Born: 1987 Belgrade, Yugoslavia (Now Serbia)
Serbia is in the midst of a golden tennis age. The country can boast world number 1’s, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic to go along with current Men’s number 1, and defending Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic. The men won the Davis Cup in 2010 and after achieving “mission impossible” of taking down Russia in Moscow, the Women have the chance to add the Fed Cup to the mantle when they compete in the final later this year.
So how did war torn Serbia, a country of 7 million people, produce such a generation of players? This is Djokovics path to glory, and it is similar for all Serbs of this generation.
Born in Belgrade, Novak was raised in the mountains by the ski resort town of Kopaonik. This is where he received his first slice of luck, a talented athlete with skiing is his blood, Djokovic’s parents owned a pizzeria which happened to be located next to a government built hotel – this is still in the latter days of communism – with a sports hall attached. By dragging green carpet across the floor Novak was able to turn this into an indoor court allowing him to train out of the snow throughout the winter. His second stroke of luck was being ‘discovered’ by Yugoslavian tennis legend Jelena Gencic at her tennis camps in the resort town. Gencic would go on to coach a young Djokovic until his talent dictated a family move to Belgrade.
Gencic recalls inviting a 6 year old Novak to join her tennis camp. “He arrived half an hour early with a big tennis bag all neatly packed, as if for professional training. Inside I saw a tennis racquet, towel, bottle of water, extra T-shirt, banana, wristbands, everything you need for a game.
I asked him who packed it for him and he replied he did it himself. I said to him, how did you know what to pack? and he replied, I’ve seen Pete Sampras on TV.”
Gencic’s guidance combined with the Djokovic family collectively pouring their money into a young Novak, gave him court time and coaching developing him to the point where a Belgrade move was inevitable. Belgrade is Serbia’s capital and largest city – and also the centre of conflict in the war ravaged region. And that’s where the legendary Belgrade war stories began.
NATO were bombing Serbia in retaliation to Yugoslav (Serbian) forces in Kosovo. The bombings would cause families like the Djokovic’s to whole up in underground bunkers and it was a regular occurrence to be woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of bombs exploding. The obvious thought was that this lifestyle hardened the young Serbs and sure this played a role, sweat and pain from training clearly pales in comparison to the death and destruction around them. However the more tangible benefit came in an odd way - school was cancelled! And with no pesky class to get in the way something had to fill the gap. For Novak and company that was tennis. To avoid the bombs the players trained in areas that had been bombed the day before – on the assumption they wouldn’t be hit again. Intact tennis courts were not always to be found which is where the legend of them training in emptied out swimming pools, hitting against the wall of the pool began (the driving factor behind his attack from anywhere attitude? There’s not much room to hit high on a swimming pool wall before you need to jump out and chase the ball!). Whatever mystical elements the pools and bombs held, one factor is easily traceable. Novak as a 10 year old was playing tennis over 5 hours a day. As a 12 year old Novak would be on the court at 10am in the morning and not return home until 8pm at night. Tennis was seen as a way of keeping sane.
The bombing eventually ceased but the hard work for Novak did not. Realising he would not be able to reach his potential in Serbia, Gencic convinced Nikola Pilic to take him into his academy. Pilic was a top player in his own right making the French Open final, but is more famously remembered as the inspiration behind the 1973 Wimbledon Boycott. Such was the regard for Pilic that when the ITF upheld a suspension given to him for allegedly refusing to play for Yugoslavia in a Davis Cup tie (a claim Pilic denied), meaning he was ineligible for major tournaments, 81 fellow professionals including 13 of 16 seeds, withdrew from Wimbledon in protest. Under his tutelage at the academy Novak was becoming one of the best juniors in Europe. And if he was working hard on court his family was working just as hard off of it to afford the travel. It was a whole family sacrifice, the other brothers suffered because Novak “needed the top food, the top equipment – everything”.
It got so bad for the Djokovic family after getting no help from the Serbian Tennis Federation, and borrowing money at exorbitant rates from loan sharks that there was discussion of defecting to the United Kingdom to tap into the LTA’s resources. Knowing the love/hate relationship the English public have with Andy Murray I wonder how Brits would have reacted to Novak Djokovic being the ‘British’ player to break the Grand Slam hoodoo? However Djokovic squashed the idea, insisting he was Serbian and would play for Serbia.
Once he broke through and won his first future’s match as a 16 year old wildcard at a Belgrade tournament things started moving quickly for Djokovic. Winning that tournament earned him the ranking points he needed for direct acceptance to future events. Four years later at age 20 he would be number 3 in the world. It would take a few heartbreaks and diet changes (despite his parents owning a pizzeria and the kids growing up on pizza and pasta it turned out gluten had some adverse reactions for Novak) for him to finally get past Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer but now at 25, with 5 majors and 5 consecutive finals behind him the legend is well on its way to being written.