Ivanisevic: “Novak broke all the limits, we want to peak in Paris”

In the Tennis Majors exclusive, Ivanisevic talks about the reception during the Australian Open, the tension and pressure surrounding the injury and the relief afterwards, the possibility for Djokovic to play in Miami, the upcoming clay court season and potential battles with Rafael Nadal

Ivanisevic and Djokovic, Australian Open 2023 Ivanisevic and Djokovic, Australian Open 2023 – © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Following a turbulent and challenging Australian Open that nonetheless ended happily for Novak Djokovic and his team, his coach Goran Ivanisevic needed a change of scenery and time to decompress. He went skiing with his family in Austria before rejoining forces with Djokovic for the Dubai Tennis Championships, where Novak reached the semifinals.

“We can’t stop people from saying this or that, let everyone think what they want, but I find it hilarious when someone says: ‘Oh, he faked (the injury) during the match’. Sure, the best player in the world needs to fake an injury to win against a player who would maybe take a few games off of him. He would win either way”, reflected Ivanisevic in his first interview since the Australian Open, speaking about those who doubted Djokovic’s hamstring injury.

In the Tennis Majors exclusive, Ivanisevic commented on the reception during the Australian Open, the tension and pressure surrounding the injury, as well as the relief afterwards. Also, Ivanisevic spoke on the possibility for Djokovic to play in Miami, the upcoming clay court season, potential battles with Rafael Nadal, Djokovic’s days off, records, etc.

Let’s start with the most current – the tournament in Dubai. What worked well, what didn’t?

In the first match Novak played so-so, although I was surprised by the level of Thomas Machac – I don’t know how it is possible that he is ranked 130th in the world and I hope that he will climb the rankings soon. The next two matches (against Griekspoor and Hurkacz), Novak played remarkably.

Against Medvedev, I felt like he wasn’t mentally present the way he should have been. Namely, I think he was affected by everything that was going on regarding the exemption to come to the United States. He gave away a lot of points in that match. When playing against Medvedev, you need to be patient and ready to play for 300 days if that’s what it takes, and Novak was impatient. In those moments when he did play the right way, Medvedev had some extraordinary answers. No wonder, he is – in my opinion – the second best player in the world at this moment, after Novak. 

All in all – everything is good, it’s better that it happened there and not at a bigger tournament.

So, Novak knew that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the USA before his match with Medvedev?

Unfortunately – yes. He has a strong desire to play in the U.S. this year, and the good thing is that it seems that the rule preventing him from entering will be abandoned in May. If that will be the case, Novak should be able to play the more important part of the year in the States: the US Open and the tournaments before New York. 

Have you given up on playing Miami or…?

We haven’t given up. He wants to play and I would love it if they allow him – it would be great both for him and for tennis. If not, it’s not the end of the world, he didn’t play last year as well. The most important thing is that we find out soon, so that we can make a plan.

Although, in terms of preparing for the European clay court season, I’m not sure playing in Miami is the best solution. It depends on Novak – in the past he has triumphed in Monte Carlo having played in Indian Wells and Miami. If he is mentally ready and in his fighter mode, like he was in Australia, then anything is possible.

I felt like he had the biggest support ever in Melbourne this year

Goran Ivanisevic
Novak Djokovic, Adelaide 2023
Novak Djokovic, Adelaide 2023 | © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Going back to Australia, it has been more than a month now – how would you describe the whole experience?

To sum it up: when you think you’ve seen it all, something new comes up. As I said before, Novak was a bit afraid of the reception in Australia, but everything was perfect since we arrived in Adelaide. The Serbian community backed him there big time, it was as if we were in Belgrade – but the Australian crowd was great as well. Personally, I felt like he had the biggest support ever in Melbourne this year. Not counting that sh.t with injury, everything went smoothly. 

Novak didn’t practice on his days off and even he admitted that he was very nervous. How hard was it to deal with him throughout the tournament?

It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. I am used to pressure, you have to be ready for everything when you’re Djokovic’s coach, but I felt bad for him. The injury occurred in Adelaide, but it worsened after a practice in Melbourne, on Saturday before the tournament. 

I really thought that I’d seen it all in 2021, when he won the Australian Open with an abdominal tear, but this time he managed to surpass himself and not only my expectations, but the doctors’ as well. 

Every day he spent five-six hours in treatment, both on match days and off days. He just proved once again how great he is, by winning a Slam title without properly practicing. 

There have been many speculations about Novak’s injury. What would your answer be to the doubters, to the people claiming that it’s impossible to play with that kind of injury?

I don’t know how to name these people… I’ve seen some players who I don’t even take seriously saying all kinds of things. Everything is documented – MRI scans, doctor’s and radiologist’s opinions etc. He doesn’t want to do it now, but Novak said that he will come out with those publicly at some point.

Anything is possible in life. As I said, I thought that it was impossible in 2021 too, but he did it. The same doctor he consulted with at that time told us this year that this is impossible, and that she hadn’t seen anything like that in her life. Some people deal with pain better, some worse. 

You guys went to all of his warm-ups, you saw everything. Out of seven warm-ups, maybe two or three were business as usual, everything else… I don’t even know what to call it, he was just hitting the ball with no movement. In matches, you saw that he didn’t chase many balls, but he still managed to win the title by playing a perfected aggressive brand of tennis – I don’t remember ever seeing him play so aggressively in a Slam.

When his leg felt better, for the finals, he perhaps played the most defensive match out of all seven, since he could move better. 

We can’t stop people from saying one thing and the other, let everyone think what they want, but I find it hilarious when someone says: “Oh, he faked (the injury) during the match”. Sure, the best player in the world needs to fake an injury to win against a player who would maybe take a few games off of him. He would win either way.

People will always talk about this and that, what’s important is that Novak lifted the trophy. As for the others: Sorry, guys, what can I do?

Our main focus is Roland-Garros

Goran Ivanisevic

To me Novak seems ambivalent about all that. Sometimes he wants to go public and other times to keep everything private; sometimes it seems that he’s already used to these kinds of comments, and other times it seems that they affect him. What is your perspective?

As far as I know, there is going to be a documentary about his journey, injuries and everything, so perhaps he will publish it there. At the end of the day, it’s his business, nobody else’s. Everybody deals differently with the injuries and with the comments in the media. What I find incredible is some no-name players making comments, instead of just staying silent and being happy that they got to win a few games against him. 

How did you celebrate the trophy in Melbourne?

Easy, we just enjoyed ourselves. When an 800-tone burden is lifted off your back, you feel relief and you don’t have the strength to go crazy. 

What’s the plan for clay? Novak said that he wants to start-off that part of the season better.

First of all, nothing is comparable to last year, a year no ordinary human being would “survive”. After everything that happened in Australia, he was sick and stuck to his bed for 10 days before the clay court season. In Monte Carlo, he could barely breathe, it was a bit better in Belgrade, and then he started to play better – Madrid, Rome, all the way to the Roland Garros quarter-final (against Nadal). To be honest, I still don’t know what happened there, I still find that match a bit odd. Novak just wasn’t mentally ready to fight Nadal, who was the better player and deserved to win.

So this year, the most important thing is to stay healthy and to prepare really well physically. Of course, our main focus is Roland Garros, he needs to be ready to give it his all there. He can do it. Nadal is the favorite on clay as long as he can walk, but if Novak is mentally up for it, he can beat anyone.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros 2022
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros 2022 Image Credit: AI/Reuters/Panoramic

Apart from Nadal, who will be the biggest competition on clay?

Carlos Alcaraz, first and foremost. (Alexander) Zverev played a terrific Roland-Garros last year until the injury. (Stefanos) Tsitsipas is there as well, a former finalist. There are a lot of guys hungry for success, who want it badly and believe that they can do it, only to the point where they see that they can’t (laughing). It’s going to be an interesting clay court season, but for us the most important thing is to peak in Paris. 

You often say that Novak keeps surprising you. For how long do you see him competing at the highest level and winning Grand Slam titles?

I am sure that he can go on for a few more years – two, three, four, I can’t put an exact number on it. His body is in perfect shape because he takes care of it so meticulously, he is always introducing something fresh into his regime. I mean, he won seven matches in Melbourne with half a leg, playing the way he played. His tennis keeps getting better and this is not just my opinion as his coach.

Tennis commentators have noted the same and, most importantly, so have fellow players. When they say that they didn’t have a chance, that Novak’s shots were just too deep, that there was nothing they could have done… Those guys are 15 years younger than him and still can’t handle Novak when he is mentally ready. He is just too strong. 

For how long can he keep going like this, it depends on his motivations, desire, goals… A few more years for sure. 

Djokovic and Nadal are putting up some unreal numbers and they aren’t even done yet. How long do you think their records will last?

In the careers of the Big3, it was huge that they pushed each other and made each other better players. That kept the fire going.

When you consider the injuries and all the sh.t Novak and Rafa went through, it is astonishing what they have been able to do, and it’s still them running the show at the Majors. It’s difficult to say that their records will never be broken, but I really can’t imagine how that can happen… Particularly Novak’s record of most weeks at No 1. If someone in the past was telling us to imagine these numbers, we would think it was some kind of joke. 

You often say that it can get intense with Novak in practice. Can you give us a recent example?

OK. So, his return was remarkable in Australia. In Dubai, he was in practice with Felix (Auger-Aliassime). I mean, the guy was serving 220 km/h into the corners, two people would barely return those serves, and Novak misses a few returns even though guessed the right side.

And then it starts. He’s asking “Why?” and stating “something is off”, but you see, that’s the interesting part of practice – he always challenges me to find something and that makes me a better coach. Sometimes you have to tell him: “OK, but that was a 220 km/h serve on the line, it’s hard to return it”. It’s difficult for him to accept that, but it’s good that he is like that – that’s why he is who he is and has 22 Grand Slam titles to his name.

I feel that the GOAT question will always remain open

Goran Ivanisevic

Does Djokovic ever take a day completely off, when he doesn’t do anything?

Perhaps when he is relaxing with his family. But at the tournaments and around tournaments… If we agreed that we would take a day off, he is always like “oh, let’s just do a bit of this” or “I will go do that just for a little while”, so in the end it’s not a day off at all. We are searching for the right balance, but we still haven’t reached a stadium in which there is a full day off (laughing). I don’t think it will happen either, he is just wired that way.

In 10 to 15 years after his career is over, how do you think that tennis will remember Novak?

I feel that the G.O.A.T. question will always remain open as it depends on personal preference. Personally, I will remember him as the greatest player of all time and a man who broke all the limits. It’s like he came straight from that show The Twilight Zone: unreal results, unreal shots, unreal everything… Sometimes I watch him and I don’t think it’s possible what he is doing – while I’m watching him do it. And he not only does it again, but does it even better. He will be remembered as a great fighter who proved that anything is possible. 

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