ONE IS arguably the best tennis player on the planet, the other an unknown teenager from the Leeds suburb of Wike.
But that has not prevented Novak Djokovic, winner of eight Grand Slam titles and yesterday secured a place in Sunday’s Wimbledon final, from forging an unlikely bond with 18-year-old Jonathan Gray.
The week before Wimbledon began Jonathan, regarded as one of Britain’s brightest young tennis prospects, was training at the National Tennis Centre in London when he was spotted by Djokovic.
The Serbian superstar was visiting the centre to film a video on behalf of one of his sponsors. Watching Jonathan in training, Djokovic was impressed. The two of them practised together for a while after which Djokovic asked Gray to appear with him in the video with shooting taking place over the course of two days.
“He seemed like a very nice guy,” says Djokovic. “We had a nice chat. He also talked with my team. He asked for advice. You could say that he was quite curious to know, to find out more. You could see that there is a big desire from his side to succeed and to get to professional tennis.”
Djokovic asked about Jonathan’s background and the teenager told him all about growing up in the West Yorkshire city and, being a huge football fan, Leeds United. Before going their separate ways they agreed to keep in touch. Earlier this week the pair met up again ahead of Jonathan’s opening match in the boys’ singles event at Junior Wimbledon, with Djokovic playing the role of mentor to the young hopeful.
“He told me to be positive, to go for it, and to battle for every point,” says Jonathan who ended up losing a desperately close match 7-6 7-6 against Alberto Lim of the Philippines. “I think I did that, even though I lost. It was good to have him say that. It gives you real belief to go out and try your hardest.
“Novak is a great guy and a fantastic player, one of the very best. I love his footwork and movement around the court which is something that I try to use in my game. He can get to any ball and is always on-balance. I really try to base myself around him, so to practice with him has been a dream come true.”
This Wimbledon is the last junior tournament that Jonathan, a former pupil at The Grammar School in Alwoodley Gates in Leeds, will be playing at. Having lost in the singles he also played in the boys’ doubles competition, giving a good account of himself in reaching the second round.
“Playing here is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s unlike any other tournament. The atmosphere is buzzing, even on the smaller outside courts. You get fantastic support. It’s these weeks that tennis players really live for. I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to be here and hopefully I’ll be back. It’s like an adrenalin rush.”
If Jonathan is going to return to Wimbledon then he is going to have to do it playing against the big guns on the men’s tennis circuit, players like Andy Murray, Roger Federer - and Djokovic.
“That would be surreal,” he said. “It could be a possibility but I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me before then.”