Ten years ago, the Serbian player made a career-defining choice that allowed him to skyrocket to No.1: he changed his diet. The story has since sparked many commentaries, while the results speak for themselves – we take a look back at the moment when everything changed for Novak Djokovic.
With the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus putting a hold on all sports worldwide – tennis included, a very polarizing question has emerged among tennis fan and representatives alike: should Novak Djokovic’s weeks at No.1 be frozen during the time-out, or should they count?
Recent debates have seen Brad Gilbert from ESPN argue in favor of counting the weeks during the hiatus in the race for the record (currently held by Roger Federer, with an astounding total of 310 weeks at No.1), while others like Eurosport’s Catherine Whitaker have voiced strong disagreement on the basis of injustice. If no one can play, no one can upset Novak – how is that fair?
Whitaker has also added:
“Not to put words in his mouth, but I’m not sure he would want any record won that way.”
Whichever side you are on, the debate shows one thing: Djokovic is center court in the world of tennis.
He has accumulated 282 weeks at the top of the ATP ranking and is going on strong. He won the opening Grand Slam of the 2020 season, the Australian Open, against Dominic Thiem in a dramatic five setter, and before that, well, his results speak for themselves: sixteen Slam titles since the 2008 Australian Open, and a place secured in every History book as one of the mythological Big Three.
Rough Beginnings for the Champion
However, it wasn’t always that way for the Serbian.
Winning in five sets against Thiem at the Australian Open – after trailing two sets to one, no less – was impressive, but not altogether surprising. We expect Novak to win long battles, and his incredible athleticism to carry him right through four or five-hour matches.
In other words, we tend to forget that he used to struggle after two hours of play, and that recurring mid-match dizziness and fatigue almost put an end to his successful career.
Let’s rewind to 2005.
Rafael Nadal made his debut on the Parisian clay, and went on to win the whole tournament. Djokovic, however, only made it to the second round.
Playing Guillermo Coria, he took the lead at the beginning of the match, winning 6-4 in the first set. Coria took the second set, then something bizarre happened to the Serbian.
“My legs had turned to rock and I couldn’t breathe.”
A spectacular loss of form forced Djokovic to retire in the third set, at two games to three. The same year, at the US Open, Novak played the Frenchman Gaël Monfils in the opening round. The match was a perplexing rollercoaster for both players, with a final score reading 7-5, 4-6, 7-6, 0-6, 7-5.
Djokovic took four medical time-outs.
Unsurprisingly, Monfils moaned about having been thrown off by the staccato rhythm of the match – but behind closed doors, Djokovic was even more upset, throwing up in the bathroom between sets after experiencing the same symptoms he already knew:
“All of a sudden, my vision changed. I didn’t see the court as wide as it was at the beginning of the match. […] I had a blurred vision; I couldn’t catch breath after each point was finished.”
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Djokovic tried meditation, yoga, stretching, and some more yoga. He even had a nasal surgery to fix what he thought was a respiratory problem. But nothing seemed to cure his mysterious mid-match crashes and dizziness.
Then, he played another French player, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in the quarter-finals of the 2010 Australian Open. Tsonga was trailing two sets to one when Djokovic suffered yet another bout of illness. The Serbian describes the ensuing loss:
“Between the fourth and fifth set, I went out to throw up and felt that my stomach was aching. […] My energy was so low and my nose was blocked. In no time, he was the winner of the match.”
Luckily, another Serbian, Igor Cetojevic, was watching the match live from his home in Serbia. His wife had suggested that they tune in to the Australian Open, and Djokovic can thank her for this stroke of luck.
Cetojevic became very interested in watching Novak struggle on the court – this was an interesting case.
The Diagnosis Finally Comes
Cetojevic is a nutritionist: he immediately suspected an imbalance in the player’s digestive system which triggered an accumulation of toxins in his intestine.
The doctor got in touch with Djokovic’s team, and confirmed the diagnosis: a strong intolerance to wheat and dairy products (and a mild sensitivity to tomatoes for good measure).
The extent to which these intolerances affected Djokovic’s game became apparent through a very visual test: Cetojevic asked Novak to extend his right arm while pressing his left hand on his stomach, then resist pressure on his extended arm. He resisted very well – after all, he was already a top 50 player.
Then, the same exercise was repeated, with a piece of bread in his left hand, against his stomach. The right arm felt considerably weaker against the pressure applied by the nutritionist.
Ironically, Novak’s parents own a pizzeria in Serbia. He grew up eating everything he was intolerant to, in vast quantitied.
Serbian food is primarily based on wheat:
“I come from a culture based on a lot of gluten, with bakeries on each corner. Even eating pizza, I would have a little bit of bread on the side.”
A Changed Diet, A Changed Career
As soon as Novak made the switch to his new diet – based on nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils, healthy oils, beans, white meat, fish and fruit – he saw spectacular improvements in his form.
He could see the court clearly, he could run faster and longer, his forehand didn’t wane after two sets – in other words, his body allowed him to play his tennis.
A new gluten-free player was on his way to win sixteen Grand Slams over the following ten years, including a Career Grand Slam (the eighth male player in History to do so).
The Serbian often credits his diet for his astounding career, and many players have felt inspired to follow in his footsteps. However, as Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach and founder of the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, warns the tennis world about the dangers of blind imitation.
“When Novak becomes No.1 by going gluten-free because he has an issue with gluten, everyone does the same. It’s idiotic. There’s no reasoning behind it.”
This argument fits right into Mouratoglou’s motto: each player is different, and should be treated as such. Remember, they are Formula Ones, not mass-produced cars.
However, it is telling that many tournaments now offer gluten-free and dairy-free options to players.
If anything, the well-publicized Gluten Gate allowed for more visibility around the topic; and it doesn’t hurt that Novak went on to become one of the greatest tennis players in the world.
Perhaps even more impressive than the immediate scientific effect of gluten and dairy on Djokovic’s body is the determination with which the player stuck to his new diet.
At the Australian Open of 2012, after a six-hour-long combat against Nadal, Djokovic had a sudden craving for chocolate.
He had not eaten any in years.
A tablet was promptly delivered in the changing rooms. Novak broke off a tiny piece, let it melt on his tongue, and enjoyed in Grand Slam win responsibly.
Everything comes at a cost, and Novak has obviously decided that bread and chocolate do not come close to the taste of victory.