Tinged with a bit of celebrity since he helped tennis ace Novak Djokovic reach the pinnacle of his career, one Limassol doctor believes in addressing health issues from the inside out. THEO PANAYIDES finds out more
It’s a bit forward, maybe even a little bit rude, but the question must be asked. ‘How do you know you’re right?’ I blurt out, sitting across from Dr Igor Cetojevic. It’s the question of the early 2020s, one might say, at a time when society has fragmented, even the so-called mainstream seems increasingly extreme and irrational (blame Covid) and all kinds of groups are pushing all kinds of theories, all seemingly backed up by evidence. How do all these people know they’re right? How do we know who’s right?
The answer, I suppose, in the case of Dr Igor, is that nothing succeeds like success. He was actually profiled before in the Cyprus Mail, back in 1998 when he was a young man of 36 (he’s now 58) living in San Francisco – but something important has changed since then, even beyond the addition of 22 years. The new data point is his association with Novak Djokovic, the best tennis player in the world and a fellow Serb (though Igor’s a Serb from Bosnia, born in Bugojno northwest of Sarajevo). Igor, a medical doctor, nutritionist and wellness specialist, has been widely credited – including by Djokovic himself, in a book called Serve to Win – as the man who gave the tennis champ’s career that extra boost, his advice lifting Djokovic from gifted-but-erratic top 10 player to best in the world. “I’m so glad that indirectly I helped millions of people,” he tells me in his fast, slightly fractured English. “Because Novak was promoter of idea about nutrition.” Novak’s success, you might say, is the proof that he’s right.
He’s told the story before (it also appears in a lengthy article in The Independent, dated August 19, 2016) but he doesn’t mind telling it again, interspersed with the booming eruptions of mirth that pepper his conversation. He was rather reluctantly watching Djokovic at the 2010 Australian Open, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Igor has no interest in tennis – “I had no idea who is this guy” – but he was struck by the way Djokovic kept stopping for medical breaks, which the commentator ascribed to asthma. Next day, Igor was having coffee with a friend – a big tennis fan – who lamented the way that damned asthma had cost Djoko the match. That was no asthma, replied Igor shrewdly, having drawn his own conclusions. “Could you help him?” asked the friend. “I know some people…”
Doctor and patient met in Split, Croatia during a Davis Cup match. “Cetojevic told Djokovic to stretch out his right arm while placing his left hand on his stomach,” relates The Independent. “Next Cetojevic gave Djokovic a slice of bread. He told the bemused player not to eat it but to hold it against his stomach with his left hand.” On both occasions, the doctor pushed down on the outstretched right arm – and, much to Novak’s surprise, his arm was appreciably weaker when he was holding the bread. “Just little jokey things,” chuckles Igor now, thinking back to that stunt – and weaning the player off gluten and dairy was a big part of helping him (we live, sighs Igor, in “a bread-and-milk world”) but not the whole story. This wasn’t a case of a food allergy, or even just learning to ‘eat better’. This is not about gluten; “Gluten is for journalists like you,” he says, meaning a hook, a gimmick. There’s a whole inner worldview associated with what Dr Igor preaches.
One example: Djokovic explains in his book how he’s learned to say a short blessing before every meal, just to be aware of the food and appreciate it – and Igor does the same in his own life, indeed he goes further. “My exercise, always,” he explains, “in the morning when I wake up, is to bless myself”. He illustrates by folding his hands together, kissing the tips of his fingers, then touching the fingers to his chest, hips and legs. “‘Good morning, how are you? What can I do for you today?’” he intones. “Every day. It’s investment of few seconds. Just to be aware that we have this existence that God gave us… I have these beautiful gifts, and I’m aware of them and I love them.”
The blessing is followed by a “hot-cold shower”, to stimulate the autonomic nervous system; alternately hot and cold, “two minutes this, two minutes that… It’s biggest investment that you can do for your health, OK?”. Then comes breakfast, which is always a smoothie. The contents vary according to his mood and the seasons, but it’s invariably fruit and vegetables, often including berries and kale – “Getting a vibrant life force,” he explains; “Because alive food is giving you life” – plus a dash of spirulina, chondroitin (“for my joints”), cinnamon, turmeric. “And I like always to take fish oil after. Good fatty acids. Omega 3.” And of course food should always be appreciated; another thing he taught Novak Djokovic is never to eat mechanically, snatching bites while talking or checking his phone. The phone shouldn’t even be on the table.
Wait a minute, though, I interrupt. Nobody lives like this. Nobody does all this stuff.
“People who know, they are doing it.”
And the rest? Is he saying that most of the world lives wrongly, or at least inadequately?
“That’s what we need to teach our kids in school,” replies Igor patiently. “Not nonsenses, we need some practical things.”
What kind of man lurks behind this unusual lifestyle? What makes him tick? Alas, here we run into an obstacle, because Dr Igor doesn’t really talk about himself in interview mode. Cornered, he’ll politely explain that he’d rather not share “private things” with the world. Most of the time we don’t even get that far, he’ll just laugh his booming laugh and start describing his submarine analogy (you’re a submarine, “life is murky water”, but you’re able to lift up your periscope – a.k.a. ascend to a spiritual dimension – and see what’s really going on) or else take refuge in sometimes-cryptic aphorisms: “Smart people respond. Less-smart people react”. He does seem to radiate good health – clear skin, trim silver goatee – but his actual spiel is largely a performance, honed through dozens of interviews in the years since his tennis-abetted celebrity.
The house, I suspect, helps a little in understanding him – his haven, his “paradise” (though he travels a lot), tucked away in a village in the hills above Limassol. There are almond and carob trees, and a swatch of lavender. There’s a pool shaped a bit like a lollipop, its long stem ideal for swimming laps, with a basin at the end for cooling off. This is also the house where he met his wife Francesca Pinoni (well-known in local wellness circles in her own right, having co-founded Mind, Body & Spirit), way back in 1993, at her son’s birthday party, soon after he’d arrived from the former Yugoslavia with only a suitcase full of books and another of clothes. “After the cake and ice cream,” recalls Francesca in Your Health: It’s a Question of Balance, the book the couple co-wrote in 2014, “Igor showed the children how a pendulum works. They were spellbound, as was I.”
A pendulum? Yes indeed. The Djokovic connection highlights his nutritionist credentials, but in fact the official title on Dr Igor’s website (www.drigor.org/) is ‘Specialist in Energetic Medicine’ – and he’s long been interested in the “energetical body”, using a pendulum to pinpoint bad spots.
“The body projects energy around, like atmosphere around planet,” he explains. “If, for example, you have broken shoulder, this is a cold area, and the atmosphere has a hole. Some people, like me, are sensitive,” he adds. “I can sense with my hand, going around you”. He’ll often examine a patient while holding a pendulum, which stops when it gets to the ‘hole’ – but that’s really just a visual aid, like the slice of bread on Djokovic’s stomach. The method works on rooms as well as people. In his book he describes how, as a young man, he checked out the classroom where his mother was a teacher and found one particularly bad spot. “Without letting on why I wanted to know, I asked ‘Mum, who sits here?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘one very naughty boy. He can never sit still’.” Clearly, says Igor, the child was unconsciously trying to escape the “disturbing vibrations” around his seat. “I asked her to move the desk to another spot. She did and, as if by magic, his behaviour changed.”
A caveat should perhaps be appended here. “Medicine is one,” he says firmly. There is “no ‘we’ and ‘they’, official medicine and alternative medicine.” That said, Igor spent eight years studying Medicine (his father was also a doctor) then moved on to acupuncture and Chinese medicine, feeling there was more to know. There’s undoubtedly a place for Western medicine; if you’ve had a heart attack and you go to A&E, “we have beautiful technology” that’ll save your life. There’s even a place for pills and drugs – but not for everyone. Most don’t need Xanax, just a sympathetic ear or a way to unblock their feelings (Igor has been known to prescribe daily singing and tango lessons). Chinese medicine is “holistic”, he explains, treating not just the physical body but also the mental, emotional and spiritual ones. Why does a patient have stomach pains? It could indeed be due to the wrong food, or bad eating habits – but also conceivably a mental problem (being unable to “digest a situation”), or an emotional one. It might even be down to bad energy, the increasingly common case of people lying down to relax with their smartphone – that “energetical parasite” – next to their tummy.
Modern life, our mainstream way of life with its long-ingrained habits, hovers in the background of our conversation, viewed from afar like the view of Limassol from his and Francesca’s hilltop eyrie. Igor, shall we say, has some issues with the way we’re conditioned to live. Our bread has too many chemicals, and our milk has too many hormones. We “work like hell” five days a week, then chug down drugs and alcohol to kick-start the weekend. Don’t get him started on wi-fi, and the havoc it wreaks on our wellbeing. Don’t get him started on the Covid hysteria, either – though the pandemic is actually a good example of an issue where the question ‘How do you know you’re right?’ could be asked of literally everyone. Suffice to say that Igor (like, for instance, Dr Aseem Malhotra in the UK) believes in good metabolic health – keeping one’s immune system strong, as opposed to state interventions like lockdowns and vaccines – as the best defence against the virus.
His own life seems healthy enough, with its daily blessings and nutritious smoothies; more importantly, it seems happy. His celebrity continues, in a low-key way. Even now, he says, he gets frequent emails from people “just to thank me” – people he’s never met, who read Djokovic’s book and applied its lessons in their own lives. The tennis community is thankful too. Igor couldn’t believe how badly the top players were being fed, when he accompanied Novak on tour (it was like “putting diesel in a Ferrari,” then expecting it to go out and race); a year later, he recalls with satisfaction, hotels were offering gluten-free options and people clustered around him asking questions about nutrition. Yet he never took advantage of his fame to abandon the hilltop house for some bigger platform. “I passed the phase to [want to] be famous,” he shrugs. “I’m not the guy who likes to be in lights, ‘Look at me, look at me’, and need always to impose how smart I am… I am smart, of course, I know it!” he adds cheekily, and erupts in laughter again.
What’s he up to these days? “Just doing life,” shrugs Dr Igor Cetojevic – which is actually no small thing, at a moment when life seems so fragile and besieged by the forces of fear. He and Francesca seem devoted to each other, and she’s even – after 27 years – learned to share his devotion to ZZ Top (Serbian rock, however, is a bridge too far). He doesn’t have too many dreams left to achieve – he had two big items on his bucket list, going to Ayers Rock and climbing Kilimanjaro, and he’s now done both – but that’s fine, “I’m enjoying my peace. I enjoy the beautiful home that we have, I enjoy of course my partner. I enjoy people coming to me… And I can work on myself to help other people”. How does he know he’s right, though? “Because I am aware,” replies Igor simply. Being the power behind Novak Djokovic doesn’t hurt either.