NOVAK DJOKOVIC IS looking for something.
It is Orthodox Easter Sunday in Belgrade. Djokovic is playing the final of the Serbia Open, a crowd of 8,000-plus bellowing behind him. Down one set to Andrey Rublev of Russia, her rallies back in the second to force a tiebreak.
But late in the set, Djokovic begins to wilt. After one point, he slips and falls, lying on his back. He rises slowly, gingerly, the red clay running rivulets down his sweat-soaked shirt. He wipes his eyes, blinking over and over. He wraps his head in a white towel filled with ice.
Djokovic manages to win the tiebreak to even the match, only to take a medical timeout and disappear inside the tennis center’s main building.
The fans murmur as the minutes pass and Djokovic doesn’t re-appear. They have come to praise him. They have come to raise him. They have come to see him, their son, regarded by many as the most dominant player of all time. There is no controversy with Djokovic here; there is only the hope — the expectation — that he will soon re-enter the world’s collective consciousness for something more valiant than being at the center of perhaps the most famous deportation in tennis history.
The Serbia Open is a small event with a small purse in a relatively small city. And Djokovic has said, very kindly, that Paris — the French Open, which begins Sunday at Roland Garros — is his professional focus. As far as history is concerned, Djokovic’s next chapter will be written there.
But it begins here, in Belgrade, just as his first tennis chapter did. And it isn’t supposed to begin like this.
Inside the locker room, Djokovic is searching. struggling. Wondering. He doesn’t understand why he can’t play the way he wants. Why can’t he feel the way he wants. He had COVID for a second time in December. Another illness last month. And because of the fallout from the Australian Open and the pandemic restrictions elsewhere, he hasn’t played anything close to a full schedule. A year ago, he arrived at the French Open having played 64 sets of tournament tennis; this year, he’s played 38.
“I don’t know why this is happening,” he says at one point.
If he were anywhere else, he would probably retire the match. He would pull out and go on to his next tournament. He would keep rolling towards Paris, where the opportunity to match Rafael Nadal’s Grand Slam total of 21 trophies — and re-stake his claim as the greatest men’s singles player of all time — awaits. Where the eyes of the world will turn towards him for the first time since January and wonder what has happened to him since he was removed from Melbourne without ever playing a match.
But he can’t quit. This is Serbia. These are his people. His brother is the tournament director. The match is being played at the Novak Tennis Center. The Wi-Fi password in this building where he’s languishing is “NOLE,” his childhood nickname.
So he stands up. He sips some room-temperature water. He slips on a dry shirt. He pushes through the door.
When he emerges on court, the stadium shakes as if he has already won.
EARLIER IN THE WEEK, two days before his first match, Djokovic practices with Dominic Thiem, a spry Austrian. A crowd of off-duty ball-boys, VIPs and assorted hangers-on quickly forms to watch their beloved Nole. A chef meanders out from the tennis club’s kitchen to catch a peek, still wearing her tall white toque.
Djokovic laughs and bounces around the court but his game is choppy. After he nets another forehand, a friend watching nearby says, “It has been like this since …” and trails off, shrugging.
Since Australia, he means to say.
Australia, of course, is where things changed for Djokovic. It is where the Djokovic conundrum, the Djokovic problem, the Djokovic question that tennis has grappled with for years went mainstream. That is, what exactly are we supposed to make of this immensely talented, incredibly enigmatic disruptor?
Suddenly, it wasn’t only about Djokovic being different (or even better) than Roger Federer or Nadal. It wasn’t about Grand Slam trophies. It wasn’t about on-court histrionics or quirky diets or even the gap between how Djokovic wants to be received and how he (often) is.
No, suddenly it was about a tennis player from Serbia becoming a lightning rod during a pandemic that has frightened and ideologically divided an entire planet.
Djokovic, who is unvaccinated, traveled to Melbourne in January having received an invitation to enter the country via an exemption provided by the state government so he could play the Australian Open. But a social media uprising led the Australian federal government to push for his visa to be canceled.
What followed was an ugly, emotionally charged global referendum on governmental COVID policies at the oft-explosive intersection between personal freedom and personal responsibility.
Djokovic was delayed for days. Then deported. Then isolated, both symbolically and literally, as he voluntarily sat out several US tournaments because he was not allowed to travel as an unvaccinated foreigner. He has 20 Grand Slam singles titles, but Djokovic may never have been more famous than he was in those moments where he couldn’t hit a ball.
Prominent anti-vax groups claimed him as a hero and “freedom fighter,” while others painted him as everything that was wrong with the pandemic.
“Everyone, for the past two years, has been looking for someone to blame for the pandemic, and what happened in Australia set Novak up to be that,” Viktor Troicki, a retired Serbian pro and one of Djokovic’s close friends, tells me one afternoon in Belgrade. “It wasn’t fair to him at all.”
Fair or not, it weighed on Djokovic. Desperate to find a new beginning in a familiar place, he came home. To the place where he is revered. To the place where he is known.
On this particular Monday, in a chilly, blustery wind, he hits with Thiem. He does speed work. He poses for a few photos. He goes to the media tent for his first news conference of the week.
After a slew of boilerplate questions about his preparation, one of the reporters asked what Djokovic thought about as he fell asleep the night before. Djokovic stares at her for a second, hesitating. What was he thinking about?
What wasn’t he?
Finally, he says that he actually thought a lot about making sure his fidgeting and squirming wouldn’t hurt his dog, who was curled up next to him in bed.
He was tossing and turning, Djokovic says, because lately “I have been having some trouble sleeping.”
ON WEDNESDAY, A few hours before his opening match in Belgrade, Djokovic practices with Karen Khachanov, a tall, top-ranked Russian player.
Djokovic, momentarily left without any balls to serve himself, moves to a return position. He split-steps as Khachanov pumps his racket, then steps in with his left foot and cracks a forehand, blasting a return that skids off the line in the corner to Khachanov’s left, a winner against anyone. Khachanov serves another and Djokovic does the same thing, only this time with a backhand to the opposite corner, the ball skidding off the line there. Khachanov serves again and Djokovic sends it back to the first corner. One more, and it whizzes back to the corner to Khachanov’s right.
As a boy, one of Djokovic’s coaches, Bogdan Obradovic, taught him musical rhythms — “I brought my guitar to the court,” Obradovic says — because understanding the one-two of a player stepping into the court with his foot and then hitting the ball with his racket was what separated the average returners from the elite. Years later, Djokovic’s execution of that principle — and the simplicity with which he succeeds — is staggering. Even Khachanov stars, only for a second, as if he’d momentarily forgotten just how talented Djokovic is.
It has long been impossible to take our eyes off Djokovic because he carries himself in a way that hints at an even greater spectacle to come. Djokovic grew up hitting balls not far from the tournament site in Belgrade, and his first coach, Jelena Gencic, told his parents he was a “golden child” almost immediately after she began working with him. Djokovic was six. When he would win tournaments on weekends while in grade school, he often received bags of candy he’d bring to school on Mondays to share with his friends.
“It was like, every single Monday,” one of his childhood friends, Bojan Petronic, tells me. “We expected it. If there was literally one Monday where he didn’t have it, we’d be like, ‘No! You can’t lose! Where is our candy?’ And he would apologize.”
At that age, Djokovic preferred soccer to tennis, but his father, Srdjan, prohibited him from playing soccer with his friends on the concrete court behind his grandfather’s apartment because Srdjan was worried Djokovic would be injured (Petronic: “We sometimes played anyway”) . As Djokovic got older, Srdjan took out loans to bankroll his son’s tennis career, essentially betting his entire family’s livelihood on his son’s ability.
Even with all that pressure, confidence was never a problem for Djokovic. Gebhard Gritsch, who spent nine years as Djokovic’s fitness coach, told me that in the very first conversation they had, Djokovic looked at him and said, “The situation is very simple: I believe someone out there has decided I’m supposed to become a tennis player and I’m supposed to be the No. 1 player in the world. So, I need you to help me with that.”
With a record 370 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world, Djokovic’s dominance has been total. And yet despite his enduring success — despite the fact he has somehow met and surpassed all the hopes anyone could have possibly had for him — there has always been, and continues to be, a feeling around Djokovic that something is missing. That there is still a place he cannot reach.
Patrick McEnroe, the analyst and former US Davis Cup captain, thinks often of Djokovic at the US Open, a tournament where for years the fans often booed or whistled at him. When the New York fans finally cheered for him in the championship match last year,…