By Matthew Smith, Sports Editor
When Novak Djokovic held aloft the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Australian Open in Melbourne for an astonishing ninth time, his face was etched in a peaceful smile, belying the turbulent youth, tumultuous past 12 months and a roller-coaster few weeks in Melbourne he has been through.
Despite all the adversity he has faced in the distant and recent past, the men’s tennis world No. 1 somehow has manages to channel it all toward an inner-peace and calm demeanour — despite some minor lapses, but we will come to that later.
His placid nature can be traced back to some lifestyle changes that transformed an aggressive youngster into a smiling superstar, who has 18 Grand Slam titles to his name, only two behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both of whom have been around on the ATP Tour for a good five years more than the 33-year-old Serb.
A strict vegetarian diet, therapy from a spiritual guru and hugging-sessions with his nearest and dearest all help him keep his cool under pressure on court and make him so approachable off it.
Djokovic’s 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 demolition of Daniil Medvedev on Sunday at Melbourne Park was the latest emphatic endorsement of his talent and athletic and mental ability. Djokovic’s willingness to turn to the unusual — from hyperbaric chambers to meditation with “love and peace” gurus — makes him stand out from his peers, who enjoy a more straightforward lifestyle.
He grew up in war-torn Belgrade and says he “came from nothing”, having to practise in a disused swimming pool. Djokovic has spoken on several occasions about a childhood where he was forced to queue up for milk and bread. “This only made me hungry for success,” Djokovic said. The boy from the ruins of conflict has now banked almost $150 million in prize money and resides in Monaco, rubbing shoulders with the millionaires and billionaires of Monte Carlo.
In the recent past, questions had been raised over his mental and physical durability as he pulled out of competitions, citing injuries to cover for alleged mental issues. But his grit and determination shone through in Australia as he overcame criticism and a severe abdominal injury to claim his ninth crown at Melbourne Park, laying to rest any doubts about his mindset and hunger.
His triumph banished memories of retiring from six previous Slams with injury, the most recent examples in the 2017 Wimbledon quarter-final against Tomas Berdych and at the 2019 US Open when two sets down to Stan Wawrinka. It also allowed Djokovic move on from a torrid 12 months since his 2020 success against Dominic Thiem, during which his pristine reputation was in danger of being permanently tarnished.
COVID carnage and US Open shame
First of all came the ill-advised, Djokovic-organised Adria Tour. The tennis and wider sporting world was thrust into lockdown in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. However, Djokovic took it upon himself to organise an invitational competition only three months later while the COVID situation worsened.
The tournament in Belgrade had 4,000 spectators packed in while players shook hands and took selfies with fans, and ball kids handled sweaty towels — all during a global shutdown. Djokovic and players including Thiem and Zverev were heavily criticised for partying shirtless at a heaving Belgrade nightclub.
Then the inevitable happened. Djokovic, his wife Jelena and players Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki all caught the virus. Djokovic was slated in the press, on social media and by his fellow professionals, with Nick Kyrgios going on a one-man mission to decry Djokovic, Zverev and Thiem on Twitter, calling the world No. 1 "boneheaded" and a "donut".
Djokovic was then branded “tone deaf” for launching a breakaway Professional Tennis Players Association in August just as the sport was attempting to stagger back to its feet.
Days later, Djokovic was kicked out of the US Open after hitting a line judge in the throat unintentionally with a ball he slapped away in anger during the fourth round. The distressed female official needed treatment on court and Djokovic apologised. “I’m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended, so wrong,” he said.
Djokovic whipped up another storm after players flew in to quarantine ahead of the Australian Open. Kyrgios led a wave of criticism of the Serb for issuing a list of requests that reportedly included players being given private homes with tennis courts. “Djokovic is a tool,” Kyrgios tweeted, as Australia’s media savaged the Serb. “Novak, I’m sure, doesn’t like me and we both have respect for each other, but I don’t like him at all.”
His coach, Goran Ivanisevic, acknowledged it had been a difficult time. “He was going through a lot you know, with the US Open and a pretty poor final at Roland Garros," he said. "It’s not easy coming here, you spend 14 days in quarantine ... and everybody is attacking him. Actually he needed this victory, so badly.”
In his own words
Relief and honesty were on show in equal measure as Djokovic opened up on his annus horribilis after his victory over Medvedev on Sunday.
“I think emotionally it was one of the hardest tournaments I had,” Djokovic said. “To be honest, with quarantine and a lot of things happening in the media. The letter that I wrote, ideas and recommendations that I got from players was misinterpreted as a list of demands. Then the next thing you know within a couple of days I’m persona non grata in this country.
“I got injured in the third round. It was roller-coaster ride if I can define it in one word. I think it makes it even sweeter for me. I’ll take a lot of positives from this tournament without a doubt.”
Djokovic also admitted he had made mistakes but the criticisms still smart.
“Of course it hurts,” he said of his slating in the media. “I’m a human being like yourself, like anybody else. I have emotions. I don’t enjoy when somebody attacks me in the media openly and stuff. Of course, I cannot say I don’t care about it or whatever. But I think I’ve developed a thick skin over the years to just dodge those things and focus on what matters to me the most.
“Look, there are a lot of mixed feelings about what has happened in the last month or so with tennis players coming to Australia,” the 33-year-old said. But I think when we draw a line in the end it was a successful tournament for organisers.”
Back to the future
Drawing a line is something Djokovic will be determined to do as we look ahead to an engrossing season and the ageing Nadal and Federer now only two Slams ahead. The Serb certainly has the backing of his corner as coach Goran Ivanisevic claimed on Monday that he will finish his career with more Grand Slams than Federer and battle it out with Nadal for the record.
“I said couple of years ago Rafa and Novak are going to overtake Roger, both of them. I still believe that,” Ivanisevic said. “They surprise me every day. Rafa for sure is going to win one, I hope not two, but I give him one. They’re producing better and better tennis. When you think the young guns are coming, these guys are one step better in the finals.
“I don’t know where is the end. Maybe they’re going to overtake Margaret Court and Serena Williams (23 majors), maybe not. But it’s amazing what they’re doing on court, how they perform in big matches.”
Federer, 39, has not won a major since winning in Melbourne in 2018 and the Swiss has not played in over a year after requiring surgery on his right knee twice in 2020. “I’m waiting for Roger to come back,” Ivanisevic added. “It’s going to be more interesting to see what’s going to happen at the French Open and Wimbledon.”
Djokovic himself seems confident for the future, as he sets his sights on the men’s record and also raised the prospect of a bigger goal: reaching the 23 Grand Slam titles held by Serena Williams, and the 24 won by Margaret Court straddling the amateur and Open era.
He admitted he will be focusing more on the Majors rather than lesser titles and he may relinquish his No. 1 rank in order to keep in prime condition for the big events.
“Getting closer to maybe Roger’s, Rafa’s record, Serena, Margaret,” said Djokovic, when asked about his goals and schedule for this year. “Everyone has their own journey and their own way of making history. They’ve made history already. They made a tremendous mark in our sport. I think about winning more Slams and breaking records, of course. And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in Majors, trying to win more Major trophies.”
Sunday’s triumph also came with some icing on the cake as he is now guaranteed to overtake Federer’s record 310 weeks at No. 1 on March 8.
Grand Slam winners
20 Roger Federer (6 Australian, 1 French, 8 Wimbledon, 5 US)
20 Rafael Nadal (1 Australian, 13 French, 2 Wimbledon, 4 US)
18 Novak Djokovic (9 Australian, 1 French, 5 Wimbledon, 3 US)
14 Pete Sampras (2 Australian, 7 Wimbledon, 5 US)
12 Roy Emerson (6 Australian, 2 French, 2 Wimbledon, 2 US)
11 Rod Laver (3 Australian, 2 French, 4 Wimbledon, 2 US)
11 Bjorn Borg (6 French, 5 Wimbledon)
10 Bill Tilden (3 Wimbledon, 7 US)
Comment: The good, the bad and the cause for default
By Marwa Hamad, Assistant Editor
Novak Djokovic should probably be having a better day. The world No. 1 solidified his position in a three-way race towards men's tennis GOAT status on Sunday, thanks to his ninth Australian Open win (third in a row) and his 18th Grand Slam title. He’s now only two Slams behind 34-year-old Rafael Nadal and 39-year-old Roger Federer.
Yet not all is sunshine and roses. The 33-year-old Serb finds himself at the centre of a storm of his own creation once again. Several recent controversies have thrown him in shoddy light — most significantly a list of “demands” he made during Covid-19 lockdown in Australia.
But Djoko is no stranger to being derided for bad behaviour. In 2019, CNN published a report titled: “Is Novak Djokovic the most unloved superstar in tennis?”
Last year, Djokovic defaulted out of the US Open for “intentionally hitting a ball dangerously” and accidentally hitting it into a line judge’s throat. (On Instagram, he said he felt “sad and empty”.) A couple of weeks later, he got a warning for using obscenities at the Italian open. (“I deserved the warning,” he told the press. “I didn’t say nice things in my language.”)
Then, as many around the world turned a new leaf at the start of 2021, Djokovic went viral again for an apparent list of “demands” he sent to Australian Open director Craig Tiley, regarding Covid-19 protocols, while 72 tennis players were under hard quarantine in a Melbourne hotel ahead of the tournament. Reportedly, some of these demands included a reduction in the period of isolation mitigated by an increase in Covid-19 testing, as well as moving as many players as possible to private houses with courts to train in.
It was the Victoria premier Daniel Andrews who responded to Djokovic’s list. “The rules apply to them as they apply to everybody else,” said Andrews. “There’s no special treatment here ... because the virus doesn’t treat you specially. So neither do we.”
These all come to mind as recent transgressions. Alas, perhaps one of Djokovic’s most memorable off-the-court missteps, however, is half-a-decade old. It was in 2015 that the player made questionable comments on gender equality in tennis, which were deemed sexist and trivialising.
“Women deserve respect and admiration for what they are doing. You know, equal prize money was the main subject of the tennis world in the last seven, eight years,” Djokovic had said. “On the other hand, I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more,” he added.
Djokovic was skewered for the tone-deaf commentary. 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams called the comments “disappointing”.
So, Djokovic has divided the world before and he does it again. His tennis may be undeniable to some. Nine Australian Opens. 18 Grand Slams. And he’s soon to break Federer’s record of most weeks spent at No. 1 on the ATP rankings — more than 310. To his fans, he’s the greatest there ever was. But being loved is one thing, perhaps, and being beloved is another.
“Emotionally [this] was one of hardest tournaments I had,” said Djokovic, in an interview with Channel Nine. “I didn’t allow it to hinder my performance. I think winning the trophy is, in a way, my answer.”
Born: May 22, 1987 in Belgrade, Serbia
Grand Slam titles: 18 (Australian Open 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020, 2021; French Open 2016; Wimbledon 2011, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019; US Open 2011, 2015, 2018)
Began playing tennis aged four.
His father was a professional skier and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps or play professional soccer but changed his mind when Djokovic excelled at tennis from an early age.
CAREER TO DATE
First full year on tour in 2005. Made Grand Slam debut as a qualifier at the Australian Open, losing to Russian Marat Safin in the first round. Finished as the youngest player (18 years, five months) inside the top 100.
In 2006, he won his first ATP Tour title at Amersfoort.
Won five titles in 2007 (Adelaide, Miami, Estoril, Montreal and Vienna) and reached his first Grand Slam final at the US Open, losing to Roger Federer.
Beat Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to win his maiden Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open — becoming the first Serbian man to win a singles major.
Failed to defend his title in Melbourne the following year after pulling out of his quarter-final against American Andy Roddick citing heat exhaustion.
Led Serbia to their first Davis Cup title with victory over France in Belgrade in December 2010.
Began 2011 by winning seven successive tournaments — Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome. Did not lose until June 3 when Federer ended his 41-match winning streak in the French Open semi-finals.
Secured the No. 1 spot on July 4, 2011 by beating Tsonga in the Wimbledon semi-finals, then beat Rafa Nadal to clinch his first Wimbledon crown, his first title on grass.
Saved two match points to beat Federer in the semi-finals of the US Open then defeated Nadal in the final to become the seventh man to win three Grand Slam titles in a year since tennis turned professional in 1968.
Won his third Australian Open title in 2012 by beating Nadal in five hours and 53 minutes.
Began 2013 by beating Andy Murray to become the first man in the professional era to win three successive Australian Open titles.
Beat Federer in a five-set Wimbledon final in 2014.
Reached all four Grand Slam finals in 2015. Began the year by capturing a fifth Australian Open title, then missed out on the French Open again — his third loss in the title match — after falling to Stan Wawrinka in the final.
Won third Wimbledon title by defeating Federer in the final. Beat Federer in US Open final, giving him three Grand Slam titles in a year for a second time.
Beat Murray in the 2016 Australian Open final to win his 11th Grand Slam trophy.
Beat Murray again in the French Open final that year to finally win the clay court major at his 12th attempt. The win not only completed his Grand Slam collection but he also became only the third man — after Don Budge and Rod Laver — to hold all four majors at the same time.
Retired in the 2017 Wimbledon quarter-finals against Tomas Berdych and ended his season in July with a right elbow injury.
Returned from a six-month injury absence at the 2018 Australian Open. Had elbow surgery following a last-16 exit to South Korean youngster Chung Hyeon.
Beat Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon final to seal his 13th Grand Slam.
Capped off the year in style by beating Juan Martin del Potro to win the US Open crown for a third time.
Defeated Nadal in their 53rd career meeting to claim his 15th major and seventh Australian Open title in 2019.
Djokovic’s 26-match winning streak in Grand Slams ended with a loss to Dominic Thiem in the French Open semi-final.
Defeated Federer to claim his fifth Wimbledon title.
Failed to defend his title at the US Open after retiring due to injury in the fourth round match against Stan Wawrinka.
Djokovic helped Serbia win the inaugural ATP Cup in 2020 before triumphing at Melbourne Park for an eighth time.
With 2019 champion Nadal and Federer opting to miss the 2020 US Open, Djokovic had been favourite to win in Flushing Meadows but the Serb was defaulted in the fourth round after he accidentally hit a line judge in the throat with a ball. The disqualification ended Djokovic’s 26-0 winning run in 2020.
Lost to Rafa Nadal in straight sets in the final of the rescheduled 2020 French Open.
Beat Medvedev for a record-extending ninth Australian Open title and 18th Grand Slam crown.