Speaking to the New York Times Magazine on Wednesday, legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson wrote about Novak Djokovic’s early childhood and highlighted how the Serbian sensation defied any traditions of playing tennis.
Novak was never the weakest or most enthusiastic tennis player in his family, my wife Jocelyn told me. “He was only ever the first. He was at every match and loved to play.”
Celine – a teacher in the tiny village of Neuta in Yugoslavia – played a key role in Djokovic’s nurturing.
On April 17, 1990, the day after what would become known as Operation Northern Watch – the genocide perpetrated by the Serbian Army against the mostly-Muslim populations of the Krajina region of Bosnia – he and his sister Monica went to his father, Svetozar, to tell him what had happened. Svetozar, he said, was devastated, but had told Novak that he would protect him.
Their father was convicted of war crimes for his alleged involvement in the massacre of hundreds of people and in 2008 he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Later that day, Novak went down to the Korona Tennis Club on his bike. “The referee asked us to be quiet, and Novak burst out,” says Fred Mahon, president of the tennis club, in the New York Times Magazine. “It was like watching an act of defiance.”
He became an immediate star. Some around him saw in him the sweetness and imagination of another world he’d never known – such as Julian of Norwich, perhaps the greatest poet of all time. He was often told he resembled the young Julian, who led a life of gambling, obsession and danger, according to Aldous Huxley’s Waking the Giant.
For many players, the loss of a parent is terrible but rare. For Djokovic, it was a tragedy for which his father could find no measure of heroism or forgiveness. The playboy manners that he brought to tennis betrayed his private life. “Jocelyn would never, ever say the word ‘friend,’” says Toni Nadal, the coach of Rafael Nadal, in the New York Times Magazine. “Even when he was all cleaned up, when he had No. 1 and other endorsements, he couldn’t say to the young men, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’”
On the court, Djokovic could unleash his inner Terrence Malick, it seemed. He would rush to the net and dove into the outstretched arms of his opponents. He rarely turned his back on the crowd. He was famous for caring about other people’s feelings. At the famous showdown between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1980, he became so touched by the crowd’s applause and the pain Borg was going through, he fought back tears.
Djokovic’s private life wasn’t as grand or confessional. When he met Australian tennis player Jelena Ristic in 2005, he was engaged to tennis player Maria Sharapova, and they were having an affair. He has blamed his volatile temperament on a lack of experience and he has said that he doesn’t see a relationship with Ristic as a stepping stone to a marriage.
Djokovic has refused to apologize for the affair. And one thing remains certain: As he began to embrace the dark side of the game, Ristic’s presence helped to stabilize him. “She has a great mental capacity, great spirit,” says Djokovic.
Without her help, it is doubtful that Djokovic would have beaten Rafael Nadal for his second Wimbledon title in July. And he would not have reached a second Grand Slam final in New York. As he approaches the tournament, the landscape on the men’s side is simply unsettling. Roger Federer is having a terrible season, and the match-ups he would have against Djokovic, or Stan Wawrinka, or Alexander Zverev, are frightening. “I don’t know how he’s going to play,” says Nadal, who lost to Djokovic in the Open final this year. “Will he have the same muscles, same team, as he used to have? Or can’t he find his role or his way to fight for his life?”