Novak Djokovic: Grand Slam warrior in battle to be people's champion

·4-min read

From growing up with NATO bombs raining down on Serbia to securing his place amongst the Grand Slam greats, Novak Djokovic is a man who never fails to both unite and divide.

The 34-year-old clinched his 19th Slam title on Sunday at the French Open to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four majors twice.

Despite his achievements, however, Djokovic appears doomed never to be held in the same saintly esteem reserved for Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, the undisputed 'people's champions' and tennis' go-to good guys.

There are those who see something too calculating in the Djokovic make-up, an intense, brooding presence prone to affectation and a little too 'new age'.

A fiery temperament, a characteristic often absent from the DNA of Federer and Nadal, bubbles over too often.

His infamous default from the US Open last year for petulantly swiping at a ball which speared into the throat of a female line judge was a snapshot of the demons that occasionally lurk inside.

Djokovic, who left Belgrade when he was 12 to train in Munich and escape NATO's bombardment of his home city, often feels he can't stand up for falling down.

His decision to organise a series of exhibition events in the Balkans in the middle of the pandemic may have been with the best of intentions but a series of positive Covid-19 tests, including him and his wife Jelena, highlighted the recklessness of the plan.

More recently, he expressed his doubts over the vaccination programme, a stance which saw him dubbed 'Novaxx'.

One of his most vocal detractors, Nick Kyrgios has accused Djokovic of a desperate need to be liked, describing the Serb's post-victory on-court "cup of love" gesture as "cringeworthy".

However, the career achievements and resolve of a player who was the first to smash through the $100 million prize money barrier cannot be doubted.

Three years ago, Djokovic's career was in the doldrums.

Unable to shake off the lingering effects of elbow surgery, he suffered a shock early exit at Roland Garros, the site of many setbacks.

With his ranking outside the top 20 for the first time in 12 years, Djokovic even threatened to skip Wimbledon.

He changed his mind and suddenly rejuvenated, swept to a fourth title at the All England Club and successfully defended it a year later, saving two championship points in the final against Federer.

- Race for greatness -

Djokovic now has 19 Grand Slam titles in his career haul of 84, which also includes a record-equalling 36 Masters.

He has also occupied the world number one spot for a record number of weeks.

In the race for greatness, time is on his side. At 34, he is a year younger than Nadal and has the best part of five years on Federer.

He has winning records over both men, 30-28 and 27-23 respectively.

Djokovic captured the first of his majors at the Australian Open in 2008, but it was three years before he added his second.

He dropped gluten from his diet, his lithe physique allowing him to chase down lost causes, transforming him into the rubber man of tennis with a rock-steady defence.

After leading Serbia to a maiden Davis Cup in 2010, he raced through the first half of 2011, building up a 48-1 winning run.

Only a semi-final defeat at the French Open prevented him from becoming just the third man to capture a calendar Grand Slam.

Despite that, he finished 2011 with a 70-6 win-loss record, a haul of 10 tournament victories and year-end number one for the first time.

Back-to-back Australian Opens followed in 2012 and 2013, although the French Open remained frustratingly out of reach with three heart-breaking losses until his 2016 breakthrough.

The year before, he won 11 titles and compiled a win-loss record of 82-6.

In total, he has nine Australian Opens, five Wimbledons, three US Open titles and, now, two French Opens.

His win over Nadal in an epic semi-final at Roland Garros on Friday was only the Spaniard's third loss in 108 matches at the event.

Djokovic has been responsible for two of them.

Off court, Djokovic married long-time girlfriend Jelena Ristic in July 2014.

They have two children, a son Stefan and daughter Tara.

When he won Wimbledon in 2019, Stefan was able to see his father lift the trophy.

"It feels amazing because for the first time in my life I have someone screaming 'daddy, daddy'," said Djokovic.

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