Novak Djokovic’s journey from bomb shelters to ruling the tennis court

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Novak Djokovic is on course to win his sixth Wimbledon trophy and equal Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s tally of 20 Grand Slam wins. Over the years, Djokovic has proven himself to be a mental giant who can wriggle out of a tight situation with ease. Life wasn’t always so kind to him though.

During NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, Novak Djokovic (just 12 years of age) had to seek refuge in a bomb shelter. In an interview with Graham Bensinger, Djokovic said, “We collect our stuff and go out. It was so loud, we couldn't hear each other. My dad was carrying my brothers, my mom was carrying other stuff and that's when I slipped. When I looked towards the building, I saw the planes flying, dropping things and the ground shaking. That is one of the most traumatic images I saw in my childhood. It stays with me.”


When he came on the tour (2006), he was considered talented but someone who resorted to phantom injuries to distract opponents. However, in 2007’s Rogers Cup (Montreal), Djokovic silenced his critics by defeating Andy Roddick (World No. 3 at that time) in the quarterfinals, Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals and Roger Federer in the finals.


In 2008, he won his first Grand Slam at the Australian Open. It ended three years of dominance by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal who had won all the grand slams since the 2005 Australian Open. His highlight year came in 2011, where he won three grand slams – Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open and finished the year as the World No. 1.


While Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s performances have dipped in the recent past, Djokovic’s stock has kept on rising. Today, he has countless records to his name. He is the only player in the history of the game to have won all nine Masters 1000 tournaments. He has spent maximum weeks at the No. 1 position – 328 weeks. He has earned the maximum prize money. And yet, he is not as revered as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.


The New York Times even dubbed him as ‘The Unloved Champion’. He has had his moments of anger on the court, he was vocal about his reservations against the coronavirus vaccine, he was disqualified in last year’s US Open for hitting a ball towards a line judge, he is still booed by crowds – and yet, he is a menacing warrior on the tennis court. He can wear down opponents with his mental resolve and make legendary comebacks when everything seems lost.


In the recent French Open final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Djokovic looked done and dusted after losing the first two sets. He came back, won the next three sets and sealed a clinical victory.


If he wins 21 Grand Slams (which looks likely), he can well be considered the new G.O.A.T. Djokovic doesn’t let these things get to his head. In a press conference after his last match, Djokovic said that thinking too much about these things will derail him from his path. He said that he was motivated by records, but his focus would always be on maintaining his routine.

When asked to pick between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, he takes the diplomatic route. “Those two guys (Federer and Nadal) are the ones who pushed me to be a better player. Both of these guys have been so special in my career. Hard to pick one of them, because I have always had to compete against both of them as they were so dominant and consistent,” he said in an interview with NDTV.


In addition to tennis, Djokovic can speak many languages like German, French, Serbian and Italian. Djokovic is also interested in classical music and read Aleksandr Pushkin in his younger days. “Tennis lessons and life lessons became one,” Novak Djokovic wrote about his growing up years in his book Serve To Win.


Djokovic’s story is another example that big dreams do come true. “At 6, I was watching Pete Sampras win Wimbledon, and I imagined myself playing for the Wimbledon title,” he said in an interview with ESPN.


Like everyone of us, Djokovic may have his faults, but no one can question his grit, his determination and his doggedness.


References:

1. "It was a horrifying experience" – Novak Djokovic recalls traumatic childhood (Sportskeeda)

2. Novak Djokovic: The Unloved Champion (The New York Times)

3. Novak Djokovic Solves the Mind-Body Problem to Win the Australian Open (The New Yorker)

4. Explained: Why Djokovic, and not Federer or Nadal, is the Greatest of All Time (Indian Express)