Wimbledon: Djokovic homes in on Murray's territory
As if parking his tank on Andy Murray's lawn by winning Wimbledon last year was not enough, Novak Djokovic has now started to make inroads into the Scot's homeland.
Before beginning his grass-court preparations for the defence of his Wimbledon title, Djokovic took his girlfriend on a surprise trip to Gleneagles last week to celebrate her birthday. On the way from the airport he noticed a signpost to Dunblane, Murray's home town.
"We were on the A9 and there was a right turn just before Stirling Castle for Dunblane," Djokovic said yesterday. "I took a picture and sent it to Andy. He replied: 'What are you doing there?' I told him: 'Mate, this hasn't been Photo-shopped – I'm really here!'"
The visit gave Djokovic an insight into Murray's celebrity status in Scotland. "The driver who picked us up at the airport, the people who were in the hotel, everybody we met was mentioning Andy," Djokovic said. "They're proud of him. Obviously the question they were asking the most was: 'When is he going to win a Grand Slam?' I said: 'Very soon'. I really believe that. It's not something that I just said; I really believe he has the qualities. He's been in three Grand Slam finals, he was in many semi-finals, on all surfaces. He has improved over the years playing on clay courts. You could feel that there is a lot of expectation and pressure on his back. He feels it too, so I think it's a matter of at the latter stages of events – semi-finals, finals – if he is able to fight with it at that moment. It's just a small margin that is missing."
Until Djokovic went on his all-out assault on the game's major honours last year, when he won three Grand Slam titles and took the world No 1 ranking, his career had gone along parallel lines to Murray's, from the time when they first met at a junior tournament in the south of France when they were both 12 years old.
Even after he won his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2008, Djokovic remained in the shadow of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. All that changed, however, when he went on his barnstorming run at the start of last year. He has become the ultimate man of steel in a crisis, never afraid to go on the attack. It showed when he saved two match points in successive US Open semi-finals before beating Federer and in saving four match points before beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier this month in the French Open quarter-finals.
"You have to go for your shots, especially against those guys," Djokovic said. "If you don't they will take over the control and the pace of the match, and you don't really have much chance from there. I've learned that; I haven't been like that for all my life.
"In 2008, 2009, 2010, after I won my first Grand Slam in Australia, I struggled. I was very consistent with my results but when I got to the semi-finals of Grand Slams I was losing practically 90 per cent or all the matches against Federer and Nadal. I just wasn't managing to make that extra step. All those matches that I lost were quite close. I had my chances, but I never stepped it up. I never took the moment. That's something I have learned. It's a challenge mentally, but you need to overcome it to be at the top."
Despite being at the head of the world rankings, Djokovic still trails Federer and Nadal in terms of worldwide fame and popularity. "It's going to take time for me," he said. "I'm trying to do my job – and that is to win matches on the tennis court. I have a great team of people around me who are taking care of not only my body but also my career as well. They're all trying to make my image better and trying to manage and build my brand.
"It's going to take time because the Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal brands are huge. They're two of the most respected brands of all time in sport. I'm not really trying to compete with them in that way or trying to compare myself with them. Everybody is different."
Nevertheless, today's order of play on the opening day at Wimbledon is an indication of the changing landscape at the top of men's tennis. For the first time since 2003 Federer will not play his first match on Centre Court – the six-times champion faces Albert Ramos on Court One while Djokovic, as defending champion, will have the honour of playing the first match on Centre Court, a potentially tricky encounter against Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former world No 1.
"I'm really excited about that," Djokovic said. "I think it's going to be a fantastic feeling. I'm really looking forward to it. When I won Wimbledon last year I started to think about how it was going to be to walk out on the court on Monday at 1pm. It brings little butterflies in my stomach, that's for sure."
Unlike the three players immediately below him in the world rankings, Djokovic chose not to play a warm-up tournament before Wimbledon. He stayed at home in Monte Carlo for a few days in the wake of his defeat to Nadal in the French Open final – "I took my time and rested emotionally, mentally and physically," he said – before the trip to Scotland.
"I went to Scotland when I played in the Davis Cup in Glasgow [in 2006] but I didn't have the chance to see how beautiful the country is," he said. "The countryside is quite remarkable. We went to visit the William Wallace monument and we saw the historic culture and toured around. We really liked it, although it rained for the two days – which we expected, in a way. I'll definitely be back."
Did he have time at Gleneagles to play golf, which has become one of his favourite pastimes away from the tennis court? "No, it was pouring with rain for two days and my girlfriend was there, so I wanted to dedicate my time to her," he said. "Golfing is not her thing, but I'll be back soon with some friends."
Djokovic said he saw similarities between Scotland and his own country. "Scotland is a relatively small country, as Serbia is," he said. "We share similar histories. For me it was always important to be proud of where I came from, even though I have gone through years of struggle with the wars and all the obstacles that I had on my way to becoming a professional tennis player.
"But looking back now and really analysing what I have been through, it is nice to know you have been through some difficulties that made you stronger and appreciate things in life more."