NOVAK DJOKOVIC IS looking for something.
It is Orthodox Easter Sunday in Belgrade. Djokovic is playing the final of the Serbia Open, a crowd of 8,000-plus bellowing behind him. Down one set to Andrey Rublev of Russia, he rallies back in the second to force a tiebreak.
But late in the set, Djokovic begins to wilt. After one point, he slips and falls, lying on his back. He rises slowly, gingerly, the red clay running rivulets down his sweat-soaked shirt. He wipes his eyes, blinking over and over. He wraps his head in a white towel filled with ice.
Djokovic manages to win the tiebreak to even the match, only to take a medical timeout and disappear inside the tennis center’s main building.
The fans murmur as the minutes pass and Djokovic doesn’t re-appear. They have come to praise him. They have come to raise him. They have come to see him, their son, regarded by many as the most dominant player of all time. There is no controversy with Djokovic here; there is only the hope — the expectation — that he will soon re-enter the world’s collective consciousness for something more valiant than being at the center of perhaps the most famous deportation in tennis history.
The Serbia Open is a small event with a small purse in a relatively small city. And Djokovic has said, very kindly, that Paris — the French Open, which begins Sunday at Roland Garros — is his professional focus. As far as history is concerned, Djokovic’s next chapter will be written there.
But it begins here, in Belgrade, just as his first tennis chapter did. And it isn’t supposed to begin like this.
Inside the locker room, Djokovic is searching. Struggling. Wondering. He doesn’t understand why he can’t play the way he wants. Why he can’t feel the way he wants. He had COVID for a second time in December. Another illness last month. And because of the fallout from the Australian Open and the pandemic restrictions elsewhere, he hasn’t played anything close to a full schedule. A year ago, he arrived at the French Open having played 64 sets of tournament tennis; this year, he’s played 38.
“I don’t know why this is happening,” he says at one point.
If he were anywhere else, he would probably retire the match. He would pull out and go on to his next tournament. He would keep rolling toward Paris, where the opportunity to match Rafael Nadal’s Grand Slam total of 21 trophies — and re-stake his claim as the greatest men’s singles player of all time — awaits. Where the eyes of the world will turn towards him for the first time since January and wonder what has happened to him since he was removed from Melbourne without ever playing a match.
But he can’t quit. This is Serbia. These are his people. His brother is the tournament director. The match is being played at the Novak Tennis Center. The Wi-Fi password in this building where he’s languishing is “NOLE,” his childhood nickname.
So he stands up. He sips some room-temperature water. He slips on a dry shirt. He pushes through the door.
When he emerges on court, the stadium shakes as if he has already won.
EARLIER IN THE WEEK, two days before his first match, Djokovic practices with Dominic Thiem, a spry Austrian. A crowd of off-duty ball-boys, VIPs and assorted hangers-on quickly forms to watch their beloved Nole. A chef meanders out from the tennis club’s kitchen to catch a peek, still wearing her tall white toque.
Djokovic laughs and bounces around the court but his game is choppy. After he nets another forehand, a friend watching nearby says, “It has been like this since …” and trails off, shrugging.
Since Australia, he means to say.
Australia, of course, is where things changed for Djokovic. It is where the Djokovic conundrum, the Djokovic problem, the Djokovic question that tennis has grappled with for years went mainstream. That is, what exactly are we supposed to make of this immensely talented, incredibly enigmatic disruptor?
Suddenly, it wasn’t only about Djokovic being different (or even better) than Roger Federer or Nadal. It wasn’t about Grand Slam trophies. It wasn’t about on-court histrionics or quirky diets or even the gap between how Djokovic wants to be received and how he (often) is.
No, suddenly it was about a tennis player from Serbia becoming a lightning rod during a pandemic that has frightened and ideologically divided an entire planet.
Djokovic, who is unvaccinated, traveled to Melbourne in January having received an invitation to enter the country via an exemption provided by the state government so he could play the Australian Open. But a social media uprising led the Australian federal government to push for his visa to be canceled.
What followed was an ugly, emotionally charged global referendum on governmental COVID policies at the oft-explosive intersection between personal freedom and personal responsibility.
Djokovic was detained for days. Then deported. Then isolated, both symbolically and literally, as he voluntarily sat out several U.S. tournaments because he was not allowed to travel as an unvaccinated foreigner. He has 20 Grand Slam singles titles, but Djokovic may never have been more famous than he was in those moments where he couldn’t hit a ball.
Prominent anti-vax groups claimed him as a hero and “freedom fighter,” while others painted him as everything that was wrong with the pandemic.
“Everyone, for the past two years, has been looking for someone to blame for the pandemic, and what happened in Australia set Novak up to be that,” Viktor Troicki, a retired Serbian pro and one of Djokovic’s close friends, tells me one afternoon in Belgrade. “It wasn’t fair to him at all.”
Fair or not, it weighed on Djokovic. Desperate to find a new beginning in a familiar place, he came home. To the place where he is revered. To the place where he is known.
On this particular Monday, in a chilly, blustery wind, he hits with Thiem. He does speed work. He poses for a few photos. He goes to the media tent for his first news conference of the week.
After a slew of boilerplate questions about his preparation, one of the reporters asks what Djokovic thought about as he fell asleep the night before. Djokovic stares at her for a second, hesitating. What was he thinking about?
What wasn’t he?
Finally, he says that he actually thought a lot about making sure his fidgeting and squirming wouldn’t hurt his dog, who was curled up next to him in bed.
He was tossing and turning, Djokovic says, because lately “I have been having some trouble sleeping.”
ON WEDNESDAY, A few hours before his opening match in Belgrade, Djokovic practices with Karen Khachanov, a tall, top-ranked Russian player.
Djokovic, momentarily left without any balls to serve himself, moves to a return position. He split-steps as Khachanov pumps his racket, then steps in with his left foot and cracks a forehand, blasting a return that skids off the line in the corner to Khachanov’s left, a winner against anyone. Khachanov serves another and Djokovic does the same thing, only this time with a backhand to the opposite corner, the ball skidding off the line there. Khachanov serves again and Djokovic sends it back to the first corner. One more, and it whizzes back to the corner to Khachanov’s right.
As a boy, one of Djokovic’s coaches, Bogdan Obradovic, taught him musical rhythms — “I brought my guitar to the court,” Obradovic says — because understanding the one-two of a player stepping into the court with his foot and then hitting the ball with his racket was what separated the average returners from the elite. Years later, Djokovic’s execution of that principle — and the simplicity with which he succeeds — is staggering. Even Khachanov stares, only for a second, as if he’d momentarily forgotten just how talented Djokovic is.
It has long been impossible to take our eyes off Djokovic because he carries himself in a way that hints at an even greater spectacle to come. Djokovic grew up hitting balls not far from the tournament site in Belgrade, and his first coach, Jelena Gencic, told his parents he was a “golden child” almost immediately after she began working with him. Djokovic was six. When he would win tournaments on weekends while in grade school, he often received bags of candy he’d bring to school on Mondays to share with his friends.
“It was like, every single Monday,” one of his childhood friends, Bojan Petronic, tells me. “We expected it. If there was literally one Monday where he didn’t have it, we’d be like, ‘No! You can’t lose! Where is our candy?’ And he would apologize.”
At that age, Djokovic preferred soccer to tennis, but his father, Srdjan, prohibited him from playing soccer with his friends on the concrete court behind his grandfather’s apartment because Srdjan was worried Djokovic would be injured (Petronic: “We sometimes played anyway”). As Djokovic got older, Srdjan took out loans to bankroll his son’s tennis career, essentially betting his entire family’s livelihood on his son’s ability.
Even with all that pressure, confidence was never a problem for Djokovic. Gebhard Gritsch, who spent nine years as Djokovic’s fitness coach, told me that in the very first conversation they had, Djokovic looked at him and said, “The situation is very simple: I believe someone out there has decided I’m supposed to become a tennis player and I’m supposed to be the No. 1 player in the world. So, I need you to help me with that.”
With a record 370 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world, Djokovic’s dominance has been total. And yet despite his enduring success — despite the fact he has somehow met and surpassed all the hopes anyone could have possibly had for him — there has always been, and continues to be, a feeling around Djokovic that something is missing. That there is still a place he cannot reach.
Patrick McEnroe, the analyst and former U.S. Davis Cup captain, thinks often of Djokovic at the U.S. Open, a tournament where for years the fans often booed or whistled at him. When the New York fans finally cheered for him in the championship match last year, which he ultimately lost, Djokovic broke down in tears late in the final set, saying later that “even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy.”
The adulation was fleeting — he was going for a historic calendar Grand Slam against an equally-unpopular Russian player — but it was a taste of what Djokovic has craved.
“He was and is just so much freaking better than everyone else,” McEnroe says, “but even with all those wins he isn’t loved in the way that he wants.”
McEnroe pauses, then adds: “I think sometimes it’s almost like he’s trying too hard with the public. Like he’ll try anything to chase this thing that he’s never quite been able to get.”
TO UNDERSTAND WHO Djokovic is now — as well as who he wants to be — it is helpful to understand where he came from. And by almost any measure, the turning point in his career came in January 2010, when Dr. Igor Cetojevic, a Bosnian-Serb living in Cyprus who doesn’t like tennis at all, happened to see Djokovic’s Australian Open match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Djokovic was having a physical breakdown, something that happened to him so often back then that Andy Roddick once joked Djokovic might be “the most courageous guy of all time” for all the alleged injuries he battled through. Watching Djokovic struggle to breathe that day, Cetojevic, a medical doctor and acupuncturist whose website describes him as an expert in health concepts that are “only beginning to come to light” in Western medicine, bristled when he heard the television announcers speculate that Djokovic might be suffering from asthma.
“I knew right away it wasn’t asthma,” he tells me.
Cetojevic’s wife — who is a tennis fan — suggested her husband try to help a fellow Serb. Through a mutual connection, Cetojevic arranged to meet Djokovic in Croatia that summer and told him that he believed Djokovic’s physical struggles were rooted in a food allergy.
To prove his point, he asked Djokovic to put one hand on his stomach and hold the other hand out in front of him, palm up. “Resist as I try to push your hand down,” he instructed. Djokovic easily kept Cetojevic from moving his hand much at all. Then Cetojevic gave Djokovic a piece of bread and told him to hold it against his stomach as he put his other hand out. Cetojevic easily pushed Djokovic’s hand down. “He was clearly weaker,” Cetojevic says now. “It showed that his body was resisting the wheat.”
Cetojevic, who describes Djokovic as “a beautiful open mind,” knew nothing about athletes or tennis. But Djokovic was moved by his theories and trusted him. He underwent further testing, revamped his diet to eliminate gluten and other sensitivities and embraced many of Cetojevic’s philosophies. His performances seemed to suggest the changes worked. The next year, Djokovic had one of the greatest seasons in men’s tennis, winning three of the four Grand Slams.
In his book, “Serve to Win,” Djokovic praises Cetojevic frequently, writing that “much of what Dr. Igor Cetojevic told me … will strike you as truly unbelievable. But then again, so will the results.”
Cetojevic’s fingerprints are still all over Djokovic’s methodologies. The tepid water, for example (because cold water sits in your belly). The strictly vegan diet (despite Djokovic’s parents having owned a pizza restaurant). A belief in telepathy and telekinesis. A conviction that positive thinking can do almost anything, including change the toxicity of food and drink. “I’ve seen people … that, through that energetical transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, they manage to turn the most toxic food or most polluted water, into the most healing water,” Djokovic said during an Instagram Live in 2020.
He added, “Because water reacts and scientists have proven that — that molecules in the water react to our emotions.”
If nothing else, Djokovic’s candor about his beliefs provides something of a roadmap for how he views traditional Western medicine and science (he told The Telegraph that he felt guilty for getting elbow surgery in 2018 because he believes that “our bodies are self-healing mechanisms.”)
Drawing a line between that sort of thinking and how Djokovic approached COVID isn’t difficult. And Cetojevic, while declining to reveal the degree to which he counseled Djokovic regarding the COVID vaccine, went as far as likening Djokovic during the pandemic to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights era.
“He is seeing the real picture when everyone else is just going along with what they’re being told about these ‘experimental’ vaccines,” Cetojevic says, dismissing the numerous tests and studies on vaccine efficacy as “exaggeration.”
In a country where the vaccination rate is less than 50% and there is anti-vax graffiti and signage seemingly everywhere, Cetojevic is not alone among Serbs in seeing Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated as noble.
When Djokovic was being detained in Australia, Cetojevic sent him a text message telling him he was doing the right thing despite being labeled “a bad guy.” “How many people have been in jail for what they believe?” Cetojevic says he wrote to Djokovic. “I told him, ‘You are a light for human rights.'”
MIDWAY THROUGH DJOKOVIC’S match on Thursday in Belgrade, his opponent, Miomir Kecmanovic, steps inside the baseline and pounds a weak second-serve from Djokovic for a clean winner. It is embarrassingly easy for Kecmanovic, so much so that Djokovic — down a set once more — erupts in anger, smashing a ball against the back wall of the stadium.
The fans barely react. These outbursts, the flashes of anger, are a significant part of the Djokovic experience.
The nadir came in 2020, when Djokovic blasted a ball back toward the wall behind him after losing a game only to see it hit a lineswoman in the throat. It didn’t appear as though Djokovic hit her on purpose, but he was tossed out of the U.S. Open — a humiliating experience for the world No. 1, as well as the entire sport.
It also served as easy evidence for the long-running theory that while Djokovic’s views on subjects like the emotional properties of water molecules may play some role in his public image being divisive, the more significant reason he’s often been cast as tennis’s interloper is simpler: his temper.
“You know, you can put together a pretty significant highlight reel of some pretty average behavior from Novak in matches,” his former analytics coach, Craig O’Shannessy, tells me. “He’s obviously not the only one that does that. But when you’re at his place in the game, it’s different.”
It’s different because Djokovic has always wanted more than just on-court success. He has always wanted to be seen like Federer or Nadal, always wanted to be the man beloved in all cities. He doesn’t keep it a secret, either. As recently as last year, Djokovic said, a bit forlornly, that he believes he plays “90% of my matches, if not more than that, against the opponent but against the stadium as well.”
Djokovic would like to believe that simply beating Federer and Nadal often enough should bring him that adoration, and there is no doubt he has spent much of his career focusing on his two main rivals. When he brought O’Shannessy on-board, he made a point of saying that O’Shannessy had three main tasks: analyze Djokovic’s game, prepare daily scouting reports on opponents and do anything he could to help with “a couple of guys that I want to study really well.
“We want to make sure that we are right on top of these guys,” Djokovic told O’Shannessy. There was no need to name them.
But being right on top of those guys wasn’t enough. That sense of esteem, of reverence from all corners, still eludes him. Sometimes, Djokovic will even trick himself mentally — “When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,'” he said a few summers ago.
Some close to Djokovic believe there is a larger phenomenon at work. Tennis is a largely rich and traditional sport with a Western-based media coverage footprint that has historically skewed more favorably towards players from western Europe, Australia and the United States. Federer, with his coolly Swiss demeanor, or Nadal, with his Spanish creativity and flair, fit the long-held mold.
Djokovic does not. He is from the former Yugoslavia. He lashes out. His parents are boisterous and outspoken. To pick two incidents, his mother told an Australian newspaper that “the king is dead” after her son beat Federer in 2008, while his father said in 2013 that Federer was a tremendous player but that “as a man, he’s the opposite.”
Those outbursts are emblematic of a sentiment among many from the Balkan region that their athletes are ignored, overlooked or stereotyped. “He was used to the idea that at the U.S. Open, 95% of the people will be against him,” Gritsch, the former trainer, says. “He has plenty of fans — they just aren’t necessarily all the well-situated westerners. And Novak wants to be loved by everyone.”
He isn’t alone in that. One afternoon while I’m in Belgrade, I meet up with Darko Milicic, the former NBA player who was picked second in the 2003 NBA Draft. Like Djokovic, Milicic wanted desperately to be liked by American fans and reporters, and so while preparing to come to the U.S., he made up a story about how he’d grown up idolizing Kevin Garnett.
It made sense — Garnett was a big man, just like Milicic — but it was a complete fabrication. Milicic had barely watched Garnett play at all. He just knew that people would assume he’d spent his childhood worshiping some American NBA star he saw on TV, so he figured if he told them what they wanted to hear — as he did in many interviews — it might help him fit in.
Now 36 and secure in his post-basketball life as an apple farmer, Milicic has seen similar things from Djokovic, including the phase early in his career when Djokovic gained notoriety for doing exaggerated on-court impressions of other players. Milicic grimaced as he saw Djokovic lean into the idea that he was the funnyman, the “Djoker” on tour. It was like he had a party trick to show off.
It wasn’t authentic, Milicic says. And like McEnroe, Milicic says he sensed Djokovic was “trying too hard” to ingratiate himself, to force himself to be seen differently than he actually was. Sometimes, he still feels that way. “If they’re not going to like you, they’re not going to like you,” Milicic says. “Believe me, I know — I really know. You can’t force it.”
A few days later, I mention my conversation with Milicic to Troicki, the former player who has known Djokovic since they were little. Troicki nods when I explain Milicic’s thinking, so I ask him: After all the success Djokovic has had, why does he still care how people see him? Why is he still trying so hard? Troicki shakes his head.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It shouldn’t matter to him. But it does.”
WITHIN 20 MINUTES of completing his win over Khachanov in the Serbia Open semifinal on Saturday, Djokovic is back on the practice court. This time he hits with his son and the Owaki brothers, a pair of young Japanese social media celebrities. When the boys smack their groundstrokes at him, Djokovic pantomimes the grunts he makes in real matches and lobs the balls back.
At one point, Djokovic puts down his racket and begins chasing his daughter, Tara, waving his arms like a monster. When he catches her, he snatches her up into the air and holds her tightly. The sun is out. Tara giggles. It is the happiest Djokovic looks all week.
At his news conference a little later, Djokovic is asked about Wimbledon officials’ decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from the tournament due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and his smile quickly melts away.
He is against the war, he says. But he is also against excluding players based on their nationality, to punish someone for simply being from somewhere.
“I know very well what sanctions mean,” he says softly. “I know how it is when you’re regarded in the world as an outcast, when you come from a country that has been portrayed in a bad way. I’ve been victim to that for many years.”
His face is drawn. As much as Djokovic presents himself as a global citizen, his connection to Serbia is deep-rooted, layered into the fabric of his life like the stitching on a seam. It colors the way he sees the world, the way he sees himself. The conflicts of the Balkans are impossibly complex, but the trauma of growing up as Djokovic did — “a child of war,” as he says — is brutally simple.
To this day, Djokovic still finds himself jolted by sudden loud noises, an emotional scab seeded decades ago. For his 12th birthday party, his family and friends celebrated at a local tennis club. As Djokovic’s parents led everyone in singing “Happy Birthday,” the thundering sound of fighter jets overhead enveloped the area. U.S.-led NATO forces were continuing their bombing in an attempt to stop the Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians. Everyone, including the children, knew what those sounds meant. “Everyone went back in the bunkers,” says Petronic, Djokovic’s childhood friend. “It felt endless.”
Those bombings in 1999 lasted 78 nights, and Djokovic spent many of those in the bunker beneath his grandfather’s apartment building in the Banjica neighborhood of Belgrade, south of the city’s center. On an off day during tournament week, I go to Banjica and the building’s superintendent, who has lived there 40 years, agrees to take me down the cement steps and unlock the red steel door. He pulls it open and winces.
Inside, the bunker smells musty, like wet earth mixed with concrete. The ceiling is low. Plastic chairs are stacked on top of each other. A few old glass bottles of rakia, Serbian fruit brandy, drunk more than 20 years ago, still lie in one corner. A die, maybe from a board game, sits on top of a wooden crossbeam. The superintendent points to a tiny plug dangling from the ceiling and explains that back then a group of residents jury-rigged some bare lightbulbs and electrical wires, with the whole thing powered by a stationary bicycle that they set up in an alcove. Each night, he says, the men pedaled in turns so the lights would stay on.
Djokovic saw the men pedaling. Saw the drinking. Heard the explosions overhead, never sure when the next one was coming. It was horrifying and desperately sad, but it was also just life. In the mornings, when he and Gencic, his first tennis coach, went somewhere to practice, they sought out the damage from the night before, looking for scorched grass and craters before finding a tennis court nearby. It was safer near the damage, they thought, because it seemed less likely the military would bomb the same area two days in a row.
“We don’t think about it every day or anything anymore,” Troicki says. “But it stays with you.”
It is impossible to be in Belgrade and not feel that. Even now, there is freshly-painted graffiti saying “F— NATO” on buildings everywhere. There is wariness about Europe and the United States, a leeriness about the intentions of the West. In the middle of the city, there is the former building of Radio Television of Serbia, which had its façade destroyed in 1999 by a bomb that killed 16. The building has never been razed; instead, it stands there, its side laid open, its crumbling walls and floors visible. It is a preserved memorial of the scars left behind.
As much as Djokovic strives to be global, he will always come from this place. From this neighborhood. From this bunker.
Does it hurt him to have come from such pain? Does it make it harder for him to be that thing he imagines the world wants him to be? It doesn’t matter. He couldn’t hide it even if he wanted to. Only those who have heard those planes and been in that bunker can understand how it changes someone. Only they can really know what growing up like that does to someone’s definition of survival.
On Saturday, as he leaves the court after beating Khachanov to reach his hometown final, he tells the crowd, “There is no better feeling than being here in front of you.”
THE STORYBOOK ENDING, then, feels set. Djokovic returns to the court from his medical timeout in Sunday’s final, fully embracing the dramatic pause, and it seems all but certain that he will complete his comeback to claim the trophy in front of his loyal and loving fans. When Rublev double-faults on the first point of the third set, the stadium heaves again and everyone leans in to watch Djokovic start rolling.
Only, he doesn’t. Rublev holds his serve. Then breaks Djokovic’s. Then flummoxes Djokovic with a wicked, twisting second serve in the third game that Djokovic flails at wildly. When Rublev breaks again to go up 4-0, Djokovic’s face looks ashen. At 5-0, some fans begin to file out and Djokovic doesn’t bother to wait for quiet or calm; he serves as they’re clomping down the tunnels, serves even as they flee so they don’t have to witness the final blow.
When it is over, and Djokovic has lost the final set, 6-0, a tournament official asks Rublev to sign three tennis balls and hit them into the crowd. Rublev shakes his head and looks embarrassed. “No one wants a ball from me,” he tells the official. He points at Djokovic, who is hunched over in his chair. “They want him,” he says.
The ceremony is awkward. Djokovic honors some former members of his team, including his longtime coach, Marian Vajda, and gives them gifts. Each man says a few words, and there is a sweetness to it all that is marred only by the weirdness of Rublev standing there holding the winner’s trophy.
In many ways, the whole thing feels like a transition, a reboot. Djokovic isn’t the same as he was before Australia because nobody is. He has changed. The way we see him has changed. And win or lose, he comes here — he comes home — to start again.
When the ceremony finishes, he comes to the media tent for one more news conference. He says he is sorry the crowd had to see him get beaten so badly. He says Rublev is a worthy champion. He says he is still searching, still looking for that thing that will make him feel the way he knows he can.
He cannot make everyone understand what he sees in the COVID vaccine or water molecules. He cannot bend the will of the people who watch him the way he bends the will of the game itself.
He can only be No. 1 for a 371st week. He can only raise another trophy. He can only win and win and win and win, imagining that someday, maybe, that will feel like enough.
“Paris is the big goal,” he says again. “So, hopefully …”