First there was Roger Federer, then Rafa Nadal. Tennis was lucky to get one such player. To get two at the same time seemed utterly impossible.
They won every tournament, broke every record. Their count of Grand Slam singles titles stands at 17 for Federer (the men’s record) and 14 for Nadal, equal-second with Pete Sampras. This includes an astonishing nine on the clay in Paris. Federer is a player of mesmerising and destructive brilliance; Nadal has the best topspin ever struck.
And yet, just when it seemed that only injury or retirement could end this historic duopoly, Novak Djokovic defied all expectation – and belief – to break through and establish himself as better than either. This young man from the tennis hinterland of Serbia took them both on at their peak, and went past them. Their dominance diminished not before his ascendancy, but because of it.
Serbia took them both on at their peak, and went past them. Their dominance diminished not before his ascendancy, but because of it. Djokovic has won 65 singles titles, including 12 Grand Slams, pocketing well over $100 million in prize money alone in the process. And one of the reasons he has made it to the top – and stayed there – is because he is arguably the fittest player ever to walk onto court.
Djokovic is so remarkably athletic that good judges are often blinded. They see only the product of the gym: the discreetly muscled physique, the full-splits flexibility, the combination of staying power and brief recovery time. But he’s not the best just because he is the fittest.
That’s only part of the reason. He’s the best because he has allied physical preparation on and off the court with mental tenacity and technical ability, to a level never previously seen in tennis. Or perhaps – and here’s the thing – any other sport.
Carve Out a Mental Edge
The modern tennis player is the complete athlete. Strength, power, speed, endurance, flexibility – to get to the top, and stay there, he needs it all. In track and field, you can specialise in the explosive events, or in endurance. A top tennis player needs to be able to run the 10,000 metres, while taking occasional breaks to run a 100m sprint or do a bit of shot-putting. He needs the stamina to last for five sets, but he must also have explosive power: to make a long chase and unload into a kill-shot. He must be precise and skilful when close to exhaustion. And that – more than anything else – describes the way that Djokovic wins matches against the finest opposition that tennis has ever thrown up.
“We have fitter, faster, stronger and better athletes, and that’s inevitable with increased professionalism,” says Dr Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University. He suggests that all sports have changed dramatically in levels of fitness, strength and quickness, but what sets apart tennis players – and Djokovic in particular – is not just great physical fitness, but psychological superiority.
“Everyone at the top levels of sport is fit,” says Williams. “Without fitness you’re no good, don’t even start. But it’s not enough on its own. Tennis is also about higher-level cognitive thinking. You must know what your opponent will do: pick up his body shape and his movement, know what shots to expect from what areas of the court. It’s a matter of mental preparation over an extended timescale, and that’s a process based on, say, 20 hours of practice a week, totalling 1000 hours every year. That’s the way you create technical and tactical ability, and it’s essential.”
In last year’s Australian Open final, it seemed that Andy Murray had got on top of the match as he levelled at a set-all – but Djokovic found another gear to take the next set 6-3 and then yet another to take the fourth to love. Raise, then raise again. You’re not supposed to be able to do things like that, not at this level of sport. People who watched tended to misunderstand. They thought Murray had thrown in the towel. Not a bit. Djokovic got stronger. When tiredness should have cut in, he found his A-game and played better.
Sweat The Small Things
Djokovic’s victory didn’t just come down to his apparent ability to run forever, or his ability to hit the ball with great strength when he got there. It was also the mental certainty that came with it. Because Djokovic not only chases down your best shot, he also has the unerring clarity of mind – a product of both physical fitness and game sense – to play the right shot when he gets there. He hasn’t just developed the physical ability to outrun his rivals, but the mental edge to outlast them.
The person who knows Djokovic best on the circuit is another Serb, Viktor Troicki, a very respectable player himself, with a career-high ranking of 12 and almost $6m in prize money in the bank. He has something of a big-brother feeling for Djokovic – he’s almost two years older – and he speaks of him protectively and proudly. There’s a rivalry, sure, but that’s their business. In public he has his bro’s back.
“It happened when he was 14. That’s when I first felt that he really could be very good indeed,” says Troicki. “Partly this was because of his attitude – right at the start he was very professional. And it’s something I notice now even more. He just does everything right. Everything in his life. Watch him practise: he will give every session 100 per cent. It’s not about practising for hours and hours; it’s about practicing right.
“He works on details: massage, strength, training, diet. He has a good, dedicated team and he can put all these things together to win the big titles.”
“He has the best fitness on the tour,” David Ferrer tells me, with the kind of honesty you would not normally expect from a regular opponent.“To beat him I need to have a very good day while he has a bad day.
“He has everything. He is faster and stronger, and his coordination is unbelievable. When it comes to flexibility he’s the best, and he has been able to improve his abilities. Six years ago he was not so strong.” No, he was not. Six years ago, when Federer was unplayable, and Nadal unbeatable, Djokovic was a respectable world number three. Winning matches, yes; winning tournaments, too. But still a way behind the two greatest players ever to step onto a tennis court. To make the seemingly impossible step up, he’d need to make big changes, fast.
Eat Like a Champion
I was shocked at what Djokovic ate for breakfast: toast, jam, sugary cereals. It was like putting diesel into a Ferrari. No wonder he was getting so many injuries. Always start the day with muscle-regenerating eggs, and whizz up fresh berries, goji berries and spirulina for an energising antioxidant cocktail.
Avoid heavy food before playing or a workout. Your body will use more energy on digestion and have less available to power your muscles and brain. People like to carb load, but I recommend a light meal of fish and vegetables, at least two hours before a match.
When you sit and focus on a meal your body begins the digestive process. It sounds like a tiny detail, but I guarantee you it’ll be impossible to perform at your maximum potential without it.
Take Your body Seriously, But Not Yourself
There were two major changes that affected Djokovic’s career trajectory, and naturally they’re closely related.
The first was a playing breakthrough. It came when Serbia won the Davis Cup in 2010 with Djokovic and Troicki playing their guts out. For Djokovic it was a new start: the first time he was really able to think of himself as the best in the world. The next year he won three of the four slams.
The second was all about pizza and pancakes. These were the great food loves of Djokovic’s life, not least because his parents own a restaurant specialising in both. He was never fat, of course, but he had a tendency to suffer when deep into a five-setter.
There was a time when his level of play would fall away. His comeback ability, as displayed against Murray last summer, was practically non-existent. He was regarded as a bit of a hypochondriac, a bit lacking in mental toughness, altogether too ready to blame a phantom injury for his own failings.
Djokovic would suffer from symptoms of asthma, which brought distress and panic at the most important stage of a match, just when you don’t need such things. Dr Igor Cetojevic switched on the tennis one afternoon and watched him suffering. “Even from watching him on TV I could see that some digestive issue was the root cause of his difficulty breathing.” Cetojevic, a Serb like Djokovic, has trained in biofeedback and traditional Chinese medicine. His wife persuaded him to contact Djokovic and they met during a Davis Cup tie in 2010.
Cetojevic checked him over and found that his suspicions were right. And crucially, Djokovic decided to go with his conclusions. “By identifying his sensitivity to gluten and lactose he would take the necessary steps,” says Cetojevic. “By eliminating dairy products and most meat from his diet his ‘asthma’ disappeared. Without this handicap he had an exceptional season culminating in his victory at Wimbledon in 2011 and he became the number one player in the world.”
This diet was not just a negative process. Cetojevic brought so-called superfoods into Djokovic’s diet: fresh berries loaded with antioxidants to aid muscle recovery; a daily dose of ligament-strengthening oily fish to improve immunity and combat mid-tournament DOMS; and plenty of easily digested sea algae to enhance cognitive function and alertness during lengthy rallies. “I taught him to avoid drinking cold water because it compromised digestion. Plenty of room-temperature spring water is much better.”
This is the kind of detail that people at the very sharp end of sport love. These are the one-percenters, the marginal gains. The idea behind them is to get every possible thing on your side. If there is one tiny way of making a tiny gain, you do it. And then look for another. Djokovic took this concept on and now lives it. He has become a walking education to anyone who wants to know how a champion gets his edge.
Abandon All Your Rest Days
Richard Evans is the doyen of tennis writers and broadcasters. He first covered Wimbledon in 1960. He remembers Aussie great Roy Emerson as a seriously fit athlete; Emerson won 12 grand-slam singles titles between 1961 and 1967 and was beyond doubt one of the top players of all time.
“He was as fit a player as you could find on the circuit back then. He liked to drink a few beers of an evening, but he would always run them off. He was remarkably fit – and yet that was nothing to what players do now.”
There’s a story of John McEnroe being asked what he did to keep fit. He was baffled: “I play tennis,” he said. So he did, and he could play a point better than any point had even been played, using his remarkable on-court insight and intelligence. But these days that wouldn’t be enough.
It becomes clear, then, that being a sporting champion is not just about being good at sport. It is a lifestyle choice. A 24/7/365 thing. These days, you can’t have a few beers, run them off and then win a Grand Slam tournament. Like being a saint, every aspect of your waking and your sleeping life must be devoted to a greater cause.
In this way details become a passion for people at the top of any sport, but more so for individual sportsmen. Because they can’t blame colleagues for any failures. Djokovic brings that principle to something close to its logical extreme. Preparation is no longer separate from real life. It’s one and the same thing.
Martina Navratilova was the first to reinvent championship tennis as a 24-hour lifestyle, and it gave her an edge that took her to 18 Grand Slam singles titles. Asked the difference between herself and the other players on the circuit, she explained that where the other players had involvement, she had commitment. “It’s like ham and eggs. The chicken’s involved. But the pig’s committed.”
She laughs when reminded of this. “Novak’s a pig, all right,” she says. “He understands what to do. Sleep, food, drink: it’s all as important as tennis. And Novak is head and shoulders above the rest, the way he lives that attitude. He’s a pro’s pro. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t get quite as much love as he should.”
Djokovic exemplifies the tennis-as-lifestyle concept that Navratilova pioneered. “I turned off the head,” she says. “But I never turned off the body.” And that’s a fair summary of what Djokovic does: understanding the essential need for mental downtime, but never at the expense of his physical preparation. A nice evening and a few jokes, great. Essential even. But never compromise a single one per cent advantage.
Iron Out Your Weaknesses
It’s not, then, that Djokovic is fitter than everybody else, even though he is. Djokovic has more of everything than anybody else. Evans says: “If you were to build a perfect tennis player from scratch, you’d end up with Djokovic.
“He’s tall, 6ft 2in (188cm), but not too tall. He is strong, but not muscle-bound. He’s astonishingly flexible – he can play a shot while doing the splits. He’s an amazing physical specimen and once he got over his breathing problems he improved still further. He has great speed; his frame gives him exceptional reach.
“He doesn’t have one colossal shot, like Nadal’s forehand, but he has no weaknesses. None. He may not have a 10 in his repertoire, but he’s got no fours: it’s all eights and nines. And also – perhaps crucially – he has great intelligence.”
The secret ingredient is obvious then. Everything. Good genes, good physique, natural gifts and the purposeful development of them, constant physical preparation, the acceptance of sport as a lifestyle, the elimination of weakness and the constant enhancement of your abilities, coupled with a good mind and brutal determination – and all set off with a sense of humour.
It’s an ingredients list that has made him supreme in his sport; and perhaps supreme across all the major sports. For a tennis player, though a specialist when it comes to striking a ball, must also be a generalist in every other category of fitness. He must be strong, fast, precise, flexible, resilient, capable of going on forever and capable of thinking with perfect clarity at the most challenging moments. There are champions in all sports: Djokovic has made himself a champion of champions.
Turn off the head, but never turn off the body. Djokovic takes that maxim a step further. Keep that sense of humour during training. But being a champion is a serious business.