Behind Serbia’s Rise in Tennis, a Star and His Family
KOPAONIK, SERBIA — To begin to understand how a small, struggling nation like Serbia managed to reach its first Davis Cup final this weekend, you could interview Slobodan Zivojinovic, a big-serving Serbian trailblazer at Wimbledon and elsewhere before he became a portly tennis administrator and car salesman.
You could delve into tomes that explain the stubborn, resilient character of the Serbs, whose territory and autonomy have been overrun repeatedly but whose identity and sense of mission endure. You could spend an afternoon in Belgrade’s tennis clubs, where members once played on when NATO bombs were falling in 1999.
But if you have to pick just one essential starting point, perhaps it is best to drive south from the capital toward the still-disputed border with Kosovo and follow the serpentine mountain road to Kopaonik, Serbia’s leading ski resort. Like so much of this diminished nation, Kopaonik has seen better days and is preparing to see them again.
It was here that Novak Djokovic’s family, much more familiar with schussing down slopes than hitting balls over nets, once operated several small businesses — including a pizzeria, sports equipment shop and art gallery — on the ground floor of a large complex during the winter and summer months. And it was here that the state-owned Yugoslav company Genex, which developed much of Kopaonik, chose to build three tennis courts just across the parking lot from where the Djokovics opened their Red Bull restaurant and creperie in the late 1980s.
Now full of cracks, holes and undulations, the green hardcourts are hardly a playground for the game’s elite. It is hard to believe that the planet’s third-best player, the man who held off Roger Federer at the U.S. Open in September, emerged from this.
If some planner had chosen a different recreational destiny for this plot of land, perhaps young Novak would have become a competitive skier, like his father, Srdjan, and uncle, Goran, and the French Davis Cup team would not be bracing to compete in the din of a sold-out final in Belgrade Arena from Friday to Sunday.
But even with those three courts in plain view in Kopaonik, Novak needed a mentor, someone with the requisite charisma and clout to show him that however isolated this place, however unlikely the prospect, these courts could be the path to something much grander.
“It was the first day of my first year in Kopaonik, and I was doing a tennis camp,” said Jelena Gencic, a leading tennis coach and former professional player. “And he was just standing outside the tennis courts and watching all morning, and I said: ‘Hey little boy, do you like it? Do you know what this is?”’
That summer afternoon in 1993, Novak, just 6 years old, accepted Gencic’s invitation and returned to take part in the clinic himself. He arrived carrying a gym bag with his belongings well in order, just like the professionals he admired via satellite television.
“One racket, towel, bottle with water, one banana, a dry extra T-shirt, wrist band and the cap,” Gencic recalled recently. “And I said: ‘O.K., who prepared your bag? Your mother?’ And oh, he was very angry. He said, ‘No, I am playing tennis.”’
He began playing in earnest, aided enormously and at just the critical moment by Gencic, the same cultivated and intuitive coach who had helped shape the games of the future Grand Slam champions Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic.
“Pretty much what I know on court, I owe to her,” Djokovic said of Gencic, a former leading tennis player and member of Yugoslavia’s team handball squad.
It was Gencic who taught him the grips and fundamentals; Gencic who provided him inspiration with Pushkin poems and classical music; Gencic who gently helped him arrive at the conclusion that he preferred to hit his backhand with two hands instead of the single hand used by his American idol, Pete Sampras. Just as important, it was Gencic who gave Djokovic’s parents, Srdjan and Dijana, along with Srdjan’s siblings, Goran and Jelena, the assurance that the boy had what it took to be something exceptional in a game whose subtleties they did not yet grasp.
“The third day, I called to see the father and mother for the first time, and I said, ‘You have a golden child,”’ Gencic, 74, recalled in an interview at a clay court in Belgrade where she still gives lessons. “I said the same thing about Monica Seles when she was 8.”
The Djokovics were stunned but ultimately inspired. They would need all the inspiration they could muster in the years ahead as they sacrificed security and scrambled for money in a disintegrating economy.
“Let’s say that Jelena Gencic gave us strength; she’s a serious woman,” said Goran Djokovic, who at 46 is four years younger than Srdjan. “We were all together as a family, and we had our project. It was not good times, there were sanctions and the war was starting. It was not an easy time for Serbia, for Yugoslavia, but all the money we had we invest in Novak. He had to be the one in front of the family who had to have everything he need — the new racket, the good food and everything. Of course we can live very easy if he didn’t play tennis, but we have a vision.”
The vision — maintained like a fireplace in winter by the strong-willed Srdjan — would require Novak to leave home at age 12 for the Munich academy run by the former top Yugoslav player Niki Pilic, a friend of Gencic’s. It would require loans, tight communal living quarters, tears and angst, but surprisingly little internal dissent in the family.
“We didn’t want bad vibrations, only good energy, good energy,” Goran said. “But of course people were talking sometimes, saying: ‘This family is crazy, who do they think they are? How can they even think Novak will be something?”’
The family’s intense presence in the players’ boxes of the world — Srdjan and Dijana wore shirts bearing Novak’s portrait during the U.S. Open — might still rub some the wrong way. But Novak is certainly something now: a 2008 Australian Open champion and two-time U.S. Open finalist who, at 23, has won nearly $20 million in prize money and was recently named Serbia’s most eligible bachelor in an online newspaper poll (even though he is based in tax-friendly Monaco).
Now he will try to lead Serbia to its most prestigious sports title since the breakup of Yugoslavia, and he will do so at no small risk to his results next season, pushing his body for an extra week instead of joining his rivals Federer and Rafael Nadal, who have already started their short winter vacation breaks.
“It is a risk, but it is a price I feel is worth paying,” Djokovic said in a lengthy interview last month.
His picture can be found on posters throughout Belgrade as he swings a broom instead of a tennis racket as part of a national campaign to “Keep Serbia Clean.” It’s a pitch that can be absorbed on multiple levels in a society still struggling to root out corruption.
In New Belgrade, below the offices of the Djokovics’ four-year-old company, Family Sport, sits Novak Restaurant, an upscale eatery filled with well-dressed patrons and television screens showing highlights from Novak’s matches. A display case is filled with Novak lighters, key chains, pens.
The branding of Novak Djokovic takes on a more solemn air upstairs in Srdjan’s office, where a religious painting shows the late Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox church, with Novak’s face painted in luminous tones below him. Goran played down its implications.
“We don’t want to make an icon of Novak, but people are always trying to put him up there,” he said. “It’s a fight to keep normal.”
Back in the older part of the city is the most concrete evidence of Djokovic’s impact. There, at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, sits the club that he and his family and other investors built. It is the site of a two-year-old A.T.P. event, the Serbian Open, which is owned and operated by the family. It is also the prospective site of Novak’s tennis academy, potentially a cooperative effort with the IMG Bollettieri Academy in Florida, where one of Djokovic’s younger brothers, Djordje, 15, now trains.
An ornate room just off the club entrance in Belgrade houses Novak’s Olympic bronze medal from Beijing, his Australian Open trophy and other major prizes. But Srdjan and Goran have shipped in a memento of their own. Although the Red Bull restaurant in Kopaonik is now closed, shut down because of increased commitments and a new landlord, the brick pizza oven that once generated revenue in the mountains is now the centerpiece of the new Red Bull café at the Belgrade club and a reminder of how far the family has come since Srdjan used to cheer them up by showing them photos of the fancy cars they might own when Novak became a star.
“We don’t want to just be Novak’s uncle, Novak’s father, Novak’s aunt,” Goran said. “Novak has his business. His business is to play tennis. Our business is to run all this. We could put on the sunglasses and relax. But all of our lives we were in private business, even in the Communist time. So we try to build something for the future, for Novak and for Serbia.”
Total investment here so far? About €10 million, or $13 million, according to Goran, who is also the Serbian Open’s tournament director.
“Serbian history tells that the family is the most important thing and you have to stick with the family,” Novak said.
But Djokovic’s talent has not just served himself and his kin. His talent has served a bruised nation, one that has seen its territory shrink and shrink some more in the last 20 years as Yugoslavia cracked apart and Serbia was left with Montenegro and Kosovo and then left with nothing but itself and a reputation in as much need of repair as the war-damaged buildings in Belgrade.
But as the country has grown smaller, its tennis has grown bigger, with Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic both reaching No. 1 in the women’s game and with Djokovic shining brightest for the men but hardly shining alone, with his Davis Cup teammates Janko Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic all part of the surge. Tipsarevic and Troicki are in the top 50 in singles; Zimonjic, the group elder at age 34, is a former No. 1 player in doubles now ranked No. 3.
The bandwagon is getting heavier, and there are plans for the Serbian government, no major player until now, to fund a new national tennis center next year with at least five indoor courts, 15 outdoor courts and a residential complex. The estimated cost is €8 million to €9 million, according to Zivojinovic, 47, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 1985 who is now president of the Serbian Tennis Federation, with an annual budget of less than €2 million.
The paradox of shrinking Serbia and its tennis growth industry is not lost on Djokovic, for whom the Davis Cup final represents renewal.
“I think it is very symbolic, and I think it’s very much deserved — for the tennis team, for the country, for the sport — because we put a lot of effort into improving the image of our country in the recent years,” he said. “The history of our country is cruel. We have to face those issues or, should I say, we had to. Not anymore I hope, because we are going in the right direction, and we are ready to forgive, ready to move on.”
Although Djokovic once explored the possibility of representing Britain because of frustration with training conditions and government inertia in Serbia, he is ever more the Serbian patriot and has been vocal in opposition to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. He took the stance, in part, because Srdjan and his siblings — ethnic Serbs — were born in Kosovo.
It was the dispute over Kosovo that led to NATO’s bombing of Belgrade and other areas of the former Yugoslavia from March to June 1999. Gencic’s sister died in the bombing. But she said that she, Novak and others continued to play tennis in Belgrade, choosing areas that had been bombed the previous night on the assumption that they would not be bombed again so soon.
Djokovic expresses no bitterness, but plenty of emotion.
“We remember all these things and we will never forget, because it’s just very strong inside of you and very deep inside of you,” he said. “It’s traumatic experiences and so definitely you do have bad memories about it. We heard the alarm noise about planes coming to bomb us every single day a minimum of three times for two and a half months, huge noise in the city all the time, all the time. So in my case, when I hear a big noise even now, I get a little traumatized.”
But Djokovic, like his nation, has survived, and the big noises that will soon reverberate inside Belgrade Arena are not likely to have such negative effects.