When Novak Djokovic started eating the grass on Centre Court last summer, he was not altogether sure what he was doing. In the space of 72 remarkable hours, his life had been turned upside down and he was deliriously happy so, to celebrate, he started grazing on the green stuff.
For a lifetime, he had dreamed and worked and hoped: as a little boy growing up in Serbia, he had closed his eyes and imagined what it might be like to hold the Wimbledon trophy and as grown man, he had sweated and grafted on the practise courts in the belief that he could, one day, become the best in the world. And then, in three days in SW19, his every dream came true.
By beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the Friday afternoon, he guaranteed that he would become the new world No.1 when the rankings were published the following week and then on the Sunday, by beating Rafael Nadal, he finally got his hands on that famous trophy. That’s when he started eating the hallowed turf. (As the new champion, Djokovic was now a member of the All England Club and presumably there are different rules about on-court etiquette for members. Cud-chewing by the hoi polloi is generally frowned upon around these parts.)
“I managed to achieve a lifetime goal and I managed to make my dream come true, all in three days' time,” Djokovic said, still wide-eyed in amazement. “It's just an incredible feeling that I'm never going to forget. This is the best day of my tennis career.
“For these kind of days, I was practicing every day, being dedicated, being a tennis professional. Any athlete in the world dreams of being No. 1 of the world. This is something that gives us a lot of motivation. So, finally, when you really do it and when you know that you're the best, it's just an amazing achievement.”
Since then, of course, Djokovic has gone on to mop up titles to a band playing. Still the No.1 a year later, he has also collected the US Open title and a third Australian Open to bring his grand slam trophy tally to five. Only Nadal has found a way to stop the Serb of late, and then only on clay.
But what happened to Djokovic to turn him from a good but erratic player into a serial champion? He talks of how winning the Davis Cup final in Belgrade freed him of all fear on court and allowed him to play with passion, aggression and utter belief that he could beat anyone. But his coach, Marian Vajda, has other ideas.
Vajda has been at Djokovic’s side since the champion was but a spindly 19-year-old. From the very start, he knew he had a potential world beater on his hands but it took time before his charge realised it, too.
“In 2010 Novak didn’t believe in himself that he could be No.1 because Nadal and Federer were dominating,” Vajda recalled. “But then he lost a match in Paris very badly – two sets up against Melzer, quarter final – and losing a match like that had never happened to him before. This is thing. Good players learn from their mistakes. And he learned. I think that moment moved him on.
“Something worse has to happen in order to gain the goal because deeply inside he has always believed that he will be No.1 one day. But sometimes something has to go ‘boom’; sometimes you shake them and suddenly they have clear heads.”
Every aspect of his professional life was organised and reviewed – nothing was left to chance as Djokovic began the slow and steady rise to the very top.
“Since then he slowly, slowly, slowly move, move, move every match,” Vajda explained. “But he never forgets he has to work, every match has to be prepared, has to be professional, everything had to get all together, all the things. Because if he skips one thing, the other things are affected in a negative way. He needs to be aware always what he is doing is for his good, is for his goal. So he’s very good at it. Very good.”
Clearly, Djokovic is not just very good, he is the best in the business. So, should he bump into Melzer as he pads around the AELTC clubhouse, he might want to thank the Austrian for inflicting that pasting at Roland Garros a couple of years ago. Without it, Djokovic might not be the man he is today. And the Centre Court grass might be just a fraction longer.