Donning a new role


MAN OF THE MOMENT: Serbian world number one Novak Djokovic credits his dominance this year to an extreme makeover to his game and fitness regimen. AP

Pressed against a barricade, fans glimpsed Novak Djokovic and readied their cellphones. Necks craned. Cameras flashed. Djokovic, the Serb now deep into a historic tennis season, had created an impromptu mosh pit at a recent tournament here.
The scene underscored the defining characteristic of his season: change, on all fronts, with more promised. In the past year, in a relatively extreme makeover, Djokovic changed his serve, his diet, his publicist, his fitness regimen and, because of all of this, his standing in men’s tennis.
The next phase – making Djokovic a household name, among the world’s biggest sports stars – will continue next week in the US Open, where he was named Wednesday the No 1 seed in the men’s draw. While Djokovic has surpassed his rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the tennis court, he now hopes to at least join those two, who both reside on Forbes magazine’s list of the top 10 most powerful athletes, in areas such as endorsements, fame and global exposure.
“Of course, the world is looking at me differently,” Djokovic said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m pretending that I’m modest, but I don’t really consider myself a star, or something like that.”
Perhaps Djokovic was not widely regarded as a star – merely a very good professional tennis player – until his dominance this year. He has won 57 of 59 matches and nine tournaments since January because his game, a combination of speed and endurance and a counterattacking baseline style, robbed opponents of a precious element in tennis – time.
Suddenly, Djokovic himself is pressed for time. The task of coordinating the effort to boost his image falls to Goran Djokovic, Novak’s uncle and chief marketing strategist. This week alone, he planned 30-40 business meetings, while Edoardo Artaldi, the new publicist, handled the 30 or so daily media requests.
It takes time to appear on national talk shows (he taught Jay Leno and Katie Holmes a Serbian dance), time to sift through marketing pitches, time to pursue Djokovic’s next dream, acting, in Hollywood. “Our job is also to show the world, to show the United States, that there is a new No 1 in the world,” Goran Djokovic said, leaning forward Tuesday in the lobby of the Mondrian Hotel in New York. “We have to adjust everything, what we are doing now. But let’s say we are preparing for that all our life.”
The Djokovics are a family of entrepreneurs. They employ about 150 people in a variety of businesses, mostly in Serbia, from their pizza restaurant to their tennis club (they run their own tournament) to their website and all its merchandise. Goran likes to joke that Team Novak includes so many people, they travel by bus, “organized like Formula One, so many people around,” he said.
This marks an important moment in Djokovic’s continuing transformation. In a season in which the coach and analyst Darren Cahill said, “Quite possibly, he’s taken the game to a new level,” the opportunity to capitalize has never been higher – and it might never be again.
For years, Djokovic seemed destined to play tennis’ third fiddle, the next-best player in a generation that featured two all-time greats in Nadal and Federer. Djokovic was known more as the “Djoker” for his offbeat personality and spot-on impersonations of fellow pros. When Djokovic, now 24, won the Australian Open in 2008, he flashed a glimpse of the dominance to come. But before he could begin his transformation, he needed to believe that it was possible. “Maybe he was impatient at that time,” his coach, Marian Vajda, said. “He was saying: ‘I have Federer and Nadal. I can’t make it.' Negative thinking. He was coming in 2008, but still not mentally there, not mentally strong like now.”

But while Djokovic overcame the mental hurdle, while he lost weight by removing wine and pizza from his diet, while minor tweaks to his service motion led to 69 more aces and 125 fewer double faults than at the same point last season, he still lags behind Nadal and Federer in terms of popularity and endorsements.

“The U.S. Open is a very, very important tournament for Novak,” Goran Djokovic said. “Especially now. Let’s say that with the winning of this tournament, he can have a better chance to do what he wants moving forward.”

While Djokovic woos the general sports fans, his entourage must insulate him from the increasing demands lobbed his way. Djokovic says that everything around him changed in the past six months, except for one thing, the most important thing, himself. But that requires extra effort. While uncle Goran conducted the interview, he also lined up transportation for sightseeing Tuesday, for Novak and his girlfriend to escape all the strategy talk and interview requests.

Tennis, and the best start to a men’s season since John McEnroe arrived at the Open at 59-2 in 1984, made such opportunity possible in the first place. Djokovic, according to the retired player turned television analyst Justin Gimelstob, currently ranks among the best on the ATP World Tour in regard to his backhand, serve, service return, balance, core strength and flexibility.

The dietary changes, Djokovic said, made him feel fresher and calmer, physically stronger and more dynamic. “What he has done to get in shape, he should bottle that and sell it,” the tennis legend Jimmy Connors told reporters in Canada this month.

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