Thursday 19 October 2017

Tennis: Djokovic flying the flag for Serbia as he bids to join the immortals

Novak Djokovic. Photo: Reuters
Novak Djokovic. Photo: Reuters

Paul Newman

Novak Djokovic will stand on the brink of history when the French Open begins on Sunday. It is 43 years since one man held all four Grand Slam titles -- Rod Laver won a pure Grand Slam in 1969, claiming the four majors in the same year -- and Djokovic, the champion of Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, is now just one win away from that goal.

The 25-year-old Serb does not shy away from questions about the enormity of what he might achieve in Paris in 16 days' time, but as he leans forward in his seat in an office at the Foro Italico, where he was beaten by Rafael Nadal in the final of the Rome Masters, you become aware that there is something even bigger he is looking forward to this summer.

There is arguably no greater patriot in sport than the world's No 1 tennis player and his eyes lit up when he revealed that he had been invited to carry the flag for Serbia at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics.

"Just the thought of carrying the flag there, it's mind-blowing really," Djokovic said. "It feels incredible, I remember being at the opening ceremony in Beijing, and how incredible it was to be part of that opening ceremony, in front of 90,000 to 100,000 people, and God knows how many millions watching."

Djokovic has never been afraid to wear his heart -- and sometimes his politics -- on his sleeve. Four years ago, he recorded a speech which was broadcast at a political rally at which Serbs opposed the idea of Kosovan independence. Today he heads a charitable foundation which provides opportunities for underprivileged children in Serbia, which is one of Europe's poorest countries and is still rebuilding its economy following the years of strife. Djokovic believes passionately that his country has had an undeserved bad press -- and wants to change that through his words and deeds.

"Many (Serbian) people have hopes and good positive energy nowadays -- and a lot of those hopes actually come from sport," he said. "This is one of the greatest assets our country has, if not the greatest. The president (of Serbia) has talked about it. That's why as athletes from Serbia we all feel an extra responsibility to represent our country wherever we go -- not just by playing somewhere, but always talking about it. I believe my country deserves more than it gets press-wise and hopefully it is going to turn around."

Djokovic said Serbia has helped to make him who he is. "I am proud of where I come from," he said. "We are very emotional people. I believe not just the tennis players, but all the successful athletes that come from my country have had success mostly because of our mental strength, and through overcoming the really difficult times in the last 20 to 30 years that our country faced.

"We struggled very much with wars, embargoes and sanctions, economic and political issues and inflation. It was a really difficult time to become somebody. You want to try to just survive and live another day. Not many kids were daring to dream about something big. At the start for me as well it was difficult to have these dreams. Growing up in that environment was not easy. But I believe that with my example I can send the right message to the young kids in Serbia and help them out and allow them to dream.

"Because everybody should dream, everybody should believe in their dreams. Why not? I don't believe if you have a goal or a dream as a kid that you want to realise, that it's impossible, or you seem too arrogant to say that. I just believe that if you want something, you should try. Everybody should try. If I managed to do it, from this situation in this country? It seemed so impossible at that time that everybody laughed at it. Now that it is, that should serve as a good example to others."

Having achieved success, Djokovic is determined to remain close to his roots. "I do not want to position myself in any way as somebody who is untouchable," he said.

"I came from these people, I lived through every single moment of the wars with those people, and I know how they feel and how they are, especially the people who didn't have an opportunity to be successful in what they do."

On the court, nevertheless, there have been times over the last 18 months when Djokovic has seemed untouchable. He has become world No 1 by thrusting aside two of the greatest players in history in Federer and Nadal who, along with Pete Sampras, are the only other men since Laver who have won three Grand Slam singles tournaments in a row.

Serena Williams is the last person to have held all four Grand Slam titles at the same time -- an achievement she labelled "the Serena Slam" -- and the American said it would be "unbelievable" if Djokovic could emulate her feat. (© Independent News Service)

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