The Incredible Story Of Novak Djokovic From Joker To Smiling Assassin
Till 2009, Novak Djokovic was known more for his humorous off-court impersonations of his fellow players, than his tennis skills. In 2007 US Open quarterfinal after overpowering Carlos Moyà, he thrilled the packed stadium with impersonations of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. He followed this act two years later at the same stage as he did an impression of American tennis great John McEnroe before playing a brief game with the legend. It was because of these acts he earned the nickname “Djoker” and the word joker. And now the same Joker has become the undisputed king of the tennis world, having knocked the greats like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer out from the pedestal to occupy the number one position.
At 24 years, 43 days Djokovic is older than all 5 of the active players to have held the No 1 ranking when they claimed the top spot for the first time .The Serb ended Federer and Nadal’s reign at No 1 which the two had alternately held since February 2004 – the longest period of time that two players have held the top spot.
Djokovic’s talents were never in doubt but the way he smashed his rivals this year, has stunned every body and has now become a ‘smiling assassin’. The first half of the year 2011 will go down in tennis history as the period totally dominated by the 24-year-old Serbian (barring a defeat in French Open). So far, he has won 48 out of the 49 matches he played this season. He has won every tournament he has been into for the sole exception of the French Open, where he was beaten by Federer in the semifinals. Federer however lost to the “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal in the final.
Many experts including Vijay Amritraj are of the view that had he not lost to Federer, the Serbian would have also won the French Open. To buttress their argument they talk about three clay court tournaments before Paris, all of them Djokovic won. They included two title victories against Rafael Nadal. What makes Djokovic so special? Well, he comes from a war-savaged country which has no big tennis history. He virtually had no support and made it to the top of the summit all on his own. He has offered no excuses for his failures. He has never talked of lack of infrastructure back home and always been proud to represent his country in the Davis Cup, despite being the top-ranking professional in the world.
He lived a dream and achieved it in a very short time thus setting an example for the youngsters that “impossible is nothing provided you have grit and determination”. The Serb started playing tennis at the age of four. In the summer of 1993, the six-year-old was spotted by Yugoslav tennis legend Jelena Genčić at Mount Kopaonik where Djokovic’s parents ran a fast-food parlour.
“This is the greatest talent I have seen since Monica Seles,” Genčić said and her words turned out to be prophetic. At the age of 14, Djokovic started his international career, winning European championships in singles, doubles, and team competition and the rest is, as they say, is history. What he has achieved is against all odds because till the end of 2010 nobody could predict that six-year-long Federer-Nadal domination of the world tennis will end so quickly. When Federer beat Nadal in the final of the World Tour Finals in London at the fag end of last year, there was no hint to the end of the domination of the two greatest players of recent times, but the Serbian has not only broken their duopoly but also overtaken them.
The fans of Nadal-Federer duo, and they are legion, were not ready to concede the fact that lanky Serbian can overrun their heroes turf. So what if Djokovic was going to be the number one (that was even before he won the Wimbledon title) they argued saying that he had not yet won the biggest championship of all—The Wimbledon.
The Serb answered the question—whether he had it in him to claim the biggest prize of all—in a awesome style outplaying Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 to claim the title. Nadal, uncharacteristically, made too many mistakes, did not play the big points well and frequently hit the ball too short. Both players played superb tennis on occasions, but there were too many lengthy passages in which they were not at the top of their game at the same time to make it a classic final. Djokovic became only the second player after Lleyton Hewitt since 2002 to win at Wimbledon other than Federer and Nadal. He also became the first player since Roger Federer in 2007 to win both the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles in the same year.
Djokovic had twice beaten Nadal on clay, but victory on grass at Wimbledon was something he will cherish for rest of his life. In becoming only the third man in the open era, after Michael Stich and Andre Agassi, to win his first grass-court title here, he proved that he was a man for all seasons and all surfaces. “I always dreamt of winning this title even when I as a young boy played on a court near my parents’ pizzeria in Serbia’s mountains,” he later said. Nadal had won 14 of his first 18 matches against Djokovic, but this was the Serb’s fifth successive victory this year over the Spaniard, all of them in finals.
He was candid enough to admit that playing for his country and leading it to their Davis Cup victory in December had been the key to his extraordinary run this year. This is a clear message for those players who only hanker after money, playing big tournaments and avoid playing for their countries in the Davis Cup. One may ask what was so great about this victory over Nadal. After all Djokovic had beaten the Spaniard four times earlier. Well this was the first time he beat Nadal in a Grand Slam title clash.
“One must understand that by defeating Rafael on Sunday, Djokovic was certainly redefining his career. He was certainly taking his tennis game to a whole new level. Let’s consider that before this win, Novak Djokovic had never defeated Rafael Nadal on a Grand Slam. Certainly not when playing for a Grand Slam title. Neither had he ever won a grass-court tournament of any sort, let alone the Championships at Wimbledon. Before 2011, Novak Djokovic had been a great player. Now we can say he is quite phenomenal. This is his first title at the All England Club and third major championship overall. Many are already making of him the favourite to go on and win the US Open,” wrote sports expert Stephen Lars.
Djokovic’s victory rejuvenated his country with media describing as the best public relations asset available to his home country, Serbia. Though he now spends most of his time abroad. Djokovic has made the troubled country feel better about itself and its prospects, and might also help others see Serbia in a more positive light. “Novak really did a great thing for our country”, said Boris Tadic, the country’s pro-western president, joking that he could hand over his duties to Djokovic without much worry. Blic, a Belgrade newspaper, proclaimed that politicians should follow Djokovic’s example of diligence and dedication saying, “Novak with his results has already influenced a better image of Serbia.”
“Djokovic has done more to improve his country’s image than “all of our diplomacy”, a former ambassador to France said. The Serbian ambassador to the UN said the tennis win prompted friendly comments among diplomats, but this made no difference with regard to other countries’ political stances toward Serbia. Ana Ivanovic’s progress to the Wimbledon semifinals four years ago started stirring wide interest in the sport in Serbia.
The Serbian Chamber of Commerce last December recognised the tennis star’s PR potential, naming him, as an individual, the “Best Serbian Brand”. There is a lesson in Djokovic’s story as how a sportsperson can change the image and perception about his or her country in the comity of nations.
By Harpal Singh Bedi