Novak Djokovic’s unstoppable rise to the top of tennis.

Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

Clattering on concrete steps after being flung in fury into the empty stands at the Tokyo Olympics, this racquet announced that rare occasion: An important tennis match in 2021 was not going Novak Djokovic’s way. The world’s top player had won 34 of his 37 matches this year heading into the Games this summer. He tore through his first four opponents but then floundered late in his semifinal match against a rival ten years younger. The 24-year-old German Alexander Zverev would embrace his elder at the net and literally apologize for winning — “I told him he was the greatest player of all time, but I’m sorry,” he later told the press — testifying to the deitylike position Djokovic holds in his sport.

The funk lingered into Djokovic’s bronze-medal match against Spain’s Pablo Carreño Busta. The racquet left the premises just two games in; another was spiked at a net post, causing nearby ball kids to flinch. It turned out to be a medal-free departure from Japan for Djokovic. His vision of a Golden Slam — all four majors, plus the Olympic gold — had dissipated. He now sets his sights on a lesser, merely transcendent feat, one unseen in the men’s game since 1969: winning all four majors in the same calendar year, which he will attempt to sew up at this year’s U.S. Open beginning on Monday. Victory would also serve as a coronation: His tally of major titles would sit at 21, one more than his archrivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, resolving every conceivable GOAT debate in his favor.

In tennis, as in any other human endeavor, the parameters of the Greatest of All Time debate are warped and self-serving, each partisan entering with their heart fixed on an answer and their brain piecing together some ex post facto justification. But this one feels conclusive. Djokovic is likely to heap even more major trophies onto his shelves as he is riding a much stronger trend line in health and performance than Nadal and Federer, who are one and six years older than he, respectively. With this year’s French Open title, Djokovic became the only man in the modern era to win each major at least twice. One notch below the majors are the nine Masters titles; Djokovic has won more of those than Federer and exactly as many as Nadal and has won all of them at least twice, itself a singular accomplishment. He enjoys favorable head-to-head records against both: 30-28 over Nadal, 27-23 over Federer. His 2011 and 2015 seasons stand among the most punishingly good stretches of tennis ever played. His style thrives across all three of tennis’s surfaces: clay, grass, and, his favorite, hard court. He projects well on ice floe, salt flat, tar pit, and whatever else.

His game works everywhere because Djokovic may well have solved tennis, a game of hitting the ball back into the court. The question asked by this champion: What if I always, always got the ball back and made it very hard for you to hit it into my side of the court? He is the discomfort artist, testing every opponent’s resolve. We will walk through one example. The serve is the sport’s biggest advantage. You get to toss the ball up and strike it with such speed and precision that the returner is often yanked so far out of position that, even if they manage to hit it back into play, they remain hopeless to retrieve the next ball you send their way. Nobody has ever mitigated the serve more dramatically than Djokovic. Watch as his close-set eyes widen as if he’s trying to stay awake on the road; this is how he prepares to follow the path of a small object moving at some 126 mph and lunge in that direction. Once he gets there, even if his arms are extended at a full stretch, he will slap that ball deep into the server’s court, onto the server’s weaker side, and much faster than the server anticipated it would return. Now that the rally has been rendered neutral, anyone’s to win, the odds favor Djokovic every time because he is so fit and so consistent and almost algorithmic in his choices.

Perhaps no athlete has evoked inevitability more acutely than Novak Djokovic. Even when the scoreboard shows him trailing badly, he feels somehow like the favorite. He offers no vulnerability to attack. He carries no excess fat on his body or weakness in his repertoire. As the running joke goes, his one flaw is the overhead smash — the simplest shot, in which a lobbed ball is almost ceremonially put out of its misery with a clean crack of the racquet — which he does bungle from time to time.

But Djokovic’s inevitability was by no means, well, inevitable. Not long ago, he had earned a reputation for calling the trainer, and even retiring, in the middle of matches due to rough conditions or health woes. “A back and a hip? And a cramp? Bird flu … anthrax … SARS … common cough and cold,” Andy Roddick said at the 2008 U.S. Open, mocking Djokovic’s list of maladies. But something changed along the way, in both body and mind. Something hard and unyielding snapped into place, snuffing out the sort of human weakness that, for a surprising moment, was vividly back on display in Tokyo this summer in the form of a spinning racquet landing some five rows into the stands. That Djokovic has all but eliminated those weaknesses is a monument to relentless self-improvement. It’s also a little frightening.

Djokovic’s total perfection of the craft is acknowledged, but not universally appreciated, by the masses. “What’s it been like to be something of the ‘bad guy’ chasing after Roger and Rafa all these years?” a reporter asked Djokovic during Wimbledon this year. The player’s upper lip curled as he took a deep breath, then exhaled as diplomatic an answer as one could: “I don’t consider myself a bad guy; I mean, that’s your opinion.” The question assumes a bizarre psychology. Would a hungry wolf, interrupted by a rabbit-loving reporter, conceive of himself as the antagonist of his own hunt?

If there was a worthwhile question lurking in there, it might have looked more like this: Is Djokovic, a celebrity with millions of fans worldwide, nevertheless aware of the consistent crowd dynamic at his matches? When he is the smothering favorite, the crowd backs the underdog, as it did at the finals of Wimbledon (with chants of “Mat-te-o” for the Italian runner-up, Matteo Berrettini) and the French Open (“Tsi-tsi-pas” for the Greek runner-up, Stefanos Tsitsipas). And when Djokovic is on equal footing, playing one of his only two peers, he is not the pick either. Occasionally, right after he has won a match, the atmosphere in the stadium becomes muddled, bleary, as if a confusing announcement about parking vouchers had been relayed over the PA. The fans are making some noises but not obviously celebratory ones.

Djokovic simply does not inspire the widespread devotion that Nadal and Federer do. There are many theories about why this is so, the most strained of which may be the ethnic one. In this view, Djokovic has triggered the chauvinism of tennis fans in Western Europe and the Anglosphere because he hails from a region best known to the outside world for the Balkan Wars of the 1990s — conflicts that left Djokovic’s family in poverty and retreating regularly to bomb shelters, hardships he credits for shaping his toughness on the court. But this hypothesis ascribes way too much geopolitical nuance to the average slack-jawed fans wandering around the grounds with a honeydew-themed novelty beverage in hand, who are unlikely to have a catalogue of “men tried at the Hague, organized by ethnic origin” fresh in mind as they figure out which player to throw their support behind. As far as fitting in is concerned, the polyglot Djokovic addresses local crowds in French, Italian, German, and Spanish. His English is more surgical and polished than the soulful if rickety warrior poetry of Rafa or the dad-grade sound bites of late-empire Roger. The Serb is the only one of the three apt to bust out the word biomechanical in a press conference, let alone describe his desire to “manifest that determined, instinctual wolf energy” in a courtside interview.

A more straightforward account may be the interloper theory. In this analysis, Djokovic intruded on the Federer-Nadal duopoly during an era when every fan had already picked a side. By the time the Serb won his first major title, the 2008 Australian Open, the Swiss and the Spaniard had already gone to battle 14 times, their nemesis status firmly established, their careers permanently entangled. So who was this other guy? And wait — why was he steadily coming for all the records those two had previously pushed one another to set, as if swallowing that rivalry whole and rendering it irrelevant? But Djokovic has had more than a decade now to win over some defectors from these other camps, or at least to build a comparable fan base from scratch. Besides, a tennis purist, responding honestly, would have to acknowledge that the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry has produced even more outrageous tennis than Federer-Nadal, tennis not reproducible by any other pair of partners. (More on this later.)

And then there’s the aesthetic theory, which holds that while Federer serves filigreed grace and Nadal blood-and-sweat tenacity, Djokovic is some kind of artless cipher. This argument doesn’t hold up because it doesn’t take a subtle connoisseur of the game to grasp that hitting a backhand while assuming a full split is hard and is, in fact, pretty spectacular to witness. It is a feat almost unique to this one man among all his competitors.

Djokovic innovated the footwork on this desperation backhand, his signature shot. A ball speeding down the left sideline, fast enough to pass anyone else, is his to seize. Djokovic sprints to the back left corner of the court, plants his left foot hard, and — he is done taking steps — fully slides into the anticipated path of the ball. His chest is parallel to the net, his legs splayed wide along the baseline, his feet skidding along the court surface, his racquet squeezed on his left side. Then, at the last possible moment, in a feat of will, his arms decide to move in a direction opposite to the rest of his body, whipping right and slinging that ball back much faster than it has any right to go.

Photo: Matt King/Getty Images

It’s that contortion, his most visible gift, that defines him. His taffylike physique elongates to reach balls no other player could get to — not just reach them but then punch them with weight. He often resembles an undone paper clip, bendable at every juncture, with unexpected divots and dips along the straights. Djokovic learned the value of flexibility early in his playing career, under his childhood coach Jelena Gencic. A few decades out, that advice appears visionary.

Isolate any moment of high-level tennis and you will likely see a human being moving their limbs in very unusual ways. A very obliging shoulder allows the arm to coil back and spring up like an angered snake to create spin on the serve. A head stays uncannily stable, a fixed point in the air, eyes on the ball, while the entire rest of the body torques into a ferocious forehand. A player chasing down a drop shot moves at a dead sprint, except keeled over with one arm outstretched to graze the ground. This kind of unnatural choreography, with different parts of the body stubbornly marshaled to work in concert against their natural whims, is not often required in everyday life. But tennis is a game of tortuous body positions. Finding comfort within these positions, and easy recovery after occupying them, can carry a career.

According to everyone who spends any amount of time near Djokovic (his wife, his coaches, his peers), he has never stopped stretching and smuggles it into every idle pocket of his day, starting with his daybreak yoga session. In his happiest, least wrathful photograph from the Tokyo Olympics, Djokovic has settled into an unimpeachable front split alongside two Belgian gymnasts who are doing the same. Both legs lie flush with the ground, and his arms float wide; he is the letter Y fused to an upside-down T.

The stronger the body can be through a wider range of motion, the better it can meet the demands that sports like tennis make of it. For all the tens of thousands of hours he has logged on the courts, Djokovic, at 34, has never suffered a lingering lower-body injury, the type that forecloses careers. This summer, Nadal took a two-month layoff to manage foot pain, attempted a comeback in early August and then bowed out of the U.S. Open. Federer too will be absent as he prepares to undergo his third knee surgery in two years. If their share of the major-title record manages to survive until next year, it will be because someone else took care of Djokovic for them.

Djokovic’s enduring legacy may well be his professionalism, which has allowed him to stay at the bleeding edge of a rapidly professionalizing sport. Dead and buried are the days of tennis played in cardigans with wooden racquets and no perspiration. Attaining the shape to play tennis, it turns out, is a full-time job layered on top of the full-time job of actually playing tennis. “How can I really optimize everything and be in a balanced state of mind, body, and soul every season for the rest of my career and really be able to peak when I need to?” Djokovic rhetorically asked the New York Times in 2020. “I think the No. 1 requirement is constant desire and open-mindedness to master and improve and evolve yourself in every sport.”

“In terms of professionalism, he’s pushed the limit in this regard more than any other player, taking care of his body, diet, mental exercises,” says Sasa Ozmo, a Serbian journalist at Sport Klub who has closely followed Djokovic’s career. “This new generation of players are looking at him — and at Federer and Nadal as well — but Novak in that regard goes a step further.”

He was not always like this. In the first phase of his career, which you could call the Djoker era, he was known for his impressions of fellow players: stuffing a towel down his shirt to become Serena Williams, picking his underwear out of his butt like Nadal, brushing invisible locks out of his face like Maria Sharapova. But just as the arch antics of the Djoker era have given way to a more sober and sincere (if less successful) engagement with crowds, Djokovic’s diet and training have since been overhauled, imbuing him with the long-haul stamina to outlast competitors a decade his junior. In this year’s French Open, which saw him come back from two sets down against two different opponents, aged 19 and 23, he explained that he relishes these long wars against pups: “I like to play young guys in best-of-five because I feel, even if they are leading a set or two sets to love, as it was the case today, I still like my chances because I feel like I’m physically fit and I know how to wear my opponent down.”

There are more dubious dimensions to this obsession with his body. In his search for optimal physical conditioning, Djokovic has revealed a steady preference for, let’s say, alternative methods. Infamously, he arrived at his present gluten-free diet by peculiar means. While playing a tournament in Croatia in 2010, he consulted a doctor described as a “holistic practitioner,” who had Djokovic hold his right hand against his stomach, extend his left arm outward, and resist the downward pressure the doctor applied to it. He then had Djokovic repeat this process but with a piece of bread pressed between his right hand and his stomach. “With the bread against my stomach, my arm struggled to resist Dr. Cetojegic’s downward pressure. I was noticeably weaker,” he writes in his 2013 book, Serve to Win. “‘This is a sign that your body is rejecting the wheat in the bread,’ he said.”

His deep rotation of quacks also includes Pepe Imaz, a Spaniard who preaches the power of long hugs and the viability of telekinesis and telepathy. (Djokovic asserted his belief in both phenomena while promoting the 2018 film Transcendence: Live Life Beyond the Ordinary.) For about two seasons, Djokovic’s play was hampered by an elbow issue that he addressed only in vague terms. Some, like his coach at the time, Andre Agassi, wanted him to have surgery. He finally relented in 2018 and said he cried for days after the procedure and felt guilty for a month or two. “I was trying to avoid getting on that table because I am not a fan of surgeries or medications,” he told the Telegraph. “I am just trying to be as natural as possible, and I believe that our bodies are self-healing mechanisms.” He would go on to win eight of the next 12 majors.

During the pandemic, Djokovic livestreamed chats with his friend Chervin Jafarieh, a peddler of snake-oil supplements who explained how positive emotions could purify polluted water. Djokovic also came out against vaccination. “Personally I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,” he said in April of last year. “But if it becomes compulsory, what will happen? I will have to make a decision. I have my own thoughts about the matter, and whether those thoughts will change at some point, I don’t know.” Later that summer, Djokovic organized a multicity exhibition tournament called the Adria Tour with the approval of local authorities in Serbia and Croatia. By day, top men’s players competed before packed, unmasked crowds; by night, several of those players hollered in one another’s faces and gyrated shirtless in a Belgrade nightclub. The tour was cut short during its second leg after a slew of positive COVID-19 tests, including Djokovic’s own. “I can’t express how sorry I am for this and every case of infection,” he wrote.

Djokovic is a prime example of what may be called “jock epistemology,” in which competitors in pursuit of an edge, and infinitely resourced in the pursuit of said edge, come to believe an eclectic hodgepodge of good things for good reasons (flexibility is great for tennis), good things for bad reasons (removing gluten from my diet will help me because of how I felt with the bread touching my skin), and bad things for bad reasons (anti-vaccination). Athletes have input: diet and regimen. They have clear output: on-court performance. Their assessment of the relationship between these two, even where faulty, can supersede scientific consensus in the mind. Did you play well because you are one of the most gifted and rigorously trained athletes of your generation or because you stopped eating nightshades two months ago, Tom Brady? Certainly, the latter is easier to pitch and sell a book around.

Djokovic’s mind may lead him astray, but it is enviable in many other regards. If the defining feature of his body is its pliability, the defining feature of his mind is its steeliness. This too was a matter of training. There was a difficult transitional period between the lighter Djoker era and the world-devourer era. Between the 2012 and 2014 French Opens, Djokovic lost five of the six major finals he played in. He has since won 14 of 17.

That streak began at the 2014 Wimbledon final, where Djokovic defeated Federer (the most beloved player ever) on Center Court (the place he is most beloved). It was the type of crowd that cheered Djokovic’s unforced errors, even double faults, which by tennis standards is about as crude as it gets. A similar scene played out at the 2019 Wimbledon final, again against Federer, where Djokovic survived two match points and went on to win in a fifth-set tiebreak. Afterward, he described a grimly beautiful coping mechanism. “At times, you just try to ignore it, which is quite hard,” he said of the crowd support of his opponent. “I like to transmutate it in a way. When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak.’ It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.” Positivity cannot purify water, but it can, evidently, change the cheer ringing in your ears.

While he has never fully embraced the heel persona the way many tennis fans would have liked, he has learned how to turn spite into fuel. When he has stolen a decisive game away from their preferred combatant, he will cup his ear in an ironic call for more cheers or put a finger to his lips. Or break into a smile so sarcastic it ends up more astringent than a scowl could ever be. Inhospitable crowds might have felled a weaker mind, but they seem only to enliven Djokovic.

It can often feel like the opponent across the net is secondary to the internal battle in his mind. If he can get himself centered, winning the tennis match is an almost trivial afterthought. This was the case in his French Open victory, which saw him come back from a two-set deficit against the young Tsitsipas, whose all-court style may be likened to a bigger, burlier Federer. “There’s always two voices inside: one telling you that you can’t do it, that it’s done, it’s finished. That voice was pretty strong after the second set,” Djokovic said afterward. “I felt that that was a time for me to actually vocalize the other voice and try to suppress the first one that was saying I can’t make it. I told myself I can do it, encouraged myself. I strongly started to repeat that inside of my mind, tried to live it with my entire being.”

At an Olympics press conference three days before his eventual flameout, Djokovic said, “Pressure is a privilege,” quoting Billie Jean King. This was predictably taken out of context by many and miscast as a commentary on Simone Biles’s recent decision to withdraw from competition. In truth, he was just describing his own monastic approach. “All that buzz and all that noise is the thing that — I can’t say I don’t see it or I don’t hear it, of course it’s there. But I’ve learned, I’ve developed the mechanism how to deal with it in such a way that it will not impose destruction to me,” he said. “It will not wear me down.”

Nothing, apparently, can wear him down at the majors, where the marathon best-of-five-sets format feeds his appetite for four-hour psychological and bodily odysseys. Each of his three titles this year has presented its own tests of will. At the Australian Open, while up two sets in his third-round match, Djokovic appeared to sustain an acute abdominal injury. Playing stiffly and through visible pain, he won that match, and then three more, to arrive at the final, a date with Daniil Medvedev, who had spent the previous weeks mowing down every other player in the top ten. Djokovic dismantled him in straight sets, and only afterward revealed that he had been playing with a torn oblique muscle the whole time.

At the French Open, he answered the most difficult call in his profession: defeating Nadal at a tournament where the Spaniard held a 105-2 record. When Rafa and Novak meet, they conjure something that can only be called “wide tennis,” as their all-time offense meets all-time defense. Both players scrambled over vast stretches of court, and both dispatched each other to far-flung patches with every shot. In the end, the king of clay was toppled. At Wimbledon, Djokovic cruised to a semifinal, where he ran into Denis Shapovalov, a young flamethrower who appeared to be unlocking his final form in real time. As both players later admitted, Shapovalov outplayed his foe for long stretches of the match. But the champion won the critical points — the tiebreaks, those nervy return games at the tail end of a set — the way he always does.

Watching Novak Djokovic over these three events, and over the past three years as he tightened his chokehold on all the big trophies, has worn down many of the tennis world’s old defenses, leaving fans in dazed awe of his mental and physical fortitude. A Djokovic hater just might call this Stockholm syndrome; we can all agree that he is at least an acquired taste, better acquired late than never.