“Novak is a genius, because it takes so little for him to be back on his highest level” – Exclusive interview with Goran Ivanisevic

In an interview with Tennis Majors, Ivanisevic speaks about Djokovic regaining his form in a matter of weeks, the mental toll Australia had taken on the Serb, his reaction to the occasional Djokovic’s outbursts during matches, Nadal and Alcaraz among other things

Goran Ivanisevic, Monte-Carlo 2022 Goran Ivanisevic, Monte-Carlo 2022 – © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Novak Djokovic is at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since New York last year. After everything that has happened in the last few months, it seems that even more time has passed. This time in Paris, Djokovic is accompanied by his coach Goran Ivanisevic, physiotherapist Ulises Badio, fitness coach Marco Panichi and his agents Edoardo Artaldi and Elena Capellaro.

Last year’s memory of Paris is something to draw energy out of as Djokovic had defeated Nadal and Tsitsipas to lift his second French Open title.

We are still in the first week of the tournament, but the tension is rising – slowly, but surely. On a gloomy morning in Paris, we met with Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic, who has been a part of his team for almost three years now. 

Goran takes a couple of photos with the fans and then we sit at the table by court No 5 at Roland Garros. In his interview with Tennis Majors, Ivanisevic spoke about Djokovic regaining his form in a matter of weeks, the mental toll Australia has taken on Novak, his reaction to occasional Djokovic’s outbursts during matches, Nadal and Alcaraz among other things. 

It is true that Novak was ill before Monte Carlo, but there and in Belgrade it seemed that he had no confidence at all, his balls were short. Fast forward four weeks and he is again at the top of his game in every aspect. You have witnessed that turnaround first hand, how does that process unfold?

Goran Ivanisevic: I think that people are not aware of one thing: it is really hard to prepare for a tournament when you don’t know whether you will be allowed to play. A few weeks before Monte-Carlo, Novak was not even allowed to be in Monte-Carlo, according to French rules regarding Covid. So, what are you practicing for? You can go one moment, the next one you can’t. Afterwards the rules were changed, but then he got sick.

In my opinion, he should not have even played in Monaco, but OK. We did have some preparations, but not nearly enough. His energy just was not there, but again, he did lose to a guy who played the finals afterwards (Davidovich Fokina). 

Belgrade helped him a lot. Although it was not some crazy level of tennis, he had gotten better with every match. He was totally done physically in the third set of the finals with Rublev, but again, in Belgrade he started to feel better.

Following Monte-Carlo, I said that it would be ideal if he has 10-13 matches until the French Open, because that is his priority. That was the case, he played 11 matches, because Murray withdrew before the match. He then spent a few days in Montenegro doing fitness and recharging his batteries.

I mean, he is a genius, because it takes so little for him to be back on his highest level. Believe me, 95% of the players would have never recovered after everything that has happened in Australia. But we expect him to just get over it: “You have to do this and that in a few weeks time”. It does not work that way, he was very affected mentally.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and coach Goran Ivanisevic – © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Yes, Novak himself spoke recently about having a hard time overcoming Australia. How did that look from your perspective, how shaken was he?

Ivanisevic: A lot. You could tell that even by looking at him on the court, his body language foremost. He just wasn’t the Novak that steps resolutely on the court and you just wonder how long the match will last. In Monte Carlo he was not himself. He was himself in Belgrade though – not in terms of the level, but he was fighting, he was competing, although Djere helped him a bit in the first match. But you could see the hunger in his eyes again. 

I just wanted him to win those matches somehow, to regain his confidence, which happened. Madrid was then a completely different story – the practices, energy on the court, communication and the receptivity to suggestions. All of that reflected on the court as well. He did lose to Alcaraz, but it was a phenomenal match which was decided by two or three points.

Novak was satisfied as well, and in Rome we only received the confirmation of everything we saw in Madrid. He was getting better every day and it was very important that he came to Paris being the No 1 in his head. Everything that we planned came to fruition.

You have been a part of Djokovic’s team since Wimbledon 2019. Now that you know Novak even better, what would you say is your biggest role?

Ivanisevic: He called me for a reason, he did not call me because we speak the same language. I was privileged to have worked alongside Marian (Vajda). We were never thinking in terms of who was the main coach and who was the “second” coach. We shared duties, switching tournaments. Now I am the only coach.

Novak and I share the same mentality – I have been through a lot of things Novak is going through on the court, so I am in a better position to understand certain things. As time passes by, I am more and more familiar with his way of thinking, so I act accordingly.

In the beginning it was sometimes hard. I did coach top players, Cilic won the US Open with me as a coach, but Djokovic is a perfectionist, a genius who wants to improve every day. There are situations where I feel that something in his game is perfect, but he does not. It is not about me, it is about him, but we need to find a balance, so that he does not go into the extreme – when something is perfect, you cannot improve it any further, you can only go backwards, at least that is how I see it. 

People do not comprehend the amount of extreme pressure he is under in every sense

Goran Ivanisevic

In the past, you have told me that it can become intense in practice, could you give me an example?

Ivanisevic: Many times we disagree on some things, which is normal in a coach-player relationship, but we share the same goal – that he improves every day and that he is happy on the court. Sometimes we disagree about the serve for example. Believe me, the serve is the hardest shot in tennis – if you think about too many things about your serve, it just can’t work. You need to focus on one thing, two at best, and then every aspect of the serve – and there are five or six of them – will come together. Sometimes he wants it to be perfect, but it is impossible. If he missed by a small margin, he wonders “why?”, but it happens: I had the best serve in the world and still had bad days anyways. 

But all right, that is just who he is, it needs to be perfect for him, that he feels it. In these three years, I have learned a lot from Novak and I have improved tremendously as a coach. Before everything, I am more patient. A coach needs to be patient and to stay positive, which was especially challenging in the last four or five months, which were not exactly a fairy tale. 

People do not comprehend the amount of extreme pressure he is under in every sense. He is the No 1, there is always someone who wants to take him off the throne, so our job as a team is to protect him and to help him. On the court, he is alone, I am aware that sometimes he seeks some reaction, I understand him when he yells as well.

Yes, that is an interesting topic. How to react when Novak yells?

Ivanisevic: First of all, many times I can’t hear him because the stadiums are big and the crowd is loud. And then, the big question is how to respond. You cannot say a million things, because it is too much information and it is not allowed by the rules, the umpire is watching. I try to say one or two things to calm him down. We cannot talk during the match, so we have an agreement that he always comes back to one or two things. He stabilizes himself pretty quickly. 

I really do not mind when he is screaming. Believe me, I know what it is like down there, I was a player myself. Emotions are sometimes overwhelming and you just need to let it all out. Look, let him scream, let him take it all out, as long as he wins, that is the most important thing. And for me, a little bit of extra stress, what are you going to do, that is why we invented pills to calm us down, hahaha.

First they both have to get there and then we will have the greatest quarter-final in the French Open history

Goran Ivanisevic

In the past, you always said that it is better to play Nadal in the earlier rounds of Roland-Garros compared to the finals. Do you still feel the same?

Ivanisevic: Rafael Nadal is always the favorite in Paris. He has won 13 titles here and he must be considered the favorite, but he was the favorite last year as well and he did not win the title. I think that it is extremely hard to face him in the final here, because he has never lost one. The same thing with Novak in Australia, where it is almost impossible to play him in the finals.

Last year, I said it is better for Novak to meet Rafa in the semis, and now they could potentially face off in the quarters. First they both have to get there – which I believe they will – and then we will have the greatest quarter-final in the French Open history. Who is going to win? I do not know, I do not have a crystal ball with me.

Before the draw, we knew that there were 50 per cent chances that the three of them (Djokovic, Nadal, Alcaraz) would end up in the same half, and it happened. Unfortunately or fortunately, it remains to be seen.

Now that you have mentioned Carlos Alcaraz, it seems that a talent of his stature has not been seen in a long time?

Ivanisevic: Yes, it has not been seen since Novak, Nadal and Federer. I am most fascinated by his maturity. When you are 19, you are allowed to do something bad or to have a wrong choice on the court, but he is doing everything right. He knows when is the time to come in, when to hit a stronger second for the first serve, when to mix it up… It is incredible.

All of this being said, he barely won against Ramos and I would not agree that he is the biggest favorite in Paris. Grand Slams are a different animal, so I would put Novak and Rafa before him. It is not the same to win in Miami and Madrid compared to winning a Slam. But again, he is the future No 1 and a multiple Slam winner, but we will see how many trophies he will win, and when. He can wait for now.

Lastly, what is the daily routine of the Djokovic team during a Grand Slam tournament?

Ivanišević: It is more or less the same. We play this board game parchis, we still do it. Even on a match day, we play a game or two. There are a bit more nerves involved, which is normal, this is a Grand Slam tournament after all. We all need to stay positive, so that Novak can be positive and satisfied on the court.

There are no big secrets now, the preparations are done, now it is more about fine tuning, some details and staying positive. When it is like that, there is only one person that can beat Novak (Nadal), perhaps two now with Alcaraz. As for the rest, I do not see it.

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