Rogers Cup Toronto: Novak Djokovic the diplomat, on and off the tennis court

World No1 Novak Djokovic believes Rogers Cup in Toronto is great preparation for this summer's Olympic Games

World No1 Novak Djokovic Photo: Marianne Bevis

It has already been a busy week at the Rogers Cup in Toronto for the top seed and world No1, Novak Djokovic.

The remarkable Serb won the first of his three titles at this tournament almost a decade ago, age just 20, taking out No3 seed Andy Roddick, No2 seed Rafael Nadal and No1 seed Roger Federer to win his second Masters title in the space of four months. He had arrived, big time, and has rarely looked back.

Having won 11 titles last year, Djokovic arrived in Toronto already the owner of six titles from seven finals, and all but the first, in Doha, being at Grand Slam or Masters level.

He passed 200 weeks at No1—and has been at the top for two unbroken years—and became the first man to pass the $100 million mark in prize money. By winning at Roland Garros, he surpasses 50 wins at all four Majors, but also achieved what none of his rivals have done: winning all four Majors in a row.

Little wonder, then, that Wimbledon brought his first loss at a Major before the quarter-finals in seven years. He looked pale and distracted—surely the impact of 17 titles in the space of 18 months. It was time to recharge the batteries, which is exactly what he has done since the last week of June.

So had he considered missing the Rogers Cup this year, as so many others have done ahead of the Rio Olympics? Djokovic is a considered, thoughtful speaker, and he paused before answering with admirable frankness.

“I did consider it, I think, as most of the other top players. But under the circumstances I was in last month and the early exit in Wimbledon, obviously allowed me to have more time.

“I actually think that Toronto is a great way for me to prepare for the Olympic Games and what’s coming up after that. But also to enjoy my time in a tournament that I always love playing. I enjoy Canada, Toronto and Montreal, and the past results in history shows that I have a good time on Canadian soil.”

Yes, the tournament must have heaved a sigh of relief when he flew in last weekend, and must have raised a glass to his health when he opted into the traditional opening-day fun, the hockey challenge on a converted Centre Court with stars of the NHL and fellow tennis colleagues.

Lo and behold, there was Djokovic, too, in the doubles draw with old friend Nenad Zimonjic, ideal preparation not just to master the Toronto courts but to practise ahead of their Serbian doubles campaign in Rio. As it happened, they played and lost to a Canadian duo, but it was certainly value for money for the fans with its 7-5, 4-6, 10-2 scoreline.

I actually think that Toronto is a great way for me to prepare for the Olympic Games and what’s coming up after that

Novak Djokovic

A hot and humid Wednesday afternoon, and Djokovic launched his campaign for a record 30th Masters title against one of the biggest unseeded players in the field, left-handed Gilles Muller. It took an hour and three-quarters and a 7-5, 7-6 battle, but Djokovic advanced. Come Thursday, he has been switched to the night session for the closing match of the day.

But in between the two matches, he has talked about the other responsibilities that come with being one of the highest profile tennis players in the world—aside from playing a near-flawless breed of tennis and adopting the most rigorous possible approach to mental and physical fitness.

He has, for example, signed up to the ATP Players Council this summer, and I wanted to know what prompted such a decision during such a professionally and personally demanding phase of his life. He is, after all, now a father of almost two years’ standing.

“Well, since I have the opportunity as somebody that is on top of the game and has at this moment certain influence, I can try to use that influence and contribute in a good way to the sport. Roger has done that for a long time, and Rafa was also on the Council for a long time.

“I think it’s good that the best players in the world are getting involved not so much in politics as in really making a positive difference in the sport for the future generations, not just for us. We are talking about 2018, ‘19, ‘20. Who knows if some of us will still play at that time, but we can do something that is going to leave a mark on the sport, not just as tennis players but as people who try to leave a better sport for future generations.”

Djokovic is, of course, also involved in his own good work away from tennis. He set up a foundation during that same year he won his first title in Canada, to help children from disadvantaged communities gain access to preschool education—work in which his wife is also heavily involved.

For he clearly relishes the influence that comes with success in this public sphere of tennis. He, like fans around the world, has watched Federer and Nadal take on the responsibility of ambassadors for their sport with aplomb: They have led the way in being responsive to the media and pro-active with the often huge demands of fans. But several times this year, the two have been absent from the top table of Masters and Major competition as age and injury begin to catch up with them, it seems.

So has Djokovic appreciated stepping into the spotlight as an ambassador—followed, it should be added, by another new member of the Players Council and Djokovic’s closest rival, Andy Murray?

“Well, I sincerely hope so. I’m not sure, but I’m doing everything in my own power and my own field of influence to be a positive example on and off the court, and I’m very obviously connected emotionally to this sport.

“I feel that bond, and I try to be honest and transfer that passion on the court and off it, as well. I have tons of respect for it. So I hope people can relate to that and recognise that.

“Obviously, playing against Roger and Rafa [in Grand Slam finals], those guys have been on the tour more than me. Those guys are some of the biggest players ever to play the game. So it’s hard not to expect a majority would be on their side in those circumstances. But you’re working, you’re trying to be who you are and eventually hope that that majority come to your side.”

In what was a natural extension of the topic, Djokvic was also asked whether the absence of Federer and Nadal was making way for a new group of men to rise. The diplomat stepped up, and rather impressively.

“It’s a natural cycle of life and sport. New faces are coming up and challenging the best players in the world… Somebody’s going to come in the mix. Whether that’s going to happen later this year, next year, or in a few years, that’s something we don’t know, but that is coming.

“As time passes by, I will have more players challenging me and trying to take away that top spot. That is the ultimate goal in sport. But that’s something that keeps me going each day, knowing that there are so many other guys putting in the hours on the court—so I need to work even harder in order to stay there.”

The top seed looks lean, hungry and focused—as he has done ever since he rose to the top. It would, indeed, be a brave man who bet against him winning Masters No30 come Sunday—his next opponent is the 37-year-old No129 Radek Stepanek. It will be a brave man, too, who suggests he may not add Olympic gold and the last link in the Masters chain, Cincinnati, to his resume.

Elder statesman down the line, perhaps, but Djokovic won’t be giving up on the day job any time soon.

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