They say that a pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art. But the same cannot be said of Novak Djokovic and his tennis; the pram he’ll be pushing over Wimbledon Common this fortnight, and the baby boy inside it, might just propel him to another singles title at the All England Club.
That would make it three Wimbledon titles, the same number as his coach Boris Becker and other grass-court grandees such as John McEnroe. Djokovic calls Wimbledon “the holy grail of tennis”; he still speaks the language of the driven and the ferociously ambitious. And he still plays like the alpha dog of tennis.
But since scoring last summer’s title on Centre Court with that pulsating five-setter against Roger Federer, the Serbian has found two more roles in life, becoming a husband and a father. Joining him on his walks across the common – Djokovic will, as usual, rent a home in Wimbledon for the duration of the championships – will be his wife Jelena, 29, their “baby angel” son, eight-month-old Stefan, and their two dogs, poodle Pierre and labradoodle Tesla. “To relax when we’re in London, we like nature and to go to the common. This year, we will have a baby as well as two dogs. It’s going to be like a family zoo,” says Djokovic.
We meet in Rome towards the end of a clay court season that will take him all the way to the final of the French Open, where only a surprise defeat by Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka prevented him from landing the missing piece in a career grand slam. But Stefan, who was born last October, has made his father happier than lifting a grand slam trophy ever could.
“I have reached a level of personal satisfaction, love and joy that I had never reached before,” he says. “I didn’t even know that this kind of sensation existed. People said to me that I would understand when I became a father, and now I understand what it means, with all the emotions you go through.”
Does that include changing Stefan’s nappies? “I’m doing whatever I can to help, and spending as much time as I can with my boy and with my wife,” he says, looking remarkably rested for a new dad enduring sleepless nights. “With the nights, you do shifts, you make sacrifices. At this stage, I think I’m more needed by my wife, because she’s the one who is looking after the baby. We have some professional help – there is a nanny who travels with us, and also we have had help from grandparents on both sides, and also from aunts and uncles.”
Importantly, Stefan allows Djokovic a break from being cooed at. “I have a privileged life, and most of the people around me are praising me the whole time, and everything revolves around me. Everyone is focused on my performances and on my career. And then I go back home and I have to prioritise my baby.”
Becoming a dad has helped Djokovic to keep a clear, fresh mind – the occasional broken night isn’t going to drain him of his energy. “You soon forget that you’re feeling fatigued because you realise it doesn’t matter. You’re doing it for someone else. You’re giving your love and your time to your son, to your baby. That’s what gives you this freshness in the mind. Being a father actually gives me more energy than it takes away.”
And that’s a view backed up by Djokovic’s results – since becoming a parent, he has lost just a handful of matches, with his victory over Andy Murray in this year’s Australian Open final bringing him an eighth grand slam title, putting him level with Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl.
At 28, Djokovic is the same age as Murray (the elder of the pair by a week), and theirs is a rivalry that can be traced back to a 12-and-under tournament in France. Murray’s victory at the 2013 Wimbledon championships, which was the second of his two grand slams, was achieved with a victory over Djokovic, just as his first had been at the 2012 US Open, but the Scot hasn’t beaten his rival since. Djokovic has won the past eight meetings with Murray.
Their most recent tussle came in the semi-finals of the French Open. Win one title at the All England Club and you’re assured of greatness; win three or more and you become as entwined with the place as the ivy on the walls. Be in no doubt that it would be a momentous afternoon for Djokovic if he could add to his victories of 2011 and last year by scoring a third Wimbledon title, putting himself level with Becker, who has spent much of the past year working as his coach.