Grand Slam or Not, Novak Djokovic Knows His Role

Novak Djokovic has spent a lot of time thinking about his tombstone. He has even imagined people visiting his gravesite and reading the words.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people on this planet, if you ask them what is the most important thing in your life, would say it’s family, love, health, happiness,” Djokovic said during a late-evening video call from Montenegro this month during his family’s vacation. “So I would say those four things and I would add that I want to be the best father and husband that I could possibly be.

“And I would also like to be remembered as a person that was a giver and the person that cared about others and left a mark on the world and that inspired others and that lived life to the fullest. That is, for me, the definition of how I would like to look back at my life on the last days of my life.”

So, he was asked, he would not want his epitaph to say, “Here lies the winner of the Grand Slam?”

“No, no, no,” he said quickly and emphatically. “Somebody coming to visit me there and looking at the tombstone, I wouldn’t want it written like he has been the best, most successful tennis player in history. Of course, that is a very, very important part of my life and something that I’m devoted to. But if I have to put it on a scale and compare what is more important, it’s a no-brainer for me.”

Heading into the United States Open, which begins on Monday, Djokovic is seven match wins away from achieving the most elusive and coveted goal in tennis: the Grand Slam, winning all four majors in the same calendar year. Already he has captured the singles titles at the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon. A victory at the U.S. Open would equal the feat of just five players — Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, Margaret Court in 1970, and Steffi Graf in 1988. Graf also won an Olympic gold medal that year, earning her a Golden Slam, something that eluded Djokovic when he lost in the semifinals in Tokyo last month.

With his win at Wimbledon last month, Djokovic, 34, tied Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 major championships. A win at the U.S. Open would break the tie. Djokovic leads both in head-to-head meetings. He is 27-23 against Federer and 30-28 against Nadal.

Djokovic also has been the ATP’s top-ranked player for a record 336 weeks, and he is on track to break Pete Sampras’ record by ending the season ranked No. 1 seven times. He has won 36 ATP Masters 1000 titles and has captured the ATP Finals five times.

With the 40-year-old Federer out of the U.S. Open after knee surgery, and with Nadal, 35, also pulling out with a foot ailment, Djokovic’s chances for more records seem increasingly likely. Dominic Thiem, the defending Open champion, has also pulled out with a wrist injury.

For all of the head-scratching moves Djokovic has made — such as holding a much-maligned exhibition tour in Belgrade in the middle of the pandemic, hitting a line judge in the throat with an anger-filled swipe during last year’s U.S. Open, upsetting the tennis establishment by trying to start the breakaway Professional Tennis Players Association and even denying his countrywoman Nina Stojanovic a possible bronze medal when he pulled out of the mixed doubles playoff at the Olympics — there is much to like about the guy.

He is unfailingly polite, remembers people’s names, says please and thank you a lot, and almost always compliments an opponent’s play whether he wins or loses.

Through his foundation, he and his wife, Jelena, have supported about 47,500 children in Serbia. This spring, he put up well over $1 million to host two ATP tournaments and one WTA tournament in Belgrade after other events in the world were canceled because of the pandemic and then ensured their success by being the headliner in both.

Djokovic announced that he was playing in the Olympics in a video birthday message to a 6-year-old Japanese boy. He also noticed, during his Wimbledon final against Matteo Berrettini, a young girl sitting courtside and holding up a sign with encouraging words. After his victory, he trotted over and handed the girl his winning racket. In Tokyo, he stayed in the Olympic Village, something most other top players declined to do, and spent time giving fellow athletes tips for success.

One of the people Djokovic has encouraged is the 20-year-old Serbian player Olga Danilovic. At the Australian Open in January, Danilovic made her way through qualifying and was locked in a first-round battle with Petra Martic. Suddenly she looked up and saw Djokovic watching her match. The support, she said, helped her upset Martic, the No. 16 seed.

“People judge a book by its cover and in this case it’s really wrong,” said Danilovic, who cherishes a racket Djokovic gave her. “For me, he is one of the greatest persons in the world. He gives support when you need it and you can always see his fighting spirit.”

As a child, Djokovic shunned math and science in favor of more creative subjects like geography and linguistics. (He speaks six languages.) But throughout his career, he has sought a competitive advantage by dabbling in everything from sports psychology and mysticism to quantum physics and electricity. He has been known to travel with an R.V. that he parks outside tennis stadiums and uses to decompress.

“Novak is an exceedingly bright man,” said the performance psychologist Jim Loehr, who worked with Djokovic from 2012 to 2014. Djokovic has said his book “The Only Way to Win” is his favorite. “He loves abstract things and his brain likes to dig in for more detailed meanings. He has an inexhaustible curiosity about how the mind and body work together and never wants to leave a single stone unturned in his drive to succeed.”

Djokovic has struggled to gain the adoration that has followed Federer and Nadal. He is known for smashing rackets and for screaming and cursing in the direction of his player box. In 2007, he angered Nadal by publicly imitating the Spaniard’s idiosyncrasies in a televised interview at the U.S. Open. The next year he was booed as he left the court after he criticized Andy Roddick for accusing him of taking excessive medical timeouts during matches.

“I understand him when he’s yelling on the court,” said the Hall of Famer Goran Ivanisevic, a former Wimbledon champion and one of Djokovic’s two coaches, alongside Marian Vajda. “We are from the Balkans so we are a little more emotional than the others.”

Djokovic knows that it will be hard to win over the New York crowd, especially after the stadium was empty last year when he was disqualified for hitting the line judge.

“One thing I’ve found is that people are not really comfortable with the constant change of me as a player and as a person,” Djokovic said. “But I’m actually proud of that because what is life if it’s not an evolution. We’re all trying to understand ourselves on a deeper level. As a professional tennis player, I’m left out there alone by myself on the court and I have to deal with all of my demons. So if I break a racket and I shout and I curse, don’t think that’s something that I intend to do prior to the match and that I’m proud of. Absolutely not. I’m actually ashamed of that. But I’m not afraid to say: ‘Look, I’m flawed. I made a mistake and I’ll probably make that mistake again.’

“Some people would say, ‘You have so many years on the court, you’re wiser, you’re smarter, you’re more experienced, you should know how to behave and send the right message to the kids,’” he added. “And that’s correct. I 100 percent agree with that. But it’s not possible for me to always be like that and I can’t always put myself down for it.”

To be Djokovic is to be the hard-to-decipher middle piece in a 1,000-piece puzzle. He is not the easy-to-locate corner or even a colorful edge. He craves love and adoration but makes them as difficult to secure as winning the Grand Slam. And maybe, as he goes for the most important title of his career, they are what he needs most.

“I’m not good at convincing people to like me,” Djokovic said with a laugh. “Some people might argue I am trying very hard to be loved. I’m not. I’m just a human being that goes through various intensity levels of different emotions when I’m on the court. It’s all about the game face when I’m playing and about finding a way to win. But if you ask me whether I like to be in a hostile environment to play, I’ll tell you no, I don’t. I would like to be supported all times.”

Perhaps winning the U.S. Open, and the Grand Slam, will alter people’s perceptions of Djokovic. If not, he will have to live with that.

“I’m not going to try to convince people to like me,” he said just before saying good night. “I’m just going to always be my authentic self.”

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