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.
The 'Golden Child'
In 1993, 6-year-old Novak Djokovic watched tennis on television for the first time. The match was the Wimbledon final in which Pete Sampras beat Jim Courier. Three tennis courts had recently opened up across the road from his parents' restaurant. When Gencic began knocking balls around with a few children, Djokovic would be at the fence watching spellbound from morning till night.
"I eventually asked him, 'Hey, little man. Do you know what we're doing? Come and join us,'" Gencic says. "The next morning, he was there." Djokovic was equipped with an insulated cooler bag, a tennis racquet, a towel, water, a banana, an extra T-shirt and a sweatband. "I said to him, 'Your mother packed well.' That got him angry, and he said: 'I did that. I want to play tennis, not my mother!' He was extraordinary," Gencic recalls.
She showed him how to hold his racquet, how to run and how he should face the ball. Three days later, she sent him to fetch his parents. "I told them they had a golden child." Gencic says. "I was convinced he would be among the top five players in the world by 17. They were speechless."
As she recalls that day, Gencic sits on the sofa in her living room smiling pensively.
From that day on, the two trained together intensively at Belgrade's Partizan Tennis Club. She told him he had to grow stronger so he could hit harder, and that he should move toward the ball even more. In their breaks, they read poetry or listened to Beethoven or Chopin. "Nearly everything I know about tennis I have her to thank for," says Djokovic, who still likes to relax to classical music.
Training as the Bombs Rained Down
But then the Kosovo conflict came to a head and, on March 24, 1999, NATO launched its first air strikes on Belgrade. For two days and nights, Novak, his parents and his two brothers cowered in the basement of their apartment block before they dared to return to their second-floor apartment.
"We were simple people helplessly at the mercy of the bombardment," Djokovic says in the locker room. "We decided to go on living our lives as normal. If something happened, it would just happen."
The bombardment of Belgrade lasted 78 days. During that time, 28,000 explosive devices were dropped on the city. But Djokovic continued training. If NATO planes bombed the bridge over the Danube, Djokovic and Gencic would train at Club May 25 on the banks of the river the following day. If bombs fell on Banjica, a southern suburb of Belgrade, Djokovic and Gencic would train at the local Vozdovac Club the next day.
"We assumed they wouldn't bomb the same area two days in a row," says Gencic, whose sister was killed when a bomb's shock wave hurled her against a wall.
Gambling on the Future
Sixths months after the attacks ended, Gencic told Djokovic he had gotten so good that she had nothing more to teach him. So she called Niki Pilic, a Croat who had once been Yugoslavia's best tennis player and had captained Germany's Davis Cup team to victory three times. Gencic asked Pilic, who was running a tennis academy in Oberschleissheim, near Munich, to take Djokovic under his wing.
But the fees were expensive. Although Pilic offered a special price, it was still 5,000 deutsche marks a month -- or much more than the Djokovic family could afford. In response, Djokovic's father, Srdjan, went looking for sponsors and even investors, but no one was willing to sign on. He then borrowed money at absurdly high interest rates, once at 10 percent per year, another time at 15 percent.
Srdjan gambled and bet everything on his son. If Novak hadn't made it as a professional, the family would have been ruined.
Determined to be the Best
Niki Pilic sits in the clubhouse of Munich's Iphitos tennis club. He's just finished training with a Russian girl, and now he's waiting for his spaghetti. He says he initially wondered whether he should take Novak on at all. "The Balkan conflict was just over," Pilac says. "I'm a Croat and he's Serbian. Maybe even a wrong word could have had disastrous consequences. But then I thought, 'My wife is also Serbian and Novak's a nice kid. Let's give it a try.'"
Pilic made his young protégé serve against a wall for hours on end to improve his technique, and he had him working with a rubber exercise band for a year to improve flexibility in his wrist. "Novak was extremely eager to learn," Pilic says. "He was almost obsessive in the way he worked on himself."
Djokovic would go on to spend four years in Bavaria. He would often arrive on court 20 minutes before his lesson. When Pilic once asked why he was so early, Novak replied: "I don't want to endanger my career."
Latvian tennis player Ernests Gulbis, who currently holds 47th place in the world rankings, attended the academy with Djokovic and was his closest confidante. "Novak was absolutely certain he'd be the best one day," Gulbis says. "When I was 16, I was a joke; I had a thousand other things in my head. Novak was so self-confident, so professional."
Pilic got Djokovic wildcards for four tournaments and, in 2003, he won his first matches as a professional. Two years later, he was the youngest player in the top 100.
The following April, something happened that no one in the Djokovic family likes to talk about anymore. Since Serbia's tennis federation couldn't support Djokovic, he was forced to consider changing his nationality. His mother even held talks with the Lawn Tennis Association, the British federation. "In the end, it was my decision not to do it," Djokovic says. "I'm glad to be a Serb. Serbia is a part of me."
In the meantime, Djokovic has become something of a national treasure. He wears the Order of St. Sava, the highest honor bestowed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, because he donated $100,000 for the preservation of historic monasteries in Kosovo. He says it's the most important title he ever attained.
When it comes to Kosovo, Djokovic is a nationalist. His father was born in Kosovo, as were his uncle and his aunt. "It is the birthplace of my family and, indeed, of Serbian culture itself," he says.
His words are powerful, and they can calm or excite crowds. After winning the Australian Open in 2008, he sent a video message to Belgrade, where 150,000 of his compatriots were demonstrating against Kosovo's declaration of independence. "We are prepared to defend what is rightfully ours," he said. "Kosovo is Serbia." That night, armed demonstrators threw stones at the Croatian, Bosnian and German embassies. They attacked the American Embassy, as well, and set fire to it.
Was that what he intended?
Djokovic stands in the Belgrade Arena, his arms folded across his chest. "I don't regret what I did," he says. "We want justice, but we just can't get it." Then he goes out onto the court for the team introductions. When he steps into the limelight, the spectators rise to their feet as one, cheering in his general direction or at his image flickering on the monitors. Djokovic smiles and waves. The Davis Cup is an emotional, patriotic celebration in Serbia.
A Fresh Focus
Djokovic says that when the Serb national squad first won the team event in December 2010, it was like a reawakening for him because it showed what his country could achieve.
Until then, Djokovic had been a very good player -- in the top five, even -- but he tended to lose most of his key matches. So, he began working even harder and, since then, he's been in a class of his own.
In addition to having a new fitness coach, Djokovic gets advice from a nutritionist who has also studied traditional Chinese medicine. He was the one to discover that Djokovic is allergic to gluten. Ever since the Serb cut everything containing wheat, rye and oats from his diet, he has become lighter, fitter and more agile.
He now plays outstandingly because he combines what should theoretically be opposing forces: concentration and frenzy, calm and obsession. On the tennis court, he is half street fighter, half artist. He uses his success to act as an ambassador, even going so far as to perform a Serbian folk dance on American TV.
Djokovic also sees himself as a development aid worker. He helped set up the Serbia Open, the country's first ATP tournament, and he has established a tennis academy opening soon. His company, Family Sport, has already invested €5 million in it, and another €5 million is expected to follow.
Djokovic now employs roughly 100 people and has his uncle coordinate his appointments. A painting in his father's office on the sixth floor of a high-rise building shows Novak and Patriarch Pavle, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
A Mortal Savior
The expectations of an entire nation are clearly resting on Djokovic's shoulders. Janko Tipsarevi, Serbia's third-best player, sits drinking coffee. The 27-year-old with tattoos on his arms and shoulder blades says: "Novak brings us closer to Europe. I keep telling him, 'One more win, Novak, and we'll be in the EU.'"
In Belgrade, Djokovic is playing against Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro. He slams a forehand, but his body fails him. When Djokovic collapses, muffled cries are heard in the stands, and worried looks are cast his way. A doctor looks at him, but Djokovic has to pull out of the match after having ripped a muscle in his ribs, giving his opponent a victory by default.
He cries into his towel. It's only his third defeat in 67 matches. In the end, Novak Djokovic, the savior of Serbia, is just a man after all.