Novak Djokovic is probably the greatest living, competing, male tennis pro in the world today but it was something of an uneasy road that brought him to his position of victory and fame.
Born in a typical—humble, even—Serbian family while Serbia was still under the Yugoslav yoke of communism, Djokovic rose to become a great player in his sport and along with that fame also became one of the greatest public figures on the world stage to represent Serbia. British journalist Chris Bowers has written a rather unique biography of Djokovic, a biography not only of the man himself and his ample contributions to tennis and pro sports, but also a story of Serbia as a nation, of the growth of the man, the athlete, yes, but also the evolution of his homeland.
Bowers does not simply toss in some Serbian history to fill the early chapters concerning Djokovic’s boyhood or to balance out the focus on tennis but actually offers a rare and complex view of Serbia in modern times via the personal portrait of one man’s coming of age and professional career. There is enough about Serbia in this book, indeed, to intrigue readers such as myself who are not huge fans or great experts on tennis (though a sports writer and mad about football [soccer] and many other sports, tennis has also been a weak spot of mine, though this book certainly has perked my interest in tennis, as well).
The author, Chris Bowers has written about tennis before but is also no stranger to the political world, having penned the leading biography of British statesman Nick Clegg. Bowers’ adroit expertise in both the arenas of sporting and political history is apparent in the pages of his book on Djokovic, as he weaves together Djokovic’s personal story and the vaster one of Serbia. Djokovic is an interesting fellow himself, a confident but often introspective and even surprisingly quiet man who struggled to obtain the level of focus he needed to rise to the very top of his sport for years, despite having the obvious talent and drive to do so. Djokovic also has suffered injuries and health issues including his now well-known dietary problems with glutens which were finally identified and corrected by a Serbian doctor who was also a fan of the tennis star.
There is something very inspiring about Djokovic; too many footballers and other sports stars seem to walk an easy line from boyhood into their great accomplishments as adults and their biographies read simply as a list of matches won and a few random life events such as marriage or a stint in the army to diversify the sports-centric tale. Not so with Djokovic, a man who faced a variety of struggles which directly affected his ability to play tennis at the ultra-high level he desired. Moreover, as Djokovic became more and more well-known, he also realized that he was becoming the face of his nation on not only the tennis court but the international stage. Of all Serbs, he was one many people throughout Europe could recognize and had very high opinions of—in short, he was accomplishing what we always hear and hope to see happen with sport: the spirit of peace being forged in friendly athletics no matter the strife encountered between nations in politics.
Bowers examines how Djokovic’s experience growing up in Yugoslavia and the transformations of polity he felt via the fall of communism and the establishment of the Serbian state formed him as a man and how his outlook on travel, sport, and diplomacy evolved due to coming of age in a nation that, though small in geography, was at the fulcrum of world events. Djokovic, Bowers notes, as his tennis career moved forward to the point it would eventually place him on the world stage, started to pay especial attention to politics and the relationships people believe nations to have with other nations. The prospect of war—not just in the Balkans but all of Europe and beyond—was something Djokovic understood on more than just a theoretical level.
Djokovic’s tennis career is not neglected here though, so tennis fans need not to worry they’ll pick up a book on their hero only to find it to concern world affairs instead. The core question though for Bowers it seems is this: How did Djokovic—in a nation known for tennis but with ample competition as well as ample opportunities for advancement—become the great athlete he is today? What, moreover, makes the difference between being a seriously good athlete and an exceptional one not only able to make a professional career out of his sport but to become one of the best people within the professional ranks? Is it talent, drive, early experiences with the right coaches, luck or something else? What makes an athlete become truly outstanding? How do you reach the next level?
As an athlete myself these are questions I’ve always hoped every biography of a pro athlete would answer for me, at least to some extent, and few have been able to even come close. Bowers does a far better job in this regard than most, however. You really get a fine sense of how Djokovic mentally prepared himself as he became a better player to reach even further into himself and find the ability to become a truly great one. Much of this was overcoming the innate feeling that he could only be so good, could only go so far—feelings most athletes even at the pro level encounter and that can mitigate their careers and personal bests markedly. When Djokovic encountered gastrointestinal troubles related to what would finally be discerned to be gluten allergy, he realized his level of play was slipping and he would first have to restore his health to full capacity at all times before he could assure himself of his continued ability on the tennis court. That type of struggle is very typical to athletes at all levels and all sports but seldom reported in the clarity and detail that Djokovic has allowed in the media and that Bowers furnishes here.
In all, this is as good a biography of a man who is, at only age twenty-seven, still very much in the process of life—who is still active in his career and not looking back as would a long-retired actor or statesmen—as we could hope to have. Bowers’ writing is engaging and really shows us what Djokovic has experienced and how became the great tennis star he is today. The writing is clear, crisp, and engrossing and the passages about Serbia bring to life a key period of the nation’s recent history.