No 1 record beaten, family, father time: Why Djokovic will turn the “Roger mode” on in Grand Slams

Novak Djokovic says he will rework his schedule in the coming years to win as many more Grand Slam titles as possible

Novak Djokovic, 2021 Australian Open AI / REUTERS / PANORAMIC

Not content with winning his 18th Grand Slam title, Novak Djokovic said he plans to focus even more on adding to his tally of majors, as he hunts down Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the top of the all-time list.

Djokovic’s 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 win over Daniil Medvedev at the Australian Open on Sunday put him within two of the record of 20 and on this kind of form, few would bet against him closing the gap further as the year progresses.

Slams the main focus now

With doubts about how easily players will be able to travel the world in the coming months due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Djokovic said his focus will be even more on performing at the Grand Slams, especially as he is assured of breaking Federer’s record of 310 weeks as world No 1, on March 8.

“Now, after achieving the historic No 1 for the longest weeks, it’s going to be a relief for me because I’m going to focus all my attention on slams mostly,” he said. “When you are going for No 1 rankings, you kind of have to be playing the entire season and you have to be playing well, you have to play all the tournaments.

“My goals will adapt and will shift a little bit, which means that I will have to adjust also my calendar – not have to, but I will have an opportunity to do that which, as a father and a husband, I’m really looking forward to. Judging by what we’re seeing around the world, having family on the road with me will be a very difficult task, because if I’m going to travel around, I have to take my coaches and everything, and we have rules in place that don’t allow really more people than I think two people on the tournaments to travel with you, other than slams.”

Work-family balance the key

Federer, in particular, has long tailored his game to peaking at the four Grand Slams. The Swiss first made adjustments after the birth of his first set of twins in 2009 and since his second set of twins were born in 2014, he has targeted Grand Slams more than ever – and in particular the ones he feels he has the best chance to win. He missed Roland-Garros in 2017 and 2018, in order to give himself the best chance to win Wimbledon, and it worked, as he won his eighth Wimbledon title in 2017.

Now, at the age of 39, he cannot play the number of events he once did; Dubai, Halle and Basel are the only tournaments he usually plays outside of the Grand Slams and obligatory Masters 1000s.

Djokovic said balancing work and family life is increasingly difficult, as he wants to see his 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter grow.

“I will have to revise my schedule comparing to the last year or any other season before this. I explained my reasons why. Obviously time away from family definitely is something that has an impact on me. I’ll have to see with these rules and regulations and restrictions in place all over the world, Europe, not being able to take my family on the road is something that is a big problem for me.

Jelena and Novak Djokovic - cropped

“Well, when I’m on the road of course I have to try to use the most of my time on the road and make my absence from the home valuable, try to make a big success as a reason why I’ve travelled so far and for so long without seeing my kids and my wife. Of course, I miss them. I mean, at times it rips my heart apart, to watch my kids. Thankfully to technology you can see them on FaceTime and everything. But not being close to them, being separated for a long time…

“But there are so many people around the world that suffer much more than I do, so I can’t really sit here and complain. Of course, I’ve been very fortunate in my life. I truly do miss them. I can’t wait to see them.”

The Three Knights of Tennis

Djokovic’s win in Melbourne – his ninth Australian Open title – means that between himself, Federer and Nadal, the Big 3 have won 15 of the past 16 Grand Slam events, with Dominic Thiem the only one to break through in that time. Even with Federer at 39, Nadal turning 35 in June and Djokovic becoming 34 in May, the trio remain the ones to beat at Grand Slams, with Djokovic describing them, laughing, as “The Three Knights of Tennis”.

“I enjoy the success every single time even more because I know that the longer the time passes, the more difficult it’s going to become for me to get my hands on the major trophy because you have new young players coming up that are as hungry as you, maybe even hungrier,” he said. “They’re coming up and they’re challenging me and Roger and Rafa. (We) have been mostly dominating the slams in the last 15 years.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, Melbourne, 2020

“I don’t feel like I’m old or tired or anything like that. But I know that, you know, biologically and realistically things are different than they were 10 years ago for me. I have to be smarter with my schedule and peak at the right time. So the slams are the tournaments where I want to be able to perform my best.”

Battle for supremacy

Federer, out of action for 12 months after having knee surgery, is scheduled to return to the Tour in Doha in March while Nadal, who reached the quarter-finals in Melbourne, will be big favourite come the clay-court season and Roland-Garros, where last year he beat Djokovic in the final to win for a record 13th time. The three men continue to push each other on to greater heights.

“Everyone has their own journey and their own way of making history,” Djokovic said. “They’ve made history already. They made a tremendous mark in our sport. I’m trying to build that and develop that myself in a very unique, authentic way that is suitable to me.

“(Do) I think about winning more slams and breaking records? Of course, I do. And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in majors, trying to win more major trophies.”

Big 3 still keeping young guns at bay

Thiem, Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev are leading the way for the younger players but breaking through the Big 3 remains an incredibly difficult task, one that continues to elude most of them. Djokovic said they are all good enough but doing it is another matter.

“I think just Roger, Rafa and myself have managed to always play our best tennis at slams,” he said. “We have the experience of knowing what to do, how we can win matches in best-of-five on different surfaces. I think that’s made it more challenging for guys that are in the next generation, up-and-coming.

“I mean, Dominic (Thiem) contested in several Grand Slam finals before he actually got a trophy, got a win. How long is going to take for maybe Zverev or Tsitsipas or Medvedev to do the same? I don’t know. But they seem awfully close. I mean, Medvedev was definitely a guy to beat today. I mean, 20-match winning streak. Tsitsipas, Zverev, Medvedev, they all won World Tour Finals, multiple Masters 1000 events and high ranking. They have all contested in semis and finals of slams, so it’s just a matter of time. But hopefully not so close.

Goran Ivanisevic with Novak Djokovic, Adria Tour, 2020

“There is a lot of quality in tennis from the younger guys that are coming up. I was mentioning before they’re very close to start winning major titles more consistently. But Roger, Rafa, myself are still there for a reason. We don’t want to hand it to them and we don’t want to allow them to win slams. I think that’s something that is very clear. Whether you communicate that message or not, we are definitely sending that vibe out there. I’m sticking to that.”

Ivanisevic: You cannot play only Grand Slams

Djokovic said he will take some time to recover from the stomach muscle injury he suffered in the third round, which he confirmed on Sunday had been a tear. But his coach Goran Ivanisevic said he would also have to play enough before the slams to be in optimum shape.

“You cannot only concentrate about Grand Slams,” he said. “You always have to play something before Grand Slams to have a match. So he’s going to have to play something before every Grand Slam, before big tournaments. Now, to be honest, I don’t care because he won the tournament and he can play next tournament French Open if you ask me. But he needs to play. He needs to play something before. He is the guy, he wants to play, these spectators I hope is going to be back soon, because this is sport about, you play for the spectators. Everybody enjoyed it after one year of sadness.”

Ivanisevic said the battle to see who will end up with the most Grand Slams is likely to continue for a while yet.

“Honestly, Rafa is going to win one more, maybe two for sure, French Opens.” he said. “(So) you need to keep going winning. Novak is favourite in Wimbledon and US Open.

“Rafa for sure is going to win one, I hope not two, but I give him one. Who knows. They (the big three) are unbelievable. They producing better and better tennis. Every time when you think they gone, the young guns are coming, they are here but these guys are better, one step better in the finals. I don’t know where is the end. Maybe they’re going to pass Margaret Court (the overall record-holder with 24) and Serena (Williams, who has 23), maybe not. But it’s amazing what they doing on the court. It’s amazing how they perform on the big matches. I’m waiting for Roger to come back. It’s going to be more interesting to see what’s going to happen in French and Wimbledon.”

“It’s just great. The race is there. Who knows? I said couple years ago Rafa and Novak, they going to overtake Roger, both of them. I still believe that. I still think so.”

Novak Djokovic return AO Final

Djokovic: “Roger and Rafa inspire me”

Djokovic said the battle between the three men helped give him the motivation to carry on playing as long as possible.

“Roger and Rafa inspire me,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve said before. I’ll say it again. I mean, I think as long as they go, I’ll go. I think in a way it’s, like, a race who plays tennis more, I guess, and who wins more. It’s a competition between us in all areas. But I think that’s the very reason why we are who we are, because we do drive each other, we motivate each other, we push each other to the limit.”

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