Novak Djokovic almost quit playing tennis in 2010.
A lot of kids dream of being a professional athlete. Djokovic’s earliest memory is being a “seven-year-old boy in Serbia constructing a Wimbledon tennis trophy in my room from improvised materials.” ¹ Unlike most of us with the dream, Djokovic had the talent. One professional tennis player saw him play when he was six years old and said, “This is the greatest talent I have seen since Monica Seles,” then the number 1 player in the world. ²
He turned pro in 2003. By 2008, he was the number three ranked player in the world, a grand slam winner, and in the conversation to win Wimbledon. But after a quarterfinals loss in the 2010 French Open, “I hit a wall,” Djokovic said. He’d been hearing for more than a decade that he had the talent to be number 1. One way to look at that is the way Djokovic looked at it: for more than a decade, he wasn’t enough, wasn’t good enough, wasn’t achieving enough. “I was mentally at one very messed up place.” ³
He first told his parents he was done. Then he went to tell his coach Maria Vajda. When he saw Vajda, he broke down in tears. Vajda encouraged him to let it out and Djokovic did for about as long as it will take me to tell you about someone who was number 1 in their profession.
Rodney Mullen started skateboarding in a little detached garage on his family’s farm in Florida. It wasn’t much, but it was cement—the only cement for miles. It was 1974, a few years before the Ollie was invented. He turned pro in 1980 and over the next ten years, Rodney was the number 1 skateboarder in the sport. He won every freestyle contest he entered but one, and along the way, he invented most of the tricks used today—the flatground ollie, the kickflip, the heelflip and some thirty others. ⁴ In 1989, he started World Industries, the first ever skateboarder-owned company. He sold it in 2003 for $46 million. That year, he was voted the all-time greatest action sports athlete. The following year, he founded Almost Skateboards, which is today one of the most successful companies in skateboarding. Rodney’s in his fifties now and still skateboards every day. He was once asked to what he owes his success, how he got to the top of his profession and has been able to stay there for over four decades:
I’m easily amused…It’s such a gift to be able to look at something and to love it for the sake of it…I have that. I’ve nurtured it in my life. Talent is around. I see people with talent but the one thing they don’t have is that just love of doing it for the sake of it. ⁵
And by now, Djokovic was calming down. “Let’s look back,” Vajda said, “Why did you start playing this sport? Put aside rankings and what you want to achieve, do you really like holding a racket in your hand?”
Djokovic didn’t say anything for one-mississippi, two-mississippi, “I do. I love holding a racket in my hand. Whether it’s a grand slam final on center court or just a normal public court, I like playing for the sake of playing.” Vajda nodded, “Well that’s your source. That’s what you need to tap into.”
Still, picking up some burnout symptoms, Vajda told Djokovic to take a few weeks off. Djokovic agreed he would. But he woke up the next day with vitality. He went to the courts, not to train, but to play. “And I never looked back ever since that moment.”
The following season, Djokovic enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in sports history. It was so good that “The 2011 Novak Djokovic tennis season” has its own Wikipedia page. He won 43 straight matches. He won three Grand Slams: the Australian Open, the US Open, and his first Wimbledon. And he finished the year as the number one player in the world.
“I started to play freely,” he says of that season. “I became the kid that I was when I started playing.” ⁶
It’s strange but true: when you aren’t thinking so much about reaching the pinnacle, you reach it.
47 years after publishing Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote about this paradox. In 1945, he wrote the book in nine days with a conviction that it would be published anonymously. Unlike the dozens of other books he published, the first printing of Man’s Search For Meaning didn’t have his name on the cover. “And so it is both strange and remarkable to me,” Frankl wrote, that it became the book he’s known for. For the rest of his life, Frankl would share what that taught him: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication…In the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.” ⁷
Or suppose it doesn’t. Suppose “success” never follows you. Suppose Rodney Mullen skated for forty years just for the sake of skating and suppose he never won a trophy. Suppose Novak Djokovic played tennis for twenty years just for the sake of playing tennis and suppose he never won Wimbledon. Could we call them “unsuccessful”? I couldn’t.
“So the trick,” Rodney Mullen says, “is to always peel back and ask, why am I doing this in the first place? I’m still that kid skating in the garage on the farm, you know? And I cling to that.”
 Novak Djokovic Champion’s Post-Match Interview | Wimbledon 2021
 Serve to Win by Novak Djokavic
 Novak Djokovic | Tennisnet
 The Mutt: How to Skateboard and Not Kill Yourself by Rodney Mullen
 Rodney Mullen | How to Use Pain to Become The Best in the World
 Novak Djokovic on Becoming #1 in the World and Overcoming the Odds
 Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Thank you to Greg Shildkrout and Katie McKenzie for reading drafts of this.