Be it trying to become the all-time men’s grand slam leader or simply needing a spark in matches, Novak Djokovic said after winning a record eighth Australian Open title that his motivation comes from when times were tougher for the Serb and his family.
Djokovic’s desire and quality could very well take him past closest rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in majors, especially since at 32 he is a year younger than the Spaniard and six years the Swiss’ junior.
His 17th grand slam title has once again pulled him to within two of Nadal but he has closed to within three of Federer for the first time ever.
After winning a grand slam title for the first time when trailing in a final two sets to one — Dominic Thiem was his unlucky opponent in Melbourne — Djokovic reflected on life growing up in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
“My upbringing was in Serbia during several wars during the ’90s, difficult time, embargo in our country where we had to wait in line for bread, milk, water, some basic things in life,” Djokovic said to reporters in a press conference that started in the early hours of Monday morning after the four-hour thriller at Rod Laver Arena.
“These kind of things make you stronger and hungrier for success I think in whatever you choose to do.”
‘From literally nothing’
Looking down and almost out against Thiem after the third set, he dug deep and stormed back, aided by his early hardship in life.
“That probably has been my foundation, the very fact that I came from literally nothing and difficult life circumstances together with my family and with my people,” he said.
“Going back to that, reminding myself where I came from always inspires me, motivates me to push even harder.
“That’s probably one of the reasons why I managed to find that extra gear or necessary, I guess, mental strength to overcome challenges when they present themselves.”
Djokovic told the New York Times in a story published last month that at one stage, his family was down to its last 10 dollars.
He doesn’t need to worry about money any more.
He passed the $140 million mark in prize money when pocketing more than $2 million for his efforts Sunday.
He told the Times that he would tell his two kids — 5-year-old son Stefan and 2-year-old daughter Tara — about his family’s early struggles, to a degree.
Along with wife Jelena, they reside in Monte Carlo, their days apparently beginning with hugging and singing sessions.
“I definitely don’t want my kids to go, ‘Oh, my God. Here he goes again, saying ‘I didn’t have this, I never had that, and you have everything,”” he said. “I don’t want that because my kids are born in this family in this way and these circumstances, and I respect that.”
Djokovic has the respect of everyone in the tennis world, albeit he generally still trails Federer and Nadal in crowd support.
It was when he started winning multiple majors in a season, more than once, that he thought getting close to Federer’s leading tally was a possibility.
Djokovic ended Federer’s hopes of major No. 21 by beating him in straight sets in Thursday’s semifinal.
“Especially the first part of my career, I was dreaming of winning as many grand slams as possible,” he said.
“When I started winning a couple of grand slams a year, a few years in a row, that’s where I felt actually I can maybe challenge Roger and Pete Sampras, all these guys that were winning most grand slams in their careers in the history of tennis,” he added, referring to the American who held the men’s record of 14 majors before the incredible Big Three emerged.
Fast forward to the end of last season and his longtime coach, Marian Vajda — now working alongside former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic — told CNN that winning all three of his singles matches in the Davis Cup after Djokovic surprisingly exited in the group stage of the ATP Finals was pivotal to restore confidence.
Djokovic then led Serbia to the title at the inaugural ATP Cup in Australia ahead of the year’s first major — he beat Nadal in the final — receiving some of the best fan support of his career.
The Davis Cup “leveled his confidence a little bit, ending the season by winning matches. It was really good,” said Vajda.
“He came into Australia with the big aim to win a grand slam. He had very good preparation in Dubai and Abu Dhabi with Goran there. Obviously, I was very pleased with his performance at the ATP Cup.
“All the guys played excellent tennis, the level was really good from everybody. At the beginning of the year to be ready already, that was really good.
“I liked the final against Spain where he played a really great match against Rafa. Obviously kept him in really good shape.”
Another pleasing aspect about Djokovic has been his maturity, according to Vajda.
“In the past it was kind of more difficult with him to work because he was sometimes unpredictable and emotional a little bit,” said Vajda. “But now I think he is more stable and knows what he wants and you can see in his game, he is quite confident.”
In the early stages of 2020, Djokovic is the player to beat on the men’s tour.