Let’s be clear from the very start: It doesn’t actually matter what any of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic achieve from here on in, the debate about who is the greatest player of all time will never be settled.
Each of the big three has a strong case and it will rightly come down to a subjective call that we all make for ourselves based on our own criteria for greatness. And there is nothing wrong with that at all, by the way. The right to choose our GOAT should be afforded to us all.
However, when it comes to which tennis player has the greatest story, it’s hard to make a case for anyone but Novak Djokovic, and the tale he has to tell is one we are all probably guilty of overlooking from time to time.
The idea of tennis being a pursuit for only the privileged is one that is inherently flawed. It helps, but it is not essential by any means. Nor should we fall into the trap of believing the stereotype that just because Novak Djokovic is from Serbia that he had a poverty-stricken upbringing. He didn’t. His father was a successful business owner.
However, privilege is a subjective concept, is it not? While Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were receiving specialist tennis coaching at modern facilities at the age of 12, Novak Djokovic was cowering in a Belgrade basement simply hoping to survive as bombs fell on his home.
"The basement is practically where we stayed,” Djokovic recalled in 2011. “Everyone who could fit here they came, there was no limitation.
"We were waking up every single night at 2am or 3am for two and a half months because of the bombings."
Two years earlier, things were looking very different for Djokovic. Bogdan Obradovic, a respected Serbian tennis coach, had been approached by Djokovic’s father who pleaded with him to help guide his 10-year-old son.
It still wasn’t easy. Obradovich recalls that every day they had to go searching for inner-city tennis courts to use that were free to use. Some clubs offered help when they could, such as the Partizan sporting club that is also home to the Partizan Belgrade football team, but it was an improvised approached that offered little in terms of consistency or routine – two things upon which young sporting talents flourish. When the air strikes on Belgrade started, things only got tougher.
Every night, a 12-year-old boy would huddle with others in a basement kept awake by bombs before venturing out in the day and trying to get better at tennis, assuming he could find a court amid the rubble.
"We were in a terrible situation during the bombings,” Obradovic said. “You hear the sound and see on the news, people were killed and everything is destroyed. But you can do nothing.”
It is important, too, to remember just how young Djokovic was at that time. Far too young, certainly, to understand the complexities of geopolitics. Consider too, that it was not even Djokovic’s first experience of war.
At the age of four, Serbia was gripped by the Yugoslav war that left his family needing to queue for food and facing starvation.
“It was a horrifying experience for everyone,” Djokovic recalls. “Particularly for children. We did not understand what was happening.”
"It was the first or second night of bombing. We were just about to fall asleep when a huge explosion happened. My mom stood up very quickly and hit her head, falling unconscious. We were crying because of the bombs, because mom was not responding. Luckily my dad managed to help my mom get back to normal.
"We collect our stuff and go out. It was so loud, we couldn't hear each other. My dad was carrying my brothers, my mom was carrying other stuff and that's when I slipped.
“When I looked towards the building, I saw the planes flying, dropping things and the ground shaking. That is one of the most traumatic images I saw in my childhood. It stays with me.
"I remember celebrating my 12th birthday party at the tennis club where I grew up and during the happy birthday song, there was a plane flying over."
"You can't comprehend how horrible and scary that feeling is, and how helpless you are. You are here on the ground, and someone is flying over, dropping a bomb and just disappearing.”
Tennis, ultimately, proved to be Djokovic’s escape, which is probably why he has so much love for it even to this day. It got him out and to Germany where he spent the next four years training at the Pilić tennis academy.
In fairness, after what Djokovic experienced as a child, it probably would have been easy for him to settle for a mediocre career that kept him safe and never put a target on his back again. The fact he did not was perhaps the first sign of the champion within him.
However, even that would not be easy, even for someone of his talent. Once he got himself onto the ATP Tour and high enough in the rankings to challenge for titles, he still had two absolute giants blocking his path. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had already established themselves and the tennis world was loving the rivalry they were creating. Many had tried to unseat them, and many would try again. Almost all of them would fail.
Few wanted that narrative gate-crashed because, frankly, it was a perfect one for the media. Two insanely popular and clean-cut young players destined to battle it out between them for tennis greatness. That is something truly generational.
Djokovic, though, was determined to join them. Some say he has actually overhauled them, and that is factually true in terms of many of tennis’ most sought-after records.
Perhaps it was the fact he gate-crashed the preferred narrative that has often made Djokovic a target of the press. Perhaps, though, it is just because he is a product of what he has been through, and what has been through is something to which most of us can never truly relate.
His stance on vaccination, for example, is something for which he has been vilified by many. Who, though, could really blame someone who was raised in the fires and rubble caused by the bombs of a peacekeeping and supposedly strictly defensive military force for deciding to stubbornly decide to rely upon himself alone for his own personal safety?
Understanding and accepting is considerably harder than judgement, though.
Ultimately, not everyone will love Novak Djokovic and that is fine. Some will genuinely dislike his on-court demeanour too, and that’s also fine. He’s not for everyone.
However, no one should ever forget his story. Novak Djokovic is the champion underdog who emerged from a childhood scarred by war and trauma to take on two of the world’s established sporting greats and proved himself their equal. It's remarkable to say that very least, even among company of the greats.
That story, and the determination, conviction, and sheer resolve that underpins it is something to be celebrated, and it is a shame that tennis is not more willing to do it.
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