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US Open champion Novak Djokovic inspired to greatness by national pride

On the thickly forested slopes of Kopaonik, in southern Serbia, Jelena Gencic used to host a summer tennis camp. This sprightly 75 year-old recalls one lesson in particular, watched as it was by a little boy staring through the outside fence, studying every move intently.


“I said, ‘Hey, little boy, do you like it? Do you know what this is?’ ‘Yes, I know,’ he said. ‘You play tennis.’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Novak Djokovic.’ Very clear. Very strong.”

It was the summer of 1993, just as neighbouring Bosnia became engulfed by conflagration. The children whom Gencic now mentors, on her dilapidated clay court on the outskirts of Belgrade, are too young to remember the Nato bombs that rained down upon the Serbian capital. But when asked who they most want to emulate, they muster an eerily familiar reply. “Novak Djokovic.”

On Friday, the US Open champion will deliver the starkest affirmation of his duties as the face of a united Serbia. For he is returning to Belgrade in triumph, ready to put peerless individual glories on hold for this weekend’s Davis Cup semi-final against Argentina. In Britain we may deride this competition, reduced as we are to playing Hungary in a Glasgow shopping centre, but for the Serbs it is nothing less than a pillar of nationhood.

Amid fervent scenes at the Belgrade Arena last December, Djokovic inspired his Serbia team-mates to win their first Davis Cup. In his second singles rubber he gave a graphic signal of how much the final against France meant, smashing his racket in fury when he fell a break behind to Gael Monfils. At the point of victory he was similarly unhinged, draping himself in the national colours for a dance.

If you want to identify a trigger for Djokovic’s supremacy this season, or for his rapier filleting of Rafael Nadal at Arthur Ashe Stadium, here it is.

Of the 72 matches contested since that Balkan midwinter night, Serbia’s slender hero has won 70 of them.

When he brought the Wimbledon Challenge Cup back to Belgrade’s Parliament Square, 100,000 turned out to acclaim him. ‘Nole!’ posters were plastered across the sides of whole tower blocks. Imagine, then, the reception when he presents a third Grand Slam trophy this year for their delectation. At the rate Djokovic is going, there could yet be a groundswell for him to succeed Boris Tadic as Serbia’s president.

On the US Open equivalent of ‘People’s Monday’, Djokovic’s status as national icon was confirmed. More than a hundred Serbian fans had congregated on the stairwells out of Ashe, unleashing a medley of Slavic anthems and whipping off their tops. “Vamos Nole,” they cried, in an attempt at rapprochement with dispirited Nadal fans. Four middle-aged men in water-polo helmets leapt up and down, conducting the mob with gusto, before a security guard barked at them to put their shirts back on. “Fine,” he said, when not one obeyed. “Let’s go, Serbia!”

No one could deny Djokovic or his entourage such merriment after perhaps the greatest match seen at Flushing Meadows. Granted, it was one-dimensional at times — an orgy of coruscating baseline hitting — but ascended to greatness through its impression that the old order had changed. In the Wimbledon final of 2008, arguably the finest tennis spectacle any of us will see, one sensed that the Nadal era had begun as he outgunned Roger Federer in the Centre Court gloaming. At the end of Monday night’s marathon in New York, the feeling formed that Djokovic was out on his own.

From the Ashe loge boxes, the drama directed by Djokovic was mesmeric.

Beyoncé, leaning forward from her seat opposite his chair, applauded as his outrageous drop shots sealed a 17-minute duel early in the second set — and as he came through a 31-stroke rally to defend a break point against Nadal in the third. Poor Nadal was simply pushed around, buffeted by second-serve returns that either came straight back at his feet or whistled past him at preposterous angles. The world’s second-ranked player looked just as ineffectual on the attack, at the mercy of a devilish talent with the movement and wingspan to chase down any shot he contrived.

If we believe John McEnroe’s assertion that Djokovic is enjoying “the greatest season in the history of our sport,” then this was its most vivid exclamation point. Already, it appears, Djokovic is pausing to reflect upon his seismic accomplishments. When I spoke to him at the Empire State Building on Tuesday, he was lost, briefly, in memories of that stern-faced boy who so captivated Gencic.

What did he see? “I see the boy who holds the racket with a lot of love, who plays tennis with passion, who dreams of being the best.” His former tutor should be proud of him. As, indeed, should every one of his jubilant countrymen.

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