Viktor Troicki rushed off court faster than the player he had beaten 6-1, 6-4 to qualify for the main draw of the Tata Open Maharashtra. Time was off the essence for the veteran Serbian, for there was another match he wanted to catch – the Australian Open men’s singles final.
“I gotta hurry up, it’s the fifth set,” he says, moments after compatriot Novak Djokovic forced Dominic Thiem into a deciding set in their summit clash in Melbourne. “I hope he wins. We’ve been spending a lot of time in Australia before I got injured. I wish him all the best and hope he wins. He’s just a couple of games away.”
In the few minutes that followed, the world no. 2 Djokovic managed to win the match 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, earning a 17th Grand Slam title and regaining top spot in the world rankings. And this came just a few weeks after he helped secure the inaugural ATP Cup title for Serbia – just like he did for his country’s only Davis Cup title back in 2010.
“We have the number 1 in the world, that’s helpful to have. (Djokovic) pretty much wins all of his matches, then (the rest of the team has) to win one more point somehow, even if it is ATP Cup, Davis Cup,” Troicki says. “We have to come up with that point somehow, and that’s how we manage to do it. We don’t manage to do it always, but we try to and when we are successful at it, we’re winning.”
The 33-year-old, older by a year to his legendary compatriot, remembers meeting Djokovic for the first time at a youth tournament they were playing in. “He was eight, I was nine. We played a tournament in U-10s. I beat him 9-1, or 9-0, we’re not sure about it. But that was our first meeting,” he says.
That friendship has blossomed over the years and Djokovic has remained one of Troicki’s greatest supports on tour, particularly during the trying time for the latter when he faced a one-year ban in 2013 for drug abuse.
“When I had my toughest situation in my life, he was publicly supporting me and giving me great help. Always, with everything. He’s helped me a lot through my career, he’s a great person. I’m grateful to him and he’s been a true friend,” he says.
But it isn’t just Troicki whom Djokovic has made a difference for. The former world no. 12, whose current ranking of 159 forced him to start his campaign in Pune in the qualifying rounds, remembers growing up in a country that was then warn-torn Yugoslavia, where funds for daily needs were scare and tennis facilities even harder to find. But those times have changed, and Djokovic has been central to it.
“Tennis became very popular in Serbia over the years, probably the most popular sport. Novak is the number 1 and most famous person in the whole country and region. He’s put our nation on the map with his results and all the things he does for our country,” Troicki says. “People recognise it, kids want to be like him, and there’s a lot of kids playing tennis now. It’s different now. The federation is also supporting players more, we have more clubs and more courts to play.”
Djokovic’s 17 Grand Slam titles now has him trailing Rafael Nadal by two and Roger Federer by three. He’s the player most likely to get the record by the time the Big Three of tennis decide to leave the game. But in his home country, he’s long been the true face of the sport.
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