For years, Novak Djokovic was a talented, but inconsistent, tennis wannabe. Though he made it into the top 10 in ATP rankings, he was more famous for his collapses in big tournaments than he was for actually winning any. Plagued by what other players saw as a lack of fitness, and worse, a lack of toughness, Djokovic repeatedly withdrew from matches when the going got tough.
Then, in 2011, everything changed. The Serbian tennis player put together what some sportswriters have called the greatest single season in the history of tennis, winning three grand slams and, at one point, 43 consecutive matches against the best players in the game. In July of that year, he won Wimbledon and became the No. 1-ranked player in the world—a status he’s held ever since.
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Here, in an exclusive adaptation from his forthcoming book, Serve to Win, Djokovic explains how changing his diet took him from second tier to No. 1, and lays out a simple nutrition plan for Men’s Fitness readers to follow.
“This is a test that will help us see if your body is sensitive to certain foods,” Dr. Cetojevic told me.
We were not in a hospital or lab or doctor’s office. He was not drawing blood. There were no scanning devices or big, scary pieces of medical equipment. It was July 2010, at a tournament in Croatia, and Igor Cetojevic, M.D., a holistic practitioner from my native Serbia, was explaining to me that he thought he knew why I’d fallen apart so many times in the past, and how I could change my diet, my body, and my life for the better.
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Then he had me do something very strange. He had me place my left hand on my belly, and put my right arm straight out to the side.
“I want you to resist the pressure,” he said as he pushed down on my right arm. After a moment, he stopped. “This is what your body should feel like,” he said.
Then, he gave me a slice of bread. Should I eat it?
“No,” he said, and laughed. “Hold it against your stomach, and put your right arm out again.” Once more, he pushed down on my arm, explaining to me that this crude test would tell me whether or not I was sensitive to gluten, the protein in wheat, barley, rye, and other common bread grains.
This seemed like madness.
And yet, there was a noticeable difference. With the bread against my stomach, my arm struggled to resist Dr. Cetojevic’s downward pressure. I was noticeably weaker.
“This is a sign that your body is rejecting the wheat in the bread,” he said. I had never heard the term “gluten intolerant,” but I had just taken the first steps in learning how big a role food had played in my life, how much my wheat-based diet had been holding me back—and how much was in my power to change.
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(By the way: This test, I later learned, is called “kinesiological arm testing.” I have found that this makes for an excellent party trick; get someone in the room to assume the same stance—right arm out, left hand on belly—and test their strength. Then have them hold a cell phone against their stomach, and test again. The radiation from the cell phone causes the body to react negatively, and weakens the arm’s resistance, just as a food you’re intolerant to will. It is an eyeopening revelation—and will make you think twice about carrying your cell phone in your pants pocket going forward.)
Dr. Cetojevic then explained to me that there were other, more scientific and more accurate ways of testing my sensitivities to certain foods. The best and most accurate is the ELISA test, which stands for enzymelinked immunosorbent assay. It’s a common blood test that’s used for everything from drug testing to diagnosing malaria and HIV to testing for food allergies.
The ELISA test can teach us very specific things about our bodies’ sensitivities to food. The most common sensitivities are to gluten, dairy, eggs, pork, soy, and nuts. Some of us have unusual sensitivities, or unexpected combinations of them; for example, my trainer, Miljan Amanovic, tested sensitive to pineapple and egg white. But once you know what you’re sensitive to, you can make dramatic changes almost effortlessly. (By eliminating just these two foods, Miljan lost 10 pounds in only a few weeks.)
When my blood test returned, the results were shocking: I was strongly intolerant to wheat and dairy, and had a mild sensitivity to tomatoes as well.
“If you want your body to respond the way you’d like it to, you will need to stop eating bread,” Cetojevic said. “Stop eating cheese. Cut down on tomatoes.”
“But Doctor,” I replied. “My parents own a pizza parlor!”
I have learned a great deal about nutrition and the human body over the last three years, but my quest for information has been going on much longer than that. All of my life, I have been seeking knowledge, not just about tennis, but about the workings of the body and the mind.
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Perhaps, in part, that’s because knowledge was for so long withheld from me.
I was born on May 22, 1987, in a country that no longer exists: the communist country of Yugoslavia. When you have lived under communism for generations, as my family has, you learn to accept that there is only one way of doing things. The government and the society in which you live tell you that there is one way to dress, one way to exercise, one way to think. And, of course, one way to eat.
Growing up in Serbia—the name my country returned to after the breakup of Yugoslavia—we ate in a very traditional way. Serbian foods are heavy foods: a lot of dairy, a lot of meat, and, especially, a lot of bread. Bread is an important part of Serbian tradition, and when you are in wartime, bread is literally life; for many of us, during the NATO bombing of the late ’90s, there were times when it was all we had to eat. I know what it’s like to have a family of five people with just 10 euros to sustain us; you buy oil, sugar, flour—the cheapest stuff— and you make bread. One kilo of bread can stretch over three or four days. Even though my family never went truly hungry, for many, many months we lived having electricity and running water for only an hour or two a day. Bread sustained us.
Even when times were good, it was always there for us. Because Serbia is close to Italy, Italian cuisine is a strong influence, so when we weren’t eating bread, we were eating pasta and, especially in my family, pizza. The Djokovic pizza parlor was our main source of income for most of my childhood, and, of course, it was home base for my earliest days at the tennis court across the street, where my life’s journey began.
In other words, you may love wheat, rye, and other grains that go into making traditional breads, pastas, and pastries. But I promise, you don’t love them more than I did.
It’s quite possible that, because I relied on bread and dairy for so much of my young life, my body became increasingly sensitive to them. When we’re young, our bodies can work through a lot of the challenges we present to it. That’s a blessing, but it’s also a curse. When you’re young and strong, you can fight through the bad food, the stress, without necessarily getting sick or fatigued. But as we get older, and we stick to the same way of eating and living, we begin to experience problems. We need to make changes in the way we eat. The changes aren’t that hard. And the rewards can be astonishing.
I said at age 6 that I wanted to be No. 1 in the world, and by some miracle, my first coach, Jelena Gencic, took me seriously. She also believed that being the very best meant studying much more than just tennis. She became a partner with my family in my intellectual upbringing. The world around us was changing, and the communism we were born under was crumbling. My parents understood that the future would be a very different place, and that it was important for their children to become students of the world. Listening to classical music, reading poetry, thinking intensely about the human condition—this was part of my early training. It was in part because of this upbringing that I continued through my early life to explore every kind of conditioning I could find, from tai chi to yoga, and to seek out new expertise. If I were going to be the best, I would leave no possibility unexplored.
And so when Dr. Cetojevic approached me with theories that to many of us might sound far-fetched, I was ready to listen. At that bizarre and shocking moment when my arm struggled under his pressure, I realized that the bread I was holding against my stomach was like kryptonite. I was ready to make some changes immediately.
But the idea of giving up bread and other gluten-containing foods—foods that were so precious to me, so ingrained in my life, my family, and my culture—was scary. Then Dr. Cetojevic explained that I shouldn’t pledge to give up bread forever. As the saying goes, forever is a very long time.
“Two weeks,” he said. “You give it up for 14 days, and then you call me.”
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It was hard at first. I craved the soft, chewy, comforting feel of bread. I craved crunchy pizza dough, sweet rolls, and all the foods that I learned contained wheat—things I had never suspected. For the first 10 days or so, I craved these foods, but I focused each day on staying disciplined; and, fortunately, my family and friends—even though they thought I was crazy—supported me in my quest. But as the days rolled along, I began to feel different. I felt lighter, more energetic. The nighttime stuffiness I had lived with for 15 years suddenly disappeared. By the end of the first week, I no longer wanted rolls and cookies and breads; it was as if a lifelong craving had miraculously abated. Every day I woke up feeling as though I’d had the best night’s sleep of my life. I was beginning to believe.
And that’s when Dr. Cetojevic suggested I eat a bagel.
This was the true test, he explained. Eliminate a food for 14 days, then eat it and see what happens. And remarkably, the day after I introduced gluten back into my diet, I felt like I’d spent the night drinking whiskey! I was sluggish getting out of bed, just as I had been during my teenage years. I was dizzy. My stuffiness was back. I felt as though I’d woken up with a hangover.
“This is the proof,” the doctor said. “This is what your body is giving you to show you it’s intolerant.”
And I pledged that from that moment on, whatever my body told me, I’d listen.
Being a professional tennis player can be a very good life, or it can be very hard indeed.
Once you have some degree of success, however, the living gets lavish. Traditionally, tennis, like golf, has been a sport that relies more on training, skill, and natural talent than on physical conditioning. At the peaks of their careers, people like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were fit, but they focused more on skill than on diet and fitness. Even today, among the top 200 players in the world, many still eat whatever they want, don’t think much about training other than the time they spend on the court, and enjoy their success—and all the indulgences it can buy—to the fullest. You can travel the world, make a million dollars a year, and have a very nice life if you have the natural skills and the dedication to be a top tennis pro.
But once you get into the top 40 or so, things change—proper fitness and nutrition become fundamental. The best players serve at speeds of more than 135 miles an hour, and forehands regularly top 80 miles an hour. Top seeds like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Andy Murray are probably stronger, faster, and fitter than any tennis players who have ever strode the court before.
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We’re like precision instruments: If I am even the slightest bit off—if my body is reacting poorly to the foods I’ve eaten—I simply can’t play at the level it takes to beat these guys.
More important, I can’t be the friend, the brother, the son, the boyfriend, or the man I want to be, either. Eating the right foods gives me more than physical stamina; it gives me patience, focus, and a positive attitude. It allows me to be in the moment on the court, but also with the people I love. It lets me play at the highest level in every realm of life.
I bet you want to play at your highest level.
Then here is my suggestion: Begin by changing the foods you eat.