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The Greatest of All Time - Novak Djokovic

Just a few hours on the set of this editorial were enough to understand why Novak Djokovic is much more than the greatest tennis player of all time. Nenad Janjatović reveals the man behind the sports legend.

Nenad Janjatović

July 11, 2024

A quick note – tennis is my favorite sport. And a sidenote – Novak Djokovic is my favorite tennis player. Actually, this might be an understatement in my case. To be completely honest, I’m more obsessed with Novak. Not in a way that would get me into trouble with the law, but more in a way that when he plays important tournaments or matches, if there’s no TV around, I look for a livestream. If it’s the Australian Open or the US Open with a time zone difference, I call in sick at work (since I would stay up until the end of the match early in the morning or wake up early to watch the match). I only had this kind of obsession with Monica Seles (back then, I would skip school).

Of course, I have other hallmarks of a sports fan – my superstitions are always present. From the volume level on the TV to which side of the bed I sit on, or whether I’m leaning on my left or right hand, all depend on how Novak will play. You can understand that me sitting on the left side of the bed with the volume set to 37 is the reason for his wins or losses. That’s why I immediately ask him if he has any rituals or superstitions before important matches. “More than ten years ago, I used to hit the ball an even number of times on the deuce side, and an odd number on the advantage side. But I stopped doing that,” he says with a smile. The smile he brought into the room upon arrival and the smile he maintained throughout the entire shoot. When he entered, he greeted, shook hands, and met all the team members, over ten of them, and immediately expressed his excitement about the retro set design. “I’ve never done anything like this before. This is great!” As the set designer handed him a retro wooden racket, I asked if he kept his first racket from when he played as a child. “No one has ever asked me that question before.” He then thought for a moment and with the same smile replied, “Not personally, but I hope my parents kept it.”

Then he continued to pose, and everyone felt relieved because in front of them was the greatest tennis player of all time who was constantly trying to make everyone feel good during the shoot. He commanded the set with such ease, it felt as if he organized all this for us and not the other way round. He proceeded to take his phone out and started playing music, inspired by the retro concept we created, going through the musical decades. You must admit, it’s pretty cool to have Novak Djokovic as a DJ for a few hours. “I’m playing my feel-good songs for you. Next is Johnny Nash ‘I can see clearly now’.” Then he took a Walkman, put the headphones on, and started dancing, giving us everything we wanted from this shoot. And so much more.

 

My love for tennis started back in the late ’80s during summer vacations in Tučepi, in a large TV hall in our hotel, where I followed what Bruno Orešar, Goran Prpić, Slobodan Živojinović, or Goran Ivanišević were doing in tournaments or the Davis Cup, and then I would take my racket and go play tennis with my brother on a nearby court surrounded by pine trees. Before leaving the hall, we would wait for everyone to leave and then go through the large armchairs where they sat, collecting any change that fell from their pockets. This brought us some inexplicable happiness, more from the act of searching than any amount of coins we would collect. That TV hall with large armchairs and lost change is my first association with tennis.

 

And now, in such a retro setting, stands Novak Djokovic, the most successful tennis player of all time. His achievements warrant a separate text. He is more than a logical choice for the cover of this Vogue Adria edition, even if he is a man. But months of negotiations, planning, decision-making, and changing the shoot location due to his constantly changing schedule at one point seemed futile. The confirmed date suddenly became a distant wish after it was announced that he was withdrawing from Roland Garros due to a knee injury and undergoing emergency surgery. Anyone would think that this was the end of the idea, but the day after the surgery, we received confirmation that everything would go as planned. Is that madness? Maybe for someone else, but not for Novak. His motivation and drive for success and the game have impressed people for 20 years of his tennis career, leading to articles about how, at 37, he won three Grand Slams in one year, defeating opponents 10 or more years younger than him. “My late grandfather used to say, ‘Drive slowly to overtake.’ He tells us with a mysterious smile on his face, as if saying, ‘I broke the code.’ Maybe he did, and one day he will reveal the secret, but observing from the side, it’s certainly his constant evolution that is the great secret of his success. When at the beginning of his career, he struggled with injuries and health, he decided to change his diet. When some thought he had reached his peak, he decided to change his serve. I wonder out loud what else he can change. “My superpower is the ability to adapt.” But don’t think it’s something he does by yielding to circumstances or rules. We’ve witnessed more than once when we thought he was finished in a match or his career, but he found enough strength and maturity within himself to see what he could change to become better. Who will ever forget all those moments when we thought everything was lost, but he came back and won? Tennis history will remember the woman with the raised finger showing Federer he had only one point left to win against Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final when Roger was leading 8-7 in games and 40-15 in points in the fifth set. Novak’s comeback and victory in that final is something that will be talked about forever.

 

We pause the shoot for a moment because he asks for ice to put on his recently operated knee. Only then do we realize that this shoot is a miracle, given that we forgot about his surgery due to his behavior. “Don’t worry. I’m fine. This is the best shoot I’ve ever had in my life!” He then removes the bandage holding the ice on his knee and prepares for another change. “I almost never wear pants, but I must admit that seeing myself in them now, I could start. I never felt or thought of myself as a fashion icon, but you made me feel that way today.”

 

Novak made everyone feel special, and he brightened the room as soon as he entered. I remember his beginnings when the media and the public adored him for his cheerful character and the fun he brought to the court and off it. His imitations of male and female colleagues went viral, covered by all sports media. Only when he started beating Federer and Nadal did the audience realize they had a serious player in front of them, and somehow, they didn’t like it because it disrupted their preconceived idea of a new legendary rivalry. I think the audience’s displeasure with his winning the biggest tournaments made me support him even more. It’s always a greater challenge, greater pride, a greater victory when you’re alone against everyone. He says he taught himself a little trick: when the crowd at a tournament is against him and cheering for the opponent, he imagines and convinces himself that they are cheering for him, and it motivates him to continue to victory.

 

And there is no end of the victories. As he poses in front of the trophies, I think of the number of trophies he has won (24 Grand Slams and 40 Masters tournaments, and who knows how many smaller competitions) and ask where he keeps them. “Most are with my parents, and a few are in my son’s room.”

He jumps into the next change and mentions that he’s having a fantastic time and he stays longer than planned. “The best thing I learned from my children is to be present in every moment,” and everyone on set agrees that Novak is very present, in body, heart, and spirit. But then he shatters the illusion that this fantastic day will last forever, noting that he has to leave soon to pick up his son.

Few people know, but he shares with us exclusively about the band he formed with his children: “Tara plays the violin, Stefan loves to play the guitar, and I play the saxophone. Sometimes our jams last for hours, and it’s my favorite part of the day or trip. Yes, I admit – we take our instruments on trips. Maybe my little band was responsible for my victory at the US Open and the twenty-fourth Grand Slam I won.”

We finish, and he says goodbye to everyone, with over 200 children from an excursion waiting at the door, who saw him entering the set and have been trying for hours to peek and find out what’s happening. “I’ll probably watch ‘Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote’ with the kids tonight, as it’s our favorite cartoon to watch together.” At that moment, I thought how logical it would be for him to overcome everything life and sport throw at him like the Road Runner, and I laughed as I visualized him saying “beep, beep” and jumping over obstacles in his path. As he leaves, I realize that in his case, the discussion about who the greatest tennis player of all time is, is not that important. Knowing everything he and his wife Jelena do to give back to the community as much as they can, it is a testament to how great a person he is. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

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Novak Djokovic wearing Lacoste for Vogue Adria, Summer 2024

Editor-in-Chief: Milan Djacic
Photographer: Branislav Simonick
Style by: Milan Djacic
Set Design: Vladimir Ciric
Producers: Strahinja Djurcic, Igor Milakov
Booking: Goran Macura
Photo Assistant: Darko Sretić
Stylist Assistant: Ghazal Farzaneh

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