Advertising

Can Novak Djokovic really play Wimbledon just three weeks after having knee surgery?

After reading Mark Hodgkinson’s new biography of the Slam king, Searching for Novak, I’m pretty confident he can. In fact, I’m pretty confident he can do just about anything—maybe even move water molecules around with his mind.

In Searching for Novak, the British tennis writer details Djokovic’s unlikely—some around him would say miraculous—journey from a gloomy bomb shelter underneath Belgrade to the pinnacle of an elite global sport. “Hagiography” is a word technically reserved for the life of a saint, but it wouldn’t be too far off the mark here. According to many of the people that Hodgkinson talks to—Djokovic’s friends, coaches, countrymen—there’s something divinely inspired about the Serb’s life. While he doesn’t quite paint him as a saint, Hodgkinson ends up writing what might be the first draft of a new, more sympathetic narrative about Djokovic.

Djokovic told press during his Wimbledon media press conference that "I'm confident about the health of my knee and just general physical state is really good."

Djokovic told press during his Wimbledon media press conference that "I'm confident about the health of my knee and just general physical state is really good."

Advertising

The book begins in the least hospitable, but most interesting, of Djokovic’s living quarters: The all-concrete shelter where an 11-year-old Novak and his family spent 78 straight nights during NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999. In a visit to this basement bunker, Hodgkinson hauls open a 12-inch thick steel door and walks into a low-ceilinged room that is “cold, rough, and unforgiving.” Imagining what the young Djokovic felt there as he watched his mother’s face for cues on how to react to the destruction around them, the writer find that it “is somehow still a place of fear and confusion and gathering rage.”

The bunker, the bombs, the rage: They would all seem to be key to comprehending the brash version of Djokovic who leaped onto the pro-tour stage as a teenager, and received something less than a welcoming embrace from the tennis world. Just a few years earlier, his city, his family, and his country, a pariah in the West, had been bombed by the same nations where he was now playing the bulk of his tournaments.

“He regarded the 1999 bombing as the ‘ultimate cruelty,’ and, like many other Serbians, he was raging, even vengeful,” Hodgkinson writes. “In the early stages of his career, he used that rage as fuel, propelling him to some success on tour.”

Advertising

Ultimately, though, what’s more important to Djokovic’s story, and his unprecedented success, is how he left that early anger behind.

“While Djokovic will never forget the NATO bombings…he chose to forgive,” Hodgkinson says. “It was a conscious decision, to work on himself and his emotions to deal with that inner rage.”

The book follows Djokovic on his long, multi-pronged quest to achieve that most delicate of athletic balances: Finding inner peace without losing his competitive edge.

In 2010, fellow Serb Igor Cetojevic introduces him to a gluten-free, plant-heavy diet; teaches him about “tending to the body’s spiritual energy”; and shows him more generally that, as Hodgkinson says, “alternative paths can work for him.” Pretty soon Djokovic is telling his food what he wants it to do for his body as he puts it in his mouth. That sounds wacky, but the results weren’t. His career took off in 2011, not long after his nutritional enlightenment began.

Djokovic’s career has only continued to take off for the past 13 years. The deeper he goes into supernatural thinking, it seems, the better he plays.

Djokovic is looking to capture his first title of the 2024 season.

Djokovic is looking to capture his first title of the 2024 season.

Advertising

He began to sing the praises of the “pyramid water” that’s found in the tunnels under a set of hills in Serbia. He learned about telepathy and the power of long hugs, from Pepe Imaz, a Spanish holistic coach. He worked with Reiki healer Zarki Ilic. He adopted the wolf as his “spiritual nature guide.” He wore an Iron Man patch that “converted heat into tiny beams of light that stimulate the central nervous system.” He did an Instagram Live chat with his friend Chervin Jafarieh about how water is listening to us. He put off an elbow procedure for months, and cried after finally agreeing to it.

Hodgkinson duly notes the far-fetched nature of many of these beliefs. But he also links them to Djokovic’s oft-stated opinion that there should be “no limits” in life. That mindset is a big part of what led him to 24 Grand Slam titles; what allowed him to conquer Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal; what keeps him in the Top 3 at 37. For Hodgkinson, Djokovic’s “open mind” may lead him down peculiar paths, but it has also taken him farther than any tennis player from tiny, war-ravaged Serbia could ever have hoped to go.

Most notoriously, of course, Djokovic refused to get the Covid vaccine, because he couldn’t be sure of what it would do to his body. Here as well, Hodgkinson makes it clear that Djokovic didn’t see himself as part of an anti-vax movement; his decision was meant to be his alone. I thought that decision was irresponsible at the time, but this book, and the context it gives for Djokovic’s thinking, leaves me more sympathetic to his viewpoint. On the one hand, he’s a ravenous competitor and achiever, but on the other he was willing—by putting off elbow surgery and not getting the vaccine—to give up several shots at winning more Grand Slam titles because of his devotion to his health philosophy.

He has found there’s nothing to be gained from putting himself down. It’s far better for Djokovic to forgive himself…He allows himself to move on. —Mark Hodgkinson in Searching for Novak

Advertising

Alongside Djokovic’s fascination with the mystical, a corresponding fascination with him as a mystical figure has risen up among his family and friends. During his deportation, his father, Srdjan, compared him to Spartacus. His Davis Cup captain claimed “he has a source of mental energy that comes directly from a higher being.” His nutrition guru, Cetojevic, told Hodgkinson, “Maybe it’s not a good comparison, but look at Jesus.”

Yet there are also, famously, Djokovic’s haters. Hodgkinson canvasses people who are close to him for their opinions on why, for all of his success, he has never been the darling of tennis fans. His old coach, Niki Pilic, attributes it to his status as a Serbian and Eastern European, and thus someone apart from the West. His friend Sascha Bajin says people either “love or hate the guy because he’s true to himself.” Kobe Bryant told Djokovic not to worry about it, because nobody hates the good athletes, they only hate the great ones.

Djokovic has tried to accept all of that, but as Hodgkinson says, he’s still uncomfortable not being loved. He knows how to use crowd hostility as competitive fuel, but he’s not a McEnroe or Connors or Kyrgios who revels in villainy. Thinking of it that way, Djokovic’s desire to be liked, to be cheered, to hear crowds chant “No-vak!” the way they chanted “Ro-ger!” adds a patina of pathos, and an emotional depth, to his GOAT persona.

Game, Set, App 📲

Game, Set, App 📲

For live scores, draws and the daily order of play from every tournament, download the TENNIS.com app on your device!

Advertising

Searching for Novak is not a saint’s hagiography, but it is a stout defense of a star, even at his most controversial. Referring to Djokovic’s appearances in Serbia with a paramilitary commander whose unit was involved in Srebrenica, and a politician who has described the massacre as a “myth,” Hodgkinson writes, “With Serbia’s challenging past, and Djokovic’s elevated status, it was almost inevitable that there would be some controversy along the way.” After comparing Djokovic to Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow, Hodgkinson says that at least the Serb “isn’t trying to sell you anything.” But in the case of Jafarieh’s “healing water,” Djokovic was criticized for tipping over into the misinformation zone.

That said, as someone who has met and interviewed Djokovic, and spent hours listening to him in press conferences and watching him play, Hodgkinson’s portrayal of him rings true to me. He’s a likable, respectful guy in person, who tries his best to meet other people on equal terms, and to listen to them. For anyone who has doubts about that, Searching for Novak, may give you a reason to give the GOAT another chance before he waves goodbye.

While Djokovic’s philosophies will go too far out for most, there is a good deal to be learned from his journey. Reading back through his life in these pages, I was struck again by how eventful his career has been, in good ways and bad. What seems most remarkable now is how quickly he has moved on from each disappointment and disaster—even deportation. Hodgkinson finds the key to that ability in a very non-mystical part of Djokovic’s mindset: “He has found there’s nothing to be gained from putting himself down. It’s far better for Djokovic to forgive himself…He allows himself to move on.”

So if, after his slow and shaky start to the 2024 season, you think we may finally have seen the last of Nole, you might want to think again. For him, the journey is ongoing.