Back in the day, Novak Djokovic gave tennis aficionados sufficient reasons to doubt his seriousness, what with his goofy impersonations of his co-stars and occasional lack of effort on court adding to the belief that the immensely talented Serbian, who won his first Grand Slam in Melbourne in 2008 before hitting a temporary roadblock, wasn’t in the same league as Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
“Djoker” as the Serbian was referred to, made more headlines by imitating Maria Sharapova and Nadal, than with his game, making the latter rounds of the Grand Slams for the rest of 2008, 2009 and 2010, but seemingly lacking the killer instinct to close out the big points in key matches.
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And while he played catch-up to the Big-Two till 2011 — Federer had 16 Grand Slam titles, while Nadal had 9 by then, albeit having begun their professional careers earlier, the Swiss in 1998 and the Spaniard in 2001, while Djokovic turned pro in 2003 — Djokovic turned his career around, thanks partly to a gluten-free diet he embraced in 2010 that helped him become the unstoppable force that we know him to be today.
He won three Grand Slams titles in 2011, completed a ‘Nole (his nickname) Slam’ in 2016 and despite being laid low by injury in 2017, came back strongly in 2018 and since then has been relentless, chasing down his rivals, first going past Federer’s 20 Grand Slams and then Nadal’s 22 at the recently concluded French Open.
It is not just Djokovic’s attitude and lifestyle changes that have taken him to the pinnacle of the sport. His choice of coaches — from Marian Vajda, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker to his current coach Goran Ivanisevic — has really moulded him from a happy-go-lucky pretender to a serious contender for the G.O.A.T of men’s tennis.
The Serbian realised quite early that he wasn’t going to be as loved as Federer or Nadal and so channelled his inner rage and frustration at the crowds to his advantage, steeling himself in crunch situations and focusing on the job at hand. Yes, the occasional skirmishes have marred his legacy, like hitting a line judge to be disqualified at the 2020 US Open, or by refusing to vaccinate to miss out on the 2022 Australian and US Opens, but all these have only driven him to be the exceptional athlete that he still is at 36.