The inside story of Novak & Serbian tennis

"Novak is like a king in our country. If he went into politics, he would probably be president and prime minister at the same time," says Mili Split Veljkovic, a top tennis coach and authority in Belgrade.

Novak Djokovic in action against Juan Martin del Potro (Argentina) in the first round of the tennis competition in the Rio Olympics. The Serb crashed to defeat in straight sets.   -  REUTERS

Splendid work ethic... Novak Djokovic during a training session. The World No. 1 had trained vigorously to improve his breathing and fitness by 2011.   -  Getty Images

To gain a fresh perspective on 12-time major winner Djokovic and the stunning rise of tennis in Serbia, I consulted Mili Split Veljkovic, a top tennis coach and authority in Belgrade.

“Serbians have succeeded in tennis for several reasons. We have very serious and high-quality schools for tennis techniques. Physical training comes naturally to Serbians, and we learn how to play the right way on clay. Finally, because Serbia is the poorest country among the tennis powers, that (adversity) makes us more serious when we train and compete,” says Veljkovic.

Excerpts:

Question: What do you remember most about Novak Djokovic and the Djokovic family when he was a boy and then a teenager?

Answer: The father Srdjan, the mother Dijana, and Srdjan’s brother Goran experienced extremely stressful years when Novak was growing up. They gambled with all their money and assets and received tons of rejections. Enduring those disappointments unified them in their quest to help make Novak a champion.

Serbia is a country that was ravaged by four wars during 1991-95 and 1998-99. It has only 8.8 million people, and tennis is only the sixth most popular sport, behind football, basketball, volleyball, handball and water polo. With those disadvantages, how has Serbia been able to produce a superstar, Djokovic, two former No. 1 singles players, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, plus other high-ranking players, such as Janko Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki, and former doubles No. 1 Nenad Zimonjic, in the 20th century?

There was a civil war, but Serbia was not really involved. Also, there was no real war in Kosovo, just a fight with terrorists; and some military units from Serbia did more than they were allowed, according to rules of the Geneva Convention. I don’t know anyone who went to or was (even) invited to any of those civil wars. In fact, only the Serbians who lived on the borders were involved.

 

Serbians have succeeded in tennis for several reasons. We have very serious and high-quality schools for tennis techniques. Physical training comes naturally to Serbians, and we learn how to play the right way on clay.

For example, the ability to slide correctly is so important on clay. Don’t forget that France is by far the strongest men’s tennis power in terms of depth — it has 10 players in the top 60 — and they emphasise the same things we do. Finally, because Serbia is the poorest country among the tennis powers, that (adversity) makes us more serious when we train and compete.

Partizan Belgrade is a multi-sports club with great traditions, especially for football. Please tell me how Partizan became the hotbed, the Mecca, for developing talented tennis players.

There is no big mystery. Partizan is a serious sports club. There is just a high fence between the football field and our tennis courts, so we usually watch each other training. The other reason is that we are small country, and all the talented athletes go to Partizan or Red Star, the two biggest sports clubs in both Belgrade and Serbia. Our tennis club Partizan has always struggled to have enough money, but it has produced so many of the world’s leading tennis players.

Currently, we have a few top junior players. Miomir Kecmanovic was the No. 1 European in the 14 division, and he became the youngest player to win the Orange Bowl 18 event at 16. Olga Danilovic, only 15, won the European singles and Roland Garros doubles titles and reached the Wimbledon singles quarterfinals this year.

Which prominent Serbian and foreign players have you coached at Partizan and other locations?

I do clinics for many top 10 players in Serbia and for some other countries’ juniors and veterans.

I don’t do one-on-one, long-term coaching, but I did coach Dusan Vemic when he was 11 at Partizan. Before Dusan became a part of Novak’s team, he coached Andrea Petkovic when she ranked No. 9 in the world. Dusan coached Novak to victory at the Miami Open this year when Marian Vajda and Boris Becker were on holiday.

For the past four years I have been coaching the biggest Israeli hope, an under-10 girl named Rene.

She comes to Serbia for two weeks every year. Her father and coach Daniel is under my supervision by Skype, and after working with me, has become the No. 1 veteran player in Israel. Milica Rakovic, the former captain of the Cambridge College team, was my pupil for years, and I prepared her so she could get a tennis scholarship at Rollins College in Florida.

Also, Vojislav Pecikoza, one of the best players on the New York Institute of Technology team, was my pupil for four years. I have improved many other junior players from many different countries who have come to my tennis clinics.

I travel almost non-stop, doing visiting clinics and courses, so working exclusively with one player is difficult for me to do. Also, I’m often invited to be a guest speaker and clinician at various symposiums and academies like the PTR (Professional Tennis Registry), Barcelona Tennis Academies, Tel Aviv private clubs and national centres, Bol in Croatia, Queen’s Club in London.

I am pleased and proud to say that I always get invited back.

Even with great talent, superb coaching, and outstanding discipline, Djokovic didn’t really emerge as a great player until 2011 when he won three Grand Slam titles. What caused the huge breakthrough in 2011?

At the 2007 US Open, Novak beat Gael Monfils and then lost in five sets in the third round to Fernando Verdasco. I was sitting with his family and saw how he was struggling to breathe in both matches. By 2011, he improved his fitness and breathing.

What other changes did Novak make?

The “Novak recovery treatment” is an extremely complex process based on the synergy of several doctrines he has been using for the last several years. Among others, it includes Chinese “organ recovery treatment,” food healing and a special set of meditations. Some of us from his club are privileged to know some of his secrets.

Would you please tell me about these doctrines?

Novak follows an aspect of traditional Chinese medicine that focuses on the “body clock.” It is based on the understanding that the human body has a daily schedule and that each internal organ has a definite time period when it renews and heals itself.

Our lungs purify themselves from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. while we sleep. The wrong food and activity make the lungs’ job more difficult.

From 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. the colon works to expel toxins from the body. So it’s essential to drink water as soon as you wake up, because this is when the colon is working to expel toxins. Water helps the process, so it is essential to drink water as soon as you wake up. Novak drinks a big glass of room-temperature water early in the morning. The next thing he does every day is eat two spoonfuls of honey.

The stomach renews itself from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., so this is the perfect time for breakfast because your stomach is working most effectively then.

The critical period for the spleen is 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., the heart from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the small intestine from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and the kidneys and bladder from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Food is essential in this process of “self-healing.” We have heard the saying: “We are what we eat.”

Novak and his nutritionists, after many years of experimenting, came up with a “formula” that works best for him. It doesn’t mean that the research ended there.

There are still people who believe that Dr. Igor Cetojevic, a nutritionist, helped Novak the most because he determined Novak was intolerant for gluten. And that was the start of Novak’s gluten-free diet. That change greatly improved Novak’s on-court stamina and overall health.

What about improvements in Novak’s mentality?

Novak meditates to create a peace of mind.

We must understand that he uses more than one technique. It remains a secret exactly what he does when he is doing meditation and yoga inside his two favourite places — Orthodox Christian and Buddhist temples.

Djokovic has a large “team” of coaches, trainers, advisors, etc. Feel free to comment on how each of them has helped Djokovic become and stay a champion.

Novak’s team is similar to that of most players. After Partizan, he trained with (former top 10 player) Nikki Pilic in Munich, Germany. He also visited Nick Bollettieri in Florida, and later he met and became friends with Marian Vajda.

It was just the question of time, when everything would all come together. It happened with Vajda. You must understand that there is no rule. Who can say that if it were not for Amelie Mauresmo, Andy Murray would not be this good now? Monica Seles was coached by her father, who was a sport professor. He was strict and that worked a lot. Nadal’s uncle Toni also produced a superstar. As I said, there is no rule. Greatness is a result of talent and amazing hard work plus some luck.

 

Djokovic, at 29, is still in his prime, though Ivanovic, 28, and Jankovic, 31, are clearly declining. Do any Serbian junior players have the potential to be champions, or at least top-10 players? If so, please tell me why you are so impressed by them.

Both Ana and Jelena were ranked No. 1. Jelena trained at Red Star, Belgrade, as did Zimonjic.

We have juniors, aged 12 to 16, who are ranked in the top 5 in Europe and top 10 in the world. I was the manager and advisor to Jovana Jaksic, who reached No. 110 in the WTA rankings a few years ago and who was top 5 in Europe as a Junior 16 player.

Tennis is probably the most beautiful sport but also very cruel when we talk about rewards. I remember Janko Tipsarevic saying a few years ago: “We have to change the prize money distribution because even when I reached No. 50, I didn’t make big money. Now I do only when I made the top 10. It is not fair!”

Where do you work?

I work at Partizan when I am in Serbia, but since 2008, I have been working as a freelancer because I travel a lot.

I have special permission to teach at Partizan and at Novak Djokovic’s tennis centre — Novak and his family are the owners — as well as at two other top tennis clubs, Gemax and Victoria, in Belgrade.

What is the patented Mili Split Method?

Much has changed for me since I have finalised my coaching method, which I worked on for 20 years. I was the youngest coach with a university degree in Yugoslavia, and I was a top-3 junior player in Serbia. Since I turned 35, I have been ranked among the top-3 veterans (35 and over division) in Serbia.

My Mili Split Method is a scientific “bio-mechanic tune-up” technique that can fix and improve any groundstroke in a very short period of time even when one has played with technical errors for many years.

My method can break any long-term habit. It consists of various carefully thought-out mental and physical exercises. Some of these exercises can be seen on my YouTube channel, but I always work behind “closed doors” because my method is a secret for which I needed 20 years of research.

Would you please elaborate…

You know the situation when a player trains and trains but progresses slowly or not at all. There is always some error that causes that. My specialty is finding that obstacle and correcting it.

The first phase lasts three days and three sleeping nights. After recording, analysing, and diagnosing the forehand and backhand, we recognise the bio-mechanical errors that prevent the stroke from improving.

We work about 90 to 120 minutes per day. After the first phase, we increase the shot’s speed slowly and gradually. We often fix the problem in the first lesson.

When I gave a lecture at the PTR symposium, I fixed a defective backhand in 40 minutes. The subject was a coach with 20 years of experience.

She was in shock. When PTR president Julie Jilly asked her about the lesson, in front of about 200 certified instructors, she answered: “I have never had a better lesson in my life.” I saw what was “off,” and with few mental and physical exercises, we fixed the problem. She now has a one-handed backhand that she never had in her long tennis life.

Why didn’t Djokovic play the recent Davis Cup quarterfinal against Great Britain?

The best players can’t always play for their national team. Even Federer and Nadal don’t always play Davis Cup. Novak set two main goals for this year: winning the French Open and the Olympic Games. He took Paris, but failed in Rio.

Was the Serbian sporting public critical of either Djokovic or Viktor Troicki for not playing the Davis Cup in Belgrade, especially considering Serbia lost 3-2 to Great Britain?

Viktor called Belgrade to say he couldn’t come, asking for understanding because he lost a lot of points and needed to focus on his tournament career. He had already lost 12 months for being banned by ITF, and as he said, he had to go straight to the American continent for serious preparations on hard courts, while in Belgrade they played on clay. Regarding Novak, Serbians understand how much he has given for his country.

Djokovic is not just a great athlete, but a big hero in a small country. Please tell me about his popularity and his important role as a sports statesman and ambassador for Serbia.

Serbia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. We have suffered from a trade embargo, bombing, and government corruption. Despite that, in team sports we have been among the world’s top countries in water polo and basketball for the last 20 years. In volleyball, we are again in first place in the world league. And we have Novak in tennis. So he is like Fidel Castro for Cuba.

Novak is the second biggest name in Serbian history. The first name is Nikola Tesla (a renowned inventor, electrical engineer, and physicist), who was one of the greatest minds in human history.

So, Novak is like a king in our country. If he went into politics, he would probably be president and prime minister at the same time.