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UPDATED: World Number 1 Serb Novak Djokovic has done the usual as defending champion at this year’s Australian Open tennis championships: retaining his title with a convincing straight-sets win over Britain’s Andy Murray. Whatever Djokovic is eating and drinking – some say it’s Paleo, others that it’s getting closer and closer to Banting – it’s helping him on his way to retaining his title. Whatever else it is, his diet is known to be gluten-free. TV commentators have noted that during changeovers, Djokovic often eats medjool dates. Known as the ‘diamond’ of dates, they are a high-sugar, high-energy sweet treat once reserved for Moroccan kings and select guests
At the US Open last year Djokovic wowed viewers not only with smashing early round wins, but an impromptu ‘Gangnam style’ dance with a fan (to see it, scroll down below) that quickly went viral. It proves he is more than a tennis machine, and makes it in even more amazing that just a few short years ago Djokovic’s career was headed south. All that changed after he made radical lifestyle changes in 2010, including going on a gluten-free diet. Below, I look at the body and mind lifestyle changes that help to make Djokovic arguably the greatest tennis player of all time.
By Marika Sboros
He’s back as Australian Open 2016 champion. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, World Number 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic’s career was in precipitous decline. His on-court performance was inconsistent, punctuated by mid-match collapses; he was plagued by non-specific ailments that included chronic fatigue, chest pains, stomach spasms and breathing difficulties diagnosed as sports-induced asthma.
Since then, he is firmly back on track, or in this case on court, and is looking to retain his Australian Open title.
His performance throughout shows how far he has come from the time back home in Serbia in 2010, when Djokovic consulted nutrition specialist Dr Igor Cetojevic to help with his flagging form.
Cetojevic diagnosed gluten intolerance and overhauled Djokovic’s diet, telling him to reduce sugar, and stop eating dairy. He also told Djokovic to stop eating all foods containing gluten – a gluey protein composite found in wheat and related grains, including barley and rye.
Cutting out gluten wasn’t easy for Djokovic. It is in bread and pasta that are staples of the Serbian diet, and other foods. It’s also in pizza, one of Djokovic’s favourite foods. It didn’t help that his parents ran a popular pizza restaurant in Serbia. His family now runs a chain of gluten-free restaurants in Serbia appropriately called “Novak”.
Djokovic was desperate enough to follow doctor’s orders to the letter. Results were a game-changer practically overnight, transforming his health in body and mind, and of course his tennis.
Aches and pain vanished. He started sleeping better, he felt more mentally alert, his energy levels soared. Within a year, he became the World Number 1. He has stayed at that lofty height ever since 2011, except for a short stint as Number 2 in 2014, after Swiss champion Roger Federer dethroned him.
In Serve to Win, the book he wrote documenting his remarkable journey, he says that path has involved learning to “listen” to his body.
“Once I did that, everything changed,” he writes. “You could call it magic. It felt like magic.”
It looked just like magic on court, precipitating the winning streak that has taken him to World Number 1.
Djokovic eats simple meals these days, based on white meat, fish, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils, fruits and healthy fats. And while he admits to finding it difficult at times to maintain gluten-free eating on tour, he does so with what has been described as “extraordinary dedication”.
His diet appears to be much lower carb than in the past, but he isn’t against a high-sugar boost during on-court change-overs. During his semi-final match at the Paris Masters against Swiss player Stan Wawrinka, commentators noted he was eating high-sugar medjool dates, the ‘diamond’ of the sweet treats.
Of course, it isn’t only dietary changes that make a tennis champion. Djokovic’s team includes his coach – German former tennis champion Boris Becker – a fitness trainer, hitting partner, physiotherapist, psychologist and nutrition therapist. He practices meditation, yoga and tai chi to centre himself.
Djokovic also became a father in October, which he says has given his life “deeper meaning”, and a “more intrinsic value now”. In his victory speech after lifting the Australian Open trophy, he said: “Getting married and becoming a father in the last six months was definitely something that gave me a new energy, something that I never felt before.”
Media reports have sometimes stated that Djokovic has coeliac disease, and called him the “world’s most famous coeliac”. That’s vastly overstating the case.
One problem is that coeliac disease has become “a generic blanket term not unlike how Kleenex today signifies no more than a box of tissue paper of any brand”, as one expert put it.
The term covers just about “everything connected to a reaction to gluten”, says US nutrition, natural medicine and auto-immune disease expert Dr Rivka Roth on the Greenmedicine.com website, which is unhelpful – and inaccurate.
Roth says there needs to be a proper distinction made between coeliac disease, non-coeliac, and/or coeliac gluten sensitivity.
Gluten-free eating is also often touted as a weight-loss aid. Certainly, Djokovic returned to the court in great streamlined shape, after cutting gluten and dairy from his diet. But is gluten-free really all it’s cracked up to be for weight-loss?
“Not necessarily,” says Johannesburg dietitian Celynn Erasmus.
Gluten-free is “essential for a segment of the population” that has gastrointestinal conditions such as coeliac disease, and that can’t tolerate even small amounts of the protein gluten, Erasmus says.
A lucrative industry has grown around gluten-free products, but these are “not always good for slimming”, she says.
When manufacturers make products such as gluten-free bread, they remove the wheat protein from the food by swopping it for another flour such as almond, rice or corn, she says.
This “missing gluten” makes it difficult for breads and bakery products to retain their shape and softness as they bake. To solve this, manufacturers introduce additives such as corn starch, xanthum gum and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose. They also pack products with added sugar and fats to products to make them tastier, says Erasmus.
“Ironically, the result is that gluten-free bread can make it harder to reduce your waistline,” she says.
Gluten-free eating requires people to become “gluten detectives”, scouring food labels and looking for hidden gluten because it is “in everything”, says Erasmus, including products in you’d least expert to be: from frozen vegetables to soy sauce and medication.
At the US Open last this year, Djokovic delighted fans after a second round win with an impromptu dance with a fan.
Gluten-free clearly works well for Djokovic, but he makes clear in his book that it’s not a one-size-fits-all dietary solution. It has taught him that in his case, “nothing is impossible”.
And as he says on his Facebook page: “Preparation – both physical and mental – is the key to success.”