Novak Djokovic: Serbia's favourite son

As his Wimbledon campaign begins, we speak to the six-time Grand Slam champion about his tough childhood and penchant for jokes.

Matthew Priest June 27, 2014

Over the past decade, men’s tennis has witnessed something of a golden era – the age of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Such is their talent, both players have legitimate claim as the greatest player of all time.

In many people’s eyes, Novak Djokovic was just another competitor who would occasionally make a go of challenging the two, before inevitably being dispatched in favour of yet another Roger-Rafa final.

But as the last few years have shown, they couldn’t have been more wrong. “The key is that I never allow myself to think that I am too good,” Djokovic tells EDGAR.

What's the secret?

“It’s funny how I often get asked what the secret is. It makes it sound like there is a shortcut or secret formula to success. That’s far from the truth. God knows how much effort I’ve put into my game to perfect it and to raise it to the level that was needed to be among so many great players.”

It is as humble a response as it is honest. Especially coming from someone who continues to prove that, as a six-time Grand Slam winner, he is now rightfully considered to be on track to becoming one of tennis’ greatest players. All this in one of the sport’s most competitive eras to date, and at only 26-years-old.

The fact that Djokovic is willing to attribute his success to his work ethic says a lot about the serious side of the man – one who grew up in a war-ravaged Belgrade and was not privy to the perfectly manicured courts of private tennis clubs, unlike most of his contemporaries. In fact, that Djokovic became a tennis player at all is something of a miracle. Djoko2 Born into a ski-mad family, he claims that when he first signed up for tennis classes at the new Kopaonik Hotel courts - that were fortuitously built opposite the family restaurant run by his parents – in a ski-resort town near the Serbia-Kosovo border, he was the first person in his family to even pick up a tennis racquet.

At that point, tennis wasn’t remotely popular in Serbia, and yet, two decades on – largely thanks to him – the courts are overflowing. Today, in poorer areas, children will even take to quiet streets and hit balls to each other without a net in order to emulate their hero.

The new Serbian craze for tennis, catalysed by Djokovic (along with former women’s number ones Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic) could just as easily never have happened – especially when you consider that Djokovic didn’t just stumble across the hotel’s court but a coach too.

His most important influence

By pure chance, Jelena Gencic, one-time mentor to 10-time Grand Slam winner Monica Seles, ran summer lessons out of the Kopaonik Hotel and it was there where as a six year old with a mild curiousity and a serious attitude, Djokovic first fell in love with the game. To this day, he credits Gencic as his most important influence. “She had such a big impact on me,” he recalls.

“She supported me and encouraged me to dream big. For the first couple of days she was treating me as a kid, until she realised that I didn’t want to be just ‘a boy’. I behaved as a little professional player, and I was quite serious about my training.” djoko1 As their relationship grew, Gencic would not only teach the young Djokovic about top-spin backhands and deft dropshots, but also the importance of reading books, listening to classical music and being able to speak multiple languages. “She gave me life lessons that I will never forget, and one day I hope to be able to pass on her knowledge to other kids. She will always live through me, and that’s what gives me a lot of joy.”

It was to Gencic that Djokovic expressed his desire to not only play tennis professionally, but his goal to become the best player in the world. With his ambition in mind, and despite the dangers, his parents moved the family to Belgrade, and subsequently lived through the very serious reality that was the NATO-sanctioned bombing campaign of the capital in 1999. “It was not an easy time, that is for sure,” he says about the three-month blitz across the city during the Kosovo crisis.

Hiding in a bomb shelter

On his 12th birthday, Djokovic recalls the deafening noise of a low-flying drone that drowned out his family and friends singing Happy Birthday. On another occasion – such was the seriousness of the events – Djokovic was forced to hide in a bomb shelter when his practice in an empty swimming pool (which had been turned into a makeshift court) was suddenly interrupted. Tennis was very much his form of escapism from the terror that was going on around him. But it’s to these harrowing memories that he attributes his success today.

“It certainly had an impact on me and made me stronger as a person,” he says. “It’s because of this that I really do believe that I can do many things that at first seem impossible.” And looking at what he has achieved to date, it is hard to disagree. djoko5 No more is he just another very good player that Federer and Nadal would end up beating in the semi-final in order to continue their commonplace final showdown.

“[Roger and Rafa] certainly raised the bar very high and it took a big effort to get to where I am now,” he admits. “I was almost a fool at the time of their superiority to believe that I could beat them; they were winning all the tournaments where they played. I admired them a lot, but I was patiently working on my game and mental strength, and when I was ready, I was able to challenge them.”

Five-month winning streak

And challenge them he did. In 2011, Djokovic did not only realise his dream of becoming world Number One, but he went on to set a record-breaking five-month winning streak that lasted a staggering 43 games, consistently outclassing both Federer and Nadal (and everyone else) along the way. Such was this feat, that people - including tennis legend and Djokovic’s boyhood hero, Pete Sampras - would describe it as ‘one of the sport’s greatest achievements’.

Djokovic would go on to end the year with three of the four Grand Slam trophies in his cabinet, losing only six matches out of 70. Djokovic had done what no one else had previously succeeded in doing; he had shattered the decade-long Federer-Nadal dominance. “I love the rivalry we have,” he says. “It keeps this game very interesting for fans around the world, and yeah, it definitely makes us all work that much harder.” djokomain But what about The Djoker? It’s hard to imagine that someone with such drive – who grew up amongst air-raid sirens and spent days huddled up with friends and family in bomb shelters – would today be strutting around the tennis court doing Gangnam Style dance moves and faux-stripteases to the howls of laughter from the crowd. “I enjoy having a good time and it is important for me to share good, positive, funny emotions with the fans, showing people that you can have fun no matter what you do,” he says.

It’s a refreshing outlook in a sport that has traditionally stuck very stringently to stiff-upper-lip etiquette. And while Djokovic might well have taken some flak for his playful antics at the beginning, over time he has won over the crowd, with the public taking The Djoker into their hearts.

"It's really a privilege"

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his home country of Serbia, where he has taken on the mantle of being the face of a country’s young, free and democratic future. In 2011, following his victory at Wimbledon, his return to Belgrade was met by 100,000 people who lined the streets to cheer his homecoming. Such is Djokovic’s status as an international celebrity that the Serbian ambassador to the US Vladimir Petrovic once described him as “the single biggest positive PR the country has ever seen”.

“It’s really a privilege,” Djokovic says of his status as Serbia’s favourite son. “Not many people from my country get a chance to portray the essence of their culture to the world. My only wish is to use this opportunity wisely and to be of as much help to my people as I can.”

Unsurprisingly, it is a responsibility that he is taking seriously, establishing the Novak Djokovic Foundation – run by his fiancé Jelena Ristic – to help provide education to disadvantaged children across Serbia.

Images: Corbis; Getty.