The Rise of Novak Djokovic

After the herculean performance to win the 2012 Australian Open Final, it’s hard to believe that not long ago even Novak Djokovic’s most ardent followers would have scoffed at the thought of him dominating in the men’s game as he does today.

Despite becoming the first Serbian to win a Grand Slam title, and only the sixth man in the open era to hold three Grand Slam titles in a calendar year, who would dare to say that his greatest achievements are not yet realized?

Although Djokovic won the Australian Open in 2008 by beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final and Roger Federer in the semi-final, the domination he was to later impose on the men’s game was nowhere to be seen.

Despite 2008 ending in victory over Nikolay Davydenko for his first Tennis Masters Cup final, it was followed in 2009 with another year of encouraging tour wins and near misses culminating in the disappointing surrender of his Masters Cup title before reaching the semi-final stage.

He ended 2009 as world number three for the third consecutive year, having played 97 matches with a healthy, but not world-beating, 78-19 win-loss record. Despite being world number three and having one of the best two-handed backhands in the game, there was still work to do before he would become the player we know today.

Even though the serve is not the be all and end all that it was in the men’s game fifteen years or so ago, it is still the vital weapon needed to set up the point. Djokovic’s serve needed improving and his coaches, Todd Martin and Marian Vajda, set about the task.

However, personality and cultural difficulties were cited as the reasons for Martin, the former men’s number 4, being dumped in favor of retaining Vajda on his own in April 2010. This followed a string of indifferent results, like the fourth round loss in Indian Wells to Ivan Ljubicic and the first round elimination in Miami at the hands of Oliver Rochus.

No one could dispute the talent that Djokovic possessed, but there were some obvious failings. It was noticeable that Djokovic could tire towards the end of tough matches, becoming tetchy and angry with a tendency for smashing things. With the serve now working better, what may have been the final piece of the jigsaw was found during a simple allergy test.

Djokovic was found to be gluten intolerant by his nutritionist and then switched to a gluten-free diet, dumping the majority of processed carbohydrates. Foods that were previously considered vital fuel for top athletes, such as pasta, were dropped completely and a starch free diet adopted.

The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. Djokovic went on an incredible 49-match-winning streak in 2011 that was only ended by a vintage Roger Federer performance in the semi-final at the French Open in June. Although his performance level dropped towards the end of the season after picking up a back injury, 2011 was a remarkable year nonetheless.

Djokovic added seven other tournament wins to his US, Australian and Wimbledon titles, accumulating a record 12 million dollar prize money haul in the process. The improvement in Djokovic’s game could be illustrated to great effect with the fact that he had now beaten the former world number one, Rafael Nadal, in six finals on three different surfaces.

Now there is debate as to whether the diet itself is the answer to Djokovic’s rise. There are many who believe the diet has merely given him the belief that it was the missing ingredient and therefore had a psychosomatic effect.

Others believe that his allergy may actually have unearthed a potential new way forward in athletic performance. It is believed that Andy Murray has adopted the same diet in an attempt to emulate Djokovic’s incredible success. Whether the effect of his diet is physical or mental is, for the large part, irrelevant anyway.

Djokovic has found a way to raise his game to a new level and has broken the duopoly of Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer over the men’s game. However, with a resurgent Federer reclaiming his Wimbledon crown, and Nadal smarting from a surprise early exit, the ferocious competition for supremacy is set to build as the season continues.

With the US Open and ATP Tour finals still to come, not to mention the addition of the Olympics to this year’s calendar, there’s still plenty to play for.

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