Novak Djokovic has had one of the most dominant years in tennis, winning three of four majors and finishing second in the fourth.
He most recently beat Roger Federer in the U.S. Open final in a beautiful display of power and grace on the court.
Despite Djokovic’s age and athletic advantage over Federer, he faced one steep disadvantage at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday: the crowd.
Federer, a legend and constant crowd favorite, heard raucous cheers for every point, while Djokovic heard applause for faults and inaccurate returns.
Nonetheless, after giving up momentum to Federer in the second set, Djokovic rallied in the third set and then dominated in the fourth and final set to win. Though Djokovic’s skill has never been in question, that mentality used to be seen as his greatest weakness – an inability to fight through adversity and get over the mental hurdles.
In an interview with New York Times’ Christopher Clarey, Djokovic gave a lovely, deep explanation for his mentality on the court and how he gets through tough times during matches:
“I go through a lot of emotions on the court, like anybody else. I just think, over the time, I’ve managed to learn how to use the experience and how to handle and cope with this pressure in tough moments. But I also think a lot comes from my character and from the fact that I grew up in circumstances which were not very ordinary and maybe not the circumstances that most of the guys grew up in. They have shaped me and my character, and those memories give me that bit of strength that I use in occasions like the one last night.”
Djokovic’s childhood, as he mentions, plays a big part in this. Growing up in Serbia, formerly Yugoslavia, Djokovic and his family were often on the run while Yugoslavia was bombed by NATO. Djokovic dealt with war in his hometown while learning to play in a country with a lack of tennis infrastructure.
According to The Telegraph’s Ian Chadband, Djokovic has memories of running to bomb shelters from the makeshift tennis court he played on in an empty pool and hearing bombs get dropped while his family sang “Happy Birthday” to him. He told Chadband in 2011, “All of us who went through that came out with their spirit stronger. Now we appreciate the value of life. We know how it feels to be living in 60 square meters being bombed.”
He eventually escaped after catching the eye of a scout, moving to a tennis academy in Germany when he was 12 to develop his skills and take his training a step further.
Djokovic also revealed to Clarey a lighter way of handling negative crowd pressure: “What I was actually doing was trying to play a mind game with myself. They would scream, ‘Roger!’ and I would imagine they were screaming, ‘Novak!'”
With such a strong mindset, it’s hard to see anybody taking over Djokovic for control of men’s tennis in the near future. Djokovic seems to be at both an athletic peak, and with both Federer and Rafael Nadal aging, Djokovic seems poised to dominate for a long time.