Commentary

How Nadal, Federer helped Djokovic

Originally Published: July 13, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

It was around midnight on July 2, 2010, just another packed Friday at the Dog & Fox, the pub in Wimbledon village. But even in the dark, noise-filled crush around the bar, one figure stood out slightly -- a little taller, a little more tanned and lithe than the revelers. Then the piercing wolf-like eyes came into view. It was Novak Djokovic.

Just hours ago, he had been playing the men's semifinals up the road at the All England Club. Now, unnoticed by those around him, he was ordering drinks at the bar for his camp, which was sitting in one of the booths at the back. So unnoticed that when he passed by a couple of familiar faces in the crowd, he had to be the one to stop and say hi. Was it time for congratulations or commiserations? It had been a good tournament, but a bad last match. Five drinks -- one for each round, it was suggested. His eyes widened -- clearly a more muted evening was planned when he finished elbowing his way back to his table.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
AP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthNovak Djokovic's ascendance to the world No. 1 ranking did not come overnight.

It wasn't quite a celebration, but it wasn't drowning sorrows, either. In the quarterfinals, Djokovic had finally begun to play high-quality tennis again, turning a corner after a difficult season during which he had struggled physically on the court and emotionally off it. He blamed his poor performance in the semifinal on playing too passively, a mistake he was determined not to repeat. From that point, he would later reflect, it was "all going uphill, more or less."

Not much of the less. His Wimbledon was followed by the U.S. Open final, Davis Cup victory, the Australian Open title, four straight Masters wins, a couple of other tournament titles, a French Open semifinal, and finally, 12 months later, another Wimbledon semifinal. This time, Djokovic won it to secure the No. 1 ranking and followed it up by winning his most coveted trophy in the final against Rafael Nadal two days later. "I managed to achieve a lifetime goal and I managed to make my dream come true, all in three days' time," he said.

In broader terms, it took more than three years -- making the Grand Slam breakthrough at the 2008 Australian Open, getting stronger and fitter, improving his net game, rebuilding his serve and finding out that a gluten allergy was the source of his stamina problems. And most importantly, he says, building self-belief at big moments.

That type of self-belief is not easy to acquire in the age of Roger Federer and Nadal. Time and time again, Djokovic found himself in the semifinals or finals of big events, only to get chopped down by one of the two. "After I won my first Grand Slam, actually then I started facing some feelings and situations that I never face before -- defending the Grand Slam title, being one of the top players, facing the pressure, having the expectations of the people all the time to get far in major events, to get at least to the semifinals," he said. "I would lie to you if I didn't have doubts. I did have difficult crisis times where I didn't know if I could really make it, because the first two guys were so dominant."

Now, as the first player to break the Federer/Nadal stranglehold on No. 1 in almost seven and a half years, he can credit them for helping to make him the player he is. "We all know how good they are, how they always raise their level of performance in the big occasions, how they always play their best tennis in the last four of a Grand Slam," Djokovic said. "I know that if I want to win against them in the semifinals, finals of a Grand Slam, I have to raise my game, I have to play on top of my game. I have to improve, and they made me improve. They made me a better player.

"Right now, it's that mental switch that have, I believe on the court much more than I did before."

The switch was flipped by leading Serbia to a Davis Cup victory in November. "I lost my fear," Djokovic says of the experience. "After the Davis Cup win I was full of life, full of energy, eager to come back to the tennis court, eager to play some more, win some other tournaments."

He must have been feeling something similar, wearing an expression of exhaustion and excitement commonly seen on Wimbledon champions the morning after. His eyes had become permanently wide, not from contemplating seven drinks for seven rounds -- no laid-back night at the pub this year -- but the swell of victory and the whirlwind of activity that followed.

"The obligations of a Wimbledon champion are quite rough," he grinned. "I had the long press commitments, and then I had the official dinner. It was nice but it took a lot of time."

But the Serbian contingent on the grounds wasted no time beginning their celebrations after the big win, cramming the walkway west of Centre Court and chanting with flags and banners. Djokovic's father could be seen in the fray, getting thrown up in the air by supporters.

Even as Djokovic returned to the locker room Sunday clutching the Wimbledon victory, he and his family were reminiscing about the old days.

"Just kind of remembering those days of the hard work that we put into in Germany and back in Serbia when I was 8, 9, 10, 11 years old, the dreams that I had," Djokovic related afterward. "It's really beautiful. I mean, this success kind of makes you rewind the old days; makes you come back to your childhood and remember what you've been through to get to this stage.

"It wasn't an easy way, but I guess that's necessary in order for you to fight for what you want to achieve. You know, we all know the situation in our country, how it was with the wars and things like that. It was definitely really difficult to become a tennis professional, with tennis being not one of the most popular sports in our country."

It wasn't even a popular sport in his family. Though tennis is Serbia now resembles a Djokovic family business -- they bought and own the ATP event in Belgrade, and are getting involved in the academy business -- young Novak was the first to pick up a racket instead of donning skis. The family business was then ski instruction and the now world-famous pizza and pancake restaurant, and some tennis courts happened to be built across the street when Djokovic was 8 or 9. "That's the destiny," he said. "In life, if something is meant for you to do, it's meant for you to do."

Not that he rejected the tradition entirely. "I haven't skied for two, three years. Last four years I think I skied only once. But I ski whenever I can. The rules about prohibited skiing don't apply to me -- in the contracts, I don't accept that," he joked.

Djokovic's father, Srdjan, chose to move to a familiar location after finishing his competitive skiing career in the former Yugoslavia. "He and my aunt and my uncle were at the top," Djokovic proudly reports.

"That's why there is such a passion for mountain, and that's why I started playing tennis in the mountains."

Now, he stands at the top.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.