King of the decade, Novak Djokovic will have been able to count, in addition to his talent, on his closest advisor: Pepe Imaz. The Spaniard is a confidant, a mental coach, a speaker as well as a Cupid who does not use a bow but spreads love through hugs.

It is never easy to be the younger sibling of one of the best tennis players in the world. Though Serena Williams has achieved even more than her sister Venus, the story of Marko Djokovic – who is three years younger than Novak – is quite different. When he was 18, Novak was already one of the world’s best 100 players, while Marko ranked world No 1700 at the same age. Though he would later rank as high as world No 571, he would only total 4 defeats and… 0 victory on the ATP circuit. Not much, isn’t it? When Marko realized he would never be as good as his brother, who is way better than him, he suffered a long bout of depression until he met a certain Pepe Imaz. A former professional tennis player – he was world No 146 in May 1998 – Imaz was considered a talented player, though bad-tempered and insatiable. He later got into psychology and replaced insults by self-hugs, and it worked; he reached the French Open second round only to lose against future winner Carlos Moyá. After his career, he founded Amor y Paz, a tennis academy and club, in Marbella. The name speaks for itself: it is about love and inner peace as much as learning tennis. Marko Djokovic went there in 2011; he quit professional tennis and became a coach there. A few months later, Novak Djokovic would meet Pepe Imaz there and notice the positive impact he had on his younger brother. Since then, Nole has won 15 other Grand Slam titles – 20 in total – and closed 5 seasons as world No 1. More importantly, he has become calmer and has learnt to love.

Free hugs

Pepe Imaz is not just another psychological coach, and it is not how he defines himself. He might just be “a guy who talks to himself.” Yet, Thibaut Nilles, a psychological trainer who works with Massy Essonne Rugby Club, says it is the basics of psychological training: “Sometimes, Djokovic stays on the phone with him for 4 hours; some others, 5 minutes are enough. Recently, a player phoned me in the morning, before a 2.30 pm match. He was stressed out, he just needed to be reassured, to confess to someone he trusted. It is what Pepe Imaz does; he listens to the athletes, lets them speak out and they feel way better. They can say what they feel in a safe space, without being judged or blamed.” With Pepe Imaz, these chats sometimes turn into what he calls sessions of soul gymnastics – “People care about their body and their food; they do Pilates or yoga, but they forget to train their mind” – in which people gather round and listen to his one-hour speeches with tears in their eyes. And it ends on free hugs, which are the core of Amor y Paz; before the COVID-19 pandemic, any tennis practice would end on a hug. Marko Djokovic experienced it when he arrived in Marbella, when the person he was speaking to tried to hug him: “In the Djokovic family, we were not too keen on saying we love each other; society had taught us that showing emotions is for the weak. But it felt so good! I can tell you; Pepe has changed my life.” As well as the life of his older brother, who has got into group hugs too; after he won the Canadian Open in 2016, Novak suggested each person in the crowd hugged the person next to them to orchestrate a group hug. He explained why in the press conference: “It was an extraordinary moment. I felt it was the right time to kindly ask people to do that. In the end, we are all here for the same thing; we want to connect through tennis and our passion for the sport.” Just like Gustavo Kuerten drew hearts in the clay when he won the French Open, now there are Novak Djokovic’s hugs, though COVID-19 sort of screwed things up.

The importance of outer help

It is hard to measure the impact Pepe Imaz has had on Novak Djokovic, but he is obviously much calmer than he used to be, though he still gets angry once in a while before channelling his emotions to focus on the match. And it is clearly down to Imaz, the hugs, the chats or meditation, which he has taught Nole, who now meditates regularly. In France, it is still not very popular, though Olympic athletes get help from psychological coaches; but in English speaking countries, mental prep is a key factor. Let’s take the All Blacks for example: after the 1999 Rugby World Cup, they made Gilbert Enoka their mental skills coach; now, he is the squad manager. There was also 11-time NBA winner coach Phil Jackson, who coached Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers and teamed up with a psychological trainer; he liked to make his players meditate 10 minutes before a match. However, players usually prefer getting outer help. “Sometimes, they think that if they go to the club’s mental skills coach, who is a club employee, he/she is going to tell everything to the coaching staff afterwards, which is not true,” explains Thibaut Nilles. “More often than not, athletes feel safer with someone from outside the club. They can call them whenever they need, and they feel more independent. It helps them perform.” Tennis being an individual sport, Novak Djokovic does not belong to a club per se, but Pepe Imaz is the outer person he turns to whenever he needs it, like he did in 2017, during his ‘result crisis’. He may call him to discuss or confess; he may even ask him to come over for a tournament so they can be closer… and hug. Imaz is the only member of Nole’s team to has made it through the last decade, while trainers came and went.

A need for constant affection

In the end, hugging is just a way to give love to an athlete. For Pepe Imaz, love is essential to any human being. “I am all about love, so what? You drank water yesterday, and the day before too, am I right? Well, love is as vital as water.” Thibaut Nilles has never asked his rugby players to hug, but he may at some point, only if he thinks it might help. “Players need love. Many athletes say they lack self-confidence and self-esteem, but as a matter of fact, they just lack love. The keys to psychological training are self-awareness, acceptation, and self-appreciation. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t improve. So, if hugging can help, fair enough.” Though he has levelled Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in terms of Grand Slam titles, Novak Djokovic remains the most unpopular player of the trio. The crowd even turns against him when he faces Federer in Wimbledon or Nadal in the French Open. Yet, Nole does everything to be fully appreciated but it is not enough. Hence the importance of Pepe Imaz’s hugs. A former world No 1, Todd Woodbridge explained the situation on Sky Sports: “Novak is the victim of his obsessional need for love. Instead of letting people get to love him, he keeps seeking their affection. He always wants people to cheer him and clap him more than other players. It is a strange behaviour. He is an amazing player, there is no need for him to do that.” Funnily enough, Novak Djokovic got the support of a full stadium when he showed his weaknesses. And it was not any stadium: it was the Arthur Ashe stadium, where he is usually far from being the crowd’s favourite, in the latest US Open final. As he was suffering against Daniil Medvedev, who wore him out mentally and physically, and was about to crumble in the third set, the crowd started to cheer him like never. Nole was so moved that he put his face in his towel to shed a few tears. “It was something that I’ll remember forever. That’s the reason on the changeover I just teared up. The emotion was so strong. It’s as strong as winning 21 Grand Slams. That’s how I felt, honestly. They touched my heart. I felt something that I had never experienced before in my life in New York. I felt very, very special.” In the end, Novak Djokovic is just like French singer Lorie; he needs love and wants kisses and hugs every day. Fortunately, Pepe Imaz is here to help.