The story of the new world No. 1 begins in 1999.
Novak Djokovic was 18. He was at the height of his career when he was made his debut on the cover of a now-defunct magazine called O Nesde. The magazine’s front page carried a photograph of a young Djokovic wearing a pink shirt, holding up a clog. It was the image of a boy who seemed determined to become a champion.
“‘Andre, what a young man,’ said my mother when she saw the interview,” Djokovic recalled in an ESPN documentary on his life released last month. “As a kid, I dreamt of playing professional tennis, and as a kid, my dream was achieved.”
Everything about him, from his world ranking to his grunting, was different in 1999. “I had muscles, I was bigger than every other tennis player out there,” he said. “I wasn’t muscular, not even close.”
The real difference, though, was that his determination and work ethic were second to none. The way he hit the ball, with laser precision, was also as old-school as they come. As Djokovic told the New York Times in 2012, “People, still, are intrigued by me because I grunt when I play. You know?”
He stopped playing juniors for a spell in 1999, but didn’t take up boys’ tennis again until a decade later, when he became a citizen of Serbia, which was in the throes of the Yugoslav War. As he trained for the Davis Cup, he watched every match in action on the TV in his new country, rooting for his new-found mates.
It was the first of many inexplicable decisions he’d make in the next decade.
His father owned an iron factory, and during the transition, Djokovic took up iron fencing. The next day, when he was back on the tennis court, he taught himself tennis by watching videos of professionals on TV, that he could make faster and more accurate shots than anyone else in the world, and then taught his parents how to pick up the racquet.
He found that he could use the ball more effectively as well. (He didn’t. He still only pulled off three of those.) The courts were still clay. But they were made for his power.
“Tennis was the only sport when I was young that I could play,” he once said. “I learned pretty early.”
Novak Djokovic came to the age of 21 after the end of the Yugoslav war, and he was ranked No. 1 in the world. He wasn’t helped by any of the personal life experiences the article mentioned.
There was a wedding attended by some of the most famous people in the world. (A friend of his was Andy Roddick.) There was an affair in the margins of Manchester, New Hampshire, where some friends and Djokovic went a few times a year for the earlier part of the ’90s. There was a falling out with his older brother. There was the elephant in the room: The match against Greg Rusedski at Wimbledon in 2000, which came after he’d lived in America for almost his entire life. Djokovic won, which happened to be his first win on grass. (It happened later in 2001.)
The brash promise that enticed professional tennis players, his raspy, go-go, fist-pumping shrieks and his success led Djokovic to go under the knife on his back in 2003. His back operation was life-threatening, he told the New York Times in 2013. He remembers finding himself at the operating table staring down at his once-svelte frame.
“I would think in my head, ‘I can’t believe that was my life for two months,’” he said. “You go to see the doctor every other day, just to see if the pain was the same. And it was not the same. And I thought, ‘Wow, that was a long time ago.’”
The operation, when it happened, was the first major thing to come his way. Later that year, he climbed as high as No. 2 in the world. And as late as 2011, when he reached No. 1 for the first time, he was still respectful of the sport.
“I think that’s my great luck,” he told the New York Times at the time. “Because for so many years, they have spoiled me with the wine and the food, and the cigars. It is tough sometimes to readjust to the life without