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Novak Djokovic’s campus appearance recalls legacy of tennis legends at UCLA

ATP No. 1 and 24-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic trains at the Los Angeles Tennis Center on Wednesday afternoon in preparation for Indian Wells. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

By Jack Nelson

March 3, 2024 4:39 p.m.

This post was updated March 5 at 8:45 p.m.

A hesitant few became a frenzied many.

Collectively pressed against the barrier separating the courts from the lower box, UCLA students leaned over one another. A fascination with what they witnessed up close spurred a desire to get even closer.

All it took was a hurdle and a few steps to start the movement.

With no security to stop them, students walked, then ran, towards a legend. They clamored for a moment for the man who trained at Wasserman Football Center and the Los Angeles Tennis Center, but was no Bruin at all.

The crowd sought Novak Djokovic.

Considered by many as the greatest tennis player to ever walk the planet, the ATP No. 1 and 24-time Grand Slam singles champion practiced at the LATC’s top court Wednesday afternoon, preparing for this week’s Indian Wells Masters. His unheralded appearance ushered in a mass of hundreds over the course of a 90-minute training session.

“I’d say that was as pretty good a crowd, except one day we had (Andre) Agassi out here. That was absolutely crazy,” said UCLA men’s tennis coach Billy Martin. “We had to run him in here (Martin’s office) and just close the blinds and lock him in for about an hour. He just could not get out.”

Before chaos surrounded him, Djokovic signed tennis balls and hurled them into packed stands, even etching his signature onto his hat and shirt to toss out.

During point play with his hitting partner, he tried for a behind-the-back drop shot and missed, flashing a thumbs down to the people on his left. He attempted it again minutes later and succeeded – this time with a thumbs up and a smile as spectators erupted into applause.

Djokovic played with his daughter during his water breaks, much to the crowd’s adoration. A Serbian flag was hoisted on the upper concourse.

He was the center of attention the moment he emerged from the front doors of Wasserman to first make his way to the LATC. Fans trailed him chanting “Novak, Novak” en route to the courts, and he remained eye candy all the way through the eventual mobbing.

(Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
Novak Djokovic hurls a ball into the crowd at the Los Angeles Tennis Center. The LATC was teeming with students and spectators Wednesday afternoon to watch Djokovic train with his hitting partner. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

His appearance on campus, surprising by nature, was not unprecedented.

“He was here one year when we were having (the Los Angeles Open). He wasn’t playing in it, but he had come back from Europe and had some friends here in LA,” Martin said. “He was with his brother, and his brother was of the college age, and they were investigating whether he (Djokovic) was thinking about playing college tennis. They wanted to talk to us. We showed him around, this and that. He chose not to.”

Djokovic went pro in 2003, foregoing both the chance to be a Bruin and play college tennis entirely. But that introductory meeting with Martin was the foundation of what became a sustained connection to UCLA.

In 2013, he played in Pauley Pavilion as part of the LA Tennis Challenge, a charity event that marked the first time he would play professionally in Los Angeles.

The global superstar hasn’t been allowed into Indian Wells since 2019 as a consequence of refusing vaccination against COVID-19, but before the tournaments in 2016 and 2018, he practiced at the LATC.

Djokovic and his family have always been welcomed into Westwood, and this occasion was no different.

“We took Djokovic’s wife and boys for a tour. They’re 10 and six – they’re going to have to think about college one day,” Martin said. “But they really enjoyed the tour and saw the football facility. It’s not a bad place to have to hang out for a while.”

That hospitality extends to many professional athletes who choose UCLA as their practice destination. After all, Djokovic was far from the first.

Before the LA Open – hosted at the LATC since 1984 – was discontinued in 2012 as an ATP 250 event, it attracted the nation’s elite athletes. Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and Jim Courier each weaved their name into the stadium’s history as tournament champions.

But when American Sam Querrey won the 2012 singles title, he would be the last.

“It got a little bit to where the venue, to host a tournament with Djokovic, (Rafael) Nadal, (Roger) Federer, all those kinds of names – it just was considered maybe not big enough,” Martin said. “The date we had – that was not good to attract the European top guys, which are now the top players in the world.”

The competition has dissipated, but the pull of attraction is still there. Indian Wells is often considered the “fifth slam” as the most prestigious ATP Masters 1000 tournament, and with a slew of top players looking for a nearby sanctuary to prepare, the LATC catches their eye.

Over a two-hour drive from the event’s host city of Palm Springs, the stadium boasts a quality playing surface and enough distance between the baseline and the fence to qualify as pro-level. The architecture creates different acoustics than a regular tennis court, more resemblant to the dynamics players would experience at Indian Wells.

“God, at one time there was (Matteo) Berrettini, (Nick) Kyrgios, Djokovic – these great pros that come through, which is such a treat for everyone,” said UCLA women’s tennis coach Stella Sampras Webster. “Not only the fans here, the students here, but also our players.”

A day after Djokovic made campus headlines, 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic, ATP No. 94 Thanasi Kokkinakis and No. 182 Maxime Cressy – a former Bruin – each trained at the LATC, at one point all practicing at the same time.

Two days following the Serbian’s campus cameo, WTA No. 2 and back-to-back Australian Open singles champion Aryna Sabalenka appeared.

Daniil Medvedev, No. 4 on the ATP tour, practiced at the facility last year and admitted to Martin that being on campus was somewhat exhilarating, a moment the 31-year head coach hasn’t forgotten.

“I’d see him walking back right past Pauley, and I swear to god, he looked like a college kid,” Martin said. “(I was) kind of laughing and thinking, ‘If these kids knew this guy was No. 2 or No. 3 in the world, they might be impressed.’”

(Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
Novak Djokovic serves the ball to his hitting partner at the Los Angeles Tennis Center. The 98-time singles champion is one of many professional tennis players to train at the LATC in preparation for prestigious tournaments. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

For Sampras Webster, who has long known Djokovic through his connection with her brother Pete Sampras, his return dredged up memories of her own players interacting with pros.

She recalled occasions when Serena and Venus Williams would practice at the LATC, snapping photos with the women’s tennis team. Four-time Grand Slam singles champion Naomi Osaka was another name that came to mind.

But the 28-year head coach, who has developed the likes of Jennifer Brady, Abigail Spears and Ena Shibahara, among others, also saw through the allure of Djokovic’s fame.

“As a coach, you just appreciate what he can do and what he does. Looking back, I hope my players are watching his footwork, watching his preparation – all his fundamentals are just so right on,” Sampras Webster said. “It’s definitely in the back of my mind when they’re there in awe of greatness.”

NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from arranging practice sessions between their players and pros, but coaches at the professional level are allowed to reach out to college athletes in search of hitting partners.

Redshirt senior Govind Nanda of UCLA men’s tennis was contacted to hit with Djokovic, but the opportunity was nixed when a higher-ranked player became available. His consolation prize was that he got to trade blows with Kokkinakis a day later.

Tian Fangran, a sophomore for UCLA women’s tennis, went back and forth with WTA No. 91 Harriet Dart while Djokovic practiced beside them.

There might be a time when current Bruins return to the LATC, trophies and fame in tow from professional success.

Maybe then, they too will carry that Djokovic presence – uninterested in protection and embracing unruly hordes.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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