Novak Djokovic Passes His Idol and Sets a New Target: Roger Federer

Novak Djokovic Passes His Idol and Sets a New Target: Roger Federer

MELBOURNE, Australia — The first tennis player to capture Novak Djokovic’s imagination was a big-serving American with a beautiful one-handed backhand. A grade-school-aged Djokovic, living in the Serbian mountain resort town of Kopaonik, watched on television as Pete Sampras won one of his seven Wimbledon titles, and he fell madly in love with tennis.

“I did not have a tennis tradition in my family,” Djokovic said, adding, “To me it was definitely a sign of destiny to start playing tennis, to aspire to be as good as Pete.”

Djokovic tried to emulate Sampras’s game, right down to the one-handed backhand, before his first coach, Jelena Gencic, encouraged him to switch to both hands because that was his natural stroke. But on other things, Djokovic refused to budge.

Most significantly, Djokovic never abandoned the belief that he would grow up to be the best men’s player in the world, like Sampras, who held the year-end No. 1 ranking for a men’s record six years beginning in 1993, when a 6-year-old Djokovic began playing tennis in earnest.

On Sunday at the Australian Open, Djokovic finally and decisively slipped the surly bonds of Sampras. With his 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 defeat of Rafael Nadal, Djokovic secured his 15th Grand Slam singles title, breaking his tie with Sampras. Djokovic took sole possession of third on the list, behind his contemporaries Roger Federer (20) and Nadal (17).

When Sampras retired in 2002, he held the record for men’s Grand Slam titles. Unlike Djokovic, who has peers to push him, Sampras spent his career in a mostly lonely pursuit of a long-retired player, Roy Emerson, who collected 12 major championships, including a men’s record six Australian Open titles.

Emerson, 82, attended Sunday’s final at Rod Laver Arena, and, like the 47-year-old Sampras, he had a target on his back. Djokovic’s title was his seventh at Melbourne Park. When he met up with Emerson after the trophy presentation, Djokovic said, smiling, that “Mr. Emerson” was mad at him for breaking his record.

The careers of Djokovic and Sampras never intersected — Djokovic turned pro the year after Sampras retired — but their paths crossed in Los Angeles in 2013 when they played together (and lost) in an exhibition doubles match at U.C.L.A. against Bob and Mike Bryan.

At the time, Djokovic described it as “a blast” to share the court with Sampras and said he had always hoped to play a match with or against him. Two months before the exhibition, Djokovic had collected his sixth Grand Slam title with his fourth Australian Open crown. But it wasn’t considered a given that he would one day share a piece of Grand Slam history with Sampras, much less move past him.

“To surpass him with Grand Slam titles, I’m speechless,” Djokovic said Sunday. “I haven’t had too much time to contemplate on everything that has happened, but I’m planning to do that.”

In 2014, Sampras returned to the Australian Open as a spectator, and while there, he sat for a news conference in which he fielded a question about the aging process for champion athletes.

Sampras was 31, the same age that Djokovic is now, when he retired. The grind of the tour, especially the extensive travel, eroded his motivation, Sampras said.

“As you get older, it just gets tougher,” Sampras said then. “It gets tougher to play. It gets tougher to travel. Sometimes it gets a little stale.”

He added: “I just know from my perspective, I was fatigued the last couple years. I was enjoying my tennis, but it was a tough job.”

Djokovic understands what Sampras meant. He traveled here without his wife and two small children. During the trophy presentation, Djokovic thanked his loved ones in absentia for their forbearance. He expressed gratitude for all the sacrifices they made so that he could maintain what he described as a selfish existence. He said that it was hard to be apart from his family for weeks on end.

“Hunger is always there,” Djokovic said, “but nowadays it’s just more relevant for me to organize myself in life better, to manage to be very concise and concrete with what I do and what I plan to do, because I am a father and a husband. Right now it’s not only about tennis.”

After his fourth-round exit here last year, Djokovic had surgery on his elbow, and that was tough, too, he said. He acknowledged having doubts about whether he could regain his championship form.

That sounds ludicrous now, with Djokovic in current possession of three of the four major trophies and needing only a French Open victory to complete a Novak Slam.

After passing Sampras, Djokovic has no plans to slow down. Many players, Djokovic was told, believe that he can surpass Federer on the major victory list.

“How do you live with that?” a reporter asked.

Djokovic laughed. “How do I live with that?” he replied. “Just fine.”

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