Five months back, Novak Djokovic had just led his country to a famous Davis Cup victory, and it seemed—to this particular pair of eyes—as though a weight had been lifted from the 23-year-old’s shoulders.
It was enough to prompt this same pair of eyes to suggest a second Grand Slam was just around the corner. For although he had won just two titles in 2010, neither of them a Masters or a Major trophy, there was something about the culmination of his year that promised much: a maturing of Serbia’s favorite son.
That he delivered on that promise so soon—at the first Grand Slam of 2011—was less of a shock than what followed, for it seems as though the lifting of that weight of expectation has allowed him to soar to the tennis stratosphere.
In those five short months, he has remained unbeaten in 39 matches and gone on to win six more titles, four of them Masters.
By repeatedly beating the best in the world—Rafael Nadal in four Masters finals and Roger Federer in the Australian Open and two further tournaments—he has all but closed a 6,000-point gap in the rankings to become world No. 2.
He leads the points race to the World Tour Finals by more than 2,500 and has already guaranteed his place in London. The only other player to do so before Roland Garros was Nadal.
He is, on the day that the French Open begins, poised to become world No.1 for the first time: He has only to reach the final or see Nadal fall before the final, and the deal is done.
He is also, on the day the French Open begins, celebrating his 24th birthday.
A moment then to celebrate the evolution of the youngest man in the rankings all the way down to No. 20, a man now poised to set a new benchmark for the best ever start to a season.
Entirely personal, and entirely drawn on the fortunate convergence of camera with man, the selection of images begins in Djokovic’s ground-breaking 20th year, 2008.
Although 2007 was a breakout year for the young Djokovic—five ATP titles, a first Grand Slam final and the youngest man in the top 10 by the end of the year—it was 2008 that saw him consolidate his arrival amongst the top three in the world.
In the last year that the tour-ending finale was titled the Tennis Masters Cup, it was held for the last time in Shanghai.
Djokovic qualified for the competition on the back of his most successful year thus far. He had won the Australian Open and the Masters in Indian Wells and Rome. He reached the finals at the Cincinnati Masters and at Queens, London and Bangkok. He won the Bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics.
The Shanghai win launched Djokovic towards a yet more intense season.
In 2009, he played 10 finals on his way to five more titles. He played more matches than anyone else—97. He reached the quarterfinals or better in 19 out of 22 tournaments. And on his favorite hard courts, he won 29 out of 33 matches in the second half of the year.
He came to the Rome Masters as defending champion but had already lost to Nadal a fortnight earlier in the final of Monte Carlo, and he was to suffer the same fate in the Rome final.
Djokovic then went on to lose to Nadal again in one of the most memorable matches of the year in the semifinals of Madrid, a four-hour battle that still has the power to amaze the most jaded of tennis palates.
The extrovert personality of the Serb became almost as popular with the fans as his tennis: a fresh, funny, witty addition to the tour. He was sociable, demonstrative and occasionally sailed close to the wind in his off-duty imitations of fellow players.
The jokes were irreverent but never malicious, the hi-jinks of a young man enjoying his success and the attention of both fans and media. He enjoyed the occasional fashion statement, too, and it was on the clay of 2009 that he sported a pair of electric blue shoes that vibrated against the orange dirt like a Matisse painting.
He went on to wear a scarlet iteration, trimmed with gold, at the World Tour Finals but has since toned down his footwear to be replaced by cheekier highlights. More of that from Queens…
Two straight years of success in the Wimbledon ballot provided an opportunity to take each of two daughters for the close-up, grass-whispering experience of SW19’s Centre Court.
In 2008, the elder sibling sighed over Nadal in the semis but, in 2009, the younger sibling revealed an unexpected partiality for a certain Serb. Fortunate, then, that the schedule offered up an early-round defeat by Djokovic of Mardy Fish.
With seats alongside the net, just four rows back, there was no finer place to see an athlete doing what he does best.
The Djokovic-Federer rivalry has produced some of the best tennis on the men’s tour during its six-year, 22-match history.
The U.S. Open was, for much of this rivalry, a mountain Djokovic found impossible to climb. In 2007, Federer won a tight three-setter in the final, and in 2008, he won an even closer four-setter in the semis.
In 2009, for a third successive year, they met in a hard-contested semifinal—7-6, 7-5, 7-5—and again it went the way of the Swiss. Yet Djokovic ended the year with three wins out of five over Federer, gaining a small measure of revenge on Federer’s home ground of Basel in the autumn.
The U.S. Open, however, proved to be one of the decisive moments of 2010 for Djokovic. He met Federer, yet again, in the semifinals and this time he won a remarkable victory from two sets to one down.
Despite Federer beating him in their three remaining matches of the year, Djokovic knew he had made an important breakthrough. The clue to how he achieved it came in his own words: “I just knew I had to be patient and not lose my emotions too much.”
That proved to be the key to his current success.
Djokovic put his New York loss behind him to go on and win Beijing, Basel and the Paris Masters—taking the scalps of Federer and Nadal along the way—and he reached the semifinals in Shanghai, too.
He beat Nadal again in London, the new venue for the rebranded World Tour Finals. Indeed, Djokovic won two of his three round robin matches, including a three-set victory over the man who went on to win the title, Davydenko.
But such are the vagaries of the WTFs calculations that Djokovic himself failed to reach the semifinals. In truth, he looked weary by the end of his grueling season, and it took some time for his 2010 season to gain the same momentum.
With a new coach, Todd Martin, in his corner and some of his natural ebullience noticeably dampened, things seemed not quite in tune in the Djokovic camp at the start of 2010.
He reached the quarters of Australian Open where fell in five sets to Tsonga, and he did not win a title until Dubai—where Nadal and Federer were sidelined with injury and illness respectively.
However, this brought Djokovic an early boost in the rankings. He overtook Nadal in early spring to take the No. 2 position and then, although he dropped back to No. 3 as Nadal’s golden clay run accelerated, the Serb overtook Federer after Wimbledon.
In Rome, he reached only the quarters but had time for a light-hearted exchange with one of those rivals. Federer lost early, too, but before they both left Rome, their paths crossed on the practice courts where Djokovic’s arrival was drowned out by the uproarious crowd attending the Federer knock.
Djokovic was clearly highly amused.
An early high spot in 2010—a happy precursor to the year-ending Davis Cup triumph—was a gritty, heart-swelling performance with Serbia against the United States. Djokovic won both of his singles rubbers, including a vital five-set victory over John Isner in front of a spirit-lifting home crowd.
As the year wore on, some of the lost joy in the Djokovic demeanor began to return. Despite an average clay season bedeviled by illness and allergy-related problems, he arrived on London’s grass with a smile on his face.
He managed only one win at Queens but seemed to relish every moment he spent there, joking with fans during practice and gossiping at length with every other player he bumped into.
It seemed to mark a turnaround in the Djokovic year.
Was it his rediscovered pleasure at playing or an attempt to inject his personality into the restrictions of the London grass uniform?
It has to be white—certainly at Wimbledon—and during Queens, Djokovic stuck to the theme but with the addition of a playful “Nole” tucked away beneath his shirt.
The word has remained a feature of his kit ever since—including the loud, flamboyant, black and red numbers he later adopted.
Despite health set-backs in the preceding months and just one mach on grass ahead of Wimbledon, Djokovic made it all the way to the semifinals where he came unstuck against Tomas Berdych.
The season went from good to better, grounded on a growing consistency: He reached the quarters or better in all four Grand Slams, and the Wimbledon result took him ahead of Federer in the rankings.
He went on to compile a 26-6 record on the hard courts and had another confidence boost from two more wins in the Davis Cup. His country was edging slowly but surely towards the final.
The most significant result of the year—until that Davis Cup final—came in New York, where Djokovic finally, at the fourth attempt, beat Federer in the stand-out match of the U.S. Open. He could not repeat the feat against Nadal in the final, but the confidence he garnered from overcoming Federer in such a style was almost as precious.
Federer went on to beat Djokoivic in Shanghai, Basel and the WTFs, but that mattered not. Federer had hit a purple patch and Djokovic knew he had only to bide his time.
His turn came sooner than many expected in the next Grand Slam, once more in the semis on the hard courts of Melbourne. Federer has not won in either of their subsequent meeting.
Djokovic’s opening match in London brought him face-to-face with his Wimbledon foe, Berdych, but this time the Serb hit the ground running. Indeed he looked as though he was in a big hurry to the weekend, playing near flawless tennis right up to the ninth game of his round robin against Nadal.
He needed a win to be sure of avoiding the same fate as in 2009, but a problem with contact lenses that could not be remedied during the match was to deny him the win.
Ever the entertainer, Djokovic came into his final round robin match sporting an eye patch, and quickly showed Andy Roddick that there was nothing wrong with his sight as he advanced to a semis against Federer.
Djokovic faced a storm of a match against a Swiss on his way to the title, but he remained pragmatic: “I didn’t have a chance.” He did, in any case, have more important fish to fry.
With two more wins in the Davis Cup final, he became a Serbian hero and has not looked back.
So three years to the month after winning his first Grand Slam, Djokovic opened 2011 with his second in Melbourne, and has won every match and every tournament since.
With the wins have come a confidence, almost a serene confidence, that hangs about his every move.
More important still, he has acquired a physical resilience, with no sign of the breathing or energy problems that dogged his former years. Whether it is his diet—much has been written of his move to a gluten-free regime—or better training and preparation matters little.
He has proven that he can stand toe-to-toe with Nadal for more than three hours and look the fresher man at the end—as he did in Miami—and he can overcome the Spaniard and Federer and Andy Murray in each and every tournament. He is an athlete and a competitor of the first order.
But when all is said and done, the Djokovic story comes down to his tennis.
His shot-making is more consistent, more accurate and more sharp than his opponents’. His movement and speed and turning circle are the match of anyone. He has tactical intelligence and is emotionally more confident than he has ever been.
So this appears to be, for a man just turned 24, only the beginning.