Ever since I read Ayrton Senna’s words describing his surreal out-of-body experience during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, I’ve been on a quest to find others who have found the same magical place.
Over the years I’ve met many great sports stars who have been there too: moments in the Zone that bend time and space and transcend reality as we know it. Occasionally I get really lucky and the human being telling me the story is still at the absolute top of their game, and the world.
After Novak Djokovic collected his fourth Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award last week, I grabbed my chance to enquire about his description of going into ‘another dimension’ during his near-perfect Australian Open semi-final in January.
Appropriately we were in Monaco so I brought up the similarity with Senna’s words. The Serbian superstar’s reply was as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from one of sport’s true class acts – and definitely, unmistakably Senna-esque. Here it is in full…
‘I actually watched Ayrton Senna’s documentary so I did hear him speaking about that,’ smiled Djokovic. ‘In my case there were several matches where you just feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. One of them was in the final of the Australian Open in 2012 against Nadal when we played almost six hours. It’s really hard to explain when you feel like you’re present but somehow you’re also not present – because the physical pain is so big that you don’t feel your body any more, but you’re operating on some kind of autopilot that is taking you to your desired places, which you determine mentally.
‘It was one of those experiences where you just feel like there is a higher force that is driving you forward. I’m also a big believer in that, and I always rely on my faith and try to be grateful and understanding of a creator and a greater power and a universal help that we always see. So I try to remind myself of that, of how blessed I am and not to take things for granted because ego is a strange opposition at times, and it can play with your mind.
‘In this process of evolution as a human being I’ve learned a lot more about these things because I’ve become more aware of them. Before it was just… I hit a tennis ball and it was in or out, and I won a tennis match. But throughout the years it became much more than that. It became a spiritual journey. And because the tennis court is a place where I’m probably most vulnerable but also very confident and strong, a tennis court is a school of life for me: where I get triggered most and where I can understand myself on a deeper level. That’s because everything I maybe suppress outside of a tennis court surfaces there.
‘That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing tennis. I don’t see too many different places where I can actually evolve as a human being better than on a tennis court.’
Wow. To learn more about Djokovic’s approach to his art, read my earlier interview with him about his 2012 epic against Nadal which is a highlight of In The Zone - or check out the wonderful speech he gave while collecting last week’s Laureus award…
When a sports star is ‘in the zone’ we all know it. Whatever they touch turns to gold and any unlucky opponents are dazzled by a spell of pure sporting alchemy that leads to anything from a cricket century to a perfect 147 in snooker.
We can all see the results, but the view we get is nothing compared to what this feels like from the inside. When all those long years of training come flooding back out so perfectly, it can seem effortless – the most natural thing in the world.
Strange things start happening in the mind too. Time appears to slow down and space can even bend: tennis rackets and racing cars become mere extensions of the body. Sometimes the sensation is so extreme it feels like you’re not even doing it at all.
Ayrton Senna reported an apparent out-of-body experience as he went into overdrive during F1 qualifying at Monaco in 1988 – and it was the same for Novak Djokovic as he beat Andy Murray in the 2016 French Open final to complete his career Grand Slam.
“I don’t even remember what happened in the last point,” Djokovic said afterwards. “It’s like my spirit left my body and I was just observing it fight the last exchanges, hoping Andy would make a mistake, which is what happened. I’ve felt this autopilot very few times in my career, but it lasted longer in the 2012 Australian Open final with Rafael Nadal when we played for almost six hours.”
It was a week after the longest Grand Slam final in history (pictured above) that I first grabbed my chance to quiz Djokovic during my research for In The Zone. I wanted to hear how he conjured up the sleight of mind to recover the zone when things were slipping away at a break down in the final set in Melbourne...
“To be honest with you there are no tricks, there is just belief,” Djokovic told me. “Just believe and you find the mental push you need. In the fifth set of the Australian Open final there is no more thinking and no more physical strength you can rely on. It’s just about will to win; that power guides you to the end.”
Djokovic spent years as the unlucky No.3 behind Nadal and Roger Federer – yet he insists his leap to the top was prepared not in his biceps but his brain: “It seems a small step from semi-finals to winning but it’s huge,” he said. “Then suddenly, bang! In 2011 I started winning. It was a matter of believing I can win against the biggest rivals in the latter stages of the majors. That makes the difference in winning the match.”
Five years of domination – and one tough year – later, Djokovic has now discovered the doubts don’t stop at the top. Having failed to defend his French Open in June, he is back without a Grand Slam title yet again. But Federer’s nostalgic Melbourne win and Nadal's Paris triumph prove this belief can be as permanent as class.
Now, somehow, the Big Four are back as the top four seeds for Wimbledon. And, despite his win last week at Eastbourne, it could be argued that a Djokovic win would be the most surprising of all. The bookies agree, placing him at 6-1, behind Federer (2-1), Murray (7-2) and Nadal (4-1). We know the Serbian can find the heaven of the zone again, the big question is simply: How bad does he want it?
Adapted from this article for Tennis Head magazine...
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.