Viktor Troicki first encountered Novak Djokovic on a tennis court. He recalled blanking Djokovic 9-0 in an under-10 event in Belgrade.
Troicki’s favourite memory of his close friend also came on court, about 15 years later in the pro ranks. Djokovic, in the infancy of a career-altering season, turned the tables by dispatching his compatriot 6-0, 6-1 in Indian Wells in 2011. The serenity of the California desert contrasted with NATO bombs Djokovic and his family evaded in the Serbian capital in 1999.
“He kicked my ass, and at the net I was furious,” Troicki, now 11 months into retirement, told ATPTour.com. “I even broke my racquet into two pieces. I was coming up to the net to congratulate him. He smiled and told me, ‘Great match, you played very well.’ He was obviously joking. He made me smile and laugh about it, and it was something good friends do.
“We played a lot of matches, and I didn’t have too much success against him,” Troicki chuckled.
But Troicki isn’t alone in experiencing defeat at the hands of the 37-time ATP Masters 1000 champion, who today becomes just the fifth man in the Open Era to reach 1,000 match wins.
When asked by ATPTour.com for his initial thoughts on Djokovic achieving the extremely rare milestone, colourful commentator Robbie Koenig began with, “No-vakking — if you can start with that word — way!”
“It’s mind boggling what he has done, and the type of opposition he has had to do it against, in the (Roger) Federer-(Rafael) Nadal era,” continued the five-time ATP Tour doubles winner from South Africa.
It added to Djokovic’s extensive, distinguished list of records, such as, from 2015-2016, becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to claim four consecutive majors and the first in the Open Era to bag each of the majors at least twice.
If not keeping track, those feats completed at the French Open marked his 730th and 961st wins.
No man has held the No. 1 Pepperstone ATP Ranking longer (369 weeks) or completed the Career Golden Masters (winning all nine Masters 1000 tournaments), which, for good measure, he has done twice. That includes winning the ‘Sunshine Double’ (capturing Indian Wells and Miami in the same year) four times. And let’s not forget his five titles at the Nitto ATP Finals.
Djokovic joined fellow GOAT candidates Federer and Nadal in tallying 1,000 victories. But before the emergence of the all-conquering Big Three, it hadn’t been done in the men’s game since Ivan Lendl in 1992. Jimmy Connors, a rival of Lendl’s, became the founding and only other member of the select club in 1984.
That Djokovic sits in the same class as Connors and Lendl is appropriate. Connors possessed a two-handed backhand and returns lauded by different generations, with Djokovic ascending to the same lofty heights.
In 2018 at the Nitto ATP Finals, John Isner, second only to Ivo Karlovic in career aces, rated Djokovic as the “No. 1 and No. 2 and No. 3” top returners he has ever played.
More than one shot is needed to enter the GOAT conversation, but a contender for Djokovic’s trademark stroke would be his backhand down the line on the backfoot — either during a baseline exchange or as a passing shot.
Indeed, the backhand drew special praise from Federer on the eve of their Wimbledon thriller in 2019.
“If I think of Novak, one thing that jumps out at me, is his jump back and to the left,” said Federer, edged out in five sets two days later. “How he’s able to defend on that side, which I think has won him numerous matches and trophies. He does that better than anybody.”
One must veer in another direction, though, away from his staunch on-court weaponry, to account for Djokovic’s resilience in matches — as well as in his prolific 19-year pro career as a whole.
Lendl became invincible, at times, after changing his high cholesterol diet, teaming with a sports psychologist and a nutritionist, and prioritising his fitness. The Czech-born American, once tennis’ nearly man after losing his first four Grand Slam finals, was a pioneer. Djokovic just might be a modern-day equivalent.
Tweaking his own food habits reversed his fortunes. Eliminating gluten ahead of the 2011 campaign — a time when going “gluten free” seemingly wasn’t as commonplace as it is today — Djokovic 2.0 arrived, and stayed. “It’s easy to do it for nine months when you are playing well,” remarked Koenig. “But to do it for 12 years like he’s been doing, I cannot imagine the mental discipline that that involves.”
Stalling at one major after opening his account at the 2008 Australian Open, his stunning 2011 season brought three Grand Slam titles, 10 titles overall and a season-opening 41-match winning streak.
Retiring from matches eight times prior to 2011, the number dropped to five thereafter despite an increased workload.
“I had to learn to listen to my body,” Djokovic, whose family, ironically, operated a pizza restaurant in the Serbian ski resort of Kopaonik, wrote in his own book, 2014’s Serve to Win. “Once I did, everything changed. You could call it magic. It felt like magic.”
For his mental game, not to mention wellbeing, he meditates, practises yoga, visualisation, pilates (has there ever been a men’s champion as flexible as the nearly 35-year-old?) and conscious breathing. The latter helped ease his problematic allergy issues, dovetailing with the dietary adjustments.
Given all his mind training, when Djokovic said after the 2019 Wimbledon final that he tried to envisage the partisan Federer crowd calling out his name instead of the Swiss’, it wasn’t a throwaway, humourous line.
Djokovic didn’t commit an unforced error in any of the three tie-breaks, prevailing 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3) in five hours for the fifth of his six crowns at SW19.
Also, it marked the third time Djokovic topped Federer at a Grand Slam after saving match points.
Djokovic boasts superior head-to-head records against Federer and Nadal, accounting for 57 of the 1,000 wins. The lone player to get the better of them at least twice in their respective strongholds of Roland Garros and Wimbledon? Djokovic.
“At a technical level, when Djokovic has been at the top of his game, I have to say that I’ve been up against an invincible player,” Nadal admitted in 2017.
From 2011-2021, Djokovic’s record of 146-39 in deciding sets — a 79 per cent win rate — is further testament to his ability of outdoing opponents when the tension peaks.
Djokovic once said he might play until he is 40. With his meticulous methods and skill, he must be more likely than most to get there and pad the win count.
“To last this long and win title after title, that’s something that only the great champions do in any sport,” said Troicki. “I consider him one of the greatest athletes in the world ever. I’m proud to know him.”