It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago Novak Djokovic was battling his way back from injury and surgery, wondering if his time at the top of tennis was over for good.
(CNN) – The Serb has been in imperious form since the middle of last year, winning three grand slam titles on the bounce.
And speaking to CNN on the red carpet of the Laureus World Sport Awards in Monaco earlier this week, he gave special credit to one person from bringing him back from the brink — his wife, Jelena.
Djokovic said Jelena’s support was crucial at a time he “was facing adversity and had obstacles that seemed, at times, too challenging.”
Without her, it would have been “very difficult for me to play competitive tennis at such a high level.”
Djokovic was arguably on his way to eclipsing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – the two most successful men’s players in tennis history – until he decided to have surgery in 2017 on an elbow injury he had been carrying since 2016.
Former coach Andre Agassi had voiced his frustrations with Djokovic’s initial unwillingness to go under the knife. The American told The Guardian in 2018 that the hope was it would “heal naturally, holistically.”
Jelena seems to confirm as much when she says the idea of surgery was a “big deal” and one that was “against our core values.”
“It was really huge,” she continues. “He buried one part of him with that decision.”
The road back was pockmarked with similar challenging moments. At one stage “he (Djokovic) said: ‘I’m done. I’m not playing tennis anymore. I’m not having fun anymore. I’ve lost it,'” Jelena reveals.
But 15-time grand slam winner Novak didn’t quit. His 2018 Wimbledon triumph ended a two year grand slam title drought and he went on to add the U.S. and Australian Open crowns.
He still trails Nadal (17) and Federer (20) in terms of grand slam titles. But aged only 31, it’s possible to see him overtaking them.
Looking back now, Djokovic believes the doubt and problems had initially begun to creep in after he claimed the 2016 French Open title, a feat that ensured he held all Grand Slam titles at the same time.
Despite achieving what he says some may regard as the “ultimate achievement in tennis,” Djokovic says he lacked a feeling of fulfillment.
“I realized in the first part of my career it was only and all about achieving lifetime goals and making sure that trophies in my arms,” he said.
“(But I began to understand) that it’s not about that actually. It’s about the journey. It’s about purpose and it’s about the deeper meaning of life and the meaning of playing tennis. How does this – what I do – affect others as well?”
There are clearly few, if any, more affected by what Djokovic does than Jelena.
And she feels that the way he has thought about what he does and why he does it has only brought them closer together.
“I feel like the reason why our bond is so strong is because for me he’s never a tennis player,” she said.
“He never worked for the glory, for the money, or for any of it. He was always about values. Living the life fully. Committing yourself to the life of purpose. That’s what I’m in love with.”