In this era of sports, where we are always on the lookout for the next athlete to get caught with performance-enhancing drugs, it runs counter to the way we intuitively think to realize how many athletes might be suffering from an intake of performance-hindering substances. Yet after Novak Djokovic revealed recently that he had changed his diet to combat gluten allergies, it is amazing how little we consider the everyday calories that athletes put into their bodies to focus on the chemicals that may or may not be in their bloodstreams.
Djokovic has opened 2011 on a tear, taking the momentum from leading Serbia to its maiden Davis Cup crown in December and running with it all the way to undefeated status a third of the way through the calendar. But his current run of success began last summer, when he began working with Dr. Igor Četojević, MD in July before the Davis Cup quarterfinal against Croatia and after getting bounced out of the semifinals at Wimbledon in straight sets by Tomas Berdych. Since beginning his work with the doctor, the 23-year-old has experienced a renaissance in his career.
So what is gluten? Gluten is everywhere: in breads and beers, cookies and cakes, pastas… the pizzas and pancakes Djokovic’s family has long churned out of their restaurant in the mountains near Belgrade. Increasingly doctors are coming to realize that the prevalence of gluten-intensive products in our food chain are anything but nourishing for pockets of the populace. As the body finds itself unable to break down the wheat-based products being put into it, a person with such allergies or intolerances is essentially becoming malnourished despite consuming plenty.
What could it possibly do to a tennis player who doesn’t know he or she is allergic to the stuff? Well, one need look no further than the long history of retirements from tennis matches that Djokovic has built up in his career. From stomach cramps and fatigue to breathing problems, Djokovic has been accused over the years of being too willing to pull up and concede a match when things are looking grim. His most infamous incident, at the 2009 Australian Open, should have raised red flags rather than ire — after all, what defending champion is ever mentally willing to cede the contest? Djokovic withdrew from the quarterfinals while down in the fourth set against Andy Roddick 6–7(3) 6–4 6–2 2–1 due to heat exhaustion, muscle cramps and soreness in his shoulder. Abuse was heaped on his shoulders after he shuffled off the court in Melbourne, with Roddick as well as Federer both outspoken in their disgust in Djokovic’s decision.
Yet it is wholly conceivable to think that most of his withdrawals throughout his career have been due to complications arising from malnutrition. Djokovic was simply bonking because his body couldn’t process what he was feeding it. Every endurance athlete knows that it isn’t the first two or three hours that are the challenge; it is pushing beyond that to maintain level performance that requires regular replenishment of the right kinds of calories. Simply downing an energy bar is not enough, and it is that sort of short-sighted advice that in retrospect comes up looking inconsiderate at best.
I’ve watched the process before, as my sister came to live in Eugene. Working with a nutritionist, she discovered her own body’s intolerance of foods containing gluten. Even a nibble of foods containing wheat or barley or rye (and to a lesser extent lactose) will cause her to become congested, send her stomach into convulsions, leave her weary and wanting only to lay still. It has been a constant struggle to balance the desire to eat foods similar to what she once loved but that no longer love her back with the need to keep her diet free of these products. The restructuring of a personal food pyramid to more solidly reflect the hunter-gatherer roots of humanity is hardly unsound programming. But just as Djokovic has surely had moments where he wished he could have another one of his family’s pizzas, so too are those familiar foods on which we grow up so hard to turn away.
But sooner or later a person gets sick of feeling sick, and the restrictions stop being restrictive and start being a liberating force. In a brief electronic back-and-forth with Dr. Četojević, it became apparent that it really is as simple as cutting wheat and other glutinous foods such as barley and rye out of the diet. While he was unable to speak directly on his professional relationship with Djokovic, the doctor was cordial in confirming these more general hypotheses. Simply altering which carbohydrates an athlete puts in his or her body can yield impressive dividends in the ability to remain fitter and endure longer into matches.
As he has followed Dr. Četojević’s nutrition program, Djokovic laid the groundwork to rise closer to his longtime goal of becoming the top player in the world. Anchoring Serbia’s national team he led his country to new heights as it advanced past Croatia and the Czech Republic to reach the final against France. He powered through to the finals at the U.S. Open before losing to Rafael Nadal in a four-set battle of attrition, defended his championship at the ATP Beijing Masters and then went the distance against Federer before losing in Basel. Playing more consistently than he had in years, Djokovic’s game through the second half of 2010 culminated in Serbia’s Davis Cup title and portended the potential for a breakthrough 2011.
Since the calendar turned over, Djokovic has done nothing but win. Beginning in Dubai, Novak has rattled off 28 straight victories as of his most recent win in Madrid. He exorcised the demons from 2009 to claim his second Australian Open title. He is now five-for-five in tournaments and counting. Along the way he surpassed Roger Federer to become the world’s second-best player — and with three straight wins against the legend out of three attempts this year, including in the semifinals in Melbourne en route to the championship, and has allowed just one set out of eight to the Swiss superstar. Against Nadal he has done just as well, going 2-0 in 2011 with five out of six sets to reduce the gap in the ATP standings by nearly two-thousand points since the post-Wimbledon standings came out last July.
Fitter and healthier than he’s ever played before, Djokovic has given his body a complete overhaul thanks to his new diet. No longer backfiring, his engine is running on all cylinders and he is realizing potential that people always suspected was there but feared was lost in the excuses of a headcase. But the results since his shift have proven the problem not mental but physical — sometimes it isn’t what an athlete is putting into his body but what he finally isn’t putting into his body that makes all the difference in the world…