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Exclusive: Novak Djokovic is 'thick-skinned' and you can never write him off

Djokovic endured the hardships of living in Serbia through the country’s worst period in the nineties, as well as through the NATO bombings
Djokovic endured the hardships of living in Serbia through the country’s worst period in the nineties, as well as through the NATO bombings

Djokovic has overcome massive odds to become one of the world's greatest athletes in history, says Serbian sports writer Sasa Ozmo



By Sasa Ozmo

Published: Wed 19 Jan 2022, 11:38 PM

Serbia is a proud sporting nation, with many elite athletes throughout its history – whose triumphs and defeats we get passionately involved in. Novak Djokovic is the greatest of them all, and one of the main symbols of Serbia to the outside world in the last 15 years, which is why people here have been furious with the way he has been (mis)treated in Australia.

And which is why he predominantly enjoys support in his home country.

As a sports journalist in Serbia, I have had a fruitful professional relationship with Djokovic for years now, so you can understand why the last couple of weeks have been emotional and exceptionally challenging professionally.

Back in 2015, I was an aspiring journalist covering my first Grand Slam tournament at the French Open in Paris. It was extremely important to prove my worth, so I had arranged a 10-minute interview with Djokovic via his agents.

And there I was sitting with him after his second-round match near the media room at the Philippe Chatrier stadium.

"You know, for me, this is like what playing a Grand Slam final is to you," I told Novak. He laughed: "Don’t you worry".

We ended up talking for 22 minutes.

Yes, Djokovic is honest, thoughtful and thorough with the media, but now is not the time to talk!

After he was made to leave Australia, Djokovic landed in Belgrade on Monday. He will not be making any public comments until the Australian Open is finished.

Probably for the better, because Novak right now needs to decompress, to quiet the storm of emotions and different feelings, and to contemplate on what his next move is going to be.

We now know that Djokovic is not vaccinated, which could pose serious problems for his career in the immediate future.

One thing, though, needs to be said first. We’re in the midst of a pandemic and the rules are changing every day – the latest information is that unvaccinated players won’t be able to play at Roland Garros, even though the French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu stated otherwise just a week ago.

Furthermore, with the omicron variant of the virus, vaccinated people appear to still have a significant chance of getting infected.

That being said, if things stay the way they are today, Djokovic is facing a choice: either get vaccinated or miss the biggest tournaments.

It is impossible to know for sure what the roots are of Novak’s decision to not get vaccinated. One can only speculate that it has something to do with Djokovic being a huge believer in nature and natural healing – he once postponed an elbow procedure for more than a year.

On the other hand, his desire to make more tennis history is immense. As it stands, Djokovic is the greatest of all time (GOAT) by almost every meaningful statistical criteria, but he remains tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20 Grand Slam titles.

Unlike the other two members of the Big Three, Djokovic has been more transparent and vocal about wanting to lift more major trophies. Let’s hope, for the sake of tennis, that his professional ambition prevails.

Djokovic wasn’t always the world No 1 and a multi-millionaire. He endured the hardships of living in Serbia through the country’s worst period in the nineties, as well as through the NATO bombings.

Djokovic also didn’t have help from the rich federation or receive many wild cards as a young player. He played most of the big matches in his career against both the crowd and the opponent (especially against Federer and Nadal who enjoyed the lion's share of crowd support in their epic Grand Slam clashes with Novak).

Djokovic dethroned Rafael Nadal, the king of Roland Garros, after an epic French Open semifinal battle last year before coming back from two sets down to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in another gruelling five set classic in the final. (AFP)
Djokovic dethroned Rafael Nadal, the king of Roland Garros, after an epic French Open semifinal battle last year before coming back from two sets down to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in another gruelling five set classic in the final. (AFP)

Djokovic has been under immense pressure numerous times in his career – many people wrote him off after the US Open 2020 disqualification, but he stormed back to win three Slams the following year.

Granted, what happened in Australia is unique, but Djokovic has 'thick skin', as he likes to say.

"Novak will be just fine, stronger than ever" –this is the answer you will get if you ask his fellow Serbian players or anybody in the streets of his native Belgrade.

Sasa Ozmo is a Serbian journalist who works for Sport Klub Serbia


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