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Novak Djokovic says hungry, young tennis players "awaken a beast" in him

Novak Djokovic: The 2023 60 Minutes Interview
Novak Djokovic: The 2023 60 Minutes Interview 13:28

2023 was the year Novak Djokovic turned 36. It also marked the year he declared game, set, match on the men's tennis debate over the GOAT, the greatest of all-time. Djokovic has 24 major singles titles now, two more than his longtime rival Rafael Nadal, four more than Roger Federer. Next month, Djokovic heads to the Australian Open—an event he's already won 10 times… last month, he invited us to his hometown, and took us inside the catacombs of his mind, sharing insight on how to ascend to the top level of sports… and stay there.

It was a late morning workout in Belgrade, Serbia, and Novak Djokovic let us in on a key to his staggering success: forget speed or strength…. flexibility enables him to perform feats like this… 

It's also enabled him to contort and twist the laws of time.

Jon Wertheim: You are beating players right now, good players, who are closer in age to your kids than they are to you. How much satisfaction does that (Djokovic laugh) give you? You like that?

Novak Djokovic: (laugh) I don't know if that sounds good to be honest. But yeah, I think the young guys who are very hungry and very inspired to play their best tennis against me is an additional motivation. I think they kind of awaken a beast in me.

Novak Djokovic stretching
Novak Djokovic stretching 60 Minutes

Djokovic is no longer chasing records, he's creating them. His stubborn habit of winning major titles started in 2008…and it's gone on…and on…half of his 24 coming after he turned 30, most recently last September's U.S. Open…. he says that he may not be as fast as he once was, but he's wiser and more accurate.

Jon Wertheim: Give us a sense of the size of the target you're aiming for. 

Novak Djokovic: (laugh) Like this. A little coin. At times, yes. At times, yes. At times…

Jon Wertheim: You're being serious?

Novak Djokovic: I'm serious. You know, at times, I'm aiming you know this size. Sometimes I'm aiming for this size. It depends on– in the moment of the match, who am I playing against, what the tactic is.

Another part of his tactics: looking for any hint of weakness across the net….

Novak Djokovic: Even though there is no physical contact in tennis, there's still a lot of eye contact. When we are changing ends, when we're sitting on the bench, and then the big screen shows him how he drinks his water. And then I'm looking at him. How is he drinking water? Is he sweating more than usual? Is he breathing…

Jon Wertheim: Wow. You're takin' all of this in during a match?

Novak Djokovic: Exactly. Is he breathing deeply or not deeply? And then I look how he's communicating with his team, you know. You have all these different elements that are in play that really affect the performance and the game itself.

Jon Wertheim: Can I tell you what one of the hardest things about covering you is? People understand big muscles and speed and grace. Mental strength, which is what I think is your great gift, is much harder to articulate. Can you help us explain…

Novak Djokovic: I would have to correct you. I'd have to correct you…

Jon Wertheim: Yeah, all right. Correct me…

Novak Djokovic: It's not a gift. It's something that comes with work.

Jon Wertheim: You train for the mental side the way you would your serve or your…

Novak Djokovic: Absolutely.

Jon Wertheim: …your forehand. How?

Novak Djokovic: Absolutely. Well, there are different techniques. Conscious breathing is a big part, especially in the moments when you're under tension.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic 60 Minutes

Jon Wertheim: I think a lotta people think, 'Oh in the moment, Novak's so locked in.' You're saying this is all part of a process?

Novak Djokovic: Oh, I mean I might appear maybe locked in. But, you know, trust me, there is a storm inside. And, you know, the biggest always battle is within, right?

Jon Wertheim: Take us in there. It's…

Novak Djokovic: Yeah, I mean, you know, you have your doubts and fears. I feel it every single match. I don't like this kind of a mindset that I see a lot in sports. Like, 'Just think positive thoughts. Be optimistic. There is no room for failure. There is no room for, you know, doubts,' and stuff like this. It's, it's impossible to do that…

Jon Wertheim: You don't buy that?

Novak Djokovic: You are a human being. The difference, I guess, between the guys who are able to be biggest champions, and the ones that are struggling to get to the highest level is the ability to not stay in those emotions for too long. So, for me, it's really relatively short. So as soon as I experience it, I acknowledge it. I maybe, you know, burst. I scream on the court, whatever happens. But then I'm able to bounce back and reset.

Jon Wertheim: Some days you win and you're just, you're the better player. You're more precise. You're more powerful. Other times, you are just better mentally.

Novak Djokovic: That happened in 2019 when I played finals of Wimbledon that, that marathon match, epic match with Roger.

Jon Wertheim: He had two match points on his serve.

Novak Djokovic: I remember that very well. (laugh)

Fifth and decisive set. Wimbledon's Centre Court. Historically pivotal match. Crowd squarely with Roger Federer, who stood one point from victory. Djokovic stayed alive with cold-blooded shots like this…

Novak Djokovic: I beat him 13-12 in the fifth set.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic 60 Minutes

Novak Djokovic: The sets that I won were all won in tie breaks, seven-six, seven-six, 13-12. And overall, if you see stats, he was far better player in every aspect. But I won the match. And so that actually tells you that you can still win if you pick and choose in which moments of the match you're peaking, and you're playing your best when it matters.

At the outset of his career Djokovic couldn't break through against Federer and Nadal… he was the third wheel… and, he now admits: he felt intimidated by them before big matches.

Novak Djokovic: I'm playing Nadal in Roland Garros, and I have his locker next to my locker, right? So, we are so close. And we're tryin' to give each other space. But then the locker room is also not that big. And, the way you jump around like Nadal does before we go out on the court. In the locker room, he's doing sprints next to you. I can even hear the music he's listening to, you know, in his headphones. So, you know, it's pissing me off.

Jon Wertheim: So way before…

Novak Djokovic: Way before.

Jon Wertheim: hit the first ball, this…

Novak Djokovic: Absolutely.

Jon Wertheim: ...competition started…

Novak Djokovic: Absolutely. Early in my career, I didn't realize how all that's part of the scenario, right? So, I was getting intimidated by that. But it's also motivating me to do stuff myself and to show that I'm ready, you know? I'm ready for a battle, for a war.

If Djokovic has now surpassed his rivals on scoreboards and in record books, he is aware that he has never quite matched their soaring popularity.…

Novak Djokovic: The amount of pressure and stress is so much higher if you have crowd against you. 

Jon Wertheim: Home game versus road game?

Novak Djokovic: Absolutely. But (laugh) for most of my career, it was mostly hostile environments for me. I kind of learn how to thrive in that environment. And people think that it's actually better if, if they don't like me so that it kind of gets the best out of me in terms of tennis. It did happen. But at the same time, I actually enjoy more (laugh) being in environment where, you know, I have nice, nice support.

Djokovic is open about this, too: he sometimes struggles with—how to put it?— impulse control.

Jon Wertheim: Your tennis is so precise and crisp. How do you handle it when you make these sort of errors and lapses when you break a racket or when your emotions get the better of you?

Novak Djokovic: Well, look, you know, I, I have broken rackets in my (laugh) life, you know. No doubt about it. And I'm not proud about that. And I'm ashamed of myself when I do that, no doubt. But at the same time, you know, I accept myself as a flawed human being.

Novak Djokovic stretching
Novak Djokovic stretching 60 Minutes

Djokovic found controversy of a larger scale in early 2022… unvaccinated, he got an exemption to play the Australian Open; at a time when the country was coming out of a long COVID lockdown. But after public outcry, Djokovic was deported – making for a global news event.

Jon Wertheim How much of a toll did that whole controversy take on you?

Novak Djokovic: It did. I was basically declared as a villain of the world, you know, and…

Jon Wertheim: You sensed that?

Novak Djokovic: …of course. And I had basically, yeah, most of the world against me. I had that kind of experience on the tennis court with, with crowds that were not maybe cheering me on. But I never had this particular experience before in my life.

Jon Wertheim: Did you misread the Australian public and what the reaction would be?

Novak Djokovic: In which way did I misread them?

Jon Wertheim: They don't like exceptionalism. This was a culture that felt very strongly about vaccinations. 

Novak Djokovic: But the point is that it was not up to me to read anybody. I got the exemption. I got permission to come into the country. And so, of course, it escalated to the highest of the highest levels globally.

Jon Wertheim: Correct me if I'm wrong. You were not against vaccination. You just did not want it for yourself.

Novak Djokovic: Exactly. People tried to, you know, declare me as an anti-vax. I'm not anti-vax. Nor I am pro-vax. I'm, I'm, I'm pro-freedom to choose. 

There are so many dimensions to Djokovic….he may polarize; but he is remarkably accessible...he may be tennis' apex predator, but is exceedingly popular among his prey, that is, with other players… he's won more money than any tennis player in history, yet co-founded a players association designed, largely, to ease the financial burden of pro tennis' rank-and-file.

Jon Wertheim: You understand how extraordinary this is that we talk about in tennis 'eat what you kill.' Well, you're helping the others eat who are the same folks that wanna take food off your table.

Novak Djokovic: Well, because I have plenty, you know? I have much more than I need. But, women and men who are around 200 and lower ranked in that world, they are struggling a lot. They can't afford a coach. They can't afford travels. They skip tournaments. Many of them leave tennis who are super talented and maybe capable of reaching great heights and successes. But they just can't make it.

Coming from a small country and meager means himself, Djokovic knows this better than anyone. 

When he returned to Serbia in September after winning the U.S. Open, 20,000 fans greeted him…he was overcome by it all…

During our visit to Belgrade last month, we noticed the prominence of the conquering hero…and the speculation about where his popularity might take him next…

A Novak Djokovic mural
A mural of Novak Djokovic  60 Minutes

Jon Wertheim: It's pretty obvious you're going to be leader of this country one day. What kind of a leader are you gonna be?

Novak Djokovic: (laugh) How do you know? You're making some kind of claims here that I, I'm not even aware of.

Jon Wertheim: I'm seeing your popularity here. You will have an easier time at the ballot box here than you will winning in Australia. And you've…

Novak Djokovic: (laugh)

Jon Wertheim: You've done that 10 times.

Novak Djokovic: I love how you are phrasing and formulating this question. The way you do it, it's so, you know, well, I do not have any political inspirations at the moment. I don't feel that this is a world or an environment where I would thrive. But I do think that my popularity in the country and in the region can be used for some other things where I can help contribute to life and society.

Specifically, he and his wife, Jelena, have a foundation - and this goes way beyond your average athlete philanthropy - that's built or renovated more than 50 Serbian preschools and counting…As for their own children, Stefan, age 9, Tara, age 6, they play a role in their father's tennis longevity.

Jon Wertheim: Is the fact that your kids are old enough not just to watch you play but to really appreciate what dad's doing out there, is that a reason to keep playing?

Novak Djokovic: Yes. It is. Actually years ago I had a dream that my daughter and my son will be able to watch me win Wimbledon trophy. So that happened several times. I was very fortunate to experience that.

Maybe the ultimate career extender? A new rival to continue stoking his fire. Spain's Carlos Alcaraz, age 20, the only player to beat Djokovic at a major this year.

Novak Djokovic: He's as a complete of a player as I have seen in ages.

Jon Wertheim: I'm gonna bounce a theory off you. It was a disappointing day for you, but in a way, this was energizing that you had this young challenger--

Novak Djokovic: Yes, absolutely, it was. And– and you're right because that pissed me off so much (laugh) that I needed to win everything on American soil, which I did.

Novak Djokovic: It's a great opportunity for me to reinvent myself and really push harder than I ever did.

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich. Associate producer, Emily Cameron. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. News associate, Jessica Langer. Edited by Michael Mongulla.

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