NEW YORK -- Novak Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, sat in their hotel room in Manhattan the other night unable to tear themselves away from the television. "Game of Thrones?" "The Walking Dead?" Not even close." The couple was watching the documentary about the 2008 Wimbledon final between Novak's main rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, "Strokes of Genius."
"That was really cool," Djokovic said Monday, after cruising into the US Open quarterfinals with a smooth 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win over Joao Sousa. "I was glued to the TV, watching Rafa and Roger. Really celebrating the greatness that they really are. I just feel like these guys have been role models and examples on and off the court. For me, as well."
It was an odd but brave confession, a fanboy moment that most elite players -- perhaps even the subjects of "Strokes of Genius" -- would sooner keep to themselves for fear of seeming subservient. Heck, Djokovic might be playing Federer on Wednesday night for a spot in the US Open semifinals. But this is a new Novak Djokovic, emerged from the chrysalis of that long, tortuous slump that began with his third-round loss at Wimbledon in 2016. The cocoon burst open at the same venue when Djokovic won Wimbledon in July.
This new Djokovic is a happy warrior, a far cry from the frustrated, confused champion who left this year's French Open after taking a surprise quarterfinal loss to an Italian journeyman. At the time, he suggested he might not even play the grass-court segment. This is not the same Serbian star who dismissed the support team that had been loyal to him for nearly the entire length of his career and embraced a Svengali-like figure who ran a "peace and love" tennis training center in Spain.
In May, Marian Vajda accepted his prodigal son's invitation to return as coach (along with fitness trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch). As Djokovic's lost stability was restored, his surgically repaired elbow healed and the wins began to pile up again. Djokovic's philosophical bent turned more mainstream. Here at Flushing Meadows he has preached the joys of domestic life to all who would listen.
Djokovic has also rediscovered his sense of humor. After his second-round match, he ran with the joke when the crowd in packed Arthur Ashe Stadium misunderstood his comment about taking an ice-bath alongside an opponent -- assuming it was in the same tub.
Djokovic has struggled with the heat (he left the court briefly during the third set Monday, for an "off-court medical evaluation" that found no signs of danger), but he has remained cheerful. It's amazing what winning a few tennis matches can do for an individual's outlook, even if Djokovic has downplayed the correlation between wins and contentment.
"I have to say that tennis is not determining whether I'm happy or not," he said. "Of course, I do feel better if I get to win a tennis match that I worked very hard for. If I lose, it's not going to change the course of my every day."
"It wasn't like it used to be [in the past]. When I got that blessing to become a father, things have changed."
Djokovic is so enamored of family life that it seems tennis is less important to him now. It also may be a powerful hedge against the inherent stress of his position. "There are things that make you happy even when you lose a tennis match," Djokovic said.
Still, it wasn't until Djokovic started winning tennis matches again that he has become so articulate and passionate about how little those W's mean.
"In terms of tennis-related only, of course I felt huge relief when I won Wimbledon," he said. "More than anything else, because [in the past] I put a lot of expectations and pressure on myself. I think it [the slump and his elbow problems] also taught me to be more patient, to be less hard on myself, and understand that some things take time. You just have to accept that and embrace it."
Djokovic kept up his stellar play after Wimbledon, winning the Western & Southern Open and becoming the first man to capture all nine ATP Masters 1000 titles. It's something even Federer and Nadal haven't accomplished.
"I didn't succeed five times [in the final]," he told reporters in Cincinnati. "I kept coming here and, to be honest, I felt more pressure every time."
On three of those previous occasions, his nemesis was Federer. Thinking back over his history with the Swiss icon, Djokovic said figuring out what it takes to beat Federer was "probably one of the ultimate challenges that I've ever had in my career."
It's an obstacle he might have to overcome again Wednesday night.