic one of the most successful partnerships of all time.
Novak Djokovic is more than just a tennis player – he is a statesman, both within tennis and representing Serbia on the international stage (the first biography of him was entitled ‘The Sporting Statesman’). He became president of the ATP Player Council in 2016, and in 2019 after three members resigned, he recruited Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It was the first time the world’s top three players had been on the Council, and Djokovic was both the president and the top-ranked player.
Now in his mid-30s, Djokovic is pacing himself more. He only played 12 tournaments in 2021, but he won five of them: three majors, his home title in Belgrade, and the Paris Masters. He remains the man to beat, and may be for some time. One day his playing career will come to an end, but there's no doubting his employability either inside or outside tennis. In fact it's easy to see some sort of diplomatic role for this highly intelligent, worldly interested, and sympathetic young man.
WORDS BY CHRIS BOWERS
Chris Bowers is the author of ‘Novak Djokovic: the biography’ (John Blake Publishing, 2017)