While Novak Djokovic is one of the most recognisable names – and faces – in the global sports arena, the harsh reality of this monster of modern competition is that he’s perpetually having to share airtime with two of tennis’s other goliaths.
On the one hand, there’s Roger Federer, generally regarded as the finest to ever play the game; on the other, Rafael Nadal, whose blunt refusal to climb down from the muscular heights of his early 20s leaves him a perennial, competitive threat.
It all seems rather unfair on the 31-year-old Serbian, whose unrelenting assault of the top positions in world tennis has cemented his reputation as a true generational great.
“In my mind, I still don’t regard myself as anything other than a good tennis player,” he begins, with unapologetic humility. “Of course, I am aware what I have achieved, and naturally I have to view the titles and be proud of them, but I still feel a little detached from the masters of tennis I grew up watching… I still struggle to put myself in that category.”
Certainly one of the masters Djokovic cannot picture himself beside is Pete Sampras.
“More than anyone else, Sampras is the man I looked up to most when I began playing tennis and making my way in the game.
“My first connection with tennis was Sampras’s first Wimbledon title in 1993. I watched that Wimbledon final where he beat the former world number one Jim Courier, and after that match I had immediately fallen in love with the sport.”
Djokovic, a spiritual, philosophical and contemplative tennis star a world away from the bombastic aggression of Tomas Berdych or the controversy of Nick Kyrgios, admits the dice of destiny fell his way just as Sampras’s incredible charge on Grand Slam tennis kicked into gear.
“When Pete started winning everything – almost in the same year – three tennis courts were built literally 30 metres away from the restaurants my parents were managing in Kopaonik.
“It was one of those injuries that I would constantly keep on hold, but the process of doing that became greater with every month and every year”
“You may say it was fate that, as a youngster having to hang around for hours while my parents sorted out food and did paperwork, there was a perfect outlet for me and I soon relished going to the courts to play.”
Time spent away from the kitchen has advanced Djokovic to third in the all-time list of Majors winners, and the good news is he is at an age where he could still comfortably eclipse the man at the top of the leaderboard… that is, if Swiss legend Federer ever decides to retire.
Where he does stand as an undisputed number one is in prize money – no one in the history of the sport has earned more than Djokovic. It was a statistic that recently came to light when career earnings totalling a colossal £106m saw him overtake even Fed’s wealth. It is a figure too that’s three times that of Boris Becker, even when accounting for inflation. Not that material trappings concern Novak.
“I think it’s very easy for financially secure people to come out and say money doesn’t mean much to them, but when you first set out it is everything, because without prize money you cannot compete, and if you cannot compete your dream is dead,” he says. “So I’m not going to be one of those people, because of course it is important, and I cannot forget those days when it was a struggle.
“It is true though that the further you get down the road, the more the simple act of winning is at the forefront.
“And then a bit further along, family and parenthood takes over. I think that is the natural evolution not just of a sportsman, but as a person; but with absolute certainty I can say that the victories now are just as rewarding and just as sweet as at any time in the past, and when that sensation changes I will know the time is right to quit.”
“I know I will keep going – that is the thrill, I try my hardest to look at everything that happens in a positive way, and it does help immensely that I have great rivals around me”
As a collective of sports fans, the tennis-watching fraternity can only hope the day Djokovic hangs up his racket is some distance off. He recently admitted to playing with the same elbow injury for two-and-a-half years, finally admitting defeat during Wimbledon 2017 when the pain became such that he couldn’t even raise his hand. “I was standing on court and when I clenched my fist around the handle, I could feel the nerve endings. The pain was reverberating right down my forearm from my wrist to my elbow. I knew then enough was enough.
“I had played through that injury because I just couldn’t bear to stop and be out of the game for so long,” he says. “It was one of those injuries that I would constantly keep on hold, but the process of doing that became greater with every month and every year.
“In the end, I had naturalised so much to the idea of playing whilst injured; I had become accustomed to a process of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. And when it came to taking seven months out for my elbow to be operated on, and the recovery process, I thought I would hate it. Yet, in the end, it was such a relief to do something different for a while.”
Now returned to his full potential, the injury worries haven’t departed completely. Djokovic recently had to pull out of the US Open when two sets down to Stan Wawrinka and struggling. He can console himself with Wimbledon and Australian Open victories this year instead.
What follows from here is unknown. Commentators have long speculated that the three-line whip of the sport’s elite – Novak, Roger, Rafa – has run its natural course, yet time and again this trio, each charismatic, cultured and immaculately carved in their own individual way, drive each other on to even greater accomplishments. True,
Nadal will always be king of the clay, Fed prefers to operate on the rather more respectful bounce offered by grass courts, while Djokovic’s specialism pivots imperiously between the two. And yet each has the ability to lunge their racket firmly into the territory of one of their great rivals, and that’s what makes this a triumvirate of true unpredictability.
“I know I will keep going – that is the thrill,” says Djokovic. “I try my hardest to look at everything that happens in a positive way, and it does help immensely that I have great rivals around me.
“The injury was certainly a big turning point in my life; not just in my tennis career, but also in the sense of the type of person that I am, in my character. It made me look deep within those moments and perhaps find something new that wasn’t so clear to see, even for me. It’s that insight that is now helping me prevail, and will continue to, I’m sure.”
Novak Djokovic will be playing against Roger Federer tonight 8pm at the Nitto ATP Finals. See the schedule here.