It was his final gesture as he accepted the trophy on Wimbledon’s Centre Court – the raising of the golden cup to the heavens, uttering the words “Jelena Gencic,” that revealed so much about Novak Djokovic. For he knew that he would not have been standing there as the champion and an inspirational symbol for his country had it not been for a woman who taught him about life as well as tennis.
Their story was unique, as it had to be, because it is incredibly difficult for a nation to shed a bloody past and, more than any other single person, Djokovic has helped it do so. Serbia wasn’t the only culprit in the Balkans war that raged across what used to be known as Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but it received most of the bad press and, as the new century dawned, its image lay in ruins.
Restoring a sense of national pride can be difficult but usually it doesn’t take as long as altering the perception of the outside world. To get the job done quickly, a nation needs an untainted hero to emerge from somewhere to offer the world a completely different perspective.
Against all the odds for a country that, historically, had not paid much attention to the sport, that hero turned out to be Djokovic. His thrilling victory over Roger Federer, in one of Wimbledon’s best finals, will certainly embellish a reputation that had been growing even before Djokovic startled the tennis world by going unbeaten through the first five months of 2011 and becoming so dominant over a period of 13 months that he won four Grand Slam titles out of five.
If winning the Australian Open in 2008 had set him on the road to hero status, he had been given plenty of support by his women compatriots, Jelena Jankovic, who rose to number one in the world that same year, shortly after Ana Ivanovic had climbed to the pinnacle just a few weeks after winning the French Open.
With Nenad Zimonjic winning doubles titles, the Serbs were suddenly a pre-eminent force on the tennis tour. Back home, Serbs found they had something to cheer, something to feel good about, never more so than when Djokovic led them to a Davis Cup winning triumph in 2010. In a matter of a few short years, tennis had become the most popular sport in the country.
It would not have happened had not a five-year-old turned up, all alone, at a tennis camp in the ski resort of Kapaonik and caught the attention of the head coach, who had learned to recognise exceptional talent while working with Monica Seles eight years before. Jelena Gencic saw something in young Novak’s dark, piercing eyes and determined manner that drew her to him and, within a few months, she was telling his parents that they had “a golden child”.
For the next six years, Gencic taught Djokovic about backhands and Beethoven; etiquette, table manners and Serbian poets. She let him choose what sort of backhand he wanted (Novak felt happier switching to a two hander) and, while never telling him not to listen to his heavy metal music, managed to open his mind to the classics. One day she was rewarded when, on listening to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” he said, suddenly, “Jeca, I’ve got goosebumps”.
Gencic told these stories to the author Chris Bowers, whose book, Novak Djokovic and the Rise of Serbia: The Sporting Statesman, examines in great detail the intricacies of the Balkan war and how a tennis player who, crucially perhaps, came from a mixed Serbian, Montenegrin and Croatian heritage, could emerge as his nation’s unofficial but highly effective ambassador.
She spoke to Bowers at length, something she had never done with a foreign writer before, and he feels that she wanted her story known before she passed away 18 months later at the age of 76. Her death left Djokovic so distraught that he could not fulfill his media obligations while playing in the Monte Carlo Open in 2013.
Later, he wrote a letter to her and asked that his mother read it out at a memorial service for Gencic in Belgrade, which he could not attend. “I am completely unprepared for our parting,” the letter read. “You were an angel. Both when you coached me and afterward, I felt your support wherever I went . . . I promise that I will speak your name to future generations and that your spirit will live on.”
Anyone who has sat in Djokovic press conferences will be unsurprised by words eloquently expressed. Speaking in near flawless English, Djokovic presents himself as a young man of high intelligence with a clear understanding of what and whom he is representing.
“I actually love all the ex-Yugoslav countries, including Croatia, despite the horrible war,” he has said. “I am not a person who holds a grudge. I honestly don’t think that we, as countries, have any more reasons to fight.”
Such soft, conciliatory words do not sit easily with a public that has only seen the chest-beating Serb warrior in action around the world, and, as usual, Djokovic found himself with minimal support compared to Federer in the Wimbledon final. He is used to it and understands it. Soon, if he continues to win titles with such fierce determination but unerring sportsmanship, fans outside Serbia will begin to warm to a man who has already been spoken of in the Balkans as a future President Tito.
Many will consider that eventuality a stretch, but once he becomes accustomed to his future role as a husband and father, having recently married his long-term girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, who is expecting their first child, he will seek to expand his life beyond the court. With his charity work well established, who knows where that will lead.
Already appointed Serbia’s Unicef ambassador, winner of the Laureus Sports of the Year Award and lauded by former Serbian president Boris Tadic, who attended his Wimbledon victory in 2011, for “influencing a better image for Serbia”, Djokovic, at the age of 27, stands poised to serve his country in any way it sees fit.
“If he ran for president, he would win,” says Tadic. Any such thoughts will be a long way off, but Djokovic got a taste of what public life entails when last year he became one of the few sportsmen invited to address the United Nations General Assembly. His speech was fairly bland, but he was less reticent when asked, a few days later, about the prospects of air strikes against Syria.
“I am totally against any kind of weapon, any kind of air strike. I am totally against anything that is destructive. Because I had this personal experience, I know it cannot bring any good to anybody,” he said.
It is a philosophy that will have him ridiculed by hardliners in his battle-scarred region. But Djokovic has earned the right to be heard, and if there is one Serb in the world who has proved he can create optimism amidst despair, it is he.