Six years ago, Novak Djokovic defeating Roger Federer in the Australian Open semi-finals would have been huge news in the sports world. After all, Roger Federer has 17 major singles titles, more than anyone in men’s tennis history. A loss to Djokovic would have meant a colossal upset.
But again, that was six years ago, and things in the tennis world have changed dramatically. This week, Djokovic did defeat Federer in the semi-finals of the Aussie Open, and it was about as expected as a Federer victory would have been in 2010.
It wasn’t long ago Djokovic was sitting at the world number three ranking, looking up at Federer and Rafael Nadal. And while being ranked number three in the world is an amazing achievement, most people considered there to be a wide gap between the world’s top two players and Djokovic.
Now, Djokovic is number one, and it’s not even close. Not only is he the best tennis player on the planet, but many think he’s destined to usurp Federer’s title of greatest ever. And people are now also wondering if he is the fittest professional athlete of all time.
Over the last thirty years, every sport’s premiere athletes have made tremendous leaps in athletic ability due to more advanced training, data, techniques and equipment, but perhaps none more than tennis.
“The level of play is mind-boggling,” says former world number one John McEnroe “I’m still trying to figure out how these guys do it.”
Back in the McEnroe days, players were fit, sure. But they each had a specialty or particular part of their game that was dominant. Now, the top players do everything right. So getting to the top of a group like that means having to go to amazing lengths in every facet of athletics: diet, training, recovery, mental prep, and staying sane. No stone unturned, every detail meticulously analyzed. Djokovic has mastered this like no one before him.
Clearly, he has a severe case of overachieveritis, but how did he turn the world of tennis upside down so fast?
Starting from Scratch
Early in his pro tennis career, Djokovic was known to thrown in the towel mid-match, citing physical ailments, which irked fellow players.
“He’s not a guy who’s never given up before … it’s disappointing,” said Roger Federer after Djokovic threw in the towel during a match with Andy Roddick. “I’m almost in favor of saying, you know what, if you’re not fit enough, just get out of here. If Novak were up two sets to love I don’t think he would have retired 4-0 down in the fourth.”
Roddick himself took shots at Djokovic as well, suggesting in 2008 that Djokovic suffered from everything from a sore back to bird flu.
Then, in January of 2010, Djokovic was facing off against French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open quarterfinals. Djokovic had a strong outing, taking two of the first three sets. But in the fourth, he hit a wall.
He was clearly laboring, wasn’t moving with the same speed and precision and called a trainer for aid. The television commentators suggested Djokovic’s asthma was to blame.
But far away from the Land Down Under, Dr. Igor Cetojevic and his wife were flipping through channels on the island of Cyprus. The doctor, a man from Djokovic’s home country of Serbia, happened by the Australian Open broadcast.
As Cetojevic tells it, he “had nothing better to do” that day (dude, you were on the Island of Cyprus… you can’t find a beach?) so he watched his fellow countryman on TV. He saw the physical anguish Djokovic was experiencing.
“This is not asthma,” he said as he watched.
Cetojevic, a practitioner of alternative medicines including acupuncture, biofeedback, Chinese holistic medicine, and more, got in touch with Djokovic through some mutual contacts and they met not long after.
It was at that point Cetojevic offered to assist with Djokovic in the “physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.” Just as he had said out loud watching Djokovic on television the first time, Cetojevic never believed asthma was the cause of his problems.
“I suspected that in Novak’s case his problem breathing resulted from an imbalance in his digestive system,” Cetojevic said, “particularly from an accumulation of toxins in his large intestine. In traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs are paired with the large intestine.”
Cetojevic realized in order to fix Djokovic, they were going to have to start from square one.
Using what we can only politely describe as the oddest medical test we’ve ever heard of, Cetojevic determined Djokovic was sensitive to gluten. Later tests revealed wheat, dairy and tomato intolerances as well.
Djokovic was advised to eliminate the wheat and dairy and seriously cut down his tomato intake. His parents owned a local pizza shop back in Serbia, so this news was probably unwelcome.
But even more interesting, Cetojevic instructed Djokovic to start blessing his food before eating it. He doesn’t pray to a particular god, but rather he reminds himself that food should never be taken for granted.
At first, the new diet caused rapid weight loss for the already thin Djokovic, but Cetojevic insisted Djokovic’s body would steady itself. He was right. Djokovic started sleeping better and was able to train harder and longer without suffering those bouts of discomfort attributed to non-existent asthma.
Djokovic now operates under a gluten-free diet. He’s eliminated dairy from his regimen as well, and tries to get all his sugar from fruits and vegetables. He eats meat in the evening, and mostly chicken and fish for protein. During matches, he’s swapped out the sugary snacks for natural fruit bars. And as much as it may have irked his parents, he cut pizza out too.
But in his book Serve to Win, Djokovic is adamant on finding a diet that works for you individually.
“Your body is an entirely different machine from mine,” he writes. “I don’t want you to eat the best diet for my body. I’m going to show you how to find the best diet for your own unique self.”
Whatever you find works for you, Djokovic suggests you try it for two weeks, and see how you feel. Then, on day 15, revert back to your previous diet. So if you went dairy-free for the two weeks, kick off day 15 with a tall glass of milk. If you begin to feel as bad as you did before your 14-day trial run, you know what your body is telling you to eliminate.
And what happened after he made these dietary changes? Well, in 2011, Djokovic won 10 titles and had a streak of 43 consecutive match victories in what is called one of the greatest single seasons in modern tennis history.
Sharpening His Mental Edge
Let us stop you for a moment before you think quitting your job and buying a tennis racket is a good idea just because you’re cutting out wheat bread. Or, rather, let Djokovic stop you.
“The gluten-free diet was the highlight in many journalists’ articles about me for a long time, emphasizing that particular aspect of my life as being the biggest secret of my success, which it isn’t,” he says. “It is a big change that helped me to become better, but it is not that suddenly I started winning all the matches because I was gluten-free.”
OK, fine, it wasn’t just his diet. So what else did he do to up his game?
For one, he’s made mental toughness a major focus. Cetojevic began back in 2010 by suggesting Djokovic take his sleep more seriously. He then taught Djokovic several breathing techniques to help keep him focused on the present rather than dwelling on the past or being concerned about the future.
“The key is to stay in the present moment,” Cetojevic says, “something that is easier said than done.”
Then in 2013, Djokovic hired former world number one player Boris Becker to further develop his mental toughness.
“That’s one of the reasons Boris is here,” Djokovic says, “because of the big matches and grand slams. I felt I dropped two or three titles in the last two years I could have won. I felt there was a mental edge I was lacking.”
Now that Djokovic has sharpened his mentality, he’s not dropping many big matches for any reason.
A Hush-Hush Training Regimen
So aside from the diet and mental training, what kind of physical training took Djokovic’s game to unparalleled levels?
Honestly, we wish we could tell you more.
Djokovic has stayed notoriously mum on the details of his training. It’s been widely reported that his trainers sign confidentiality agreements not to divulge whatever in god’s name they’re doing to get that guy so good.
We do know a few things: for one, he is a jump roping machine.
As far as warming up for a match, Djokovic has a full routine which he shares in Serve to Win, and you can find here. It’s a regimen consisting of jumping jacks, squat thrusts, various lunges, and more. He’s a big proponent of using a foam roller to alleviate stiffness or tenderness.
Djokovic is also an avid yoga enthusiast and tries to get in at least one session a day. He says it helps him not only physically, but mentally.
“Everybody works hard, everybody’s more committed,” the Serb says. “It’s all mental in the end.”
Oh, and at one time he used an egg-shaped fitness pod.
Apparently, the rest of us missed George Jetson’s estate sale, but Djokovic got his hands on a CVAC fitness pod and used it a few times during his historic 2011 run, though he’s backed away from the company recently.
Essentially it’s a pressurized oxygen chamber and simulates conditions in high altitudes. Its creators say it can help improve circulation, vision, reaction times, endurance and power, all while boosting red blood cell count.
You can get an intense workout while sitting in a fiberglass egg, all for the low, low price of $129,000. So all you need to do is buy the pod, make it to the 4th round of the Australian Open, and you’re in the clear.
Stay Grounded, Stay Joking
In the last five years, Djokovic has been the number one tennis star in the world. But for all his success, he’s stayed true to his roots and who he is as a person.
In 2014, when he won his third Italian Open, he donated 100% of his winnings–$749,934–to his flooded homeland of Serbia.
“I’m trying to contribute in my own way,” he said. “These are very critical times for our country and our people. But we’re being united and this win and this trophy is dedicated to them.”
The Novak Djokovic Foundation, founded in 2007, aims to “Enable children from disadvantaged communities to grow up, play and develop in stimulating, creative and safe settings, whilst learning to respect others and care for their environment.” The foundation specifically focuses on Serbia.
And at his core, Djokovic is a guy who likes to laugh and have fun. He’s earned the nickname The Joker, and you should do yourself a favor and watch some of his antics.
He does hysterical spot-on impressions of his tennis peers, including Federer, Nadal, and even Maria Sharapova. The times where he can let loose and be his own easygoing guy are what helps keep him balanced as an athlete.
And so yesterday, six years after the reinvention of his diet and training and mental focus, Djokovic once again took home the Australian Open championship, defeating Andy Murray and equaling Roy Emerson’s record for six Australian titles.
As it has been for most of the last five years, the world number one ranking will remain with the skinny kid from Serbia who continues to chase (and make) history.