Interview with Novak Đoković by @franckramella in l’Équipe https://abonnes.lequipe.fr/Tennis/Article/Novak-djokovic-andre-agassi-va-se-donner-a-100/805350 (paywall). This version is taken from the print edition, May 29, 2017, pp. 2-4, Rolan Garros supplement.
Thanks to you, we’ll have Dédé back on a court …
Dédé – who’s that?
In France, it’s the nickname for André …
[Laughs} Déde, Dédé. It’s funny, it’s like the Serbian deda, which means grandfather. Nothing to do with Andre, who definitely has the spirit of a young guy!
For an old fan of Sampras, your idol, isn’t choosing the Agassi option difficult?
[Laughs] My biggest idol was Pete, but I watched Agassi a lot too. In terms of style, he had a game much more similar to mine than Sampras. I talked with Pete a lot too. I don’t see a problem! My life circumstances guided me towards Andre, and the way it’s working up to now reinforces my opinion. I’m thankful. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn.
If I were a young player who didn’t know your new coach, how would you introduce Andre Agassi?
I’d tell him he’s a person with a strong character, very honest and sincere, filled with compassion. He’s passionate about what he does, and when he takes something on, he does it 100%. So you can always have confidence in him.
Do you remember the first time you met him?
Not exactly. Wait, yes … It was just before we played against each other at an exhibition before Wimbledon, at Boodles, during his final year before he retired [in 2006]. I was lucky enough to be chosen to face him for the occasion. We chatted a bit before the match. We even had a good laugh. I’d done my warm-ups and my stretching. You know, where I lift my leg up on the shoulder of my kinesiologist, and he looked at me laughing because he could hardly bend over and touch his knees. We both broke out laughing. We recalled that Thursday during our first practice here. He told me that, at the time, when he was returning in the car with Darren Cahill, his coach then, he told him: ‘The new generation’s coming. I think my career will end soon when I see guys stretching like that!’
You kept in contact?
Andre’s always been good with me since the first time I met him. We saw each other most of the time at Grand Slams. I even had the privilege of getting the Australian Open trophy from him in 2013. We obviously always chatted when we saw each other. But we didn’t go further than that. We respected each other for sure, but we really didn’t know each other. Until one time about a month ago. I asked him for his telephone number because I wanted to thank him. I wanted to do that because he always spoke nicely about me in the media. Whether I was number 1 and playing well, or there was some turbulence result-wise like in these last months, he was always positive when talking about me. I appreciated that, and I wanted to thank him personally. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about proposing any sort of professional relationship. It was just a person-to-person conversation when you want to thank someone. And, instead of a pleasant five minute exchange of words, it turned into a long thirty minute conversation .. We opened up to one another about tennis, about life. I connected with him very quickly. I saw that we had many similarities in our way of thinking. He’s gone through a lot of trials. Few have had to face those sorts of things. I liked the open and honest way he talked about his life in his book.
But can both your trajectories be compared? You haven’t, apparently, fallen as low as he …
We’ve both had difficulties on our paths, which are unique. We’ve both faced adversity. Different adversities, but adversities to overcome the challenges and become what we hoped. I’ll tell you where I see the resemblance. For the vast majority of his career, he played thinking that winning on court was the only thing that satisfied him and made him happy. But it wasn’t. He described that well when he told himself he didn’t like tennis, that he often got the feeling he was being forced to play, that he felt empty when playing for something other than his own aspirations. Maybe I don’t have exactly that sort of feeling but [he emphasises the but] I can use it as a reference. I, too, during these years, based my joy on winning a tennis match. All my life, my environment, the people around me, sacrificed their energy on me so I could maximise my potential and become the best player in the world. And it happened, and I’m proud of it. But I also realised that I was basing myself too much on tennis and the successes in it as a source of joy and inner peace. But, in the end, it isn’t true, at least to my way of thinking. It’s not the right state of mind.
Because you can’t always win. And when you lose, it shouldn’t be the end of the world. You shouldn’t be so disappointed. Of course, some will say that being affected by a loss means that you’re concerned. Of course you don’t make light of it! If you don’t care about winning or losing, why then become a professional athlete? Of course it always preoccupies me. I always want to be number one in the world, win titles and Slams. I’ve always wanted that. But I want to balance that, in the sense of emotional stability. I don’t need to base my entire life on the fact that I won or lost a tennis match.
That doesn’t seem like you. In a certain way, you’ve been built on rage. Changing your mentality, that shouldn’t be easy …
It isn’t easy. I’ve grown up with this mentality and way of thinking all my life. I was a warrior on court. I invested so much in it that nothing else existed. By that I’m not saying that I’m not invested any more! I am! Really. When I play tennis, I play tennis. But what I’m trying to do now is that, when I go back home, I’m not a tennis player any more. I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a friend. I’m a son. And if I’m doing business, I’m doing business. I don’t think about … you see what I’m trying to say. I want to have this approach of being able to do my best in whatever I do.
Some might say that before thinking about happiness, a champion of your calibre should think more about taking advantage of the last years on court to optimise the chances of winning rather than trying to be accomplished everywhere …
I want to answer by sharing an intelligent thought I read reading Osho [*]. He was asked if he believed in positive thinking. He answered that he didn’t, because he didn’t believe in negative thoughts. He believes only in the consciousness and emotion of being in the moment. I’ve worked a lot on being better able to control my emotions. I’ve always been very expressive on court, both in a positive and negative way. I’ve worked on reducing this ‘expressiveness’, because I don’t feel good about it and it’s not a good message. Obviously you can’t control everything−sometimes you have to let yourself go because it would be meaningless to tell yourself: ‘OK, I’m going to be positive” when you’re burning up inside. But …
How can Agassi help you with those reflections?
I have the feeling that with Andre we have in common this consciousness of wanting to achieve an optimal balance, to be able to be serene and satisfied because you’re who you want to become. With Andre, it didn’t take long to get on the same wavelength. Thursday was our first day together and it felt like we’d known each other for years. We talked a lot, on the court and outside. About everything! What’s impressive about him is that he really tries to share his experience, his feeling, his honest opinions about me. On the other hand, he’s very respectful and sensitive in terms of timing. He knows when he needs to say something.
Has he already said something to you that’s had an effect?
These last weeks, we spoke on the phone before and after each match at Madrid and Rome. It was a way of feeling out how both of us saw the game. It served to have Andre better understand me: how I prepared, how I managed my recuperation. We talked a lot about the game itself, but that was more in general terms, and to see where my state of mind was. How do I unblock my full potential as a tennis player in all senses of the term? How, every time I go on court, to have this state of mind that frees me from all doubt or emotions that can block?
Despite all your experience and your accumulated certainties, you still need to be unblocked …
Everyone needs it every day. People think that once they’ve reached certain summits, there’s no need for mental work, that they’re mature players, that that’s the end of the problems. But that’s completely false! Sure, there’s relief when you accomplish good things. But with me, in my way of being and the way I grew up, I felt this responsibility of continuing again and again. To do more. I had this feeling of needing to work even more to create my history. I was very curious, and I still am, to find out where I could go.
Knowing your almost total investment in all aspects of the game, there was a moment where you must have told yourself that it was impossible to do more, no?
Exactly. Last year I started to feel that something had to change. My body was changing, too. I didn’t think those days would arrive where you feel a bit different [smiles]. Even if I feel fit, young, and I take care of my body, it’s true that I’m thirty. In terms of approaching training, of ‘energy management’, of programming, I need to have a different approach. I want to play for a long time. You have to prioritise. And I felt i needed to explore new things.
[*] Rajneesh Chandra Mohan Jain is termed an Indian iconoclastic guru, according to Wikipedia. He’s the creator of what he’s called ‘dynamic meditation’. He’s also one of the major influences of the New Age current.
Translated by MAN