Novak Djokovic stunned by coach's death
Life as a professional sportsman can be a ruthless business, in the way it requires you to shut out all distractions.
On Saturday Novak Djokovic’s team chose to insulate him from the sad news of the death of his first coach Jelena Gencic, whom he sometimes referred to as his “tennis mother”.
The information would have been hard for Djokovic to digest, just as he struggled to come to terms with the loss of his grandfather Vladimir last year. So he went out to play Grigor Dimitrov on Court Philippe Chatrier without knowing that Gencic had recently passed away at the age of 77.
The news only reached him at the close of what was a one-sided contest against Dimitrov. He immediately cancelled the routine post-match press conference, explaining that he was too upset to speak to the media.
Djokovic owed a great debt to Gencic, who helped direct his talent when he first arrived on the tennis court as a six-year-old. She was an unorthodox guide, not only shaping his strokes but encouraging him to learn more languages and read poetry. In a CBS 60 Minutes documentary screened last year, Djokovic returned to the small town where she still lives and they enjoyed an emotional reunion.
He will surely understand why his family and support staff chose to keep him in the dark. He has prioritised this French Open above all other tournaments this year, and recently spoke about how he believes it is his “destiny” to lift the title, so becoming the eighth man in the open era to complete the career grand slam
There were also grounds for concern over this match. On paper, Dimitrov looked like a real threat. He had already beaten Djokovic once on clay this year, when they met in Madrid a month ago, and has been widely tipped as a future world No 1.
As it happened, though, the young pretender was given a lesson in what it takes to reach the top of the tennis pyramid. He lasted just 1hr 44mins before succumbing to a routine 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 defeat. And that was little better than Guido Pella, an Argentine left-hander who has never been tipped for anything much, had managed against Djokovic in the previous round.
On the court, the only thing that bothered Djokovic was a twinge in his shoulder around 15 minutes before the end of the match. He called the trainer and had a brief massage. But he cranked up his serve to its top speed of 120mph in the next game, forestalling any hope Dimitrov might have had of making an unexpected comeback.
At 21, Dimitrov is one of the game’s brightest hopes, and his profile has been further boosted by his relationship with tennis’s queen bee Maria Sharapova. But he has underperformed so badly at the grand slams that he had never reached a third round before this week. He admitted afterwards that the extra attention had inhibited him as he sprayed no fewer than 48 unforced errors.
“I felt really uncomfortable in the first couple of games,” said Dimitrov. “It’s just a big stadium. I’d never been there. Never even practiced on that court. My first match I played on Court 17, and next thing you know, I’m in front of 17,000 people. I mean, it’s good that this thing happened in that way. I’m going to know something else for the future.”