Goran Ivanisevic exclusive interview: “Djokovic is the only player who can achieve a calendar year Grand Slam”

Novak Djokovic created history by winning Roland-Garros for the second time on Sunday. In an exclusive interview with Tennis Majors, his coach Goran Ivanisevic shares his thoughts about the tournament, on Djokovic’s self-belief and mindset, and his chances at Wimbledon which gets underway in less than two weeks

15 June 2021
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Goran Ivanisevic, the coach of the world No 1 Novak Djokovic, has revealed that he never stopped believing in the Serb during his Roland-Garros campaign, even when Djokovic was two-sets-to-love down in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, in an exclusive interview to Tennis Majors.

As part of a previously arranged agreement, Ivanisevic was with Djokovic in Melbourne for the Australian Open while Marian Vajda took over frontline coaching duties in Paris. Ivanisevic will be joining Djokovic again for Wimbledon, the place where the Croat famously won his only Grand Slam title in 2001 as a wildcard ranked No 125 in the world.

Before looking ahead to SW19, Ivanisevic shared his views on Djokovic’s wins over Rafael Nadal and Tsitsipas, what it is like to work with the Serb, and even about his prediction from last year that Djokovic will beat Nadal in the 2020 Roland-Garros final. In the interview with Tennis Majors, Ivanisevic also commented on Djokovic’s longevity, how much the recent Belgrade Open title meant to him, and several other topics.

I have never seen Rafa so powerless at Roland-Garros

Goran Ivanisevic

Tennis Majors: What was your first reaction to this huge accomplishment? It was a rough road, hence the title must have been even sweeter.

Goran Ivanisevic: I was saying for some time that I think it would be easier for Novak to play Nadal in the semi-finals. We were in Belgrade when the draw for Roland-Garros came out, and he was not particularly happy seeing Rafa and Roger in his half of the draw. Honestly, I preferred it that way. Rafa has never lost a final in Paris, the approach and mentality for a final is always very specific, and Rafa has 13 titles in Paris. It is a similar mentality to the one Djokovic has at the Australian Open.

The match started almost identically to last year’s final, but this time it was like if Novak reset himself when he was 0-5 down in the first set. He nearly clawed his way back into that set and I knew that we were going to see a very different match going forward. What happened in the second, third and fourth set… I have never seen Rafa so powerless at Roland-Garros. I feel like Novak could have won the third set sooner, but overall, his tennis was perfect.

Tennis Majors: What were the important keys tactically in order for Novak to beat Rafa?

Goran Ivanisevic: Firstly, he was prepared to stay on that court for 20 hours, if that is what it took to win. In the 2020 final, Novak did not show up, he kept trying to shorten the points. This time around, he was willing to run and run, he was prepared for a physically grueling battle.

I feel that Novak opened up the court pretty well. There has been a lot of talk about the conditions in the evening, but I do not think that had a big effect. Unlike last year, Novak dealt way better with Rafa’s looping backhands to his backhand, that shot did not bother him as much.

Also, he was very focused when finishing points off. With Rafa, you attack and attack, and then he suddenly counterattacks, and you are in trouble. This time around, Novak believed in his shots, even when he was missing. Rafa could not do anything.

“We knew that Tsitsipas was going to be extremely difficult to beat”

Tennis Majors: How hard was the task of recuperating for the finals after an exhausting match with Nadal?

Goran Ivanisevic: Novak is exceptionally professional. Had he lost the final, a win over Rafa would not have meant anything. Yes, it was a nice feeling to beat Rafa at the French Open, but you need to forget that after an hour.

Stefanos Tsitsipas at Roland-Garros in 2021
Stefanos Tsitsipas at Roland-Garros in 2021 © AI / REUTERS / PANORAMIC

We knew that Tsitsipas was going to be extremely difficult to beat. I mean, he is playing some terrific ball – he is young and fit, a complete player. His serve is very good, he moves around the court phenomenally, his forehand is exquisite, he has improved his backhand a lot, and he is not shy when it comes to attacking the net. Personally, he is my favorite out of all the younger players.

Novak was highly motivated. He started off well, having break points in the first game, then serving at 6-5 to take the lead.

Tennis Majors: What happened then? Suddenly, it looked like Novak had a grudge against the sun?

Goran Ivanisevic: Yes, Novak often finds someone to fight with, he needs it, it fuels him. If it is not us in the box, then it is the sun, if not the sun, it is the clouds (ha-ha). He played that game badly, just like the first three or four points in the tie break.

He came back, played an incredible return being a set point up, but Tsitsipas hit that forehand; it was one of those shots to which you can only say “well done“. Then, Novak switched off in the second set, the way you would switch a light off.

Novak Djokovic had to wake up and I believed that he would

Goran Ivanisevic

Tennis Majors: Were you worried at that point?

Goran Ivanisevic: I was not worried. I said that Novak needs only one set and that he will win if he is able to take the third set. I thought maybe the fourth set could be closer, but I believed that in the fifth, Tsitsipas would not stand a chance.

It happened that way. I believed, not only because of Novak’s experience, but because it seemed to me that Tsitsipas was not playing well enough to win in straight sets. I knew that Novak had to wake up and I believed that, if that happened, he could turn it around. In the third set, he showed up with a different energy and attitude. After he broke Tsitsipas in the third set, he took over the match and never let go. He could have won the fifth set even more comfortably, he was leading 4-2, and 15-40.

One curious thing, for me, is that both the Australian Open and the French Open were won by high forehand volleys.

Tennis Majors: You mentioned the energy and attitude, but tennis-wise, what did Djokovic change in order to find his way back into the match?

Goran Ivanisevic: Novak started mixing it up and opening the court up as well. You could see the desire in his eyes again, he started hitting the ball more aggressively. When Novak turns himself into a player that is hard to hit through on the baseline, his rivals have to go for more than they can handle.

For instance, Tsitsipas wrong-footed Novak Djokovic like 10 times in the second set, and that is not something one is able to do against him normally. From the start of the third set onwards, Novak did not allow such things to happen. Also, he started to serve and return way better.

Tsitsipas found himself in Novak’s machine; when that is the case, it is really hard to get out. You could see it by looking at Stefanos that he had no solutions left – he looked to his box, to his father, not knowing what to do, like he was saying, “help me“. But, at that point, there was not much that could have been done.

“Belgrade meant a lot to Novak, it helped him in Paris”

Novak Djokovic at Belgrade in 2021
Novak Djokovic at Belgrade in 2021

Tennis Majors: Last year, you received a lot of criticism for your prediction of Djokovic beating Nadal in the finals. This year, your prophecy was fulfilled.

Goran Ivanisevic: I mean, I have a right to say what I want to say. I had my own reasons; I am part of Novak’s team and it is normal that I believe in my player. This year, he gave a tennis lesson to Nadal. I am not gloating; simply put, last year Novak was not ready, but this year he was mentally solid and prepared for the battle. This is an extraordinary feat, him winning the French Open for the second time.

A lot of people doubted Novak’s decision to play in Belgrade, they were saying that Saturday was far too late to come to Paris, but what happened in Belgrade helped him both as a player and as a person. The support from the stands in Belgrade meant a lot to him, so he has taken that positive vibe and energy with him to Paris.

Tennis Majors: There are new possibilities opening up now. Wimbledon is in two weeks time, will Novak be able to press the switch, recover and be ready?

Goran Ivanisevic: He will be able to. I mean – he must. Novak Djokovic knows his goals. On Wednesday, we are going to Mallorca, and after that to London. This title is only going to make him more motivated. It was a long time ago when I said that Djokovic is the only player who can achieve a calendar year Grand Slam: will that happen or not, God knows, but if someone can do it, it is Novak.

Tennis Majors: So, what is the plan, how long will you be staying in Mallorca?

Goran Ivanisevic: We should be there on Wednesday. In my opinion, we should not be playing the tournament (in Mallorca) because the grass at Wimbledon is very different as compared to the one in Mallorca. We need to be in London at least three days beforehand, since Novak is playing on Monday as the defending champion. We will stay in Mallorca for seven or eight days.

We need to have at least two practices on grass in London, so yes, we should be there on Friday. Not only that, we need to get used to very strict conditions at Wimbledon, because the bubble is waiting for us over there as well.

(Note – the interview was conducted prior to the announcement that Djokovic will be playing the doubles event in Mallorca next week).

It can get intense with Djokovic, but we work very well together

Goran Ivanisevic

Tennis Majors: You have been part of Djokovic’s team for a while now (since Wimbledon 2019), you know his routines really well. How long do you feel that he can still play at this level?

Goran Ivanisevic: That is what many people are wondering. He is a genius, a person who always strives to become better. He will play at this level for as long as he wants – two, three, four years. He is hungry for wins and records, and he is happy when he is on the court. He said that he is going to lighten up his schedule even more next year, although I am not sure if he can play less than this (ha-ha). He is playing because he loves the game and enjoys it. For how long exactly, no one knows.

Tennis Majors: In your interviews, you often say that Novak always wants to become better. Could you give an example from your daily work that reflects that?

Goran Ivanisevic: Sometimes it can be tough. There are a lot of things he does perfectly, you just cannot do it any better. That is when the difference in opinion occurs – ours as coaches’ and his (as a player). He wants to do something better, different, but Marian (Vajda) and I do not agree. And then we start (talking): forehand, backhand, serve… I mean, even his return, which is the best of all time, and sometimes he even thinks he can do it better.

It is normal to have differences in opinion, it makes our collaboration interesting. With Novak, I have learned a lot of new details and I have improved myself as a coach. But yes, it can get intense and heated. Especially during matches, but overall, we work very well together.

“I would not want Federer in our part of the draw”

Tennis Majors: Finally, who is the biggest threat for Novak at Wimbledon and what do you expect from Roger Federer?

Goran Ivanisevic: I think Roger made a smart move in Paris. He tested his body, whipped himself into shape a bit, and got exactly what he wanted; three matches under his belt and then he did not want to risk getting injured. Wimbledon is his number one goal. To be honest, I would not want to see him in our part of the draw there.

As for the others, there are the usual suspects nowadays: Nadal, Tsitsipas, Zverev, Medvedev. There are a lot of dangerous floaters with big serves such as Raonic, Opelka, Isner. Cilic as well, who won’t be seeded, but who just won a title in Stuttgart.

Since we did not play on grass last year, I think we are all eager to get back on it. I expect a fun tournament. Novak is going to be the favorite, but it is not going to be easy.

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