Dubai “I’ve got to feel good because [Novak Djokovic] has got about 16 injuries. He’s got an ankle injury? Isn’t it both of them? And a back. And a hip. And a cramp. Bird flu. Anthrax. Sars, common cough and a cold.”
Former American tennis player Andy Roddick’s withering words about current world No 1 Djokovic at the 2008 US Open are scarcely credible in light of the Serb’s phenomenal form and fitness in recent years.
However, tennis aficionados will recall that today’s Mr Superfit was yesterday’s Mr Sicknote, a suffering soul who had the occasional habit of struggling physically and even retiring from tournaments, citing ailments such as gastroenteritis, cramps, dizziness, blurred vision and heat exhaustion.
Even though there was never any evidence of Djokovic faking illness – Roddick’s acerbic comments were in response to the Serb citing an ankle injury ahead of their quarter-final at Flushing Meadows – it was the sheer regularity of his body breaking down when the going got tough that irked his peers.
For many cynics, the Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open champion was akin to a sickly, skiving schoolboy, who dipped into an endless well of spurious medical excuses to shirk a stern examination.
Even the usually imperturbable Roger Federer expressed his annoyance with the Serb when, as defending champion, Djokovic quit his 2009 Australian Open quarter-final with Roddick due to heat-induced cramps. Federer fumed: “He’s not a guy who’s never given up before, it’s disappointing.”
Thankfully for the struggling Serb, salvation would come in January 2010 in a freakish manner which would have Hollywood film scriptwriters drooling.
A medic from Djokovic’s home country of Serbia, Dr Igor Cetojevic, had, in his own words, ‘nothing better to do one day’, and so started watching television. By sheer chance, Djokovic was in action against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Australian Open, so Cetojevic felt compelled to watch a fellow countryman, even though he was by no means a tennis fan.
What he saw unfold was a depressingly familiar encapsulation of Djokovic’s limitations at the time as, after powering into a two-set lead, he struggled with his breathing in the searing heat to lose the next three sets and match to the Frenchman.
An experienced practitioner of alternative medicine, Cetojevic told Gulf News in an exclusive interview how he made an instant and extraordinary diagnosis that would change Djokovic’s life forever. He said: “The television commentator repeatedly said, ‘Novak is struggling with his asthma again’. But from my observations and experience with Chinese traditional medicine, I could see that asthma was not the issue here. Every time the commentator mentioned it, I said aloud: ‘it’s not asthma!’ I know that generally most asthma symptoms appear in the morning – and Novak’s match was in the afternoon. Also, if he really had an asthmatic condition, he would not have been able to play two excellent sets before the breathing difficulties appeared.
“I suspected that in Novak’s case his problem breathing resulted from an imbalance in his digestive system, particularly from an accumulation of toxins in his large intestine. In traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs are paired with the large intestine.”
Cajoled by his wife Francesca to help the 22-year-old, Cetojevic arranged to meet Djokovic in July 2010 at the Davis Cup in Split, Croatia. He connected the straps of a biofeedback device to the Serb’s wrists and forehead designed to measure stress, environmental toxins, brainwaves and food allergies.
Cetojevic said: “I found that he was very sensitive to gluten, a protein present in wheat, one of the most common foods in Novak’s diet. He grew up, like so many young people, frequently eating wheat-based foods such as bread, pizza, pasta and pancakes.”
As per his doctor’s advice, Djokovic had to adapt to a diet which would be manna from heaven to a grandmother, including natural fruit bars, gluten-free cereal with fresh berries and nuts and herbal tea, but which was at first alien to a young male in his early 20s.
The already skinny Serb also lost a lot of weight, initially due to his radical eating habits, but Cetojevic encouraged him to persist with them, insisting his health would soon improve.
The 51-year-old also advised Djokovic about the importance of a good night’s sleep and taught him relaxation techniques to help him remain calm and focused during a match. Djokovic had, by his own admission, previously felt cowed by the pressure of taking on the game’s two giants at the time, Federer and Rafael Nadal, and had the tendency to slump into despondency when the going got tough in important matches.
But Cetojevic taught him to take deep breaths, ignore the past and focus on the present in a bid to assuage his inner turmoil. “Novak needed to trust me,” the doctor said. “Once he did, his progress was rapid. I taught him several breathing techniques that helped him sleep and also helped him to focus on the present moment, the point at hand rather than be caught up in a past shot that missed or a future shot that could seal the outcome of the match. The key is to stay in the present moment – something that is easier said than done.
“He was a very good student, following my advice and achieving excellent results.”
‘Excellent’ is perhaps even an understatement given Djokovic’s annus mirabilis of 2011, during which Cetojevic accompanied him to most tournaments he took part in. The rejuvenated Serb won 10 titles and recorded a 43-match winning streak in what was arguably the most impressive season ever enjoyed by a male tennis player.
But Cetojevic had grown weary of the constant travel on the ATP Tour and secure in the knowledge that he had cured his protege’s ills, ended the partnership. “We have been in touch off and on since we stopped working together after he won Wimbledon for the first time in 2011,” he said.
And since then, like the rest of the tennis world, Cetojevic has marvelled at the revitalised former client’s astonishing levels of stamina and endurance, of which an Ironman competitor would be proud. These were exemplified at last year’s Australian Open when, after prevailing in a marathon four-hour, 50-minute semi-final with Britain’s Andy Murray, less than 48 hours later he emerged victorious in the longest and arguably most gruelling Grand Slam final of all time.
In five hours and 53 minutes of breathtaking, brutal tennis, featuring a dizzying array of punishing rallies, Djokovic emphatically showed the benefits of his new diet and improved mental focus in outlasting Nadal.
Cetojevic is particularly pleased that Djokovic has sought to spread the word about what he was taught. “I could talk forever about the importance for everybody to reduce gluten-containing products, sugar and soft drinks from their diets and maybe reach a few people,” he said. “But when Novak talks about it, when his own health was so obviously improved by changing his diet, thousands, if not millions, of people can hear the message and, if they apply it, can greatly improve their own health and wellbeing.”
While much of the time spent with Djokovic was serious and disciplined, the pair enjoyed many laughs together, particularly in Dubai, Cetojevic recalled. He said: “After he won the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship in 2011, his team and I were waiting outside for the official car to take us to our hotels. By the door was a huge poster of Novak’s face. His physio, Miljan Amanovic, took something out of this bag and the next thing I knew, Novak on the poster sported a black moustache made out of an elbow patch. I said to Novak: ‘Do you know this guy on the billboard?’ He saw himself with the moustache and started laughing. ‘Wait a minute,’ he said, taking out the thick marker pen he used to sign tennis balls, before proceeding to add a little beard to the poster. In the morning, the officials would surely have cursed the vandals who defaced the tournament’s winner’s picture. Little did they know it was the champion himself.
“But apart from being a joker, he is also hard-working with very strong determination. He would not be in the position that he is if he wasn’t.”