On Top Of His Game
Novak Djokovic has it all – age on his side, a growing family and a burgeoning business empire. And the Serbian sports star intends to keep hold of the Grand Slam life, no matter what it takes. George Hopkin reports.
Novak Djokovic – currently ranked world number one and considered to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time – did not have the most positive introduction to aviation.
In 1999, aged 11, Djokovic lived with his family in Belgrade, a city which would come under 78 successive nights of NATO bombing before the year was out.
Awoken by the sound of a nearby explosion, he and his family put their carefully crafted emergency plans into action and made for a nearby air raid shelter. But young Nole (a nickname which has been with him since he was a toddler) was separated from the others when knocked to the ground in the frenzied dash for safety.
“And then it happened,” says Djokovic. “From behind me, I heard something tearing open the sky, as though an enormous snow shovel were scraping ice off the clouds. Still sprawled on the ground, I turned and looked back at our home.
“Rising up from over the roof of our building came the steel gray triangle of an F-117 bomber,” he continues. “I watched in horror as its great metal belly opened directly out of it, taking aim at my family, my friends, my neighbourhood – everything I’d ever known.”
This chilling childhood memory was shared with the world in Djokovic’s book Serve to Win, part autobiography, part self-help manual and part diet guide. It’s an eclectic read – Djokovic goes into eye-opening detail, at one point explaining how he checks the colour of his urine each day to track hydration levels.
And while those early experiences with aircraft may have been memorable rather than positive, it hasn’t stopped him taking to the private jet lifestyle. Djokovic has served as brand ambassador for Bombardier, has had connections with US-based private jet charter company Privé Jets and has been highly vocal about the benefits of jet travel for his career.
During his time extolling the virtues of Bombardier and Learjet in particular, he told reporters: “The Learjet offers me lots of comfort, efficiency and performance, and it’s suitable to my style of life. From point A to point B, it’s very efficient. For me it’s important to be able to travel fast and to have comfort.”
Forbes magazine has been tracking Djokovic closely since he stepped up his game in 2011. The magazine notes he has won US$59 million in prize money since then and ranks second all-time in prize money with a total of US$79 million.
In Forbes’ official 2015 rankings he makes number 42 in the Celebrity 100 (for reference he’s sandwiched between British golfer Rory McIlory, at 41, and Vin Diesel, 43) and number 13 in The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes, one ahead of Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Djokovic’s current sponsors include Uniqlo, Head, adidas, Peugeot, Seiko, Jacob’s Creek and ANZ and he has a vast, carefully crafted and maintained social media network to spread the word about their activities.
While he clearly has a keen business mind, not all of his work is purely for profit – he also has ties to Unicef, in addition to his own Novak Djokovic Foundation, which works to help disadvantaged children in his native Serbia.
If the past year had not been busy enough building on this business empire as well as improving his on-court performance, Djokovic also found time to marry high school sweetheart Jelena Ristić in June 2014 and the couple announced the birth of their first child, baby Stefan, via Twitter four months later in October.
Throughout all this – and going back to his childhood in Belgrade – he has also written in a personal journal whenever his hectic schedule allows; it has to fit around seven to eight hours of sleep each night, meditation, yoga and tai chi – and all of that, of course, must also make space for a training regime that has got him to the very top of his sport.
“We are all humans,” he says. “One day we will get up and think: I don’t feel like playing, don’t feel like practising, don’t feel like living that day. From time to time everything goes bad in your thoughts, so it is good to have that record of how you got through things before.”
The Serb may be role model for many, but his success has brought with it criticisms and critics.
“Djokovic is a wonder of a ferociously competitive age, a talent who has not only prospered through the latter part of Federer and Rafael Nadal’s golden years, but emerged strongest as fresher rivals like Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have fought them for supremacy,” said BBC Chief Sports Writer Tom Fordyce.
“And yet he is inevitably cast as the strait-laced villain to those more flamboyant heroes, as stern and sinister as Terence Stamp in Superman II, not so much General Zod as General Djok.”
But some of the sport’s biggest names know that Djokovic is really only just getting started.
Four-time Wimbledon semi-finalist Tim Henman says: “When you reflect on how Novak has left no stone unturned, his serving has been getting better all the time, his diet, his preparation, it is all first class.
“He is in his prime, he is 28, I see him at the top of the game for five or six years. I see him adding to his Grand Slam collection very soon.”
John McEnroe agrees. During this year’s Wimbledon tournament, the veteran US champion-turned-commentator told reporters: “It is pretty hard not to think that he is getting stronger and stronger. If he stays healthy, he is going to dominate the next couple of years. He is definitely into my all-time top five – my top four are Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Roger and Rafael Nadal, but Novak is at number five and rising.
“Novak does not have as many Grand Slams as those guys but I am thinking his total is going to rise quickly.”