This story appears in the Dec. 12, 2011, "Interview Issue" of ESPN The Magazine.
McENROE: People ask me, "What's been the difference for Novak? The serve? The forehand?"
DJOKOVIC: It's true that I have improved but by a very small percentage. It's the same game I've had the last couple of years; it's my mental approach on the court that's changed. That was the difference. I stepped it up. I matured and said, "It's my time. I can do it. I can win major titles." I think luck falls on not just the brave but also the ones who believe they belong there.
You had some difficulties with your serve last year. How were you able to get through that? Everybody could see that I changed my service motion, and my shoulder suffered a bit. In 2009 and the start of 2010, I played nearly 100 matches, the most in my career, and that's one reason my shoulder suffered. It got tired and heavy. I started feeling in practices that I really didn't feel comfortable with my serve, and then I tried to compensate with other muscles. But it just turned around. In six months I came back, got back my old service motion, and it was just something that came automatically. I was saying, "It's not me intentionally." In the next six months of 2010, starting around the U.S. Open, I felt my serve was getting back. Reaching the finals was a springboard. That moment was a turning point.
The shot people remember most is from this year's U.S. Open -- your first match-point return against Roger Federer. What was going through your mind? When Roger's serving for the match at a grand slam, there is a very small chance that he's going to let it go. But I was surprisingly relaxed. I said, "Okay, I have nothing to lose." I stopped thinking too much about what could happen and relied on my physical and mental strength to play the right shots at the right time. I didn't want to do what I'd done the last three, four years, where every time I got to the semifinals or the finals of a grand slam, I lose to Roger and Rafa--not because I'm playing bad, just because they are more dominant than I am mentally.
The night before your Wimbledon final against Nadal, I saw you on your bicycle with two of your brothers and maybe an uncle. Was that your idea? We called it a little Avatar adventure. We always try to get some reconnection with nature because that's a life force, and I think that's where I find my peace.
Last year we played against you and your country in the Davis Cup, and I was blown away by how well you handled all the pressure. When you're in Serbia, how do you use all of that attention to motivate you? People look up to me as somebody who is able to switch the image of our country from negative to positive. Yes, it feels like a heavy burden, but it's enjoyable. How many people can say they represent their country, not just in sport but in the world? I have been through two wars in my 24 years, and I know what it's like to be without anything, to see the bombs flying above your head. You have to look for the light in the dark tunnel, and my country finds its peace in watching sports. That's why people value our success as their own success.
If you could play one great player from the past, who would it be? Pete Sampras. He was my all-time idol. I just remember watching Pete when I was 4 years old. I don't have a tennis tradition in my family. I grew up in a skiing resort in Serbia. My father had been a professional. He met my mother on the ski slope. I was born on the snow with skis. When I was a baby, he skied with me on his back. Even today, as a professional tennis player, my biggest passion and my most-loved sport is skiing. But it was my destiny to start playing tennis. At 6, I was watching Pete Sampras win Wimbledon, and I imagined myself playing for the Wimbledon title. So Pete is somebody I always looked up to.
What's your motivation now going into the Australian Open and moving forward into 2012? I'm only 24, and I want to have many more successful years, win as many major titles as possible. The Olympics are coming up. I want a medal.