Novak Djokovic made his ATP Tour debut at the 2004 Plava Laguna Croatia Open Umag less than two months after turning 17. Filippo Volandri ousted the Serbian 7-6(5), 6-1, but the teen certainly left an impression.
“Outside the court I was talking with some colleagues and I said, ‘This guy is really good!’” Volandri recalled. “All the players said, ‘Come on, you could have won 6-1 6-1.’ But I was right!”
Volandri, who later that week beat three-time defending champion Carlos Moya in straight sets, remembers leading Djokovic 5-1 in the opening set. He had never seen the teen play before, but things were going smoothly.
“I was winning easily. I was already a good player and he had a reaction that surprised me,” Volandri said. “Even though he was fighting with [his breathing] and he wasn’t breathing well, he had a reaction that you have inside or you don’t. You can work on it, but most players are born with something inside where they never surrender and they always try to make a reaction [when they are down]. That kind of reaction, 1-5 down, was really impressive.”
Djokovic forced a tie-break in the first set, but Volandri held off the Serbian’s surge. The Italian then used his experience on a hot day to maintain his momentum in the second set. Nevertheless, he saw a lot of potential in Djokovic, who broke serve four times in the 90-minute match.
“Already, physically and in terms of flexibility, he was at a different level. He was so powerful. He was jumping [everywhere] on the court and he put so much spin on the ball without having so much weight [on his body],” Volandri said. “That’s the difference between champions and normal players. They don’t need too much weight to put so much spin on the ball, speed as well.”
Volandri grew up playing in the juniors with Roger Federer, so he was no stranger to competing against elite young talent.
“When someone has something different, it’s tough to explain,” Volandri said. “You see how they are on court, his attitude, his mental power. Djokovic managed the bad moments as a pro when he was really, really young.
“He was playing maybe too far behind [the baseline], but that’s quite normal. When you don’t have so much weight, when you’re young, it’s tough to stay on the baseline. That’s improved so much. He made a lot of technical changes, especially on his serve, during his career. But I think what made the difference is how close he can play to the baseline. Now he plays so, so close.”
Their first-round Umag clash was the pair’s only ATP Head2Head meeting. Since then, Djokovic has won 79 tour-level titles, 17 Grand Slam championships and finished year-end No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings five times.
“Of course it’s strange. Obviously I couldn’t say from that match he’s going to be No. 1 in the world and he’s going to be No. 1 for so many weeks. Even growing up with Federer… you could see he had something different between him and the others. But you couldn’t say, ‘Okay, this guy is going to be No. 1,’” Volandri said. “[Novak has] one of the best backhands ever, one of the best returns ever. In the most important moments, he’s a champion.”