Once Upon a Time… Novak Djokovic’s rise to the top

REWIND back to 2003. A little known 15-year-old who was born to parents of both Serbian (paternal) and Croatian (maternal) descent had just turned professional. In this new series, we take a look back at once upon a time and when it all started for the Grand Slam champions and we begin with world number one, Novak Djokovic.


Coming off his first ever tournament won overseas – Prince Cup in Miami – the month before, Djokovic stepped up from juniors to the senior tour in January. The tournament leading up to his debut, Djokovic had bowed out in the third round to a teenager by the name of Marcos Baghdatis in three tough sets after making it through qualifying in the Grade A event – highest junior tournament. Starting in the lowest possible senior tournament in January – a F1A ITF event in Germany – Djokovic would lose in straight sets – albeit in a close one to German Alex Radulescu 7-5 7-6. He returned to the junior circuit in February where he contested the International Bavarian Junior Challenge, making it to the final before having to retire to Brit, Josh Goddall having led 6-2 1-2. Returning from injury he headed to Italy where he made a quarter final at Milan on the clay, and then stepped up to play in Roland Garros juniors, defeating Australian, Chris Guccione in three sets, before going down to Spaniard, Daniel Gimeno-Traver in an equally close contest in the third round.

Now 16, Djokovic could commit more time to the senior circuit, where he played – and lost in the first round of an F2 event in his home country – before winning a title in the next step up – F3 – a week later – his first ever senior ITF title. He rose up to F4, bowing out in the semi-finals and then an F5 loss in the opening round – both in Serbia – though this did not discourage him in the slightest. He signed up for an F6 event at the same courts, making it through to a semi-final before going down. It gave him the confidence to attack the US Open Junior Championships – though he was bundled out in the first round by Australian Robert Smeets. Back representing his nation again in the Junior Davis Cup, Djokovic would claim wins over fellow juniors, Santiago Giraldo and Jeremy Chardy who would go on to have solid careers themselves. The September event would be the last tournament Djokovic played for the year.


Djokovic’s first tournament of the year was at the Australian Hardcourt Championships at the Nottinghill Pinewood Tennis Club in January, 2004. He reached the third round of the Grade 1 event, eventually losing to Frenchman and Junior world number one, Gael Monfils. Little would spectators know just how good those two players would become. Djokovic moved on to Melbourne Park to compete in the Australian Open Junior Championships – at a venue he would one day make his own – reaching the semi-finals before losing to Frenchman, Josselin Ouanna in straight sets. It would become the Serbian star’s penultimate tournament on the junior circuit. He would go on to play one more – the European Summer Cup in August where he recorded all three wins over opponents – including Slovakian Lucas Lacko.

Turning his attention to the senior ATP Tour, Djokovic entered the year ranked 676th overall, and lost to Swiss player, Marco Chiudinelli in straight sets in his maiden ATP Challenger Tour event in Serbia. He reached a semi-final in Croatia and then Round of 16 in the same country a week later in the F2 event. Travelling to Italy, Djokovic made a quarter finals before running into Monfils again, this time taking a set off him before losing. His next few months were fruitful as the Serbian rose up the rankings, winning an F1 event in Hungary and then his best tournament to-date – an ATP 25K event in Budapest – which saw him rise 147 spots in the rankings. He backed this up with an F5 win in Serbia and reached back-to-back quarter finals in ATP Tour Challenger events in August. Perhaps the moment people started to take note was Djokovic’s triumph over Arnaud Clement in the youngster’ second only ATP Tour tournament, defeating his more experienced opponent – then ranked 67th in the world to Djokovic’s 272nd – in three sets from a set down. He also took a set off 54th ranked David Ferrer in the next round.

Fast forward to November, and Djokovic smashed 159th ranked Stan Wawrinka in Germany on his way to a huge title at Aachen on the ATP Challenger Tour – his first 50k event title. Djokovic was far from disgraced a week later in Bratsilava where he lost to world number 14, Dominik Hrbaty in Hrbaty’s home nation 6-4 7-5. Keeping in mind that Djokovic had only played a couple of ATP Tour events, what was about to transpire in 2005 was where his career took off – reaching the top 100.


The now 17-year-old copped world number four Marat Safin in the opening round of the Australian Open, losing 6-0 6-2 6-1. Djokovic reached the semis at Cherboug in a 50k event – losing to Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, bettering his effort from Belgrade where he made the quarter finals. Djokovic would also step up to represent his nation Serbia in the Group I Davis Cup stage, defeating Zimbabwe, before losing both his singles against Belgium – but in five sets against world number 33, Oliver Rochus. Not yet 18, Djokovic won his second ATP Challenger Tour event in San Remo, before winning his first Grand Slam match at senior level. He smashed world number 71 Robby Ginepri off the court 6-0 6-0 6-3, before having to retire a round later against the world number nine, Guillermo Coria though was far from disgraced there having stood at one set apiece.

He went one better at Wimbledon where Djokovic took down a couple of top 100 players in Juan Monaco and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, before losing in four sets to world number 27, Sebastian Grosjean. This followed a third round appearance at the US Open where the now 97th ranked Djokovic finally toppled his nemesis Monfils – now ranked 43rd in the world – in the first round – in five epic sets. He would bow out the same way himself against top 50 player Fernando Verdasco, losing in five sets in the third round. In Djokovic’s first ATP Masters 1000 tournament full-match win – having defeated Romanian Victor Hanescu by retirement in the first round match – the Serbian teenager defeated world number nine, Mariano Puerta in straight sets 6-3 7-6 in his biggest win of his career. He would go on to lose to Tommy Robredo in the following match, but by now everyone was aware of the youngster.


If 2005 was his breakout year, then 2006 was set to be the year he established himself as a regular top 100 player on tour. A first round exit to American, Paul Goldstein at Melbourne Park was not an ideal start, but he reached the semi-finals in Zagreb a week later – defeating world number 21 Radek Stepanek along the way – before going down in three sets to world number five, Ivan Ljubicic. Now permanently on the ATP Tour, Djokovic had good wins over Andreas Seppi, Tim Henman and Paul-Henri Matthieu as well as toppling Brit, Greg Rusedski to lead Serbia through to the World Group Playoffs.

His next match – in Monte Carlo – would be against an opponent that he would become familiar with over the next 15-plus years. The world number 67 was coming up against world number one, Roger Federer in an ATP Masters 1000 event. Dropping the first set 6-3, Djokovic would recover to stun the Swiss Master 6-2 in the second, before Federer’s experience prevailed in three sets, 3-6 6-2 3-6. They would meet later in the year in Davis Cup where Djokovic would bow out in straight sets, though pick up a five-set win over world number 44, Stan Wawrinka. He was forced to retire in the final at Croatia against Wawrinka during the first set tiebreak, having won his inaugural ATP Tour title in the Netherlands a week earlier having just turned 19. Following a third round appearance at Wimbledon – which included a stunning three-set win over Robredo, Djokovic was well and truly no longer flying under the radar. He won his second ATP Tour tournament in October that year at Metz, skyrocketing his world ranking up to number 16.


The final year covered in this Once Upon A Time… will be 2007, where Djokovic shot up into the top five, winning the Adelaide International and then reaching the Round of 16 at Melbourne Park before bowing out to his nemesis, Federer in straight sets. He would lose to Federer a fourth time – in the quarter finals at Dubai – and a second time to Rafael Nadal after a defeat the year before – in the final at Indian Wells. It was Djokovic’s first ATP Masters 1000 title of his career. He would not have to wait long to go one better, winning at Miami a week later, stunning Nadal 6-3 6-4 in the quarter finals, then destroying world number 12, Andy Murray in the semis, 6-1 6-0. Nadal would get him back when they returned to clay, winning 6-2 6-3 in Rome a fortnight after Djokovic picked up another title, this time in Portugal.

Soon Djokovic had bolted into the top 10 and Roland Garros became the first run in a Grand Slam he had, making it all the way to the final. He did have a cushy draw playing just one player inside the top 120 – 51st ranked Verdasco – before losing to Nadal in the final 7-5 6-4 6-2. It was a similar story at Wimbledon with Djokovic now in the top five, reaching the final before having to retire at a set apiece and 1-4 down in the third set against Nadal. This time though he had defeated top 20 players Lleyton Hewitt and Baghdatis on his way to the final. While already well and truly announced on tour, Djokovic’s most memorable tournament in terms of tennis at that point had to be the ATP Masters in Canada. There he not only won the title, but defeated the only three players ahead of him in the world back-to-back in Andy Roddick, Nadal and finally – in his fifth attempt – Federer. He won 7-6 2-6 7-6 and the monkey was off the back against the world number one, and he joined the top two players in the top three. They would be forever linked over their careers. Unfortunately Djokovic went on to lose another Grand Slam final – this time to Federer at Flushing Meadows – but by the time his season was done, he had won his seventh title in Vienna.

2008 and beyond…

The rest is as they say history, with Djokovic winning the first of eight Australian Open titles in 2008, and going on to win as many as 10 titles (2011) and 11 titles (2015) on tour for a total of 79 to-date. Even so far in 2020, Djokovic has won the only two tournaments he has competed in – and the ATP Cup in Sydney with Serbia. He has 17 Grand Slams and 34 ATP Masters 1000 titles to his name, and at 32-years-old – six years younger than Federer – it is scary to think just how many the Serbian champion could have by the end of his career. But once upon a time, he was just a junior trying to crack into the international circuit.

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