A declaration of love. While he doesn’t launch his clay campaign until April 11 in Monte-Carlo, Novak Djoković agreed to be interviewed a few weeks ago about the privileged relationship he’s had with France since his youth. The world number one, who didn’t want to risk answering our questions in French, but does so willingly for short periods on TV, has the goal of winning Roland Garros on June 7—the only Grand Slam tournament missing from his record.
What are your first memories of France?
Before even setting foot in your country, I had a positive image of France. There’s a long tradition of friendship between our countries—many French live in Serbia and many Serbs speak French. Me, too, although I’m still working on improving it. When I came for the first time, at 11 years old, to play the Tarbes International, I loved your country as well as the people. And then I played my first Roland Garros at 16 as a junior.
What impressed you then?
As a Serb, after the war in Yugoslavia, it wasn’t easy to travel. When we gave our nationality, people recoiled and looked at us oddly. They thought we were terrorists who were going to play some dirty trick. It was very complicated for my family and me, especially for my father, who travelled with me to junior tournaments. We had to work twice as hard to impress people. But France was one of the few countries where we felt welcomed and where there really was some human warmth, some friendship.
What were your first visits as a tourist?
In juniors, we often travelled by train and passed through Paris, where the train stopped at Lyon Station. So, we’d do a tour of the neighbourhood. That’s where I saw the Bercy complex for the first time. When you’re a player, you spend days on the courts and you don’t do a lot of tourism because it takes time and energy. I needed four or five years before I went to see the Eiffel Tower! The same for the Louvre Museum. Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world—every building has a soul, a special architecture and a history. I myself come from a country filled with history, which cultivates its traditions and cultural heritage, and have much respect for those which do the same. I enjoy those countries more because I feel this soul, this ancient history.
What are your favourite parts of Paris?
The Bois de Boulogne, Parc Monceau, the nice neighbourhoods around Avenue George V and the Champs Elysées … And then there’s Montmartre, magnificent with its artistic side. The Louvre is impressive, too. There are also restaurants I visit regularly, like the world-famous Le Relais de l’Entrecôte!
Have you developed a particular relationship with France?
I feel closer and closer to French culture. Speaking the language helps, as does living in Monaco. I meet French people every day. And I have French sponsors like Peugeot and Nutrition & Health (Gerblé), who chose me because I can identify with French culture. I like your sense of humour which is quite sarcastic and distinctive. It makes me laugh. I’ve also noticed that people in France are very confident, especially in Paris. I find it interesting to meet people who have that joie de vivre, that desire to succeed and that influence.
You had a son, Stefan, in 2014. They say he was born in Nice…
No, he was born in Monaco.
A trifle, he couldn’t play for France!
[Explodes into laughter.] OK, well, I don’t know how that would work, I haven’t checked it out! Will he play tennis later? That’s impossible to predict. When he learns to walk, there’ll come a moment when he’ll grab a racquet and ball, it’s only natural. As soon as he learns to talk, people will ask him if he wants to play, be better than his father. But I don’t want to force him to become a professional tennis player. Children of champions who don’t succeed in the same sport as their parents are more numerous than those who succeed because there’s so much pressure. I’ll tell my son what he can expect so he’ll be ready.
You’ve played legendary matches at Roland Garros, like the semi-final you lost to Rafael Nadal in 2013. But the title keeps eluding you…
It’s a tournament I dream of winning. The matches I lost at Roland Garros against Nadal were really not easy to digest. But I take that as an apprenticeship: it’s a challenge that allows me to grow and improve. That will be my state of mind for the 2015 edition [May 19-June 7- ED], which I can’t wait to play. I think it will go well for me there, even if it’s a ways down the road and, psychologically, I don’t want to think about it yet. Roland Garros is always at the top of my priorities.
Because the crowd supports you?
Last year, after my loss in the final, I had one of the most touching moments of my career when the whole stadium applauded me for a long time. I had tears in my eyes because the French crowd isn’t easy to win over. To enjoy this support when I’m not French is something I’ll never forget and it encourages me. What’s important is what you feel—and, in Paris, I feel good, appreciated, carried along by a positive energy. When I feel that good, I play my best tennis.
Translated by MAN