Novak Djokovic’s biggest rivals on the court require about as much introduction as the globally renowned tennis star himself. It’s rare the 32-year-old doesn’t end up vying for honours with perennial racket warriors Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
And yet, it seems his greatest battle is one few of us even knew he was engaged in – a 900-day slog to get an injured elbow functioning and firing.
In fact, the world's number one – who is third on the list of the most majors won in the history of the sport – refused to take time out of his schedule and the injury, over time, only worsened.
Now fully firing again, Djokovic reveals to RSNG how his path to health and happiness ended up going way beyond the repair of body tissue, and that the experience of removing himself from the court has actually made him stronger mentally, too.
RSNG You’ve said in the past that, when growing up, your idol was Pete Sampras. When you won the Australian Open in January 2019, it meant you went on in front of the American. How did that feel? NOVAK DJOKOVIC, TENNIS ICON ‘In a way, it’s unreal. Mostly because he is the man that I looked up to most when I began playing tennis and I began to make my way in the game.’
‘My first connection with tennis was Pete Sampras’s first Wimbledon title in 1993. I watched that Wimbledon final where he beat the former number one in the world Jim Courier, and after that match I had immediately fallen in love with tennis.’
‘To say that the dice of destiny fell that way at that time, the same year that I was watching that match at Wimbledon there were also three tennis courts being built literally 30 metres in front of the restaurants my parents were managing in Kopaonik, where I grew up.’
The injury was certainly a big turning point, not only in my career but also in defining the type of person that I am
RSNG So, if Pete Sampras is one those idols, who are the other two? ND ‘Michael Jordan and Alberto Tomba. Tomba is one of my favourites because I come from a family of skiers and, being a passionate skier myself, I have always adored Alberto.’
RSNG So, you had an injury problem a few years ago with your elbow – how difficult a time was this for you? ND ‘Well, the injury was certainly a big turning point in my life, not only in my tennis career, but also in defining the type of person that I am. It made me look deep within those moments and perhaps find something new about me which wasn’t so clear to see – even for me – over the preceding few years.’
‘That strength is now something that helps me to prevail, even when things aren’t going so great.’
‘During the time of getting proper treatment for the injury, I didn’t play a competitive match for six months, but the fact is this injury occurred much earlier – I was carrying the problem on the tour for almost two-and-a-half years before I did something about it.’
‘I didn’t take the time out that I needed to, which was necessary to repair and recover the injury. I was instead using short-term, quick-fix methods to try to help me get through matches and tournaments. I was taking anti-inflammatory tablets – things that I don’t usually take – but if I hadn’t have taken them, I would never have been able to play.’
RSNG When you are dealing with such an injury for such a long time, surely it just becomes part of your routine? ND ‘That’s how it went for all of that time, it got to a point where it became normal and I was sort of in a state of uncertainty.’
‘There are a lot of athletes in many different sports who take pain relief in the form of medicines and they all know that although that pain does disappear – and only temporarily – it doesn’t suit as a long-term fix; that injury problem is still there.’
‘In fact, if anything, it makes the injury worse because you are doing further damage you don’t realise because you cannot feel the pain. The feeling of pain is the body’s cry for help that something is wrong, and it needs to be addressed.’
‘I relied on those painkillers and this method of dealing with the problem and played so many matches that eventually I couldn’t go on any further. I was taking those drugs every single day instead of just a couple of times a week.’
At Wimbledon in 2017 I could feel pain reverberating right down my forearm and couldn’t even raise my hand anymore
RSNG When did you finally decide to do something about it? ND ‘It all came to a head at Wimbledon in 2017. I was standing on court and when I clenched my fist around the racquet handle, I could feel the nerve-endings and the pain reverberating right down my forearm from my wrist to my elbow. I couldn’t even raise my hand anymore.’
‘When it came to me quitting the match and retiring through injury, even though it was in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and I had battled through the pain and the tough matches with my opponents to get to that stage, I felt nothing but relief in ending the agony I had been going through.’
‘It seriously felt like the decision was not mine and instead it came from a higher force. So, I didn’t actually choose to quit, I was forced to by my mind and body.’
‘When I was told to rest for three to four months, I actually took more time out than was recommended. I took the extra two months because I felt that I needed the mental break, as well. I was emotionally drained, as well as physically – I needed to recharge my batteries.’
‘Some of these emotions show themselves as fears or worries that I have. These are mostly related to sport, but others are to life in general.’
RSNG And now you have returned stronger, become a father and won another Grand Slam title? ND ‘Once I became a father, it gave me another huge boost and it was from that point that I had the best time of my career. My wife was taking care of our son and she was with him far, far more than I.’
‘This was causing me to have new-found strength and motivation, which was transmitting itself through me as increased energy. That meant that I wanted to play tennis even more than I had before.’
‘I would say that during this period I was playing the best tennis of my life. It gave me some incredible feelings and I didn’t want to stop playing. So, that resulted in me sacrificing some of the time that I may have wanted to spend with my family, but the desire to be playing tennis was somehow stronger.’
‘I am so lucky to have had the unmatched support of my wife and that is something which I still have today.’
‘I think there was a lot of stuff going on in my head. There were emotions showing themselves as fears or worries that I have - these are mostly related to sport, in the sense that I wouldn’t get back to where I was, but also towards other things in life as well.’
‘I am a better person now, and a stronger person, and this all came from a position of weakness.’
WHAT NEXT? Want to read about how you can take action to prevent injury? Then read the RSNG interview with Ryan Giggs and discover the secret weapon of the most successful British footballer in history.
Novak is in action at the 2019 US Open, looking to defend the title he won last year when he defeated Juan Martín del Potro in the final