There are moments in a career – after all the sweat, the sacrifice, the winning — when an athlete suddenly transports to a new level. And sometimes you can tell: Even they are slightly unprepared.
This was Novak Djokovic in 2011. Once the perennial whipping boy to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Djokovic arrived at the French Open four years ago undefeated, brimming with confidence and in unfamiliar territory. “He was a little bit in a trance,” says his former assistant coach and close friend Dusan Vemic, who has known the Serb since he was six.
What seemed like an inevitable collision with record-setting French Open champion Rafael Nadal never materialized. A vintage Federer snapped Djokovic’s 41-match winning streak in the semifinals. But Djokovic had played edgy tennis. He looked like a man still operating in a newfound haze of unlocked potential, a young Peter Parker still grasping his Spider Man powers.
Djokovic went on to win three of four Grand Slam tournaments during the rest of his magical 2011. By every metric that matters in the last four-plus years – titles (35), Slams (7), year-end No. 1 finishes (3) – he has been the ATP Tour’s dominant force, with no signs of slowing. The French Open, mostly due to Nadal, is the one major he has yet to own.
Djokovic will again alight at Roland Garros, which begins Sunday, on a similar opening-season tear. He is undefeated on clay and riding a 22-match winning streak, including his fifth title of the year at Rome on Sunday where he smothered No. 2 Federer 6-4, 6-3. It’s tempting to compare 2015 with 2011, to summon that very French feeling of déjà vu. This would be a disservice.
It’s tempting also to heavily tilt towards top-ranked Djokovic, as the odds-makers have, because his closest rivals appear shaky, aging or untested. Nadal? With more losses on clay in 2015 than the entire five-year period from 2006 to 2010, he’s just not himself. Federer? He’s nearly 34 and four years past his most recent French Open final. Andy Murray? He captured his first two career claycourt titles this month.
This, too, would be a disservice.
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Djokovic could and should leave Paris with the Coupe des Mousquetaires – his professional holy grail — for only one reason. He is prepared. Uber-prepared. More prepared than perhaps any athlete roaming the planet. He leaves no rock, stone or pebble unturned.
He is fanatical about what he puts in his body and how he orders his life. He famously gave up gluten in 2011. He forgoes coffee for tea and mostly avoids his favorite indulgence, chocolate (though he likes to pass them out at press conferences). He drinks water only at certain temperatures and ingests exotic forms of honey, berries and grasses. He does yoga. He meditates. He stretches and stretches and stretches – fitting for the sport’s resident Gumby.
His well-oiled entourage includes not one but two coaches, Marian Vajda and last year’s high-profile hire, Boris Becker; longtime trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch; PR manager Edoardo Artaldi; and at times his wife, Jelena, their son, Stefan, plus two miniature poodles, Pierre and Tesla. Every move is carefully orchestrated. “This is not someone who wants a passing grade,” says Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob. “This is someone who goes for extra credit.”
Djokovic is not only an obsessive planner and strategist. He is a dreamer. A seeker. This is the other secret to his ascension, the spiritual ying to his determined yang. The boy who grew up near ski slopes in Serbia, the son of pizza restaurateurs, the kid that had no business imagining he could be the world’s best at anything – he never stopped striving and believing. The formula hasn’t changed, even when he reached the top in the best era men’s tennis has ever seen. “He is actually trying to become a better tennis player every moment,” says Vemic. “He is never in any comfort zone.”
Djokovic speaks like a man whose destiny extends well beyond the confines of a tennis court. Sure, titles, money and fame fuel his desire. But as he said recently, his goal is to be something wholly more rounded, someone “grateful,” “humble,” and “aware.”
“I don’t think a champion is defined only by results that he makes in his sport,” Djokovic told reporters following his fourth title in Rome Sunday. “To be called a champion, I think you need to be a complete person that has a strong character, that has a strong sense of compassion, a strong sense of intrinsic values that he nurtures and responsibility that he carries everywhere he goes on and off the court.”
“I’d say it’s a very a holistic approach,” he added.
Agrees Gimelstob: “He’s not just a guy holing up in a hotel room thinking about forehands and backhands. He’s doing other things that he believes will help him become a better tennis player even if they are not tennis related. He is a deep thinker. He wants to be a well-rounded person, loving deeply, being loved deeply, being open to influences but also having strong opinions. The guy is someone who really wants to leave his mark on the world beyond hitting tennis balls. He’s very enlightened.”
Djokovic always sensed he was destined for greatness. As a child, he meticulously packed his racket bag as if preparing for Wimbledon. He declared on Serbian TV that he’d rather practice than play games in order to reach No. 1 in the world someday. As a teenager, he left his modest family behind in war-torn Serbia. At the German academy where he trained, fellow players remember him as earnest, acetic, resolute.
Vemic, 38, a Davis Cup teammate who coached and traveled with Djokovic from mid-2011 through mid-2013, says his single-mindedness was almost a hindrance. He competed for only one thing: himself. Since getting married and becoming a father last year, the indisputable face of Serbia has added balance to his driven existence.
“It’s like a person that has one love but then gets another hobby,” says Vemic. “You start to feel less overly emotional about the one thing and suddenly you are better and more productive. Novak is more in the moment. He brings a higher level of tennis because he plays more free.”
Statistically, Djokovic is competing pretty much with the same offensive and defensive efficiency as his marquee 2011, with two notable exceptions: He’s serving slightly bigger (1.1 more aces per match) and has been less successful breaking opponents (35% in 2015 vs. 43% in 2011, but that’s still second best on tour).
Those figures do not complete the picture. Djokovic is fitter, faster, and hitting the ball bigger. He has added dimensions, such as a reliable slice backhand and a deft drop shot. His flexibility, court coverage and return game remain the class of men’s tennis. And under the influence of six-time major winner Becker his transition game and volleys have improved.
Mentally, he no longer needs to worry about staying in the bubble of momentum. He knows how good he is and what he needs to do to win – witness his near-perfect 10-1 record in deciding-set matches in 2015. At crunch time, he is tapping into his “database of excellence,” says Gimelstob.
The numbers back this up. Djokovic last tasted defeat in February to Federer on a fast hardcourt. More impressively, the Serb, who captured the first of this year’s majors at the Australian Open, is riding a 37-match winning streak at the crème-de-la-crème tournaments: Grand Slams, the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals, and Masters 1000s dating back to November (Paris-Bercy, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome). Translation: He brings his best stuff for the most important events. “In 2011 he played great all the time,” says three-time French Open champion Mats Wilander of Sweden. “Now he can play 90 percent to his ability and he will likely win the next three Grand Slams.”
With eight majors, Djokovic is already tied for fifth place in the Open era with Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi. He recently eclipsed Nadal for total weeks at No. 1 (147 and counting, sixth place all time). If his greatness has been underappreciated, it’s easy to see why. He does not play with Federer’s artistic flair, Nadal’s bestial physicality, Murray’s entertaining angst. His methodical baseline style does not create stylistic contrasts. He is seamless. Economical. Stifling. Uncommonly stable. His excellence it tougher to grasp.
If, as the bookies predict, he finally wins in Paris, fasten up. Djokovic is the defending champion at Wimbledon. He is without question the best hardcourt player in the world, which is the surface at the U.S. Open. Tennis could have one of the best storylines in all of sports this summer – the quest for a calendar-year Grand Slam, last achieved on the men’s side by Rod Laver in 1969. No man has won the first two legs since Jim Courier in 1992. Wilander believes Djokovic has the best chance of anyone he can remember. “I would be more surprised if he doesn’t than if he does at this moment,” he says.
Overwhelming favorite? His tournament to lose? Not everyone agrees. Primarily, they point to Nadal, and rightly so. The 28-year-old Spaniard has beaten Djokovic all six times they have met in Paris, including the 2012 and 2014 finals. The nine-time French Open winner is still the King of Clay for good reason.
Nadal is a different player in Paris. The wide-open spaces of Court Philippe Chatrier accentuate his defensive skills. The best-of-five format highlights his physical and mental superiority. With a 66-1 record, he will step on the grounds and instantly channel success. “Regardless of what anybody says to me,” Federer told reporters in Rome last week, “he is the favorite at the French Open. The guy’s only lost once in 10 years. I’m sorry.”
No apologies necessary. But sorry, the crushed brick surface of Roland Garros is smoothed for Djokovic. He turns 28 on Friday. He is in his prime. He is clear of mind. He can balance tennis with family, country, and other “holistic” pursuits. He controls his fate as never before. Unlike 2011, he is not surfing a momentum-fueled run, discovering the depths of his talent or facing the pressure of a perfect season (though at 35-2, he’s darn close). He is Spidey, fully evolved and embracing the web-slinger’s credo: “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”
As he said on Sunday: “I don’t think I need to go and do anything more special for Roland Garros.” That sounds like a self-possessed man that has harnessed his talent. That is what makes him more potent than ever.