Hugs, a guru and a favourite tree: Djokovic’s unusual route to the top

MELBOURNE (AFP) – A strict vegetarian diet, spiritual guru and family hugging-sessions aren’t methods employed by most athletes, but they have helped Novak Djokovic turn himself into one of the most feared tennis players on the planet – and perhaps the best in history.

The enigmatic Serb has distinguished himself with his willingness to turn to the unusual, from hyperbaric chambers to meditation and Spanish guru Pepe Imaz, a former journeyman player whose “love and peace” philosophy drives his teachings.

Life has been a journey for the Serbian star, who grew up in war-torn Belgrade and practised in a disused swimming pool but is now based in the millionaire’s playground of Monte Carlo, with a record USD140,228,279 in prize money to his name.

Djokovic faced questions over his durability earlier in his career, after a series of retirements for reasons ranging from a toe blister to heat problems at the 2009 Australian Open, when he was defending champion.

But he is now more steel than snowflake – as seen when he won last year’s record, nearly five-hour, Wimbledon final, and the 2012 Australian Open final, the longest Grand Slam decider in history which stretched to 5hr 53min.

With 16 Grand Slam titles under his belt, and showing no signs of slowing down, Djokovic looks poised to overtake the great Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the only men ahead of him on the all-time list, by the end of his career.

While Switzerland’s Federer and Nadal of Spain come across as straightforward characters, Djokovic is the most complicated member of tennis’s Big Three.

His daily routine, as related to the New York Times last year, involves getting up before dawn with his family, watching the sun rise and then doing hugging and singing sessions, and yoga.

The father-of-two has dabbled in various diets, including gluten- and dairy-free, and is now a proud “plant-based athlete” – the subject of a Netflix documentary, The Game Changers, for which he is executive producer.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic. PHOTO: AP