Last week was saw Novak Djokovic became the longest standing world #1 ever! And we were fortunate enough to be able to speak to his coaching team to hear all about the journey to 311 weeks 🔥
Marian Vajda is Novak's long time coach & Goran Ivanisevic is a newer addition to the team. Both Marian & Goran gave us insight into Novak & described his extreme work ethic & discipline 😉
We talk about first seeing Novak, what sets him apart, how long can he keep it going & much more 😃
Its available as a Podcast or in Video format, see below.
Transcript of the episode
In episode 90 of the Functional Tennis Podcast, we interview Novak Djokovic’s coaches Marian Vajda, who had been a core member of Novak Djokovic’s coaching team for over 15 years, and Goran Ivanisevic, the former Wimbledon Champion who was fairly new to the team. At the time of the interview, Novak had only recently become the longest standing world number #1 reaching 311 weeks at the top of the world rankings.
In this episode, Marian & Goran gave us some great insight into Novak & described his extreme work ethic & discipline. We heard all about Djokovic’s approach to the game, his journey to beating Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal and claiming the top ranking spot, as well as the early days in his career when Marian & Goran first met Novak.
So, without further ado, here’s our interview with Marian Vajda & Goran Ivanisevic:
Marian: I'm Marian Vajda
Goran: Hi, I'm Goran Ivanisevic. And you're listening to the Functional Tennis podcast.
Fabio: Welcome to episode 90 of the Functional Tennis podcast. I'm Fabio Molle, your host. We have a special episode this week to celebrate Novak Djokovic's 311 weeks as world number one, and to help us celebrate, we have his long term coach, Marian Vajda, and former Wimbledon champ, and also coach of Novak, Goran Ivanisevic. They tell us how their journey began with Novak, challenges along the way, what makes Novak so special, and what is good enough today is not good enough tomorrow for Novak.
Shout out to our podcast sponsors, Slinger bag, the awesome portable ball machine, which I can't wait to get back on court once we're out of lockdown here in Dublin, Ireland. Special thanks goes to the team at Asics tennis, who helped set up this interview.
They're doing a great job in tennis and especially with their new content, they're putting out to help coaches as well as helping me get access to great people in the world of tennis. They have a current campaign promoting sunrise mind, which focuses on the body and mind. And these are two areas which Novak, who wears their Court FF 2 shoe by the way if you didn't know, really excels in. Okay, here we go. Guys, welcome to the Function Tennis podcast, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on and it’s great to celebrate 311 weeks of Novak being world number one. That is absolutely amazing. Tell me, what does it mean for you guys?
Marian: If I may start first, I would like to say that obviously it's quite a long journey.
It's an amazing journey and it has been 311 [weeks]. It's an incredible effort with all our team and I can only say I'm very proud to have been with Novak all the way along and with my team. So I really appreciate every time spent with him. And it's really sweet, I would say, this achievement.
Fabio: Nice. No, it definitely is. And Goran, what's it mean to you?
Goran: I am the fresh [one] in the team. It's gonna be now two years, but you know, with all this crazy thing happening in the world with Corona and the last two years with a lot of bad things, bad everything, it's a great achievement.
You know, we all in the team were hoping that this would happen. And when you go back, as a Novak fan, before I was in his team, if you go back 8, 9, 10 years ago, nobody ever thought that this could be done. You know, everybody talks about Roger, Roger, but now you have, Novak who did the record and is not over, you know, it's only 311. Now it's gonna go more and more and more, you know, we were talking about Steffi Graf, 372 [weeks]. That is impossible! But everything is possible with this man and all the hard work, all the achievement of everybody… you know, he had to produce that on the tennis court. But everybody else, coaches before me, you know, Marian is there from the beginning, but there were worries, Andre [Agassi], but you know, everybody contributes something and from the physios, from especially, you know, Edo [Edoardo Artaldi] Jelena [Djokovic], you know, everybody did an unbelievable, amazing, hard job for him to be, kind of, mind free and be ready on the court who. Ups and downs, especially last year, Marian knows the best, but, uh, he did it and that's what is important.
Fabio: It's amazing. He's in such good shape in general. I can't see him letting off anytime soon. What's your guess, how many weeks can he do? How long do you think he can keep going for?
Fabio: And Marion, like for somebody to show up week after week, month after month, year after year, to stay at the top of the game. Where does that energy and burn and fire come from to be able to continually do this?
Marian: You know, when I started with him in 2006, his ambition and his family’s ambition…
They were very ambitious to establish him as world number one. So in that time I was really laughing at their stance. And I was just laughing. And I said, you know, it's a long way. Something like, whatever. But the next five years, when I worked with him, and he was still not number one because he wanted to go there too fast.
I kept him grounded and I always told him something like, listen, you have to work harder. You have to put quality in the practice and stuff like this. You know, normal stuff. But once I remember I told him a sentence, which I read in a book, in a wise book. It's not from me.
I have to admit that it's not from me, but I told him, listen, I don't believe in miracles, but I rely on them. So he went through the sweat, through the passion for the sport, through development of his game, through pain, through effort. And, there was a time when he didn't believe he could be number one. There were ups and downs during those five years, from 2000 till 2011and obviously I was with him all that time. Obviously there were a lot of changes in the team, new coaches coming in, fitness coaches, mentally nutrition and everything. But I was always there to tell him, keep your feet on the ground. And with that many changes in tennis, because he was very creative and, you know… he was trying to improve too fast and sometimes it was counterproductive.
His server was not working in one period of time. Forehand was not working. And, you know, I always told him let's get to the fundamentals, to the base, you know? Start with what you know best. So it's your baseline game. And we started slowly working on other stuff and improving his game until he started believing that he could beat Nadal and Federer in 2011 where he made a breakthrough.
And really that season was incredible because, I don't know now, it was 48 wins in a row or something like this, and he won three slams and in Wimbledon, I'm not sure what day it was, but he beat Tsonga in the semifinal and Nadal in the final and 2011, he became number one in the world. So since then he has changed his life basically.
And he changed his perspective then. I was a little worried because I thought, this is it you know, number one and that's it! Because he had the big dream in his head and then he accomplished that. But after that, he started believing he can be there for a little longer because he started beating Federer and Nadal, which was impossible before, basically only very, very random.
But now he was really dominating the game and because physically he was stronger. He changed his diet. He changed his attitude in practices. He was more effective… more quality in practice. And obviously you could see that he could climb up and he can stay there for longer. But that long? I must admit that that long…it's almost six years! It's hard to believe, but I think it only confirms my previous quote, which means I don't believe in miracles, but I rely on them. But he accomplished the unbelievable, and I think he can be as good as Goran said and mentioned that he can stay there for a long, long time. Hopefully, his health will be okay. If he stays healthy, he can really break more records. He's very motivated.
Fabio: I can see the records being broken. And Goran, for you. You've worked with other great players, Berdych, Cilic…apart from working really hard, what's the big difference you see in Novak and these other great players you've worked with?
Goran: I mean, they’re all top players, you know. Cilic won a grand slam at the US Open, but you see, with Novak, what today is good, tomorrow is not good anymore. Has to be better. Every day has to be better. Every day you have to improve.
You know, he pushes you to be better, to be a better coach. And you just see the results, you know, the results are there. When you see him winning grand slams, it's really amazing, you know?
So he made me, again, a better coach, but it's not easy, you know? It's a lot like Marian said, ups and downs, a lot of pressure. Because a final is not good enough.
It's the same as coaching a football club like Real Madrid, you know? You lose two games and they start to want you to go, you know? They want to kick you out. So it changed, you know, he's an institution, he's just records, records, win, win, win! And it's a lot of pressure, but life without pressure is boring!
Fabio: Yeah, true. But he puts you guys under pressure… who asks the most questions on the team.
Goran: Listen, me and Marian, we think almost the same. We work a lot of time together and we are different, you know? Marian has been with him more years and he talks more to him. I talk less, I observe and then I tell him.
He's the guy who wants… you need to always have an answer prepared. When he asks you something, you need to tell him. And sometimes it's a lot of pressure. It's great to be around him… I'm really blessed to be in this team, because we have really unbelievable people in this team. Marion is the easiest guy to work with. We have unbelievable physios. We have an unbelievable conditioning trainer. We have unbelievable people behind the scenes who are unbelievably important. People doing unbelievable things for us to be more relaxed on the court, to not think about other things that we do not need to think about. We need to concentrate on Novak and his questions and be ready to answer all the time.
Fabio: He's tough. He's a tough guy. But when did you, both of you, when did you see Novak for the first time in your life?
Goran: I saw him when he was 14 and a half years old in Niki’s [Nikola Pilić] village academy. Because I was working with Niki in Germany, in Munich, and he was there.
So Niki Pilić told me: “listen, there is one kid here from Serbia. He's gonna be number one in the world one day”. So I played with him a little bit, actually half an hour. We played with him actually. He gave me some chocolate because I told him I'm tired so he ran and he brought me some chocolate. I remember that. And since then, I've followed his career. We always stayed, even when I was not in the team, we were good friends. And, we speak the same language. So that was the first time I saw him a long, long time ago.
Fabio: And did you, did I read somewhere? You called him a beast, in a good way. He was a beast of a player?
Goran: It’s like watching National Geographic, the wild channel, you know? He is like a lion, you know? You never see a lion drinking a cocktail. When you see the lion, he's hungry for blood. He wants to beat you. He wants to eat you. He wants to… He wants to win. That's how he is on the court, you know? He steps on the court, he eats you. You're gone. He just is so unbelievable to see, and I am happy that I'm part of these records. It doesn't matter that I haven’t been in the team for long. It's nice to be a part of it and it's not over yet. Now we are talking like… no, it's going and going and going.
Fabio: And Marian, when's the first time you came across Novak?
Marian: I have a good story because it's kind of a nice story. It was the first time, 2006 and his management group called me, actually my friend, and they told him they're looking for a coach and they asked if he can coach Novak. It was 2006 and he said “no, no, I don't want to travel, but I have a good friend, I can ask him”. So then later on, they called me and they asked me if I could coach Novak Djokovic. I said, who is this guy? Because at that time I was coaching in the national tennis centre, the women's team in Slovakia.
And then I said, who is this guy? I don't know. I don't think I'm coming to Paris. You want me to come to Paris to Roland Garros, but I don't know who this guy is. Please call me in three days. So after three days, they called me back. And in the meantime, I asked my family, especially my daughter, who was 10. I asked her if she wanted to travel to Paris to Roland Garros and at the time she had been playing tennis for four years.
And she said “yes, daddy. Yes, let's go. Let's go”. So the decision was made, you know? So we travelled to Paris where we met all the family and the parents, and then the brother and this and that. And he was playing on the court. He was practising with Olivier Rochus and I took my daughter and we were observing him and watching and I asked her, Natalia, what do you think about this guy? She look at him and he was playing in some rallies. And she said “I don't know, he doesn't, he doesn't have any backhand”.
So she had judged him already that time. She gave me a goal already that I have a tough job to work on. And I have to improve him in some ways. But I saw it already at that time. He's a really… as Goran mentioned, he's an unbelievable competitor. And once he stands on the court, he almost never loses a point.
So even with the weaknesses, like when he didn't have as good a forehand as now, or service, or even his backhand was weaker, a more defensive game than offensive. I knew that this guy, I mean…I didn't know he was gonna be number one, but one day he can be really good. So it's kind of a funny story, but after that we spent a couple weeks working together and then we set up our cooperation for a longer time.
And as Goran said, we really understand each other. If there was no English spoken between us, we… our mentality is very similar. That's why we understand each other and we don't have to speak that much. But it's very difficult to understand, you know? We call it inner tennis. Everybody talks with himself, you know? Novak gets just very deep inside, focused on everything. And we have to be the ones who think for him, you know? Yeah, sometimes. So we have to be really ready and really sharp, to give him the right advice at the right time. So this is maybe our credit, you know, to really give him the right information at the right time because, at that high level, you have to be really, really fine making decisions and, uh, whatever improvement you want to achieve. You have to really decide it. So this is very tough, but on the other hand, it's very, very fine work.
Fabio: You've done a good job. You've been telling them the right answers because you're still around. Over 15 years. But obviously you talk about improvement a lot. You've turned them into a serve bot. After Australia, he was amazing. His serve was just unbelievable. So congratulations on the great work you put in with the serve. Did that come from Goran? Did you give him a few tips on serving Goran?
Goran: A few little tips, but you know we are lucky that we have the guys with the statistics so we can…now in the 21st century you can go to YouTube, see some videos of what he was doing before and now, so you can work on it. But I'm happy with the way he was serving in Australia. He broke all his records, but his serve was a little bit underestimated for a long, long time because he was always serving good when he needed to serve well. Now he's more consistent and serving better and better and improved a lot on his second serve, going for it. But I call this teamwork. We are a team and we are here for each other. We are backing each other. And this is the beauty of this job.
Fabio: Nice. Well, congrats on a great job there. My final question is not about Novak though. It's about the two of you guys. You guys have played a match before, an ATP tour match in Gstaad [Switzerland]...
Marian: Yeah, I got kicked in both matches. I met Goran when he was 17. He came with Nicki Pilić, first for qualification to Olympic games in Seoul [South Korea] in 1988 and I was asking my coach, actually, I don't know if I had a coach because we didn't have so many. We didn't have a coach at that time. But my friend or my family, maybe my wife, said who is this guy? Who is this tall guy? It's quite a good draw, no? I don't know. It was the final of qualification. The guy came on to the court and I knew it's gone. It's tough for me. I mean, he aced me probably 16 aces in the first set. It was challenging, he won 7-6, but then he killed me in the second 6-0, finito.
And then obviously in Gstaadhe has to tell you, I think he won. I dunno, two sets, three sets. But he beat me again. Obviously!
Goran: I don't remember that one in Gstaad, but I remember this one in Linz [Austria]. I was physically basically prepared, you know? Second set, easy. I killed you with my forehand and backhand. Not only with my serve, you know? You could not keep up with me physically. Since 1988. So we know each other, respect each other, so we’ve had some good matches and we are still here. That's important!
Fabio: Maybe we can get a rematch soon on the practice court?
Goran: Uh, yeah. But we are falling apart…
Marian: That will be much different now, for sure.
Fabio: Guys, I really appreciate you coming on here and chatting about Novak. I wish you all the best this year and the many years to come. Keep breaking those records and, yeah, thanks to the whole team and say hello to Novak for me. Thank you very much.
I hope you enjoyed that chat and got some new insight into Novak. I definitely did and I was really privileged to speak to those guys. A huge thanks to them also, as well as the whole team at Asics and our podcast sponsors Slinger bag.