“The desire is still there, but things can change quickly – I am 36, guys”: Djokovic doesn’t avoid the age factor anymore

For the first time in a tennis reporter’s memory, Novak Djokovic talks openly about his slower recovery compared to ten years ago and admits that age is a factor. But he’s even clearer on another fact: records continue to motivate him and he still enjoys the game

Novak Djokovic, 2023 Novak Djokovic, Rome 2023 | © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

“35 is the new 25,” joked Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open this year. “He can go on for a few more years – two, three, four…” said his coaches Marian Vajda (they parted ways in 2022) and Goran Ivanisevic, even this year, hinting at just the same thing. Now aged 36 and regularly asked to monitor his physical shape, Djokovic doesn’t shrug off these questions anymore. Something has changed at Roland-Garros this year.

The Serbian admitted on Saturday that his body is feeling the wear of a long career, even if he feels that he still has fuel left in the tank. This would be the best moment to use it: Djokovic is looking to win a record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam title at the French Open, and his only active rival, Rafael Nadal, is out of this tournament.

“I want to believe that I am ready,” Djokovic said.

“Grand Slams are my priority, they motivate me the most. The best possible news is that I don’t have any physical issues, knock on wood,“ continued the 2016 and 2021 French Open winner, who struggled with his elbow during the clay court season.

Novak Djokovic (Serbia) during a training session of Roland-Garros 2023
Novak Djokovic (Serbia) during a training session of Roland-Garros 2023 – Zuma / Panoramic

Djokovic “calibrated for Grand Slams”

“When a Slam is getting closer, when I need to prepare and approach it, I feel more comfortable and inspired than at any other tournament. I’ve calibrated myself mentally to be focused on Slams – they are the priority right now, along with playing for Serbia, and winning a tournament other than a Slam is just an added bonus for me now.“

It all started during the English part of the press conference. It was a bit unusual seeing Djokovic talking openly and giving a long answer about how his body wasn’t the same as before. Earlier, when that topic would come up, he would make a joke or wouldn’t go too in depth.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic at Rome 2023 (AI/Reuters/Panoramic)

“I don’t have any physical issues that worry me. So that’s most important for me. You know, I want to feel good coming into a Grand Slam. I mean, that was the case with Australia this year. To be honest, I played great tennis in Adelaide and had a good lead-up, and then I got injured actually in last few matches in Adelaide lightly and then even more in practice week before Australia. So I had to deal with that have injury throughout the entire tournament which wasn’t pleasant. But, you know, I won the tournament so it was amazing to be able to win it this way.

“But, you know, hopefully I don’t need to deal with something like that. But I have to be ready that eventually things like that might happen nowadays more than that was the case before. So part of me is confident and always aspires to win Grand Slams and biggest titles in this sport, but I also have to be humble about the fact that things are a bit different, you know, with the way I’m feeling on the court month after month, you know. The beating is harder than it was before, physically,” he concluded with a smile.

The impact of Nadal’s withdrawal on Djokovic

Nadal’s withdrawal, after long months of absence due to his physical condition, also rang a bell in the Serb’s mind. “It made me think about my career and how long I’m going to play. So far I’m not going to make any announcement today, but just reflecting on it, you know, I felt also a little bit emotional about what he was saying.

“I felt that it was a moment to share, because I was caught off guard by the news that 2024 would be the last in Nadal’s career,” admitted Djokovic in Serbian. “It’s true that he is one year older and that he had more injuries than me, but we’re basically the same generation and we spent so many years together on the Tour.”

I think John McEnroe said that he felt a part of him left with Bjorn Borg when the Swede decided to retire at 26. When I heard the news about Nadal, that quote of John’s momentarily came to my mind

Novak Djokovic

He heard an echo from history as he digested the news. “I think John McEnroe said that he felt a part of him left with Bjorn Borg when the Swede decided to retire at 26. When I heard the news about Nadal, that quote of John’s momentarily came to my mind,“ said Djokovic before going on to say: “I am not going to lie to you and say that I didn’t think about my retirement and how that would look, but I still have fuel in my tank. We’ll see for how long it will last, I don’t have a date or anything… It depends on how I feel physically.”

Djokovic : “More difficulties and more pain”

He added: “When I said in English that things weren’t the same as they used to be, I meant the way my body reacts – it’s not as ideal as it was ten years ago. In the past, I used to recover much quicker, now I have more difficulties and more pain, something is always happening on a weekly basis (with the body). It depends on the mental side of things as well, how long will I stay motivated considering that I achieved almost everything in this sport.”

In the past, Djokovic often referred to himself as “the wolf hungry for more”, and the question is – how long will that flame continue to burn?

“I am being completely honest with you guys. I have asked this question also, but it’s not like I think about it all the time. The desire is still there, but things can change quickly – I am 36, I’ve been a pro for 20 years. I don’t like to look at age as a decisive factor, I pay attention to what my general state is like and whether I enjoy it. History is on the line, and it’s been like that for more than five years now. Almost any tournament there is something like ’oh, now you can achieve this or break this record’. I think I’ve broken a lot of records, but that still pushes me to keep going.

New kids are coming and we’ll see how long I want to keep pushing

Novak Djokovic

“That is one of the biggest reasons why I keep playing. At this level, I feel you need to set clear goals and to have a path you’ll follow in order to achieve them. That kind of attitude brought me to the place I am now. On the other hand, things change, new kids are coming and we’ll see how long I want to keep pushing.”

In Paris, Djokovic has a chance to win his 23rd Slam title, which would put him one trophy above Nadal in the race for most majors. “Looking at the results throughout my career, I have a better chance at Wimbledon and at the US Open. Nadal is not in Paris this year and that changes things, because he prevented me from winning a few more titles here. But I did lift the trophy twice and I managed to beat Rafa twice, in 2015 and 2021. I felt really good during the practice week. I see that players are complaining that the balls are big and that the conditions are slower, it is slower, but for now I feel and play really good. I hope it stays that way.“

In the first round of Roland Garros, Djokovic is scheduled to play world No 114 Aleksandar Kovacevic on Monday.

Novak Djokovic Rome 23
Novak Djokovic at Rome, 2023 | © AI/Reuters/Panoramic

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