Street Fighter, Artist and Patriot: Tennis Star Djokovic Is the Pride of New Serbia

By Maik Grossekathöfer

Novak Djokovic left Serbia when it became a global pariah in the 1990s. With talent and determination to prove there were "good Serbs, too," he has fought his way to the top ranking in professional tennis. His compatriots now treasure him as a symbol of their country's rebirth.

Photo Gallery: The Pride of the New Serbia Photos
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It may be half a lifetime away for him, but Novak Djokovic -- the world's best tennis player -- can distinctly remember his 12th birthday. Not because of the presents he received, but because of bombs that rained down on his hometown of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. The date was May 22, 1999.

"I celebrated my birthday at the Partizan Tennis Club where I had grown up," Djokovic recalls. "It was about midday, and my parents were singing 'Happy Birthday' when the attacks began."

Now 24, Djokovic looks back on that fateful day. We are in the catacombs of Belgrade Arena, two hours before his native Serbia is scheduled to compete against Argentina in the semifinal of the Davis Cup, the most prestigious team competition in men's tennis. The stadium's 20,000 seats are sold out, and the muffled sounds of music and chanting spectators filter down into the locker rooms.

Djokovic wears a white T-shirt with the Serbian emblem emblazoned on the front. He is a calm, thin man who speaks slowly but thinks quickly. He closes his eyes and thinks back to his 12th birthday.

"Suddenly the sirens began howling and, soon thereafter, the bombers were humming in the sky," he says. "They flew right over my head. Explosions then thundered in the distance. Our electricity was cut off."

He opens his eyes again. "I was frightened," he says.

On the 60th day of Operation Allied Force, the Nato campaign against Serbia, Allied planes bombarded Belgrade's No. 8 power station and the coal-fired power plant in Veliki Crljeni, south of Belgrade.

"It was terrible," Djokovic says.

He is pale, his cheeks hollow, his shoulders slumped. He only flew in 38 hours ago from New York, where he won the US Open, his third Grand Slam victory of the year. In 2011, Djokovic has already played 66 matches and only lost two.

He sits up on his chair and raises his voice. "The war made me a better person because I learned to appreciate things and to take nothing for granted," he says. "The war also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I'd prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too."

A Serbian to be Proud of

For many people, any mention of Serbia immediately conjures up images of massacres, mass graves, historic guilt and moral decline. It's a country that could do with a victory, a country that needs a hero, a country that has long been waiting for someone like Djokovic to come along.

Belgrade is littered with posters showing the young tennis star in a victory pose. There are stamps bearing his face, and his name can be found on cigarette lighters, candy bags and key rings.

Children are no longer interested in soccer. Nowadays, wherever you look, young people are playing tennis -- whether it's on basketball courts, in parking lots or in front of concrete buildings or war ruins. Boys sport his same crew cut, and girls carry his name in their heart. In the evening, TV documentaries report on his greatest achievements with proud tones reminiscent of propaganda newsreels.

When Djokovic won the Wimbledon championships in July -- which catapulted him to the top of the world rankings -- all of Serbia was ecstatic. A euphoric Serb president jokingly offered Djokovic his post, while 100,000 jubilant fans welcomed their native son back to Belgrade with folk songs, fireworks and red-blue-and-white flags. And, of course, Djokovic dedicated his trophy to his country. After all, he is the face of the new Serbia, the symbol of its phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes.

Discovered by a Legend

It all began when Djokovic was discovered as a child by tennis legend Jelena Gencic. Piles of books fill Gencic's living room from floor to ceiling, including the lyric poems of Pushkin and Yesenin. Porcelain pigs stand in glass cabinets. A newspaper clipping with a photo of Novak Djokovic lies on her desk.

"God almighty sent that boy," says Gencic, a polite lady with short, white hair. "Novak does more for our country than any politician." Her dogs bark in the garden.

Gencic turns 75 next week, but she can still be found training players on the tennis court every day. She worked as a television director for more than 45 years. Before that, she was a member of Yugoslavia's national handball team and represented her country in the Fed Cup, the women's equivalent of the Davis Cup. Gencic discovered Monica Seles, and then, in the early 1990s, she met Novak Djokovic.

At the time, Djokovic and his family spent the summer and winter vacations in Kopaonik, a popular tourist destination in the mountains 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Belgrade, where his parents ran a sporting-goods store and a pizzeria, the "Red Bull," which still exists to this day. Back then, life was simple.

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