“This is without doubt the blackest day in the history of Brussels Airport. ”
Sitting in a Bombardier Learjet 45 at California’s Palm Desert Airport near Palm Springs, tennis champion Novak Djokovic outlined the approach that has kept him at the top of the game and made him a hero in his native Serbia.
“I believe that you can always improve,” he told us, leaning forward intently. “Like most of the top athletes, I think I’m a perfectionist. I always seek to be better each day. Right now, I’m experiencing the best times of my career, but I still believe that there are things I can improve on and I’m learning every day. I’m understanding better what I need to do to play even better.”
The 25-year-old Djokovic–who is widely known by the nickname Nole–flies about 200 hours per year via private jet. Besides traveling to tennis matches, he has his own business and charitable interests to look after, including a restaurant, the Novak Tennis Academy and the Novak Djokovic Foundation, which helps disadvantaged children.
Djokovic’s team accompanies him when he travels, as does his number-one fan, Pierre. “He’s four years old and he’s a very small dog,” said the tennis star with a smile. Pierre, a toy poodle, was born in Germany and has a French name but, added his owner, “we consider him Serbian.
Djokovic first picked up a tennis racquet at age 4 at the invitation of coach Jelena Gencic, who ran a summer training camp at Mount Kopaonik in central Serbia. Gencic had noticed the boy watching tennis matches, and soon after he started playing she came to appreciate his potential. “I knew he would become a champion,” she recalled later. “It was crystal clear to me. He was focused, conscientious, and above all, talented.”
Gencic realized that Djokovic would require further teaching to grow into his full capabilities and she told his parents that he needed to move to another country for advanced tennis training. This was at the height of the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia, a period fraught with tension for Djokovic’s family and a tough time to make such a momentous decision.
At age 13, the boy began four years of training at the Pilic Academy in Germany, where Niki Pilic (now a five-time Davis Cup winner) has shaped the talents of 40 of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) Top 100 ranked players. Djokovic spent months at a time in Germany, shuttling back and forth to Serbia. “From the first day Novak arrived to the camp it was amazing how focused on tennis he was,” Pilic said later. “I never liked predicting if someone would succeed or not, but with Novak I knew he would be the best.”
At age 14, Djokovic began his winning streak in Europe, capturing championships in singles, doubles and team competitions. Then, in the following two years, he beat older opponents and was ranked as the world’s 40th best junior tennis player.
Djokovic has subsequently climbed to the pinnacle of the tennis world. At press time, he was number two on the ATP Top 100 list, after his longtime friend and rival Roger Federer and right above Rafael Nadal. Earlier this year, Djokovic and Nadal faced off in the finals of the Australian Open and ended up knocking the ball back and forth for five hours and 53 minutes–the longest Grand Slam final match ever.
Last year, Djokovic made more tennis history, winning 43 matches in a row–a world record–before finally making his childhood dreams and those of coach Gencic come true: a win at the Wimbledon Championships. In an episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes that aired on March 25, the tennis star visited Gencic at her home and shared his joy at winning Wimbledon. In a tribute to her guidance, he placed his trophy from that match on her mantel, front and center among her own impressive collection of awards.
So far, Djokovic’s domination of the tennis world includes five Grand Slam singles titles, among them the 2011 Wimbledon Championships and 2011 U.S. Open and the Australian Opens in 2008, 2011 and 2012. “He has had the greatest year in the history of our sport,” John McEnroe said last summer. “In 30 or 40 years, people are still going to be talking about the season Djokovic is having.” In March 2012, at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, the Serbian star achieved his 30th tour-level title and 11th Masters Series title by beating Andy Murray in the finals without losing a set
While it might seem that Djokovic’s life is all tennis all the time, he has many other interests and a charming playful side, which he famously expresses in hilarious courtside impressions of fellow tennis players and in bold stunts.
One such stunt resulted after a fan posted a photo on Head Tennis’ Facebook page that showed the sport being played on the wing of an in-the-air biplane. Head asked Djokovic whether he would be interested in replicating the feat. “I asked myself: Is this really possible? Playing tennis on the wings of an airplane?” he said. “I decided to accept the challenge.”
In March 2011, Djokovic strapped himself onto the upper wing of an Antonov An-2 biplane to film a segment for Head, using his favorite YouTek IG Speed MP 18/20 racquet. And amazingly, one of the most valuable talents in the sporting world volleyed a tennis ball across the wing to another player while the An-2 flew around the countryside. Now the image of Djokovic standing on an airplane wing has become his trademark.
He is well aware of his influence on his fellow Serbians. Right after winning Wimbledon last year, he flew in a Learjet to Serbia, where he was awarded the Karadjordjeva Star Medal, to acknowledge his “special merits and success in representing Serbia.” “It was the best trip I had after winning the most important title of my life,” he recalled. “I was celebrating in the plane with my people and my friends and everybody.”
The president of Serbia joked that Djokovic could take his place if something unexpected happened. “It is most definitely very flattering to hear something like that from the president of Serbia,” he said, “and to feel the appreciation and support from my people back in my country. I’m aware of the responsibility that I carry with me wherever I play, but I try to look at it as a positive side of what I do because not many people in the world can say that they have the honor of being one of the most recognizable faces of their country. So it is a responsibility but it is a pleasure as well.”
As one of Bombardier’s brand ambassadors, Djokovic enjoys the ability to fly in a variety of the manufacturer’s business jets. “The Learjet offers me lots of comfort, efficiency and performance, and it’s suitable to my style of life,” he said, noting that he uses the time aloft for business meetings, catching up on meals and occasionally sleep. “From point A to point B, it’s very efficient. For me it’s important to be able to travel fast and to have comfort. We travel with a lot of bags and so most of the time we use Learjets. Depending on the needs we also use the other Bombardier planes.”
Djokovic first flew on a business jet about five years ago. “It was exciting,” he recalled. “It’s a significant difference from commercial because you have that privacy, efficiency and comfort and much shorter time of arrival and departure. This all plays an important role in my scheduling because it’s very tight and obviously I don’t like to spend too much time in the airports and I like to fly fast.”
In the short breaks in the long and busy tennis season, Djokovic heads off on vacation. “I usually have my off-season break in December, and during the summer [I’m] in Europe,” he said. “I fly to maybe Greece or back to Serbia or Spain, so I try to follow the good weather. And I’ve used the opportunity this year to ski. I went back to the mountain where I grew up.”
On and off the court, Djokovic remains dedicated not only to tennis but to all the people who have helped make his career possible. “I always try to be who I am and never change that regardless of the success that I’m having. I’m very blessed and grateful to be able to be successful in a profession that I have dedicated my life to and that I love, but I still enjoy my time off the court. I have a great team of people around me–my family, the friends that I’ve had relationships with for 15, 20 years–and they are keeping me on the ground, they’re giving me this freedom of life.”
What our readers had to say
When I received my [August/September 2012] issue with Novak [Djokovic] on the cover, I went right inside and read the whole article. Great piece and I was stoked to see tennis royalty on the cover!
Justin Leeds via email