A matter of hours after claiming his first ever French Open title last Sunday, world number one Novak Djokovic invited the world to join his post-tournament celebrations courtesy of a live broadcast on Facebook.
Join me in a few minutes on my Facebook page ? I want to share my happiness with all of you- live! ??
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) June 5, 2016
Since turning professional in 2003, Djokovic has struck a chord with tennis fans across the world. At first, he was the cheeky, affable Serbian that did wonderful impressions of his colleagues across both the ATP and WTA tours.
On the court, he seemed a little frail physically, prone to injury, and too often let his emotions – both anger and frustration – take control at crucial points. There was no doubting his ability; however, at a time when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were utterly dominating the men’s game, it seemed like both Djokovic and Andy Murray would have to accept being second best for a long time to come.
However, there was a serious side to the tour’s ‘Joker’ even then. In the years before Murray eventually won his Wimbledon title (2013), the BBC would commonly ask every person they came across whether or not the Scot would ever triumph on the grass courts of SW19.
When they asked Djokovic the question, he spoke plainly and openly about the how the war in Yugoslavia during his childhood had threatened the very lives of his family and was now a key motivating factor in his career. For him, tennis was a way he could provide a good life for his nearest and dearest, and he wasn’t going to let that opportunity slip away easily.
“[The war] made us tougher. It made us more hungry, more hungry for the success,” as he explained to CBS in 2012.
Needless to say, his raw, matter of fact honesty left the interviewer speechless and without any way to continue talking about Murray without looking like a total goose. It was also perhaps the moment many people realised that there was much more to this gentle youngster than he was getting credit for.
Success did not come overnight. He reached his first Major final at the US Open in 2007 only to lose in straight sets to Federer. Momentum seemed to be building though, and he claimed his first Grand Slam title next time out at the Australian Open in 2008 by beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final – becoming the first man besides Nadal or Federer to win a Grand Slam single’s title since 2005 in the process. A mouth full I know, but an important statistic nonetheless.
Having made the initial breakthrough, his fans waited in anticipation for more glory. It did not arrive immediately however, as Djokovic struggled for consistency, form and general health during what was an incredibly competitive time on the ATP tour.
The man himself credits a meeting with a fellow Serb and nutritionist, Dr Igor Cetojevic, in the summer of 2010 as the crucial turning point. Cetojevic uncovered Djokovic’s sensitivity to gluten and, literally, within 12 months of a diet change the Serb had won three of the four Grand Slam titles in 2011 and become world number one for the first time.
Sunday’s victory in Paris means that Djokovic is the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time and who’s to say he won’t capture all four within a single year given his current form.
Far from the erratic man that desperately scrambled to try and fulfil his potential, the Djokovic that plays tennis today is powerful, accurate, quick around the court and possesses a steely, cool temperament that allows him hang on under immense pressure time and time again.
Djokovic now has 12 Grand Slam titles to his name – tying for fourth in the all-time list with Roy Emerson – but is still five behind Federer, though you wouldn’t bet against him adding more in 2016 with Wimbledon and the US Open on his radar, along with the Olympic Games in Rio.
His live broadcast to over 25,000 people via Facebook on Sunday also showed that he hasn’t lost a sense of himself in the chase to possibly be named the world’s greatest tennis player ever in time. As he and his entourage sang their way around the streets of Paris in the back of a car (hopping out to take a look at the Arc de Triomphe), he thanked everyone for their support, introduced those that make up his inner circle and made a very convincing case for being a man with the world at his feet.
In a time where athletes and sports star shy away from fans and rarely show a glimpse of their true selves in the public domain, Djokovic’s openness and honesty – which I’ve heard questioned as ‘giving too much of himself’ to the public by some pundits – is a refreshing. Long may it continue.