Monday 16 December 2019

War child Novak reaches destiny


Ian Chadband

NOVAK DJOKOVIC can party with the best of them and Wimbledon probably expected to see a bleary-eyed champion when he returned to the All England Club yesterday morning.

Not a bit of it. The Serb said he had been tucked up in bed by 1.0, at a time when the wine was still flowing at the Champions' Dinner in the West End.

"I haven't had time for celebrations," Djokovic said. "The obligations for the Wimbledon champion are quite rough. I had the official dinner which was nice, but it was long and I was too tired to celebrate."

The new world No 1, who was presented with a cake decorated in Serbian red, white and blue on the players' lawn on his return to Wimbledon, is planning to make up for lost time, although the biggest celebrations will probably have to wait until after this weekend's Davis Cup tie in Sweden.

Nevertheless, a hero's welcome was awaiting him in Belgrade last night as the 24-year-old headed home, having after claiming his first Wimbledon title with victory over Rafael Nadal.

Before flying home, the new Wimbledon champion found time to reflect with joy on his sporting destiny.

He thought back to the happy chance that, as a four-year-old kid living in the heart of the Dinaric Alps, the Yugoslav state-owned company that was then developing the ski resort of Kopaonik should decide to build three tennis courts on the other side of the car park from where his parents, Dijana and Srdjan, ran the family creperie.

"God knows if I would have started tennis at all if those three tennis courts hadn't been up there," he laughed, still sounding as if he could not quite credit what he had achieved.

"Nobody in my family ever touched a tennis racket before me, so there was no tradition whatsoever. I would have become a skier or football player or a regular student. But that is destiny in life. When something is meant for you, it is meant for you."

Perhaps, then, it was meant for this 24-year-old to be playing such an iconic role in his young country's life that 'Vecernje novosti', a newspaper in Belgrade, hailed Djokovic, amid ecstatic celebrations in the city, as "a balm for all our wounds".

Even the Serbian president Boris Tadic, who had watched the game from the Royal Box, ended up laughing that he had almost died from excitement and nerves but that it would be okay because he could immediately hand over his duties to the new champion.

Djokovic, this proudest of Serbs, understands the symbolic power back home of his triumphant journey as a kid from the mountains in a war-torn nation who ends up scaling one of sport's most arduous peaks to become a global figure.

"What he has achieved is equivalent to conquering Mount Everest, because you must ask yourselves how many millions of people play tennis and dream of becoming the best in the world," his old mentor Niki Pilic put it.

Those mountains are still in his blood. Sponsors and managers often force top sportsmen to agree to contracts that forbid them from skiing, because of the dangers of injury, but Djokovic laughed that we would never catch him signing away his fun like that.

"Only about once in the last four years but I still ski whenever I can," he said yesterday.

"My dad, aunt and uncle were all very good, professional, at the top of the former Yugoslavia ski squad.

"When dad stopped skiing he opened a restaurant and my uncle opened a boutique, selling winter clothes. They became ski instructors and opened their own school."

Serious sporting genes, then. No wonder the young Novak was a natural on the slopes but he had other sporting loves, too.

"Oh God, as a kid, even though I loved playing tennis, I had regrets about not being a footballer. I loved football, I love it today as well."

Yet something about tennis compelled him from the start. He remembers watching Wimbledon as a kid and wanting to be like Pete Sampras. Jelena Gencic, Monica Seles' mentor, was the first to realise that little Novak just might be a rare find when she turned up in Kopaonik to take a summer clinic.

"I shall never forget the day when this boy came with a bag neatly packed, as if for professional training," recalled Gencic.

"I asked him who packed it for him and he replied indignantly he did it himself. When I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, without hesitation he gave me the same answer that Monica Seles had: 'No 1 player in the world'!"

And now he has made it, this eccentric, compelling figure feels he owes much to Gencic, who was prescient enough to tell the boy's parents they had a "golden child" on their hands, as well as to Pilic, the former Croatian star whose academy in Germany Djokovic was sent to as a 12-year-old.

Both mentors remember the same quality in Djokovic: a raging competitiveness that has been demonstrated to be every bit as ferocious as even the great Nadal's.


"I soon realised after a short spell playing against him that he had this incredible will," recalled Pilic recently.

"He was always great to coach, particularly because he also had what it takes in the places that no coach can really reach -- into the heart and into the head."

Where did that bloody-minded, utterly determined spirit emanate from? Once again yesterday, Djokovic reflected on how he had to negotiate some serious "ups and downs in life to become a champion".

The downs included a spell in spring 1999 when Djokovic, his parents and two brothers, Marko and Djordje, were living in a small apartment in Belgrade as NATO jets were targeting the Serbian capital.

He and Ana Ivanovic, who along with Jelena Jankovic remarkably put Serbian tennis on the map after the Balkan conflicts, would sometimes have to disappear into a bomb shelter when their practice in an empty swimming pool, which had been turned into a makeshift tennis court, was alarmingly interrupted.

Djokovic can remember the menacing drone of the low-flying bombers drowning out the renditions of 'Happy Birthday to You' when he turned 12. Episodes like that build character.

"All of us who went through that came out with their spirit stronger," he once said. "And now we appreciate the value of life. We know how it feels to be living in 60 square metres being bombed."

Djokovic is a sportsman on top of the world now, worth a fortune and ensconced in his millionaire's Monaco playground.

Yet last night, as a welcoming party of thousands gathered to hail him in Nikola Pasic square, their blessed boy from the mountains will have understood that it was his destiny to be back where he truly belonged. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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