The scoreline of 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 does not reveal it. But 36-year-old Novak Djokovic’s win over his 27-year-old 6-foot-6-inch power-hitting rival, Daniil Medvedev, in the US Open final on September 10 in New York was as gruelling as it gets.
Medvedev hangs back from the baseline, relying on his wingspan and power to subjugate opponents in exhausting rallies. The hard court specialist vanquished the rising star and defending champion, Carlos Alcaraz, in the semi-final. And he had defeated Djokovic in the 2021 final to deny him the Grand Slam.
The 2023 final was far from the cinch that the straight sets win for Djokovic would suggest. The Serb held on for dear life after getting an early break in the first set. Midway into the second set, age seemed to have caught up with him as the GOAT (greatest of all time) appeared leaden-footed.
But Djokovic dug into his reserves of strength and endurance to come from behind and take the second set tie-breaker. Then he found his second wind to dominate the decisive third set and become the oldest US Open champion. He now has an all-time record 24 Grand Slam titles, equalling the tally of Margaret Court.
Then and now
Djokovic’s resilience to gain the upper hand over Medvedev was diametrically opposite to what happened 13 years ago in the Australian Open. He had a seesaw battle there with another big, powerful opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The first two sets went to tie-breakers before Djokovic dominated the third set to go 2-1 up.
But early in the fourth set he clutched his stomach and took a medical timeout. He never recovered and lost the final two sets 3-6, 1-6. The same thing had happened in the previous Australian Open quarter-final against Andy Roddick, where he had pulled out in the fourth set despite being the defending champion.
By then, Djokovic had a reputation for quitting when the going got tough. He had surrendered in the quarter-finals of the French Open and semi-finals at Wimbledon against Rafael Nadal. “Cramp, bird flu, anthrax, SARS, common cough, and cold,” Roddick had quipped about Djokovic’s timeouts. Even the perfect gentleman on and off court, Roger Federer, had implied that Djokovic was faking it: “I think he’s a joke, you know, when it comes down to his injuries.”
The dietary turnaround
Fate decided to take a hand. A Serbian doctor surfing channels in his home in Cyprus happened to catch the Tsonga-Djokovic match. Dr Igor Cetojevic got in touch with Djokovic through a family connection and convinced him to change his diet. The Serbian tennis star gave up all wheat products to be free of gluten, which was a big deal considering that his family had a pizza restaurant. Dairy products and sweets were the next to go.
Djokovic sticks to a whole food plant-based diet through the day for his exercise and training routines. For his evening supper, he takes small portions of fish (150 calories) or chicken (250 calories) with leafy vegetables. He also includes a serving of fish as part of a “foundational meal” before a match. This is very different from the heavy Serbian meals of his childhood, which mainly consisted of meat, bread, and dairy.
The change in diet in 2010 marked a dramatic turnaround in his career. He won three out of the four Grand Slam titles in 2011, after bagging only one title previously in 2008. “Who knew that the lowest point in my career (the defeat to Tsonga) would turn out to be the luckiest?” writes Djokovic in his book, Serve to Win, published this year. “I wasn’t a hypochondriac… or an athlete who just folded when the matches got tough. I was a man who was eating the wrong way.”
He’s the only man to have won three out of the four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year four times. That the last one has come at the fag end of his career in 2023 is a testimony to his stamina and strength. "It’s not even close to hyperbolic to say that he’s the best athlete on earth right now," remarked Roddick, who handed the 2023 US Open trophy to him.
A disciplined lifestyle
What does it take for a man in his mid-thirties, facing a rising phalanx of young, powerful challengers in professional tennis, to reach the finals in nine of the last 10 Grand Slam tournaments in which he participated and win seven of them? In a word: discipline.
From a sleep routine of 7-8 hours to drinking two glasses of water first thing in the morning and calibrated nutrition, exercise, training, tai-chi, yoga, and meditation, while travelling across time zones for tournaments 11 months of the year, Djokovic rarely wavers from his commitment to be the best version of himself. And when he does, it’s infinitesimal.
In 2012, he beat Nadal in a 5-hour-53-minute Grand Slam classic, the longest match in Australian Open history. He recounts in his book that the one thing he craved as he sat in the locker room afterwards was chocolate, which he hadn’t touched since 2010. His physiotherapist brought him a bar. “I broke off one square - one tiny square - and popped it into my mouth, letting it melt in my mouth. That was all I would allow myself.”
Of course, there’s more to being the greatest tennis player of all time. His flexibility that makes him the best returner of serves, the efficiency of his strokes, and the strategic brilliance with which he adapts to opponents like a chameleon, they all play a part. But it’s the diet that got him to number one in the world for a record 390 weeks.
Kohli to Schwarzenegger
Djokovic is not the only athlete who busts the myth that you have to eat meat to be strong and fit. Virat Kohli, who led by example to set a fitness culture for the Indian cricket team, gave up meat, including the butter chicken that Punjabis love. He thrives on salads, steamed vegetables, and whole beans like rajma, with eggs being the only non-vegetarian protein in his diet.
His 122 in India’s thumping win over Pakistan in the Asia Cup on Sep 11 was as much a test of endurance as Djokovic’s US Open triumph a day earlier. Kohli is a great accumulator of runs with deft placements, and only 54 out of the 122 came in boundaries and sixes. The rest came from hard running in the humidity of Colombo.
Seven-time Mr Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used to eat 15 eggs a day and mock vegetarians, says he’s healthier and stronger after giving up meat, except for an occasional Wiener schnitzel at home. Carl Lewis set a new world record in the 100-metre sprint in 1991, a year after turning vegetarian. Lewis Hamilton attributes his consistency on the race track to a switch to a plant-based diet in 2017.
Like Djokovic, the GOAT in women’s tennis, Serena Williams, turned mostly vegan, inspired by her sister Venus who combated her autoimmune disease with a plant-based diet. The benefits are not just physical. Djokovic became the Tiebreaker King this year, setting a new record of 17 tie-breaker wins in the four Grand Slams. “That is the secret gift of my new diet: I think and feel more clearly and positively,” he writes in Serve to Win.
A typical day’s menu in the Djokovic kitchen
Breakfast: Gluten-free oatmeal or muesli with unsweetened almond milk and fruit.
Lunch: Mixed-greens salad and gluten-free pasta.
Snack: Apple with cashew butter, watermelon.
Dinner: Kale Caesar salad with quinoa, minestrone soup, herbed salmon.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at email@example.com.