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Hugs, a guru, fave tree: Djoker’s unusual route to the top

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic has won 16 Grand Slam titles © AFP / William WEST

MELBOURNE, Australia, Feb 3 A strict vegetarian diet, spiritual guru and family hugging-sessions aren’t methods employed by most athletes, but they have helped Novak Djokovic turn himself into one of the best players ever — and now Australian Open champion for an eighth time.

The Serb has distinguished himself with his willingness to turn to the unusual, from hyperbaric chambers to meditation and Spanish guru Pepe Imaz, a former journeyman player whose “love and peace” philosophy drives his teachings.

Life has been a journey for the Serbian star, who grew up in war-torn Belgrade and practised in a disused swimming pool but is now based in the millionaire’s playground of Monte Carlo with more than $140 million in prize money — a record — to his name.

Djokovic faced questions over his durability earlier in his career after a series of retirements for reasons ranging from a toe blister to heat problems at the 2009 Australian Open, when he was defending champion.

But he is now more steel than snowflake — as seen when he won last year’s record, nearly five-hour, Wimbledon final, and the 2012 Australian Open final, the longest Grand Slam decider in history, which stretched to 5hrs 53mins.

With 17 Grand Slam titles under his belt, and showing no signs of slowing down, Djokovic looks poised to overtake the great Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the only men ahead of him on the all-time list, by the end of his career.

– Friends with a tree –

While Switzerland’s Federer and Nadal of Spain come across as straightforward characters, Djokovic is the most complicated member of tennis’s Big Three.

Djokovic will play Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open final on Sunday © AFP / Manan VATSYAYANA

His daily routine, as related to The New York Times last year, involves getting up before dawn with his family, watching the sun rise and then doing hugging and singing sessions, and yoga.

The father-of-two has dabbled in various diets including gluten- and dairy-free, and is now a proud “plant-based athlete” — the subject of a Netflix documentary, “The Game Changers”, for which he is executive producer.

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“Hopefully I can inspire other athletes that it is possible to be plant-based and to recover well, to have strength, to have muscles,” said Djokovic, who has been vegetarian for four-and-a-half years.

Rather than celebrating his Australian Open wins by partying, Djokovic, who won his eighth title in Melbourne on Sunday by beating Dominic Thiem, climbs a fig tree in the city’s Botanical Gardens.

“I have a friend there, a Brazilian fig tree, that I like to climb and I like to connect with so that’s probably my favourite thing to do,” he said, according to reports.

Djokovic broke through for his first Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, but it would be another three years before he took control of the sport, embarking on a 43-match winning streak at the start of 2011.

Between 2011 and 2016, Djokovic won 11 of the 24 available Grand Slam titles and reached another seven finals, freezing out the likes of Federer, who won only one Major in the same period.

Djokovic is a proud “plant-based athlete” © AFP / Greg Wood

The wheels came off rather suddenly for Djokovic in late 2016, when he went into a slump and then, suffering from an elbow injury, ended his 2017 campaign after Wimbledon.

In the same period Djokovic became a close follower of Imaz and appeared on stage with the spiritualist in a two-hour video featuring meditation and long discourses about the human soul.

This, according to some observers, fits a pattern where Djokovic has restlessly turned this way and that in search of perfection — a goal he alluded to on the way to his latest Melbourne triumph.

“When I was younger I would get frustrated and impatient with small things in life, but that’s how you learn,” he said.

“You can’t be a perfect tennis player and human being from a young age. That’s why we love this beautiful thing called life.”

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