Novak Djokovic is buzzed by a butterfly on his way to a record ninth Australian Open crown

Melbourne (AFP) - A strict vegetarian diet, spiritual guru and family hugging-sessions are among the unusual methods that have helped Novak Djokovic to take his place among the immortals of tennis.

The Serb’s ninth Australian Open victory on Sunday means he now has 18 Grand Slam crowns and is snapping at the heels of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who share the record of 20 major titles.

The trio are by far the most successful men in the history of the game and Djokovic’s 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 demolition of Daniil Medvedev on Sunday at Melbourne Park was the latest emphatic endorsement of his prodigious talent and athletic ability.

Djokovic’s willingness to turn to the unusual – from hyperbaric chambers to meditation with Spanish guru Pepe Imaz, a former journeyman player who extols a “love and peace” philosophy – makes him stand out from his peers, who enjoy a more straightforward lifestyle.

He grew up in war-torn Belgrade and says he “came from nothing”, having to practise in a disused swimming pool.

The boy from the ruins of conflict has now banked more than $145 million in prize money and lives in the millionaire’s playground of Monte Carlo.

There were lingering doubts in the past about the size of his heart after a series of big-tournament retirements.

But he has surely laid those to rest after recovering from a severe abdominal injury to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for a ninth time on Sunday.

He could barely walk at times as he beat Taylor Fritz in five painful sets in the third round, and then grimaced in pain through matches against Milos Raonic and Alexander Zverev.

By the time he beat Aslan Karatsev in the semi-final he proclaimed his fitness was better than it had been all tournament.

True to his word, he was back to his imperious best in the final.

It banished memories of retiring from six previous Slams with injury, the most recent examples in the 2017 Wimbledon quarter-final against Tomas Berdych and at the 2019 US Open when two sets down to Stan Wawrinka.

It also allows Djokovic firmly to consign a torrid 12 months since his 2020 success against Dominic Thiem to the rear-view mirror.

- Covid controversy -

The coronavirus pandemic meant the world’s tennis tours were suspended in March and three months later, Djokovic took it upon himself to launch his ill-fated Adria Tour.

The tournament in Belgrade had 4,000 spectators packed in while players shook hands and took selfies with fans, and ballkids handled sweaty towels – all during a global shutdown.

Djokovic and players including Thiem and Zverev were heavily criticised for partying shirtless at a heaving Belgrade night club.

The inevitable happened. Djokovic, his wife Jelena and players Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki all caught Covid.

Djokovic was then branded “tone deaf” for launching a breakaway Professional Tennis Players Association in August just as the sport was attempting to stagger back to its feet.

Days later, Djokovic was kicked out of the US Open after hitting a line judge in the throat unintentionally with a ball he slapped away in anger during the fourth round.

The distressed female oficial needed treatment on court and Djokovic apologised. “I’m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended, so wrong,” he said.

The Covid-delayed French Open rolled around and Djokovic reached the final.

But his shot at becoming the first man to win all four Grand Slams twice since Rod Laver in 1969 ended with a whimper when he suffered a 6-0 “bagel” to Rafael Nadal on his way to a straights-sets defeat.

Djokovic whipped up another storm after players flew in to quarantine ahead of the Australian Open.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic kisses the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after each of his nine Australian Open wins

Nick Kyrgios led a wave of criticism of the Serb for issuing a list of requests that reportedly included players being given private homes with tennis courts.

“Djokovic is a tool,” Kyrgios tweeted, as Australia’s media savaged the Serb.

His coach, Goran Ivanisevic, acknowledged it had been a difficult time for the world number one.

“He was going through a lot you know, with the US Open and a pretty poor final at Roland Garros.

“It’s not easy coming here, you spend 14 days in quarantine… and everybody is attacking him.

“Actually he needed this victory, so badly.”