The interview is fine but I am unable to tell you when in Toronto, because
we don’t know when Novak will be there after Olimpics (sic).
After many weeks of emailing Novak Djokovic’s manager, Edoardo Artaldi, trying to set up a one-on-one interview with Novak in Toronto, I now had confirmation. Setting up an exclusive interview with the world’s No. 2 player is not an easy endeavor. I agreed to travel to Toronto from New York for this encounter with Djokovic as I felt his time would be much more guarded during the U.S. Open. I wanted the private audience with him to, perhaps, reveal his true nature. As of now, he is the most controversial player in the sport.
Controversial, you ask? Yes, there’s a deep divide out there in tennis-land whether Djokovic is a refreshing straight shooter or more a savvy public relations machine, not privy to revealing his true thoughts on many matters, including his relations with the world No. 1 player, Roger Federer. Last year, after losing to Djokovic in a match that turned on one dynamic forehand return of serve at double match point, Federer made clear his thoughts about the shot and Djokovic’s playing style in tough moments.
“Confidence? Are you kidding me? I mean, please,” said Federer when asked about it. “Look, some players grow up and play like that. I remember losing junior matches. Just being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. It all goes in for some reason, because that’s the kind of way they grew up playing when they were down.”
Djokovic has never responded to Federer’s snipe. I wanted to see if I could get him to address his relationship with the king of tennis as well as other issues: like why in recent years we’ve seen him reel in his personality and eschew the imitations he used to perform; why his parents, especially his father, who is such a colorful chap, rarely attend his matches anymore; and what he thought were the reasons behind his less-than-2011-dominance since the Australian Open this year?
These weren’t the only questions I had—I’d compiled a list of 20—and I hoped to sit down with Djokovic for 30 minutes and see if he’d open up. I arrived in Toronto on Monday, but Djokovic had not yet appeared, having played the Olympic bronze medal match against Del Potro in London the day before. I did get this message from Edoardo:
I am in Toronto, Nole is coming tonight, I will be on site tomorrow and you can call me in the morning on my american mobile.
I was heartened. Djokovic wasn’t scheduled to play until Wednesday. I thought we could do the interview on Tuesday. I called Edoardo Tuesday morning, but there was a problem with his phone and the conversation was muffled. Later in the afternoon, Djokovic spoke to reporters in a group press conference. Even though I knew I had the one-on-one interview lined up, I spun a couple of my more general questions Novak’s way just to get in the game, so to speak. This is how he responded:
Q. You had such a great year last year. Obviously pressure to repeat that had to be on top of you. Do you think there was a lack of urgency somewhat this year and that’s maybe why you haven’t repeated what you did last year? What can you pinpoint as to maybe why you’ve had a little drop off?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, look, it’s hard to expect that you can always win every single match that you play in six months. You know, that’s really hard to repeat that. (Smiling.) But just knowing that I can play that well and win that many tournaments on different surfaces gives me a lot of confidence. I got into this season really successful winning Australian Open and Miami, and played three, four finals on clay courts as well and played finals in French Open. I played great match against Rafa. So, you know, for me I had a great season even this year. It’s been only what, six, seven months? So there is (sic) many more tournaments to come and it’s played on my favorite surface, so I will try to use that in my favor and perform my best.
Q. Your old coach, Jelena Gencic, after Wimbledon or the Olympics came out and said she felt like there were some personal problems that were affecting you. Could you speak about that?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: No. I prefer not speaking about my personal problems. Everybody has one, so it’s normal. You’re going through ups and downs and through difficult stages in your life and something that is a challenge in life, and you need to overcome it and try to become even stronger after that.
Djokovic is not about to cry wolf. If anything is wrong, either in his game or his life, it’s clear through his answers that he’s looking at the glass being more than half-filled. He’s not about to allow a media probing morph into a therapy session. I was not surprised that he characterized his 2012 season as being “great,” but I wondered down deep if he was, in fact, reeling over having Nadal, Federer, Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro beat him at the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics, respectively. I made a mental note to address this question in more depth during our private interview session.
The press conference ends, and I walk up to Edoardo, a small fastidious man who has been hovering to the side while the questions sailed and Novak volleyed back. I ask if I can conduct the interview with Djokovic now, but he says he’d rather it take place tomorrow after his night match against Bernard Tomic. Even so, I shoot him an email shortly afterward:
Can you let me know if Novak is practicing on site this morning so I could watch and get practice details for my magazine article?
Edoardo replies the early the next morning:
Dan he will on court around 10.30.
I arrive at 10 the next morning, scanning the practice courts looking for Djokovic. I see him enter a far court with his practice partner, the former mostly-Challenger and World Team Tennis player, Dusan Vemic, at exactly 10:30 and I sneak around a gate, flash my press pass and make my way to a seat just outside the low fence at courtside. I’m maybe ten feet away from the court as Novak starts a long deliberate stretching routine. He swings his tanned legs horizontally across his body as he holds onto the back fence, and then kicks them forward and back. He puts his foot up on the net post and stretches his hamstring and then drapes his body over Vemic to open his back.
A physiotherapist pulls Djokovic’s arms behind his back and his wrists almost touch. Novak makes like a scarecrow and the guy pushes down on his elbows. The Gumby Djokovic leans forward and the physio pulls on his shoulders bridging Novak’s upper-body parallel to the court. Djokovic seems incredibly tall, giraffe-like. The lines of his body are completely straight. There is no curvature or hump at his lower back or shoulders.
Vemic and Novak start to hit a few balls short court between the service boxes. After his stretch, the world No. 2 looks very relaxed. He stands up straight, puffs out his cheeks and exhales as he makes easy rhythmical strokes. He doesn’t look around, even though Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet have begun to hit two courts down from him. There is no coach on the court with Novak and Vemic, only the physio, at first, and then Edoardo walks out in dress clothes and along with the physio, they act as ball boys.
The men and the rally move to the backcourt and the strokes start having more intent. After one missed Vemic shot, Djokovic smilingly coaches his hitting partner not too lunge at the ball. He purposely stumbles forward to show Vemic how awkward he looked. Vemic misses another shot, but before it can land out, Djokovic disdainfully returns it with a behind the back, in the air, through the legs shot. When Novak misses a shot, he stares down at the contact point in disbelief and mild anger.
None of the players on the other practice courts look over at Djokovic, but one coach does take a peek and nods his head in a seeming mixture of praise, disbelief and awe. The sun is now directly overhead and hot. After 15 minutes of hitting from the baseline, Djokovic takes a break and sits under a canopy on the sidelines, sipping from two bottles, one with an orange mixture and another with only water. Vemic, the physio and Edoardo stand close by, but no one talks much. Two minutes later, Djokovic and Vemic switch sides and resume hitting. Occasionally, they talk in Serbian, which sounds strange because until now, I’ve only heard Djokovic speak in English.
The exertion of each shot has Vemic producing a guttural grunt as he hits. Djokovic doesn’t grunt. He makes a slight “uh” on contact. Djokovic tells Vemic to hit some drives to his backhand and 15 minutes later—after some overheads—they take another break. Marco Chudinelli, the Swiss player, comes over and he and Djokovic slap hands and laugh, the first of the practice session.
Back on the practice court, Djokovic hits some serves, his ribs showing underneath his white shirt as he tosses the balls skyward. Vemic then hits serves and Djokovic returns, flashing a little Dudley-Do-Right grin when he hits a return to his liking. He looks completely relaxed and lethal in his return-of-serve squat, his eyes burning across the net. There’s no excess motion. When Vemic hits a serve wide on the deuce court and Djokovic hammers it back with his forehand cross-court, it seems like déjà vu to the return at double-match point against Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open. Djokovic has now broken a sweat and as he walks, he’s got the swagger of John Wayne and the posture of Michael Jordan.
Tsonga walks behind Djokovic’s court to leave, but neither man turns and says a word to one another. As he opens the gate, Djokovic watches Tsonga walk out. The practice session soon ends after about 45 minutes of hitting. There is the match with Tomic that night. Djokovic hasn’t fully exerted himself, but he’s displayed great effort, focus and precision. He hasn’t moved so fast so that his sneakers screeched and he hasn’t stretched out to make any rubber-band man retrievals the way he does in matches, but he has shown mastery.
Andy Murray’s team walks in led by his coach, Ivan Lendl. Murray has been besieged by autograph-seekers since his Olympic win, and as he walks right by Djokovic, neither man even looks at each other. Finally, Djokovic breaks the silence, raises his arms overhead and cries out in mock anger, “This is my only chance for a medal, guys!” And, then he shakes his head and smiles. Murray peers over at him, takes a racquet out from his bag, and gives Djokovic a thin smile.
As Djokovic walks off the court after practice, I quickly hustle to the gate and ask Edoardo if maybe now I can interview Novak. No, Edoardo says, not now. Can I interview Vemic and yourself for the story, I ask. I’ll have to ask Novak, Edoardo counters. I wonder who is really calling the shots? Edoardo or Djokovic. Does Novak really have to give his approval for me to interview his hitting partner and his manager? That’s a tight ship, I think.
After the Tomic match, Djokovic does the obligatory press conference. I don’t ask any questions, thinking that I will save them for my one on one interview. One journalist asks:
Q. We know that on Wimbledon you have your poodle; did you take also for Olympic Games with you?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I didn’t understand the question.
Q. Your dog.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: It comes in a package with my girlfriend, so I can’t really take it. Whenever she goes, he goes. They cannot separate.
I approach Edoardo again afterward, but he says Djokovic can’t do the interview tonight. Later, I see that he does an interview with Canadian television. The next day it rains all day and I don’t hear from Edoardo. On Friday, my last day in Toronto, I email Edoardo:
Don’t mean to be a nudge on this, but wondering if there’s a chance
during the rain today that I could talk to Novak at the tennis
facility? It’s my last day in Toronto.
I receive this email back from Edoardo:
I know that is your last day in Toronto but I hope that you can understand that Novak cannot do an interview before or between matches he doesn’t want to do that and he never did that. Hoping in your understanding, I hope that they can play and that you can do your interview.
It doesn’t rain, but Djokovic has to play two matches, the first in the afternoon against Sam Querrey, and later that night against Tommy Haas. I have no chance now of conducting the interview because Djokovic doesn’t even hold a press conference after the first match and the night match ends too late. I ask the ATP media representative on site, if players ever do interviews over the telephone and he says, yes, they do it all the time. But when I broach this idea with Edoardo, he replies:
Novak doesn’t want and he doesn’t like to do a phone interview, please send me the questions by email.
Thanks and regards
Although I’m wary of conducting an interview via the Internet, I send all 20 questions. I wait a couple of weeks, but no answers from Novak or a reply from Edoardo arrives in my email inbox. I feel frustrated and deceived. Djokovic remains elusive and I am still in pursuit.