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Open-hearted Djokovic before the Australian Open: “I cry every time I leave home…”
Ahead of his pursuit for a record-extending 10th Australian Open title, Novak Djokovic spoke to Tennis Majors about the upcoming tournament, and he opened up on various topics that reveal the mentality of the 21-time Grand Slam champion.
Twelve months after being deported from Australia, Novak Djokovic is once again Down Under, on a tennis mission to capture a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title in Melbourne.
“At this moment in time, I think it is even more interesting for people to watch Grand Slams – when we are all there and healthy, it is dramatic and fascinating to follow who might claim the trophy,” he told Tennis Majors in comments made in Serbian at the press conferences in Adelaide, previewing what should be a tightly-contested Australian Open, although fourth seed Djokovic likely remains the favourite.
Djokovic spoke candidly about who he sees as the main contenders for the title, what the experience from last year has taught him, dinner with Nick Kyrgios, but also about him putting on muscle mass in the offseason, his phone usage, upcoming documentary, how he wants to be remembered, work-family balance, as well as athletes who have influenced him.
“Patience, self-belief, principles”
You often say that a man learns as long as he lives. What have you learned about yourself in the past 12 months? How has the whole experience in Australia changed you?
Yes, every day is a new lesson. The main takeaways from everything that happened are patience, belief in yourself and adhering to principles you care about. I have experienced difficult moments in Australia and the aftermath: being attacked from all angles, basically from the whole world, but I expected something like that, considering how the society works these days – there always has to be one individual who is guilty of something. That is how the games are played and things are hidden.
As much as I was aware of that, it was really tough for me to handle. Patience and the feeling of togetherness with my family and close ones have helped me overcome all the obstacles to be where I am today. I strive to be better, I am open to everything life can teach and test me in, that is my motto, generally speaking.
Who do you see as your biggest threat at the Australian Open and which young players do you see making a breakthrough?
All the players from the top are the biggest rivals, that is always the case. Tsitsipas, Sinner, Zverev, of course Medvedev and Nadal, who is a veteran just like me. When it comes to younger players, it is obvious that Carlos Alcaraz, who sadly won’t be playing in Melbourne, and Holger Rune are frontrunners. They are both 19 years old, and Alcaraz is deservedly No 1, he had a fantastic year. At this moment in time, I think it is even more interesting for people to watch Grand Slams – when we are all there and healthy, it is dramatic and fascinating to follow who will claim the trophy.
“I am glad that I put on some muscle mass”
People have noticed that you bulked up a bit in the off-season, that you gained maybe two or three kilos…
I have lost it already! To be more precise, I lost 1.5kg in Adelaide. It happens. In the off-season, when there are no tournaments, I have the chance to build muscle mass, although in tennis we do not have as much time to do that as in other sports. Now the opportunity presented itself and I am glad that the work I put in was fruitful. Playing a tournament always drains you, so I hope I will be able to restore my weight in the next few days.
Have you fulfilled your promise to Nick Kyrgios to take him to dinner, and is there a possibility for Nick to play at the Serbia Open?
Ha ha, no, still no dinner, but Melbourne is going to be an opportunity to do that. As for the Serbia Open, considering that he was one of the very few people who stood by me and supported me in Australia, I think that people back home have changed their opinion about him in a positive way – many people are now eager to see him play. We are having conversations, we had them last year as well. We would love to have him there, I think that he would enjoy his time there and that he would have a lot of support. If he wants to, he is more than welcome.
“Documentary? I hope by the middle of the year”
You announced a documentary during Australian Open 2021, the date for a premiere has changed a few times – where are you at now?
There have been some changes considering everything that happened last year. We had something set and then we had to alter our plans. Now we are adjusting to that, we do not yet have an exact date, but I think it should come out by the middle of this year. We are in the process of editing, the finish line is close and I hope everyone will be able to see it soon. There is a lot of material, I have lived through many things in my life, so now we are deciding whether it will be a documentary or series.
How would you like to be remembered?
By my personal traits, hopefully more by my virtues than my flaws, which I have, just like any other human being. I try to live my life to the fullest and to remain aware of the fact that there are many people who were not as lucky as me. The way I grew up helped me preserve that awareness, I always try to remind myself where I came from.
Everything in life that I now have was not given to me, I had to earn it, together with the people around me who have helped me to live my dream and continue to do so. I hope that I spread positive energy towards sports fans throughout the world – I would love for people to feel nice when they come to see me play and that they remember me as someone who cares about others. Of course, by my achievements in tennis too, which I hope there are more to come.
Conversations with Maradona
In a recent interview with the Serbian outlet Sport Klub, NBA star Bogdan Bogdanovic spoke about how much your advice has meant to him. You often mentioned Kobe Bryant as someone whose words influenced you very much – who are some of the other athletes who have inspired you the most?
I have read what he said and I can only thank him, as he is a friend, an exceptional guy and a fantastic basketball player who I support in everything he does. Together with Nikola Jokic, he is flying the Serbian flag in the NBA. We speak whenever we get the chance. It is always interesting to gain insight into the routine of fellow athletes: how they perceive things, how they practise and recover, their approach etc. There is a lot of common ground between different sports, that is why I am curious, so that I can maybe implement something into my routine. As a professional athlete, you must always strive to advance, because to stagnate means to regress.
Many athletes have influenced me. You mentioned Kobe Bryant, of course. I knew Diego Maradona well, many times we spoke about life and sports and I did get a few useful pointers. The same goes for Michael Jordan. If we speak about tennis, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, who were my coaches. I appreciate the history of every sport and everything that the greats of the past did to make sport a global phenomenon.
Djokovic : “I cry every time I leave home”
You live an atypical life, obviously. How do you manage to find the balance between your work and your family?
It is not easy, there is no golden formula. Just like anyone who travels a lot due to the nature of their work, I have difficulties when it comes to seeing my wife and kids, my parents, brothers…I do not get to spend as much time as I would like with my family – for instance, I will spend over a month in Australia now. That hurts, I cry every time I leave home. Sometimes I wish it was different, but again, I am very grateful for everything that life has given me – my hardships are nothing compared to other people’s.
I try to be aware of that fact, but I still miss my family very much. I find myself constantly searching for that balance, together with my wife – sometimes I get it right, sometimes I do not. Life is like that, just like waves, up and down, so the most important thing for a man is to stay true to himself and to do his best to adjust to all the circumstances.
Plenty of young tennis players and athletes spend too much time on social media and mobile phones, which can be, and often is, a distraction. How do you manage your phone time?
I spend time on my phone as well. These days, it is the norm, it is normal, but it is not healthy at all – radiation, distraction, addiction… Personally, I enjoy Instagram, it is a great app for some things that I look for as I love life through pictures. On the other hand, I try to warn myself not to spend too much time on it, so that I can find a balance between social media and real society, real people, without technology.
It is very hard to do so nowadays, because at tournaments all over the world, people are mainly glued to their phones, there is not much interaction. A lot has changed since I became a pro 20 years ago. It is not commendable and my advice to young athletes would be to be aware of that and to find a formula that suits them. Also, not to use the phones in the evening, as the blue light affects the way you sleep and wake up. For me, it depends on many circumstances – for instance, if I am away, I will probably spend more time on the phone, so I can speak to my family.
Djokovic : “I do not have a problem with saying ‘sorry’ if I made a mistake”
In the context of prejudice against athletes from Eastern Europe, Ivan Lendl had a much different approach than you, he accepted the role of the villain. On the other hand, you are completely different – you are pleasant, warm to everyone… What motivates you to behave like that?
Not always! I also make mistakes towards people close to me, many times they tolerate me both on and off the court. I have a lot of outbursts and mood shifts, so I do not really see myself as an embodiment of virtue, far from it. On the other hand, my view is that a person should be open to life and learning. I do not have a problem with saying ‘sorry’ to someone if I made a mistake, I think it is human. One should be aware of the mistake and should repent a little, that is good and healthy. After that, one should move on and continue, because there will be a million more mistakes.
This is one concept that I notice in today’s society, especially in the West – people have lost their sincerity, they are not open with each other, a lot of it comes down to interests and material things, and some real values are heavily neglected. This is because society is set up like that – the media tells us every day what we should buy, that we should behave in a certain way, be afraid of this or that…
And in sports, the philosophy ‘only number one is valuable, all the rest are losers’ is often imposed, especially in individual sports. I strive for success, of course, but success is a destination, we must learn to enjoy the path to that success, look forward to it and cherish it. I try to remind myself to enjoy the journey. In general, we need more respect for others, more compassion for the difficulties others are going through. For example, everyone is so brave on social media and in the stands, but when you meet them in person, then they behave differently.
Thanks to Branka Bauk for her help in writing this article