Becker might have dive-volleyed his way to Centre Court success but he hasn’t been encouraging Djokovic to fling himself around the grass in a similar fashion. “It’s on the mental aspect Boris has helped me a lot,” Djokovic says. “He is helping me to improve and to keep the consistency going. And to become wiser with my decision-making, not just on the court.”
It took some time, Djokovic says, for his collaboration with Becker to flourish. In the first few months of their partnership – that is, before Djokovic won Wimbledon last summer – some wondered whether he had done the right thing in hiring him.
“Like every relationship in life, it takes time. It took a few months at the beginning to get to know each other. Because only if the chemistry is right between a player and a coach can you reach your peak and get the best out of your abilities. Without that chemistry, it’s not going to work. And getting that psychological side right is so important because if anything goes wrong on the court, you have to find a way. You can easily lose a match at the highest level because of the psychological side.”
His mental toughness was forged in war-torn former Yugoslavia. His early years were spent in the Serbian ski resort of Kopaonik, where his parents ran a pizzeria, but by 1999 12-year-old Novak was practising his tennis in Belgrade between the Nato bombing raids during the Balkan war. He is haunted by it still, once admitting, “We will never forget, because it’s just very deep inside of you. It’s a traumatic experience and so definitely you do have bad memories about it.
“We heard the alarm noise about planes coming to bomb us every single day, a minimum of three times a day, for two and a half months – huge noise in the city all the time, all the time. So in my case, when I hear a big noise even now, I get a little traumatised.”
It was around that time that Djokovic would leave the country to train at an academy in Germany. But he remains very much a product of Serbia, and of its history. In recent years, the country has produced three world number ones – Djokovic himself and two in the women’s game, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. But it is Djokovic who stands apart. Has any public figure done more than Djokovic, who is extremely proud of his heritage, to improve the international standing of Serbia? No wonder that, in some circles, he is spoken of as a future President.
Trumping Federer on Centre Court last July was emotional for Djokovic. “On the court, I felt the flow of emotions coming out. Again, just as had happened in 2011, I saw flashes from my childhood days, and everything I had been through… the psychological challenges and the obstacles that I had needed to overcome, and I thought of the people closest to me who would share the success with me.”
No one in the tennis elite cares more about their diet than Djokovic, who is gluten-free, lactose-free and almost sugar-free (after winning one grand slam, he broke off a single square of dark chocolate, his first for more than a year, to remind himself what it tasted like). He also avoids foods grown with pesticides or containing additives and those that are genetically modified.
However, there are times when Djokovic lapses. And there is one particular location where he has twice broken his diet. Both times he has won Wimbledon, he has celebrated by kneeling down and grazing on the grass. The first time he did it, he felt, he said, like “an animal”, suddenly curious to know what the grass tasted like – the answer was “sweat”. This summer, don’t be at all surprised if we once again see Djokovic eating Centre Court.