Skip to main content

Visualizing greatness: How Novak Djokovic rose to the top

By Matthew Knight, CNN
January 28, 2013 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
By beating Briton Andy Murray in Sunday's final in Melbourne, Novak Djokovic became the first player in the Open era to win three consecutive Australian Open titles. By beating Briton Andy Murray in Sunday's final in Melbourne, Novak Djokovic became the first player in the Open era to win three consecutive Australian Open titles.
Djokovic's historic treble
Focus on the family
Djokovic's first grand slam
Marathon man
Physical and mental agility
Family support
  • World No.1 talks to CNN's Open Court about life at the top and his upbringing in Serbia
  • Djokovic won a third straight Australian Open title on Sunday after beating Andy Murray
  • Strong family bond key to success and mental strength says 25-year-old Serb
  • "I try to stay humble ... I want to have the most important, most valuable people in my life"

London (CNN) -- Never underestimate the power of visualization.

"I was always dreaming about being the best in tennis," said world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who became the first Open era player to win three consecutive Australian Open titles after beating Andy Murray 6-7 7-6 6-3 6-2 in Sunday's final.

"I remember as a kid, I was improvising and making little trophies out of different materials and going in front of the mirror, lifting the trophies and saying 'Nole was the champion!'"

The 25-year-old claimed an unprecedented third straight title in Melbourne and cemented his place among the game's all-time greats -- a feat all the more remarkable given the Serb's upbringing amid conflict in the Balkans during the 1990s.

Can Novak Djokovic stay at the top?
Djokovic: 'My dreams came true'

"We didn't have a childhood that is similar to some of our generation of tennis players because we grew up during the war. There was a lot of struggle, difficulty financially ... but we survived," said Djokovic, referring to the three-year war which was the bloodiest in Europe since World War II.

"It was really hard to succeed and I have to thank God for the big support from my father and my mother and all the family," added Djokovic, who spoke to CNN's Open Court show during the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, prior to the start of the season's first grand slam in Australia.

"They believed in me and gave me hope when I was facing a lot of disbelief, a lot of doubts.

Backed and also blessed with some impressive sporting genes -- father Srdjan and his uncle Goran were professional skiers -- Djokovic began his tennis odyssey at the age of four.

"I saw tennis on the TV and I saw the tennis court (near his parent's restaurant in Kapaonik, southern Serbia) and my father brought me a small tennis racket. That's when I think we all fell in love with the sport," he explained.

It was here that Djokovic caught the eye his first coach Jelena Gencic. "I knew that Nole would be the best in the world.

"Somebody asked him: 'Hey, boy! What do you want to be when you grow up?' (And he would reply): 'Be the first in pro-tennis.' He was six years old."

Read: No. 1 Djokovic floors Ferrer to reach fourth Australian Open final

"I try to stay humble as much as I can because I want to have the most important, most valuable people in my life around me ...
Novak Djokovic

That almost in-bred ambition and winning mentality has brought him win four grand slam titles over the past two seasons -- notably claiming his first Wimbledon title in 2011 and his third Australian Open crown in the marathon six-hour final in Melbourne 12 months ago.

"Pressure is a privilege in a way and a big challenge for every professional athlete," said Djokovic. "It's just a matter of understanding it, and maturing as a player and getting that necessary experience to use it at the right moments to cope," he says.

"It's a privilege because it means that you are doing something that counts. And all my life I have been dreaming to be the best in what I do and my dreams came true."

Last year, from a psychological standpoint, Djokovic had a lot to cope with.

Along with epic victories on court came a great loss off it with the death of his grandfather, Vladimir last April. Further emotional strain followed in October when his father was hospitalized for a serious respiratory infection.

But there were also more welcome distractions on tour. Aside from his celebrity status -- which he enjoys -- and a legion of fans who give him "a lot of energy, positive vibrations and love," Djokovic plays mentor to his two brothers, 21-year-old Marko and Djordje who turns 18 in July.

Read: Murray inspired by friend with cancer

A regular presence in the crowd at grand slams, Djokovic's brothers are now making their way in the game.

"They have great ambitions and I'm happy and fortunate to be able to advise them on and off court with their game and with their psychology in some way if I can," said Djokovic, who is all too aware of the weight of expectation on his siblings' shoulders given their big brother is world No. 1.

"Pressure is a privilege because it means that you are doing something that counts
Novak Djokovic

"Everybody expects them to play well and to do even better ... but each one has an individual path that they have to respect and I'm trying to help."

As Djokovic concedes, having three brothers away from home, is hard for their mother Dijana.

"It's definitely heartbreaking for (her) to see all three sons go away and none of us live in Serbia ... but (my parents) understand this is the life we have chosen and they respect our decision," said the Australian Open finalist.

While Djokovic continues to turn his childhood dreams into spectacular reality, it's clear no matter where he finds himself in the world, his values and heart remain as close to home as ever.

"I try to stay humble as much as I can because I want to have the most important, most valuable people in my life around me like family and friends. They are the ones who actually keep me grounded and focused on what I do."

Part of complete coverage on
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
As a player he was as fiery as his hair -- and as Novak Djokovic's coach, Boris Becker says he has to battle to keep his emotions in check.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1102 GMT (1902 HKT)
Tennis great Boris Becker says he was stunned by the level of criticism he received after being appointed as Novak Djokovic's coach.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1101 GMT (1901 HKT)
"I didn't cry once when I practiced in front of the mirror," says Martin Emmrich. But the nerves kicked in when he got down on one knee on court.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
When Agnieszka Radwanska refused to look her opponent in the eye after losing at Wimbledon, it raised more than eyebrows.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 0114 GMT (0914 HKT)
It's 10 years since a teenage Maria Sharapova became the darling of Wimbledon's hallowed Center Court, launching herself as a star.
Rafael Nadal is still the "King of Clay" -- but his crown has slipped a bit, says CNN's Will Edmonds.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 0746 GMT (1546 HKT)
He's regularly voted France's favorite famous person, but many of the nation's youth have "no idea" about his glorious sporting past
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 2359 GMT (0759 HKT)
British tennis player Elena Baltacha won 11 ITF Pro Circuit titles during her 16-year playing career.
The Ukrainian-born, British tennis star loses fight against liver cancer, just a few weeks after revealing that she was battling the disease.
April 29, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Five-time grand slam champion Martina Hingis has followed her mom into a coaching role, setting up a new tennis academy in Barcelona, Spain.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1238 GMT (2038 HKT)
Suisse's Belinda Bencic returns the ball to France's Alize Cornet during the second match of the Fed Cup first round tennis tie France vs Switzerland on February 8, 2014 at the Pierre de Coubertin stadium in Paris. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
It's no easy matter becoming a world class tennis player. It's even harder when everyone (really -- everyone) is calling you the "new Martina Hingis."
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1420 GMT (2220 HKT)
At the 2009 Australian Open, French men's tennis was the talk of the town.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - APRIL 14: Rafael Nadal of Spain sails a boat during day two of the ATP Monte Carlo Rolex Masters Tennis at Monte-Carlo Sporting Club on April 14, 2014 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal may be most at home on a clay tennis court, but he has always found comfort on the sea.