When Novak Djokovic captured a 10th Australian Open title and 22nd major last month to join Rafael Nadal at the top of the men’s all-time list of most grand slams won, he celebrated on court with a big smile on his face.
Djokovic playfully gestured to the crowd to cheer louder, looked up and gave a quick prayer, then tapped the ground with his hand a few times and gently patted his chest.
The Serb then went to the stands to celebrate with his family and team in the player’s box. He roared and hugged his coach and agents, and when he embraced his brother Marko and his mother Dijana, he fell to the ground and wept for over a minute. It was perhaps the most emotional anyone’s ever seen Djokovic after a victory, and the moment spoke louder than any speech or interview he has given since.
Djokovic says he has rewatched the video of that moment and describes it as an “emotional collapse”.
“There were a lot of things that were coming together,” Djokovic told The National in ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
“Obviously pressure is always there, that’s not something new, but I felt like this year there was something more added to an already existing high level of pressure and expectations.”
Djokovic went into the Australian Open as a clear favourite, and with a title under his belt from an impressive week in Adelaide. He was excited to return to Melbourne, his happiest hunting ground, but was also anxious about how he was going to be received after the deportation drama that unfolded the previous year, which prevented him from competing Down Under.
“Of course there were a lot of questions, a lot of attention towards me, considering what happened 12 months ago, and I could feel that. As much as I wanted to kind of isolate and get away from that, I just had to deal with that,” he explains.
“And then getting injured a few days before the first match, that was something that I truly didn’t need at that point but at the same time it was somehow arranged by life for me to experience all these challenges.
“I think there is a reason that I had to go through that journey and it made it even more special. That’s why in the end, when I celebrated and screamed and let the emotions go out, I felt great and proud and happy. But then I hugged my mom and my brother and then I just kind of surrendered.”
Djokovic later revealed that he won the Australian Open while nursing a 3cm tear in his left hamstring. During and after the tournament, the 35-year-old faced considerable scrutiny, and was accused by some that he was faking his injury. Djokovic usually manages to ignore such comments, but this time he felt it was too much.
“I just had enough,” he declared. “I really don’t have time or energy or willingness to deal with someone else’s judgment or proving something to someone.
“I already accepted the fact that there’s always going to be a group of people that is not going to like you, that is not going to like what you say, how you go about your tennis or anything in your private life. There’s always going to be judgement. But you grow stronger from that.
“At least I try to grow stronger from that, use that as the fuel. Not to prove them, but to fuel my own desire to being better and stronger.”
‘How much is enough?’
Once again, Djokovic and Nadal are sharing the men’s all-time record for most grand slams won but the former seems in a better position to eclipse the latter.
This year could prove pivotal in the race for major supremacy and Djokovic knows it. He has openly stated his ambition to break the grand slam record; would he be satisfied if he ends up sharing it with Nadal?
“Yes I would be satisfied. I would like more than my biggest rival, but look, when that moment arrives, when I have to draw the line and look back on the history of my career and what I have achieved, even if I stop here and he wins another 10 Slams, I have to be overall satisfied,” replied Djokovic.
“Maybe there’s going to be a little part of me that’s going to be regretting that I haven’t had more than him, but at the end of the day, how much is enough? You know what I mean?
“I also ask myself that because it’s a balancing act as a professional athlete, being in a sport that is very demanding, it’s a very long season and it’s a lot of opportunities - there are four Slams every year, so you have the opportunities. And of course you need to have the competitive mind, you need to have this fierceness, the mental approach of a wolf in a way, hungry for more and more, because that drives you, at least in my case.
“But at the same time, there’s also time to balance and say, okay, wow, a lot was achieved, you have to be proud, you have to be thankful and grateful for all these things, be present and be humble about it. It’s both kind of personalities that you have to deal with and live with at the same time.”
‘I’m the best’
Many sports have their own version of the GOAT debate; in basketball it’s LeBron James v Michael Jordan; in football it’s Lionel Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo; in men’s tennis, it’s a three-way battle between Djokovic, Nadal and the now-retired Roger Federer.
The numbers may soon settle it in Djokovic’s favour, should he surpass Nadal at the top of the leaderboard. But stats aside, athletes at that level, competing for such high honours, probably already feel like they are the greatest of all time.
When he was on the cusp of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record, LeBron James recently admitted it, saying: “I feel like I’m the best basketball player that ever played the game. That’s just my confidence, that’s just what I bring to the table.”
Can Djokovic relate to that mentality?
“Yes, I can relate to that because I believe that what worked for me and still works for me is that self-belief and confidence level,” he said.
“Of course always balanced with the respect towards the opponent, towards the game, appreciation for the moment and for what you’re going through. But just self-belief that, hey, I know that when I’m ready, when I’m there out on the court, on any surface, against anybody, I’m better, I’m the best.
“And I don’t think there’s anything arrogant or pretentious about it.
“I don’t see anything wrong in that. And I congratulate LeBron for his historic achievement, he absolutely deserves it because at this age, he works as hard as anybody really out there. And that’s a great role model and a great example to all the young guys.
“Because I think in basketball, tennis, football, those big global sports, things have changed in terms of the age. Maybe up to 10, 15 years ago, anybody who passes the border of 30 years old, he’s already old, they’re already counting his days.
“And nowadays, Nadal this year he’s 37, I’m 36, LeBron James is close to 40, Federer was 40 and was still playing at the highest level, Tom Brady, Serena, Ronaldo, Messi, it’s unbelievable.
“It’s great because it kind of also gives inspiration to young athletes to know that they can extend their career, that they don’t put the limit mentally just because someone else imposes that limit on them, that after 30 you’re more or less done, so it’s time to think about your end. There is no end really, in your mind.”
Djokovic pays meticulous attention to every aspect of his daily routines that end up feeding into his tennis. From nutrition to sleep to mental training to recovery; controlling his environment and surroundings; every little thing matters.
“I think more and more athletes are becoming aware of that. So this kind of multi-disciplinary holistic approach is very common and it gives results to everyone and extends their careers,” he added.
Dedication and devotion
Djokovic confessed that his “ego” sometimes leads him to the land of “what ifs”. What if he had beaten Stan Wawrinka in the French Open or US Open final? What if he hadn’t lost to Andy Murray in the 2012 US Open final? What if he had defeated Alexander Zverev in the Tokyo Olympics semis – that one particularly hurt, he revealed.
That train of thought can be exhausting and futile and Djokovic says he works hard to train his mind to focus on the positives of his career instead; all those times he came close to losing but ended up the victor. Like that time he saved match points against Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final, “where statistically he was the better player in every segment of the game”, Djokovic said of his Swiss rival.
Djokovic wrestled back the number one ranking from 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz this year after the Spanish teenager became the youngest ATP player ever to occupy that spot last September.
Alcaraz is ushering in a new generation that is looking to take over but Djokovic and Nadal are still around, and won’t go down without a fight. At this point in his career, is it more exciting for Djokovic to take on a familiar rival like Nadal – they’ve faced off 59 times – in a major final, or a rising star like Alcaraz?
“If I had to pick one of the two I would probably pick Nadal because of the rivalry, of the history, of what would be on the line every time we face each other, especially in a Grand Slam final,” he responded.
Although he doesn’t believe in limits, Djokovic is aware he is closer to the end of his career than he is to the beginning. He has learned a lot from his fellow ‘Big Three’ stars; be it Federer’s longevity and career management or Nadal’s never-say-die attitude.
When asked what he’d like to be remembered for the most, the attributes he hopes to become synonymous with his name and career, Djokovic pauses for a few seconds before saying: “I would say dedication and devotion. And everything that revolves around that. Just trying to master your craft in a way by being dedicated, by growing and improving and constantly seeking to improve. I think that kind of mentality of constantly seeking to get better, improve yourself, your environment and of course be inspirational for the young athletes around the world.”
Djokovic arrives in Dubai undefeated in all 12 matches he has contested so far in 2023. He opens his campaign in the northern emirate against a qualifier, with Constant Lestienne or Tallon Griekspoor his possible opponents in round two.