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How Novak Djokovic Became Serbia's Brand Ambassador

It was his final gesture as he accepted the -trophy on Wimbledon’s Centre Court – the raising of the golden cup to the heavens, uttering the words “Jelena Gencic”, that revealed so much about Novak Djokovic. For he knew that he would not have been standing there as the champion and an inspirational symbol for his country had it not been for a woman who taught him about life as well as tennis. 

Their story was unique, as it had to be, because it is incredibly difficult for a nation to shed a bloody past and, more than any other single person, Djokovic has helped it do so. Serbia wasn’t the only culprit in the Balkans war that raged across what used to be known as Yugoslavia in the 1990s but it copped most of the bad press and, as the new century dawned, its image lay in ruins. 

Restoring a sense of national pride can be difficult but, usually, it doesn’t take as long as altering the perception of the outside world. To get the job done quickly, a nation needs an untainted hero to emerge from somewhere to offer the world a completely different perspective.

Against all the odds for a country that, historically, had not paid much attention to the sport, that hero turned out to be a tennis player called Djokovic. His thrilling victory over Roger Federer, in one of the Championships’ best finals last week, will certainly embellish a reputation that had been growing even before Djokovic startled the tennis world by going unbeaten through the first five months of 2011 and becoming so dominant over a period of 13 months that he won four Grand Slam titles out of five.

If winning the Australian Open in 2008 had set him on the road to hero status, he had been given plenty of support by his female compatriots, Jelena Jankovic, who rose to number one in the world that same year, shortly after Ana Ivanovic had climbed to the pinnacle just a few weeks after winning the French Open. 

With Nenad Zimonjic winning doubles titles, the Serbs were suddenly a pre-eminent force on the tennis tour. Back home, Serbs found they had something to cheer, something to feel good about, never more so than when Djokovic led them to a Davis Cup winning triumph in 2010. In a matter of a few short years, tennis had become the most popular sport in the country. 

It would not have happened had not a five-year-old turned up, all alone, at a tennis camp in the ski resort of Kopaonik and caught the attention of the head coach, who had learned to recognise exceptional talent while working with Monica Seles eight years before. Jelena Gencic saw something in young Novak’s dark, piercing eyes and determined manner that drew her to him and, within a few months, she was telling his parents that they had “a golden child”.

For the next six years, Gencic taught Djokovic about backhands and Beethoven; etiquette, table manners and Serbian poets. She let him choose what sort of backhand he wanted (Novak felt happier switching to a two hander) and, while never telling him not to listen to his heavy metal music, managed to open his mind to the classics. One day she was rewarded when, on listening to the 1812 Overture he said, suddenly, “Jeca, I’ve got goosebumps”. 

Gencic was told these stories to the author Chris Bowers, whose book, The Sporting Statesman examines in great detail the intricacies of the Balkan war and how a tennis player who, crucially perhaps, came from a mixed Serbian, Montenegrin and Croatian heritage, could emerge as his nation’s unofficial but highly effective ambassador. 

Djokovic with teammate Nenad Zimonjic celebrating their Davis Cup win in 2010, which made tennis the most popular sport in Serbia. Ivan Milutinovic/Reuters 
She spoke to Bowers at length, something she had never done with a foreign writer before, and he feels that she wanted her story known before she passed away 18 months later at the age of 76. Her death left Djokovic so distraught that he could not fulfill his media obligations while playing in the French Open in 2013. 

Later, he wrote a letter to her and asked that his mother read it out at a memorial service for Gencic in Belgrade, which he could not attend. “I am completely unprepared for our parting,” the letter read. “You were an angel. Both when you coached me and afterward, I felt your support wherever I went . . . I promise that I will speak your name to future generations and that your spirit will live on.” 

Anyone who has sat in numerous Djokovic press conferences will be unsurprised by words eloquently expressed. Speaking in near flawless English, Djokovic presents himself as a young man of high intelligence with a clear understanding of what and whom he is representing. 

“I actually love all the ex-Yugoslav countries, including Croatia, despite the horrible war,” he has said. “I am not a person who holds a grudge. I honestly don’t think that we, as countries, have any more reasons to fight.” 

Such soft, conciliatory words do not sit easily with a public that has only seen the chest-beating Serb warrior in action around the world, and, as usual, Djokovic found himself with minimal support compared to Federer in the Wimbledon final. He is used to it and understands it. Soon, if he continues to win titles with such fierce determination but unerring sportsmanship, fans outside Serbia will begin to warm to a man who has already been spoken of in the Balkans as a future President Tito. 

Many will consider that eventuality a stretch, but once he becomes accustomed to his future role as a husband and father, having recently married his long-term girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, who is expecting their first child, he will seek to expand his life beyond the court. With his charity work well established, who knows where that will lead.   

Already appointed Serbia’s Unicef ambassador; winner of the Laureus Sports of the Year Award and lauded by former Serbian president Boris Tadic, who attended his Wimbledon victory in 2011, for “influencing a better image for Serbia”, Djokovic, at the age of 27, stands poised to serve his country in any way it sees fit. 

“If he ran for president, he would win,” says Tadic. Any such thoughts will be a long way off, but Djokovic got a taste of what public life entails when last year he became one of the few sportsmen invited to address the United Nations General Assembly. His speech was fairly bland but he was less reticent when asked, a few days later, about the prospects of air strikes against Syria. 

“I am totally against any kind of weapon, any kind of air strike. I am totally against anything that is destructive. Because I had this personal experience, I know it cannot bring any good to anybody.”

It is a philosophy that will have him ridiculed by hardliners in his battle-scarred region but Djokovic has earned the right to be heard, and if there is one Serb in the world who has proved he can create optimism amidst despair, it is he.

Correction: This article originally mis-spelled the ski resort Kopaonik as Kapaonik. This has now been amended.

Correction: This article originally stated Djokovic learned of the death of Jelena Gencic at the Monte Carlo Open, when it was in fact the French Open. This has now been ammended.

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Novak Djokovic Defeats Roger Federer to Win U.S. Open

Roger Federer was on a roll: a new service return, renewed confidence and 28 straight sets won coming into the United States Open final.

Once again, Novak Djokovic was the antidote.

After stopping Federer’s momentum in four sets in this year’s Wimbledon final, Djokovic did the same on Sunday, prevailing against an inspired opponent and a hostile crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium to underscore his status as the world’s No. 1 player.

Djokovic’s 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory gave him a second U.S. Open singles title and a 10th Grand Slam singles title, moving him into a tie with Bill Tilden for seventh place on the career list.

Federer remains on top of that pecking order with 17, but Djokovic has prevented him from adding to his record total.

Federer is playing remarkable tennis at age 34, but Djokovic, at 28, is in his prime and remains one of the great tennis conundrums for any opponent with his tactical versatility and peerless defensive skills.

“You have to find the right dose of risk,” Federer said after his latest defeat. “Sometimes I did it well and other times not as well.”
Novak Djokovic earned his second United States Open trophy. With 10 major singles titles, he is tied with Bill Tilden for seventh on the career list. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Federer has fared much better against Djokovic than most, and their rivalry is the best the men’s game has to offer at the moment, with Rafael Nadal in a slump that could turn out to be a decline.

Federer and Djokovic have played 42 times, and Djokovic’s victory on Sunday tied the series, 21-21.
It remains a contrast in styles, even more so now that Federer has recommitted to the attack under his co-coach Stefan Edberg, the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion who was a net-rushing marvel at his peak. But Federer has yet to win a major title with Edberg in his camp and is now 6-8 against Djokovic in Grand Slam matches.

“In Grand Slams, the conditions are not as fast,” Federer said. “Take tonight. These were the coolest conditions I’ve had for a month. I’m not saying I lost because of that, but it’s a fact. Also, to play aggressively against him for a longer period of time is even more complicated. That was not really the case today. I had the keys in my hand and did some good things, but I just didn’t win the important points to turn the match or get ahead. He was always in front, more or less, and at one moment or another, that pays off. He’s more relaxed than when playing from behind.”

Djokovic is hardly just a defender. He takes plenty of risks of his own and is particularly adept at transforming seeming vulnerability into offense when extended into the corners of the court.

The level of risk required to break him down is enormous, and he is also a moving target. The tactic that works in the first set may not work in the fourth.

“He’s like a shark,” Goran Ivanisevic, the former Wimbledon champion now coaching Marin Cilic, told BBC Radio here. “If he smells blood, he attacks.”
Roger Federer congratulating Djokovic, who also beat him to win Wimbledon. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Hardcourts have traditionally been Djokovic’s happiest hunting ground, suiting his precise footwork best. But U.S. Open finals have been more stumbling blocks than showcases for him. He had lost four of the five in which he had played until Sunday. And he literally stumbled in the first set of this final when he lost his balance while changing direction in the fourth game and fell hard to the blue court, scraping his right forearm and looking a bit dazed for the next few points as Federer, who had been broken in the third game, succeeded in breaking back.

“There was still a little bit of moisture on the court, I think, from the rain and a bit of humidity and so forth,” Djokovic said. “I needed two, three games, really, to kind of regroup.”

This much-anticipated final between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 players was delayed more than three hours by rain. When it finally did begin, it quickly became apparent (and audible) that Djokovic would be playing on the road, with the sellout crowd at Ashe Stadium giving Federer nothing but positive reinforcement and greeting Djokovic’s winners with polite applause at best and frequently cheering for his unforced errors and missed first serves.

Eva Asderaki-Moore, the first female chair umpire to work a U.S. Open men’s singles final, did her best to manage the partisan vibe. Her plea of “Please” became something approximating a mantra, and she also had a remarkable night reading the flow of play, making correct overrules and keeping a firm rein on a match that could easily have escaped control.

A lesser champion than Djokovic might have cracked in such an atmosphere, but this was hardly his first experience with Federer fever, hardly his first experience battling the crowd as well as the opponent.

He has played and won Davis Cup matches for Serbia for many years. He has beaten Lleyton Hewitt of Australia at the Australian Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France at the French Open and faced Andy Murray of Britain at Wimbledon, although he was the victim when Murray ended a 77-year singles drought for British men at the All England Club in 2013.

At this stage of his remarkable career, Federer plays in front of a home crowd in nearly every venue. For Federer, such support has certainly made it easier for him to continue to find the motivation after having won all the major titles (except the Olympic gold medal in singles) that there are to win.

“It’s definitely one of the reasons I keep playing,” Federer said. “These goose bump moments.”
Djokovic was diplomatic enough to avoid any triumphant notes in his remarks during the awards ceremonies. If he is weary of playing against the Federer bandwagon, he did not mention it.

“I can’t sit here and criticize the crowd — on the contrary, I think it’s logical to expect that a great player and a champion like Roger has the majority of the support anywhere I play him,” Djokovic said in his postmatch news conference. “I accept the fact. Everybody has a choice to support a player that they want to support. And he absolutely deserves to have the support he does because of all the years and success that he has had and the way he carries himself on and off the court. Me, I’m there to earn the support, and hopefully in the future I can be in that position.”

Still, it seemed an appropriate choice that Djokovic chose to watch the movie “300” on the eve of the Open final. Like the Spartan warriors against the Persians, he was outnumbered, too. One of the film’s stars, Gerard Butler, was in Djokovic’s box on Sunday.

“When I looked at him, I said, This is Sparta,” Djokovic said. “It felt great.”

Djokovic has become as tough to break down mentally as he is tough to break down in a baseline rally. And with Federer’s first-serve percentage stuck below 50 percent, Djokovic won the opening set.

Federer found his form in the second, but as at Wimbledon, he was unable to sustain that drive, even with the crowd fully behind him, cheering for Djokovic’s missed first serves and other errors.
Federer’s final chance to extend the match came in the fourth set, when he cut Djokovic’s two-break advantage to 5-4 from 5-2 and then had three break-point opportunities on the Serb’s serve to get back to 5-5.

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But Djokovic saved them all and was soon celebrating in the players’ box with his friends, family, and team, which includes Edberg’s longtime rival Boris Becker, now Djokovic’s head coach. Their cheers had been drowned out for most of the night, but they ended up cheering the loudest as Federer, who converted just 4 of 23 break points in the match, sat glumly in his chair.

“I think it was the right game plan, just execution was sometimes missing in some crucial moments,” Federer said. “But other than that, I think I played a good match. Maybe I haven’t played this offensive for a very long time, and that’s maybe the reason as well why maybe I was slightly shaky when it came to the crunch on the break points. Who knows?”

What is clear is that Djokovic’s victory made his season one of the finest in tennis history — even better in Grand Slam terms than his remarkable 2011 season, when he won three of the major singles titles and lost in the semifinals of the French Open to Federer.

This year, he joined Federer and Rod Laver as the only men in the Open era to reach all four major finals, his only defeat coming in the final of the French Open against Stan Wawrinka, Federer’s inspired Swiss compatriot.

Federer was clearly inspired himself on this summer hardcourt swing: winning in Mason, Ohio (beating Djokovic in the final), and then reaching the U.S. Open final without losing so much as a set. But beating Djokovic over a best-of-five-set match is still the biggest challenge in men’s tennis, and Federer, for all his tennis genius, has not managed it since the Wimbledon semifinals in 2012.
At least he knows his efforts are appreciated.

“It’s a great consolation for me to receive this kind of support in a country that is a long way from Switzerland and is one of the countries that is the most powerful in sports in general,” Federer said of Sunday’s crowd. “They love winners here.”

Djokovic might disagree.

Correction: September 17, 2015 
An article on Monday about Novak Djokovic winning men’s singles at the United States Open misstated, in some editions, his record against Andy Murray at Wimbledon. While he has faced Murray there, he has not beaten him.