Ascent of Novak Djokovic has only just begun
Novak Djokovic admits he can't picture himself winning a Grand Slam. That's too bad because he might be the next Grand Slam winner not named Federer or Nadal, writes Bonnie DeSimone.
When Novak Djokovic finished last season inside the Top 20 of the ATP rankings, his father Srdjan did what most parents would -- he complimented his son. Or he tried. Novak would have none of it. "It doesn't matter if I'm number seven or 27 or 87," he said. "When I become number one, then you can congratulate me."
The story makes Djokovic sound like a pretty hard-headed character. That's somewhat accurate. His parents and coach say the poised 20-year-old with the upright posture and the jet-black brush cut is so driven that they have their hands full simply keeping up.
"He gave us the highest goals, and we run behind him to give him what he needs," his mother Dijana said in a rare quiet moment during the French Open, where Djokovic reached his first Grand Slam semifinal.
Djokovic has admitted that he still can't quite picture himself winning a Slam, but that visualization can't be too far away given his inner conviction.
While ambition helps define Djokovic, there's more to him. He's modest with a dash of brash, competitive and compassionate, and deeply loyal to the family that has helped him achieve so much so fast.
Djokovic, who is an avid skier, spent a lot of time at altitude while he was growing up, knocking around the 1,700-meter-high Serbian resort area of Kopaonik where his parents run a pancake and pizza restaurant. But when he was 3 or 4 years old, his eyes lit on the newly-built tennis courts across the street from the restaurant. He asked his parents for a racket and began carving his own trail.
In 2007, Djokovic has been charging uphill at an accelerated pace. He has already played more matches in the first half of this season than he did all of last year, with spectacular results. He's 41-10 with three ATP titles, including the prestigious Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, and is sitting at No. 5 in the world. Half of his losses have come to the world's top two players.
"Being aggressive makes me happy now," Djokovic said after one match at Roland Garros, and he has the tools to back the attitude: classic, almost stylized form and a balanced game that's effective on all surfaces. He and Rafael Nadal are the only ATP players who rank in the top 10 in both service games won (83 percent) and return games won (32 percent).
Djokovic, who's taking a break from competition this week, will be seeded fourth at Wimbledon. France's Arnaud Clement upset him in the third round at Queen's Club last week. But Djokovic is viewed as a prospect to wade deep into the draw after advancing to the round of 16 last year. As part of his commitment to excel on grass, he began working part-time with Australian doubles legend Mark Woodforde three months ago to help hone his serving and volleying.
A natural entertainer, Djokovic's impersonation of Andy Roddick, complete with baseball cap, billowing shirt and chops-licking tongue, at the players' revue in Monte Carlo this spring brought down the house. He didn't flinch when a locker room cameraman at Roland Garros captured him singing the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" before one match.
Yet Djokovic is also firmly private about some things. He's been patient under repetitive questioning about Serbia, the tiny country that has suddenly and serendipitously produced a flock of top tennis players. But he won't go into detail about his memories of the bombing of Belgrade, where he was born and attended school until he was 12.
"I don't like to talk about it," Djokovic said in Paris. "We had a lot of difficult times in the past, you know, 10, 15, 20 years. And I'm really trying to be positive about everything." It's an emotional topic for an emotional player, but Djokovic also leaves the impression that he doesn't want to trivialize the subject by making it part of a warm-and-fuzzy story about his career.
A smart, straightforward public speaker, Djokovic hits a full range of notes at the microphone. When Boris Becker presented him with the runner-up trophy at Indian Wells in March, Djokovic wonderingly said he watched Becker play "when my mother was giving me the milk." At Miami a couple of weeks later, Djokovic's poised victory speech and classy embrace of opponent Guillermo Canas, who had recently returned from a disputed drug suspension, were the gestures of a seasoned player.
"His thinking is ahead of his age," said Djokovic's Slovakian coach, Marian Vajda, who began working with him almost a year ago. "He wants to learn. He never says no. It motivates me that he's such a hard worker."
Djokovic had to fend off criticism last year for taking seemingly strategic injury and bathroom breaks during a couple of matches, including one Davis Cup dustup with Roger Federer, but there have been no such miniflaps this year. Offseason sinus surgery cleared up some previous breathing problems. He did incorrectly predict that Federer was "going down" before their Australian Open match last January but was unapologetic about it afterwards.
"You have to be confident to win," Djokovic said then. "That has to be your goal for the match against him, cause if you think the other way, just to play your best tennis, just to perform well, then you can't do it."
Although Djokovic still abuses a racket once in a while, he appears, for the most part, to have muzzled his youthful temper. When he misfires or misjudges a shot, he often flashes a half-smile, half-grimace that reflects all the pain and pleasure of competition -- I blew it! Now I'll get it back! -- in one facial expression.
He looks as if he's in a state of constant but relaxed alert, with a light in his eyes that indicates somebody's home. And home is a very important place for a young man who has spent much of his life on the road. His loved ones say he has always been open and generous with his affection.
"Let me tell you a story I haven't told anyone else," said Srdjan Djokovic, speaking in Serbian, as his wife translated.
As a youngster, Novak spent a lot of time with his paternal grandmother, who suffered from bone cancer. "One day he was sitting in the living room and he asked her, 'Grandma, where is your pain?'" Srjdan Djokovic said. "She showed him a point on her back, and he was making a massage for hours. He was maybe 6 years old.
"She lived for two more years because of him. She couldn't walk 20 meters, but with him, she was walking all over the place, picking flowers.
Vajda said Djokovic makes a round of calls to relatives after every match. "If he wants to relax, he goes to his family," the coach said. When his mother tried to keep a recent health scare from Djokovic, he guessed something was amiss from thousands of miles away.
"Family, for him, is the most important part of his life," his mother said. "He gets energy from us when he's tired."
Djokovic left Serbia at age 12 to attend a tennis academy outside Munich directed by the prominent Croatian ex-pro Niki Pilic. He lived and trained there on and off for the next four years. Dijana Djokovic said the first year her son was away was the toughest of her life.
Now the Djokovics are more accustomed to the nomadic existence of pro tennis, and both of Djokovic's younger brothers, 15-year-old Marko and 11-year-old Djordje, commute to Pilic's academy. The family briefly considered, then dismissed the idea of applying for British passports a year ago. They're committed to helping build the tennis infrastructure in Serbia and are finalizing financing to start an academy in Belgrade.
"We want our kids and all the kids to be able to come home and train instead of having to go to Munich or Spain," Dijana Djokovic said.
Novak Djokovic has a lot on his plate right now, but he may have no more daunting responsibility than being a role model to his siblings.
"I think it's on them now, the big pressure, because everybody back home or wherever they show up, everybody go to see them, how they play," Djokovic said.
"The good thing about their careers in life is that they have me to show them, to help them, to give them advice. I'm trying to do that as much as I can, but you all know that I am on the tour, really traveling, basically, 11 out of 12 months a year, so I don't see them very often."
The two younger boys have declined to accompany their parents to Wimbledon, saying they prefer to train. Little Djordje, a carbon copy of his older brother with the same haircut and sunny smile, recently informed them that he didn't want to be "like" Novak -- he wanted to be better.
Tough audience. But Djokovic seems as prepared as anyone could be to live up to the standards everyone near and far is setting for him.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com.
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