Novak Djokovic grew up with NATO bombs raining down on Serbia and has become arguably one of the greatest tennis stars of all time. But as a player and a man he never fails to both unite and divide. The 34-year-old clinched his 20th Slam title on Sunday at Wimbledon to draw level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He also now just needs to win a fourth US Open in September to become only the third man in history and first since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete a calendar Grand Slam. Should he capture the Olympic title in Tokyo as well, he will be the only man to claim the Golden Slam of all four majors plus Games gold in the same year.
Despite his achievements, however, Djokovic appears doomed never to be held in the same saintly esteem reserved for Federer or Nadal, the undisputed ‘people’s champions’ and tennis’ go-to good guys.
There are those who see something too calculating in the Djokovic make-up, an intense, brooding presence prone to affectation and a little too ‘new age’.
A fiery temperament, a characteristic often absent from the DNA of Federer and Nadal, bubbles over too often.
His infamous default from the US Open last year for petulantly swiping at a ball which speared into the throat of a female line judge was a snapshot of the demons that occasionally lurk inside.
Djokovic, who left Belgrade when he was 12 to train in Munich and escape NATO’s bombardment of his home city, often feels he can’t stand up for falling down.
His decision to organise a series of exhibition events in the Balkans in the middle of the pandemic may have been with the best of intentions but a series of positive Covid-19 tests, including him and his wife Jelena, highlighted the recklessness of the plan.
More recently, he expressed his doubts over the vaccination programme, a stance which saw him dubbed ‘Novaxx’.
One of his most vocal detractors, Nick Kyrgios has accused Djokovic of a desperate need to be liked, describing the Serb’s post-victory on-court “cup of love” gesture as “cringeworthy”.
However, the career achievements and resolve of a player who has alsl become the first to smash through the $150 million prize money barrier cannot be doubted.
Three years ago, Djokovic’s career was in the doldrums.
Unable to shake off the lingering effects of elbow surgery, he suffered a shock early exit at Roland Garros, the site of many setbacks.
With his ranking outside the top 20 for the first time in 12 years, Djokovic even threatened to skip Wimbledon.
He changed his mind and suddenly rejuvenated, swept to a fourth title at the All England Club and successfully defended it a year later, saving two championship points in the final against Federer.
RACE FOR GREATNESS
Djokovic now has 20 Grand Slam titles in his career haul of 85, which also includes a record-equalling 36 Masters.
He has also occupied the world number one spot for a record number of weeks.
In the race for greatness, time is on his side. At 34, he is a year younger than Nadal and has the best part of five years on Federer.
He has winning records over both men, 30-28 and 27-23 respectively.
Djokovic captured the first of his majors at the Australian Open in 2008, but it was three years before he added his second.
He dropped gluten from his diet, his lithe physique allowing him to chase down lost causes, transforming him into the rubber man of tennis with a rock-steady defence.
After leading Serbia to a maiden Davis Cup in 2010, he raced through the first half of 2011, building up a 48-1 winning run.
Only a semi-final defeat at the French Open prevented him from already capturing a calendar Grand Slam.
Despite that, he finished 2011 with a 70-6 win-loss record, a haul of 10 tournament victories and year-end number one for the first time.
Back-to-back Australian Opens followed in 2012 and 2013, although the French Open remained frustratingly out of reach with three heart-breaking losses until his 2016 breakthrough.
The year before, he won 11 titles and compiled a win-loss record of 82-6.
In total, he has nine Australian Opens, six Wimbledons, three US Open titles and, now, two French Opens.
His win over Nadal in an epic semi-final at last month’s French Open was only the Spaniard’s third loss in 108 matches at the event.
Djokovic has been responsible for two of them.
Off court, Djokovic married long-time girlfriend Jelena Ristic in July 2014.
They have two children, a son Stefan and daughter Tara.
When he won Wimbledon in 2019, Stefan was able to see his father lift the trophy.
“It feels amazing because for the first time in my life I have someone screaming ‘daddy, daddy’,” said Djokovic.