With the French Open starting Sunday in Paris, let’s bust out the art metaphors and make the case that Novak Djokovic is tennis’ pointillist. Precise and measured as they are, his individual strokes are not remarkable. They lack the rococo facility and lightness of Roger Federer’s offerings, and the expressionist intensity of Rafael Nadal’s. Take a few steps back, though, viewing Djokovic’s shots as an accumulation, and a masterpiece emerges.
Over the last 18 months, Djokovic has been performing at a level that may have no precedent. He’s won four of the last five majors. He’s hoarded almost twice as many rankings points as No. 2-ranked Andy Murray, notionally anyway, Djokovic’s closest rival. After coming within a match of pulling off tennis’ ultimate feat in 2015, Djokovic has a real shot at the Grand Slam in 2016.
First, though, he must win the French Open, the gaping hole—the big lacuna, as it were—in his credentials. Eleven years running, Djokovic has come to Paris with the grandest of ambitions. Eleven times he’s left disappointed. Never more than last year when he deposed Nadal, the reigning King of Clay, only to lose in the final to Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka. At odds with his peerless defensive tennis, Djokovic attacks the pressure and will speak openly about his shortcomings at the French. It’s not only prevented him from winning the Grand Slam, but it’s impeded his otherwise solid case as the sports GOAT, Greatest of All Time.
And he knows it. Before heading to the 2016 French Open with designs of subduing history as well as the seven opponents put before him, the player to beat sat down for a candid Q&A.
Jon Wertheim: How do you think about your relationship with the French Open?
Novak Djokovic: Most people think that because I never have won it, and I lost couple of finals, that I don’t have very good memories that link me to the center court, or to Roland Garros as a tournament. In contrary, I do feel like I have a love affair with the tournament because I grew up on clay, and I particularly enjoy that Grand Slam because it’s played on clay, it’s very close to where I live, I have lots of family and friends coming to watch me play. It has a special European feel, I would say. I enjoy it, and I look forward to go back and compete and hopefully I’ll get another chance to play for the trophy. You know, yes, it has been the only Grand Slam I never won, but same for Roger for many years, and then he managed to do it. So hopefully I can do it, but if I don’t, it’s not going to be the end of the world. I still have a lot of accomplishments that I should be proud of.
JW: These last two historic years for you, what have you learned about yourself?
ND: Well, I have learned that, you know, self-belief and commitment, holistic approach, I’d say, not just in tennis but everything in life can pay off, and if you truly live it, if you truly believe in it. And I also learned that patience is a virtue. In the early stages of my professional career, I lacked a little bit of that patience, which I think is also a natural way of evolving, I would say, because when you are young you want things to happen overnight. You know, but I managed to grow as a person, as a player, mature, understand, you know, what life really is, and what it represents to me, so I’m at the best possible point of my life at the moment. I managed to get married and become a father, and to be the best in the sport that I am truly devoted to is truly remarkable for me, so I’m very grateful for that.
JW: Was there an event that triggered this patience?
ND: I think it’s maturity; it was a process. There were days and periods of my career when I went through a lot of doubtful moments. But you overcome those moments with the help of people around you, which I think is very important that you surround yourself with positive people. People who are wise, who care about you, care about your career, care about you living your dreams. Then, you know, you try to take the best out of those moments and learn, rather than, you know, thinking that you are not good enough. Of course, I went through those moments when I was thinking I’m not good enough. I had doubts whether or not I can become number one and challenge Nadal and Federer, who were so dominant. But, it was a process of growing up and really maturing in every aspect of my being and my tennis career as well.
JW: There’s a certain moral authority, you might call it, that comes with being No. 1 in any sport. How have you thought about using your authority?
Djokovic: Well, I believe that there’s so much room for professional athletes, especially the ones that are successful and very influential, to use that influence to make a positive difference in people’s lives. So, obviously I’m very, you know, emotionally linked to my foundation’s work, but I also would like to leave a legacy behind for the younger players. I would like to use this opportunity while I’m at the top, while I have this kind of attention and influence to actually make sure that there is a better sport for youngsters tomorrow. So, of course during my active career there is a lot going on, but I already feel like in the last ten years the sport has changed, and this era right now which I am part of is fantastic, and hopefully tennis can go only upwards in the future.
JW: Does part of you miss that cluster at the top, Big 3 or Big 4? Or are you okay flying/soaring solo?
ND: I’m OK solo, honestly.
For Jon Wertheim’s full interview with Novak Djokovic as well as comprehensive match coverage, tune into Tennis Channel’s broadcast of the French Open, May 22-June 5.