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A look back at Novak Djokovic’s exceptional career

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic has had an absolutely phenomenal 2021 season. A national hero in his native Serbia, he is by far one of the greatest athletes in the history of the Balkan country. After winning the Australian Open for the ninth time in his career in January, the world number one then defeated Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros before claiming his 20th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, equalling Nadal and Federer’s legendary record. Djokovic’s loss in the US Open final, however, prevented him from achieving one of his sport’s greatest feats: the calendar-year Grand Slam. [1]

Novak Djokovic is widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Here are some of his more notable statistics and records:

  • record holder for the number of weeks spent as the world number one (339 by mid-October 2021)
  • record holder for the number of Grand Slam titles, specifically 20 (on par with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal)[2]
  • record holder for the number of Masters 1000 titles won, with 36 (on par with Rafael Nadal)

It is safe to say that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are three of the greatest tennis players in history. While exciting, the heated debate over which of them can be considered the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) remains pointless given the emotional baggage and subjectivity involved in such a discussion. Here is how the exceptional career of this great sportsman has unfolded.

Nole’s first steps

Novak Djokovic, also known as “Nole”, was born on 22 May 1987 in what was then the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade. From the age of four, young Novak learned to play tennis with the support of his father (an Alpine skiing champion) and mother (a figure skating champion). His entourage very quickly realised the immense potential of this little boy who seemed to think of only one thing: playing tennis.

Nole has been considered the greatest hope of Serbian tennis since he was a child. His technique, precision, and determination are a perfect match with his love for tennis. In his teens, he left his homeland to train professionally at a tennis academy in Munich. His level allowed him to join the professional circuit at the age of 16, in 2003.

In the shadow of “FEDAL”

It is impossible to talk about Novak Djokovic’s career without mentioning his two greatest rivals: Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain. Tennis fans know how these three players have dominated the tennis world over the past two decades, but Nole has long been the outsider in this legendary trio.

Novak Djokovic accomplished a phenomenal rise in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings right from the early years of his professional career. He finished third in the ATP rankings for 2007, even though he was only 20 years old. He achieved this feat when the world of tennis was completely dominated by the Federer-Nadal duo. The two tennis greats represented a kind of glass ceiling that it seemed impossible for Nole to break through, and he had to settle for what seemed like an eternal third place.

It should be noted that at that time, in addition to his promising results, Nole was also known as a bon vivant who took great pleasure in imitating other players on the circuit during training sessions, for example. As with most players, there is no unanimous consensus in favour of the Serbian tennis player. Throughout his career, he has been at the centre of controversy on several occasions with varying levels of seriousness due to accusations of faking injuries when he was down on the scoreboard, angry outbursts, taking bathroom breaks that were too long, a certain form of arrogance, etc.).

During the years 2007–2010, Djokovic was just short of becoming the boss on the tennis court. He regularly qualified for the semifinals and finals in major tournaments. His game was evolving in such a way that he was regularly called the “future world number one” by the media. Nole showed versatility in terms of playing surfaces, and seemed able to stop any opponent’s rise. Federer and Nadal still reigned supreme on the tennis court, however.

The Serbian champion won his first Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open after beating Federer in the semifinals. That same year, he reached the semifinals in the French and US opens, won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, and was also victorious in the London Masters. These successes were a good representation of Djokovic’s position at the time. He was then without a doubt the best player in the world… behind Federer and Nadal. The domination of the duo who were sometimes called “FEDAL” was still far from over.

In 2009 Roger Federer won his 15th Grand Slam title, breaking the legendary record for the number of Grand Slam wins that had been set by the American Pete Sampras. The following year, it was “Rafa” Nadal who dominated the tennis world by winning Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open, giving him a total of 9 Grand Slam victories at only 24 years old.

Djokovic becoming a legend

The real breakthrough came at the end of the 2010 season, when Djokovic faced Federer in the US Open semifinals. After a hard-fought battle lasting more than three hours, the Swiss champion won two match points that brought him closer to advancing to his seventh consecutive final in New York. The overwhelming majority of the public supported Roger Federer, and the tension was at its highest. Nole had nothing left to lose. Taking huge risks, he hit two incredible forehand winners one after the other and got out of this (seemingly) hopeless situation before winning the match. He then lost the final to Nadal.

A few weeks later, the Djoker won the Davis Cup against all odds with the Serbian team. Many analysts agree that this period was a real turning point in the Serb’s career.

Djokovic was off to a breathtaking start in the 2011 season, winning the first seven tournaments of the season (including the Australian Open) with a record 43-match winning streak. It was not until the semifinals at Roland Garros that Djokovic’s winning streak was broken by Roger Federer, who called his own performance “one of the best of his career”. Nole won Wimbledon by beating Rafael Nadal in the final soon after. Following the tournament, he took the world number one spot for the first time.

Once again, the Serbian player had an encounter planned with Federer in the US Open semifinals. The Swiss champion was determined to take revenge on Nole after the previous year’s bitter defeat. Once again, the two players had an epic fight that led to a fifth and final set. After more than three hours of battle, Federer got two match points. The public, who were sympathetic to the Swiss, tried to tip the balance in his favour with their shouting.

Djokovic just smiled in the face of adversity. He saved the first match point with a supersonic return winner before calling for support from the crowd. On the second match point, he made a return in extremis that caused Federer to foul. Soon after, Nole won the match. Federer had a hard time accepting this new defeat.

A similar situation occurred eight years later, at the 2019 Wimbledon final. The two legendary players clashed on the mythical Centre Court. After more than four hours of struggle, Federer got two match points. He was only one point away from winning his 21st Grand Slam tournament, setting a new record at 38 years old! The public was once again largely in favour of the Swiss champion.

But this time too, Novak Djokovic’s calmness allowed him to save these two match points, notably thanks to a brilliant passing shot. So instead of seeing the Swiss champion win yet another title, the London crowd saw the Djoker win his 16th Grand Slam title, closing the gap with Federer (20) and Nadal (18) in this frantic race for the record that Nole had announced he wanted to break.

Asked at a press conference about how he had managed to overcome the large public support for his opponent, Nole gave an answer that said a lot about his state of mind: “Every time the public yelled ’Roger’, I would transform that in my mind into ’Novak’”.

Mental giant

Over the years, Novak Djokovic has developed a formidable aura around his personality. Many call him a “mental giant.”

“In key moments, I’d rather play any player than him.” Those are the words of Alexander Zverev, the current world number three who was beaten by Djokovic in the 2021 US Open’s semifinals after a three-and-a-half hour battle. Former world number one Andy Roddick said in an interview that Djokovic “…takes your legs first [by making you run] and then your soul”.

Such praise refers to the Serbian champion’s extreme physical and mental resilience, especially during crucial situations. In addition to his exemplary lifestyle, strict diet, outstanding flexibility, and overall tennis level, Nole is best known for his fighting spirit that never loses hope. This gladiatorial attitude could notably be observed during the 2012 Australian Open final that he won against Rafael Nadal after a titanic struggle of almost six hours [3], and there have been many other similar examples in his career.

In the aforementioned finals against his perennial rivals, Federer and Nadal, it was not uncommon for Nole to “transmute” (in his own words) the crowd’s negative energy in order to achieve a level of play that was close to perfection. Football fans will recognise this same ability in the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo, who also never performs better than when challenged or provoked by his detractors.

Novak Djokovic has the ability to constantly raise his level of play by relying on ambient pressure. It is this almost supernatural dimension at the most important moments that makes the Djoker so scary to his opponents. Toni Nadal, Rafa’s coach, once said that “[…] against Roger [Federer], we know what we have to do, we have a plan. While against Novak [Djokovic]… You can’t predict anything. He has an answer for everything […] .”

Nole’s ability to achieve these feats, even when he has his back against the wall, is made possible by intensive mental training. He himself stresses that you have to believe in your chances of winning a match right to the end by maintaining a positive attitude as much as possible. One of the techniques the Belgrade native uses is visualization: he imagines himself holding such and such a trophy in his hands to, in a way, force fate. However, this technique showed its limits at the Tokyo Olympics, and more recently in the US Open final.

Where (and when) will he stop?

At 34, Novak Djokovic is at the top of his game. He has equalled the mythical record for Grand Slam victories and will do everything in his power to break it next year. Moreover, the spot of world number one seems to be his until at least February 2022. Like his legendary rivals Federer (40) and Nadal (35), the Djoker has shown incredible longevity at the highest level. His current physical condition suggests that the Serbian champion has several more good seasons ahead of him.

The question on the minds of many tennis fans at the moment is whether Nole will play in the Australian Open in January 2022. Indeed, he and world number two Daniil Medvedev may not show up in Melbourne given Australia’s requirement to show proof of double vaccination against COVID-19.

One thing is certain: when the time comes for Novak Djokovic to bow out, tennis lovers will remember him as the embodiment of the principle that this is a sport that is played “in the head” and that, if there is one point that must be won, it is the last one.

[1] The achievement of winning all four Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and US Open) in a single calendar year.

[2] It should be noted that as of January 2011, Roger Federer had already won 16 Grand Slam titles – then an all-time record – while Novak Djokovic had won only one. The Serbian player has made up for lost time with his Swiss rival over the last decade, winning almost half of all Grand Slams between January 2011 and August 2021, namely 19 out of 42. This had never happened before!

[3] It was the longest Grand Slam final in history.