A recent footnote in the tennis world – Novak Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, have taken up ballet.
Let the sniggering begin. “Ballet?” someone named Jaybee88 responded. “Ah, now, no wonder an ageing Federer beat him in Qatar.”
Ah, now, Jaybee, if you’re going to criticize, you’re going to have to learn how to spell “aging.” What is a wonder is that in the 21st century, ballet is still considered unmanly, effete – and let’s face it – gay. After covering the arts for 30 years, I can tell you that many if not most of the top male dancers are straight or bi. I remember Ethan Stiefel, one of the greatest male dancers, telling me in response to a question about why he became a dancer, “You spend your days touching women in various states of undress. What man wouldn’t love it?”
But that’s not the point, is it? Gay or straight, ballet is one of the most physically and mentally demanding of careers. You start class at 10 or 11 in the morning. Then there are hours of rehearsal. You dance at night; on weekends, at matinees and evening performances. You finish around 11 p.m., grab dinner, then sleep and the whole thing starts all over again. And that’s if you’re lucky and you perform regularly. Otherwise, guess what? You’re not getting paid.
If you’re a man, you’ve got to make the woman you partner always look good. That means sometimes you are lifting dead weight, no matter how light she is. You can’t ever show the strain the way an athlete can. And you can’t hide a few extra pounds. No wonder legendary New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig – the great “Iron Horse” of baseball – said, “Dancers make the best athletes.”
The first time I ever saw Nole in person, at a Uniqlo event on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan prior to a US Open, I thought, Here’s someone with a dancer’s body – long, lean, flexible muscles, no body fat.
“Djokovic’s tennis trademark is not a single shot, but his body,” Tom Perrotta wrote in an excellent Feb. 25 Wall Street Journal Magazine article. “Wiry. Flexible. Fast. Tireless. Always balanced. Djokovic, 6-foot-2, slides on gritty hard courts as smoothly as he might slalom on the snowy slopes of Kapaonik (he is from a family of skiers). He is a human rubber band. ‘He should be in Cirque du Soleil,’ says Larry Stefanki, a retired pro who has coached John McEnroe and Andy Roddick. ‘He’s hyper, hyper flexible. His body type, for me, is perfect for tennis.’…
“’I wish I had his physicality,’ (Nole coach Boris) Becker says. ‘He’s just so supple when he moves, almost like a dancer.’”
With a dancer’s temperament – extraordinarily disciplined, willing to do what it takes to hone his gifts. Not just physically but mentally – meditating, journaling, learning new languages, staying connected with the world as well as family.
“For me it’s more important for (people) to remember me as a human being, as somebody that has carried himself in the right way in every aspect of his tennis career,” he says in Perrotta’s article. “There’s more to it than just winning a trophy.”