Got Tennis
  | By Dr. Tom Ferraro
Photo credit: Kenneth B. Goldberg

This is the third article in a series on the hidden traits of the top tennis players in the modern era. Thus far I have talked about Roger Federer’s perfectionism and Rafael Nadal’s incredible family support as keys to their success. This month, we will take a crack at Novak “The Jokester” Djokovic and how he rose to the top of the tennis world. 

In an era that has been dominated by the incredible talents of Federer and Nadal, Djokovic did the impossible. He surpassed them both to achieve the number one spot in the ATP rankings for 101 weeks running. How in the world did he do this? To find out, I called on the critical knowledge of Steven Kaplan, director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center. Steven has one of the most intuitive and brightest minds in tennis, and I will tell you what he said later. First, let us describe Novak Djokovic in more detail.

I have written about Novak for many years. My first piece on him was titled “It Is Now the Return of the Ugly” where I described how he smirked, snarled and cursed his way on to center court at the U.S. Open many years ago. We all knew he was a force to be reckoned with, but his demeanor was appalling when contrasted with the elegance of Roger Federer. Since then, he clawed his way to the top and at the age of 26, he has won 43 career titles, six Grand Slams and amassed $60,271,921 in earnings. He has a career record of 560-134 (80.66 percent) to date.

He was considered a prodigy by the age of six. He was well-coached and eventually shipped off to the Pilic Tennis Academy in Germany by the time he was 12. He is known as a flamboyant and funny character with a cutting sense of humor. In addition, he is very religious and has been awarded the Order of St. Sava I from the Serbian Orthodox Church. He is extremely disciplined and lives by a strict gluten-free diet.

But these character traits and experiences do not fully account for his amazing rise. There is always  an X Factor that all the greatest players possess. And this is when I make my call to Steven Kaplan. Steven told me in an instant that what gives Novak the edge is his early childhood experience in Serbia.

Novak Djokovic grew up during the Serbian War. He lived through a blitzkrieg of 78 days and nights of bombing where he and his family barely survived. On the “60 Minutes” piece on Novak, Charlie Rose commented that the reason Novak is on top is because he clearly has a mental edge over his opponents. He lived through and survived real life trauma. This reminded me of Tiger Woods’ early childhood. A little known fact about Tiger is that he was a victim of severe racial discrimination by growing up in an all-white neighborhood. As a youngster, he was tied to trees and had the N-word painted on his chest. And this is where his incredible desire to compete and win comes from. Novak’s case is the same. It is only out of the crucible of trauma and pain that a champion will be formed.

Novak Djokovic has many talents and natural gifts. But if I were to guess the X Factor that has set him above the rest, I would agree with Mr. Kaplan and say that his passion and drive were born from living through a war which was traumatizing enough to give him a lifelong desire to survive and win.

What can we learn from the rise of Novak Djokovic? The fire to excel comes from pain. But this does not mean that a parent should manufacture pain, fear, deprivation and suffering in order to create a winner. This would be unethical and even criminal. But what it does mean that if you are a tennis player with high aspirations and great drive, this comes from a dark place in your past. It is good to know that and accept it, so that as you ride the wave to success, you can find the time to enjoy the process rather than suffer your way to the top. Take pride in your past, in your talent and in the fact that you survived your past to become who you are right now.

Dr. Tom Ferraro

For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail or visit