“I just cried for two or three days.” So says Novak Djokovic, the new world No 1, as we speed through the streets of Paris in a shiny SUV. “I cried after I had the surgery on my elbow. Every time I thought about what I did, I felt like I had failed myself.”
It is a surprising admission of vulnerability from one of sport’s most implacable competitors. But then Djokovic has a variety of personas: not just the raging bull who rips his shirt to shreds after a significant victory, but the sensitive type who swears by meditation. Sometimes, you wonder if even he knows which version will wake up tomorrow.
The conversation has settled, as so many conversations with Djokovic do, on the subject of his recent title drought. This is a man who usually attracts trophies like a powerful magnet. So a two-year run without a major was difficult for everybody to compute, especially Djokovic himself.
The lean times began in the summer of 2016, and only came to an end at Wimbledon, four months ago. During that frustrating spell, his winning percentage slipped from around 90 per cent to a more humdrum 76. Casting around for solutions, he sacked all his coaches, including long-time mentor Marian Vajda. And as gossip swirled about tensions in his marriage, he admitted that “private issues” had been a factor in the slump.
In the circumstances, you might have expected Djokovic to come away from February’s elbow operation with a smile on his face. Many players would have felt a sense of liberation – at least, that was Andy Murray’s experience after hip surgery the previous month. Yet his dominant emotion was guilt.
“I was trying to avoid getting on that table because I am not a fan of surgeries or medications,” he tells me now. “I am just trying to be as natural as possible, and I believe that our bodies are self-healing mechanisms. I don’t ever want to get myself in the situation where I have to have another surgery. But I think it was a call that I had to make. I was not ready to take another six months or 12 months or whatever. I needed to get back on the court and that was the compromise.
“At the time I was filled with mixed emotions. I was doubting. I was also being a bit afraid of whether I am going to recover at the fullest. Because you never know how your body will react to very aggressive medical treatment.
“Luckily for me the surgery was done right, very well. But I was feeling guilty for maybe a month or two afterwards – through March and April this year. And then there was one point where I was like ‘Okay, right, I just have to accept that what’s done is done, you can’t reverse time to change events.’ I could choose to be grateful or I could be resentful, and I didn’t want to be trapped in that emotion.”
Djokovic has unconventional views about medicine. In 2010, he was diagnosed with gluten intolerance via a hare-brained process called kinesiology. To test his reaction to wheat, Djokovic held a piece of bread while a nutritionist pulled down his other arm. And while the science may have been bogus, the allergy turned out to be real enough. Surfing on a new wave of energy, the wheat-free Djokovic lifted the Davis Cup at the end of that same season, followed by three of the four majors in 2011.
The debate over Pepe Imaz, a former top-150 player who became close to Djokovic in 2016, is more equivocal. Apart from being a tennis coach, Imaz is also a new-agey guru who believes in “long hugs” and a strict vegan diet. But there were times last year when Djokovic looked excessively thin. One of Vajda’s first suggestions in April, when he returned to the camp, was that his client should cease collaborating with Imaz, and at least start eating fish.
During the form dip, Djokovic’s player box could have been fitted with a revolving door. On top of Imaz, he experimented with a pair of first-time coaches: international superstar Andre Agassi and then Czech doubles maestro Radek Stepanek. With the benefit of hindsight, though, he concedes that there was a certain futility to these appointments. “I wasn’t mentally in the right place,” he says.
It wasn’t the gluten that had got him this time, just the grind. “After I won Roland Garros [in 2016] I did burn out emotionally,” he says now. “I was surprised. I thought it would never happen because I never have an issue to motivate myself. I love to hold the racket, I never need to force myself.
“But there was a difference between playing and competing. When I started to hear the score and I needed to compete and I needed to travel to tournaments, that’s when I felt empty. For the first time in my career, it was a struggle to be there. I felt ‘What am I doing?’ And it took time for me to balance everything out, to centre myself in every possible way.
“Injury came aboard as well, and it escalated exactly in that time around when I won Roland Garros, that time when I was experiencing some emotional imbalance. For a year I was under medications, trying to play with anti-inflammatories.
“But I didn’t need only a break from my injury, I needed to recharge mentally as well, emotionally. I just felt that I played for so long that I needed something like that, and an injury was an excuse to be absent from the tour for a little bit.”
The operation – which was carried out after months of consultation with “six or seven different orthopaedic surgeons” – was clearly a turning point for Djokovic’s season. Maybe even for his career. Yet the same could be said about the moment in late spring when he phoned Vajda. It marked the end of his post-surgical introspection – a time when Djokovic admits that he lacked direction.
“I feel like Indian Wells and Miami [the two big American hard-court events in late March] were the low points mentally for me,” Djokovic says now. “I just felt really helpless on the court. I wasn’t experiencing pain, but the game was not there. I was compromised, my service motion was changing week to week, and then I actually understood what other players were going through that had major injuries.”
Frustrated all over again, he considered rebooting his whole approach to the game. “I thought maybe I should prioritise differently, go and play certain events and certain surfaces where I feel more comfortable, not having the same schedule that I used to have for a decade.”
But then, as the Buddha-like Vajda preached patience and forbearance – two virtues that Djokovic had lost touch with during his glory days – the clouds began to lift. He beasted compatriot Dusan Lajovic for the loss of just one game at the Monte Carlo Masters, a tournament staged a stone’s throw from his high-rise apartment. Even at Roland Garros, where he threw a tantrum after an unexpected quarter-final exit, you could see that the old fire was back.
By the time Wimbledon arrived, Djokovic was starting to purr like a vintage Jaguar. The two-day, five-hour semi-final against Rafael Nadal was an old-fashioned brawl, stating the case for best-of-five-set tennis in magnificent style.
And then, with the raising of the Gentleman’s Singles Trophy, the rightful order of this tennis decade was restored. Remember that, since 2010, Djokovic has won an average of almost one-and-a-half slams per season. Tennis tragics nodded in recognition as he sauntered through the US Open, dominated Shanghai, and finally took out Roger Federer in another titanic collision in Paris.
The statistics told us that what he was doing was unprecedented. No-one in the Open era had climbed from outside the top 20 to finish the same season as No 1. But the real surprise was not that Djokovic was back on top of the world game; more that he had ever been away.
“All in all it was just a year full of twists and turns,” he concludes now, “that is ending in a really great way for me. “I have learned that who is in your ear is very important. Who you surround yourself with. And another lesson is that, even when you reach your comfort zone, I don’t believe you stay there for more than a day. When you wake up the next day, you might be experiencing some difficulties – mental, physical and emotional – that you haven’t had yesterday. That’s just how life works.
“To take one example, I was unable to play unless I took a pill which in the short term is a quick fix but in the long term is actually going against your health and wellbeing. I did that for a year. A lot of athletes actually do that for an entire life.
“If I ever get myself into this situation again, I will definitely approach it differently. So I truly believe in the holistic approach to life. I believe that every day is an opportunity to grow, and a chance to get to know yourself and evolve. Maybe I am getting into more philosophical and spiritual stuff but we have the answer inside. We can always find it if we search for it.”