The Djoker’s eternal quest for gold
Having achieved the year-end world No1 ranking for the fourth time in 2015, Novak Djokovic set his sights on landing Olympic gold in Rio in 2016. He looked to be right on course when he won the French Open title in June to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro had other ideas, however, putting the Djoker’s Olympic hopes on hold for another four years by knocking him out in the first round.
A precocious talent
Djokovic grew up in Kopaonik, a ski resort at the foot of the mountains of the same name in southwestern Serbia. Despite hailing from a family of skilled skiers, the young Novak found the lure of tennis irresistible. His interest in the sport began when some courts were built opposite the restaurant owned by his parents Srdjan and Dijana. It was on those courts that Jelena Gencic, the coach who led Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic to the pinnacle of world tennis, held a training camp one summer, attracting a very interested spectator in the six-year-old Djokovic. Spotting the quizzical young boy by the side of the courts one day, Gencic invited him to pick up a racquet. His innate talent for the game was immediately obvious for all to see, prompting the coach to take him under her wing. After turning 12 he left home for Nikola Pilic’s tennis academy in Munich and was playing the professionally by the age of 16. A year later, in 2004, he reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open. “I owe everything or nearly everything I do to Jelena,” the appreciative star has since said of the woman who discovered him.
Hitting the heights
Djokovic’s first Grand Slam title came at the Australian Open in 2008, the year in which he won Olympic bronze in Beijing. He became a national idol two years later, guiding Serbia to victory over France in the Davis Cup final in Belgrade, though it was in 2011 that his career took on a whole new dimension. Achieving a consistent level of excellence that he later attributed (in his 2014 autobiography Serve to Win) to a change in diet brought about by his intolerance to gluten, Djokovic enjoyed a truly remarkable season, winning ten tournaments in total. His haul included the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, not to mention five Masters 1000s, all of which took him past Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to the top of the ATP Rankings, a position he continued to hold in 2012 and would return to again in 2014. The Djoker enjoyed an even better 2015. Appearing in all four Grand Slam finals, he won three of them, claimed 82 wins in total, suffered just six defeats and won through to 15 finals on the trot. One of the finest campaigns ever seen since the advent of the Open Era in 1968, it earned Djokovic a record points total at the top of the world rankings, well ahead of his fellow members of so-called “Big Four: Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray.
More Grand Slam glory
The Serbian kicked off 2016 by winning the Australian Open for a sixth time and followed up with his maiden French Open triumph, beating Murray on both occasions, and becoming in the process the first player to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously since Rod Laver in 1969. His victory at Roland Garros was his 12th Grand Slam win in all, with Djokovic having also won five ATP World Tour Finals and a record 30 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events by that stage of his career. His preparations for the Rio Olympics suffered a setback, however, when he fell to a surprise third-round defeat at Wimbledon.
The wait for gold goes on
Djokovic headed to Brazil looking to add to the solitary Olympic bronze he won in Beijing. A losing semi-finalist on that occasion and again four years later in London, where he was his country’s flagbearer, he had high hopes of going all the way in his third Games. “It’s one of my biggest dreams,” he said in the lead-up to the tournament, though those dreams quickly evaporated on the hard courts in Barra Olympic Park, where Del Potro, the man who beat him in the bronze medal match at London 2012, put his long-running wrist problems behind him to secure a 7-6, 7-6 win. “He’s a good friend,” said a gracious Djokovic afterwards. “I’m very sad at losing so early but at the same time I’m pleased for him. He’s really fought hard to come back.” The Argentinian would go on to reach the final, where he lost out to Murray in four sets.
Another tilt at Tokyo 2020?
Lightning fast around the court, a powerful server and devilishly difficult to pass, Djokovic is the complete player. As formidable in defence as he is in attack, he has an unerring ability to hit the ball where he wants, no matter where he finds himself on the court. And, as his nickname suggests, he also enjoys the lighter side of life, with his on-court impersonations of the likes of Maria Sharapova, Nadal and Federer proving a hit with crowds the world over. Even though an Olympic gold medal is still missing from his lengthy list of career accolades, Djokovic has long since made sure of his place in the pantheon of world tennis. Time will tell if the Serbian great will have one more shot at the Games at Tokyo 2020, by which time he will be 33.