While the hard graft of being the world’s No. 1 tennis player is not to be underestimated, it has its stylish moments too. My interview with the greatest sporting export from my homeland, Serbia, takes place in the Monte Carlo Country Club, with the sun setting over the Mediterranean. Despite the dreamy location, I’m keen to get on with my questions. ‘We should get started,’ I say the moment we sit down at the restaurant. He looks at me in amazement, probably thinking I’ve become too much of a New Yorker. Even on the most gruelling schedules, Serbs are known for being pretty relaxed, and Novak Djokovic has a striking warmth.
As he does on the tennis court, Djokovic sets the pace for the conversation. His mind has a tendency to go directly to the point, fierce and fast. This quick responsiveness makes him even more exciting to talk to. Referring to the saying ‘Through adversity to the stars’, he recalls the life path that led him to becoming the No. 1 tennis player in the world.
‘There were two turning points in my life that made me into the person I am today, events which I think made me stronger and defined my character. One of them happened at the age of 12 when I left for Germany to play tennis. At that moment, the situation in Serbia was very hard. The country was under embargo; those were times of extreme poverty and hardship. In those harsh conditions, development of children in any sport, let alone in tennis, was impossible. At such a young age, in order to play tennis, I had to be separated from my family. Overnight I had to get used to not depending on my parents and practically start living life on my own. I was very young, but the circumstances made me adjust to my new life away from my family. This was one of the major markers in my life that later defined me both as an athlete and as a man.’
The second point is one of the most dramatic events in recent history, the Nato bombing of Serbia. ‘Those two and a half months of waking up during the night at 3 a.m. and feeling uncertain about what the next day would bring. Due to that experience, I learned to face and overcome fear at an early age. Having been in an environment where people were in fear for their lives, the fear of failure in tennis did not seem that frightening.’ It’s easy to see how he’s managed, unlike some of his tennis peers, to hang on to a sense of perspective, however high the stakes.
‘On 22 May 1999, I was celebrating my 12th birthday. I don’t like to remember this, but it is one of my strongest memories. That birthday celebration in the Serbian tennis club Partisan, when everyone was singing ‘Happy Birthday’ while the aeroplanes were flying over the sky dropping bombs on Belgrade. I think that at that time I was too young to conceptualise what was happening. Instead, I learned to refocus and to not listen to the sirens. I learned to focus on pleasure in having so much ‘free time’ to play tennis. I thought if I focus on the talent I believed I had, I can be the No. 1, I can win Wimbledon one day. That determination was crucial in my development as a professional athlete. Even today I draw on those foundations.’
Although still in his twenties, Djokovic knows himself well. Mentally, he’s very strong and open and has a ‘tell no lies’ attitude. He explains that living through tumultuous times taught him the importance of gratitude and giving back to the world.
‘I fell completely in love with this sport at the age of four. It has defined my whole life. There are not so many people in the world who can say they love what they do and they’re the most successful at it. I am highly aware of the opportunity I’ve been given and I think it was all destiny — the hand of cards I’ve been dealt — for which I am very grateful.’
Djokovic was born in Belgrade into a sporty family. He was the first to play tennis, which his three younger brothers now do too. Talking about his family, Djokovic says his parents have been enormously supportive and have always believed in him.
‘One of the biggest mentors in my life was my first tennis coach, Jelena Gencic [who died on 1 June, a serious emotional blow to Djokovic]. I remember as a kid, she made me read poetry and we spent most of our time together listening to classical music from Bach and Mozart to Beethoven. We spent so many hours in her house, in that legendary living-room filled with hundreds of tennis trophies she had on display. I dreamt that one day I would be winning them too. We were listening to this wonderful music and doing visualisation exercises. Her philosophy was that these exercises would open up my creativity and help me believe in my dreams. She thought this would help me clarify the image in my mind of winning Wimbledon and becoming the best tennis player in the world… One of the best and the most emotional moments of my life was when I brought the Wimbledon trophy to Jelena’s house and put it among all the trophies I used to admire when I was a kid.’
After winning Wimbledon, surrounded by reporters and admiring crowd, he flew back to Serbia to experience something that probably happens only once in a lifetime. Over 100,000 people lined the streets from Nikola Tesla airport to the centre of -Belgrade.
‘I felt enormous pride and joy; the images were running through my mind of everything I’d achieved, of everything I had to go through: playing tennis in a period of crisis, war, empty shops, parents who were hardly making ends meet, borrowing money, having all doors closed on them. And here I was, a decade later, holding a Wimbledon trophy, living out my biggest dream. That day people asked me, OK, so now you achieved your two biggest dreams: you became the No. 1 tennis player in the world and you won Wimbledon at 24 — what is next for you? What I told them then and what I’m telling them now is there’s no end in dreaming: never give up on your dreams.’
The world’s most famous Serbian athlete today has a global platform. To allow children to live their dreams and cultivate their talents, he founded the Novak Djokovic Foundation. Last -September, I witnessed Djokovic’s philanthropy, attending the inaugural benefit dinner at Capitale in New York City, where he raised $1.4 million for an early-years education project in -Serbia. A few months later, he was presented with a Centrepoint award by the charity’s patron, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge.
‘I know how many families have problems securing for their children basic education,’ he reflects. ‘Problems giving them an opportunity to unlock their talents and discover their potential. I come from a country that was tormented by war, economic starvation, a country that in the last 30 years has gone through lots of difficulty, to which I was a witness. Not everyone can isolate themselves from their problems — many get overwhelmed by them. This is why I want to help so much.’
Djokovic’s ultimate goal and definition of success is to give back and help people achieve their dreams. Ahead of his fundraising dinner at the Roundhouse in London on 8 July, he is looking forward to spending some time in Britain, not just on centre court.
‘London is a fabulous city, I enjoy St James’s Park, I love the tradition and culture, the British respect for the royal family. In these modern times, lots of nations have forgotten what makes up their identity. I love that British society still holds to theirs.’
His friend Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, has recently agreed to become a Global Ambassador for the Novak Djokovic Foundation. He calls her ‘a magnificent woman’.
‘Sarah is a great philanthropist and very dedicated to her work with children. The Duchess has agreed to be the global ambassador of my foundation, and that brought me so much joy. We are planning to bring her to Serbia to open schools for children. She offered books and toys… She gave a very touching speech at the benefit dinner of the Novak Djokovic Foundation in New York. In her closing remarks she said that the work we are doing inspires her. Hearing that from her — such a big philanthropist — was a great honour.’
Djokovic has a notable ability to befriend intriguing characters, from Richard Branson, who invited him to play in his private tennis tournament on Necker Island, to Anna Wintour, a tennis fanatic who is so obsessed with Wimbledon that she once sent her hairdresser to sort out Federer’s hair before a match. ‘Anna is a warm and giving person who has donated not only her time but her own money to support the cause my foundation stands for. For me, this is enough reason to know how good and caring a person she is,’ he says.
At the benefit dinner in New York, Tommy Hilfiger told me that what he loves about Novak is his sense of humour. Djokovic, known to his friends as Nole, is the classic glass-half-full optimist. ‘My life is filled with love and joy. Of course, not everything is always ideal. Sometimes I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and there are days when I don’t feel like practising, when I am not in the best mood, but my strongest motivator is this drive to succeed in all aspects of my life. Tennis is an individual sport, and when people watch me on TV they see me standing by myself on the court raising the trophy and they may think that I am solely responsible for all that. But there is an army of people behind this success. Their ongoing contributions are making my life on- and off-court much easier and help me be the best person I can.’
Djokovic and his girlfriend, Jelena, live in Monte Carlo with their puppy, Pierre. When they have free time, they enjoy going to La Spiaggia, a relaxed Italian restaurant on the beach. Djokovic smiles when I ask him if he thinks he would be the same man if he did not have such a supportive girlfriend in his life. ‘Jelena is a big support in everything I do. It means a lot to have such a wonderful woman in my life. This understanding and the love we share helps us go through life together and overcome the obstacles we encounter on the way. Together, we resolve all our important life questions, and this makes life much easier.’
The most impressive thing, however, may be that, despite the magnitude of his celebrity. Djokovic still has both feet on the ground. ‘I don’t like to think of myself as someone higher, better or stronger than anyone else,’ he tells me. ‘We can have more or less success in our lives, but in the end, it all comes down to who we are as people. I don’t like false pretences. I choose to be open and treat everyone equally. It takes so little to be kind.’
In my experience, he is as good as his word.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 22 June 2013