Novak Djokovic on fatherhood, winning Wimbledon and creating chemistry with Boris Becker
The tennis star talks triumph, his war-torn childhood and why his son Stefan has given him one more reason to win...
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.
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.