To begin to understand how a small, struggling nation like Serbia managed to win the Davis Cup, you could interview Slobodan Zivojinovic, a big-serving Serbian trailblazer before he became a portly tennis administrator.
You could delve into tomes that explain the stubborn, resilient character of the Serbs, whose territory and autonomy have been overrun repeatedly but whose identity and sense of mission endure. You could spend an afternoon in Belgrade’s tennis clubs, where members once played on when NATO bombs were falling in 1999.
But if you have to pick just one essential starting point, perhaps it is best to drive south from the capital, toward the still-disputed border with Kosovo and follow the mountain road to Kopaonik, Serbia’s leading ski resort.
It was here that Novak Djokovic’s family once operated several small businesses — including a pizzeria, sports equipment shop and art gallery.
And it was here that the state-owned Yugoslav company Genex chose to build three tennis courts just across the parking lot from where the Djokovics opened their Red Bull restaurant in the late 1980s.
Now full of cracks and holes the green hardcourts are hardly a playground for the game’s elite. It is hard to believe that the planet’s third-best player emerged from this.
But even with those three courts in plain view, Novak needed a mentor, someone with the requisite charisma and clout to show him that however isolated this place, these courts could be the path to something much grander.
"It was the first day of my first year in Kopaonik, and I was doing a tennis camp," said Jelena Gencic, a leading tennis coach. "And he was just standing outside the tennis courts and watching all morning, and I said: 'Hey little boy, do you like it? Do you know what this is?"’
That summer afternoon in 1993, Novak, just 6 years old, accepted Gencic’s invitation. He arrived carrying a gym bag, just like the professionals he admired via satellite television.
"One racquet, towel, bottle with water, one banana, a dry extra T-shirt, wrist band and the cap," Gencic recalled recently. "And I said: 'O.K., who prepared your bag? Your mother?’ And oh, he was very angry. He said, 'No, I am playing tennis."’
He began playing in earnest, aided enormously and at just the critical moment by Gencic, the same intuitive coach who had helped shape the games of Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic. "Pretty much what I know on court, I owe to her," Djokovic said of Gencic.
It was Gencic who taught him the fundamentals; Gencic who provided him inspiration with Pushkin poems and classical music; Gencic who gently helped him arrive at the conclusion that he preferred to hit his backhand with two hands instead of the single hand used by his idol, Pete Sampras. It was Gencic who gave Djokovic’s parents, Srdjan and Dijana, along with Srdjan’s siblings, Goran and Jelena, the assurance that the boy had what it took to be something exceptional.
"Let’s say that Jelena Gencic gave us strength," said Goran Djokovic, who at 46 is four years younger than Srdjan. "We were all together as a family, and we had our project. It was not good times, there were sanctions and the war was starting. It was not an easy time for Serbia, for Yugoslavia, but all the money we had we invest in Novak. He had to be the one in front of the family who had to have everything he need: the new racquet, the good food. Of course we can live very easy if he didn’t play tennis, but we have a vision."
The vision would require Novak to leave home at age 12 for the Munich academy run by the former top Yugoslav player Niki Pilic. It would require loans, tight communal living quarters, tears and angst, but surprisingly little internal dissent in the family.
"We didn’t want bad vibrations, only good energy," Goran said. "But of course people were talking sometimes, saying: 'This family is crazy, who do they think they are? How can they even think Novak will be something?"
The family’s intense presence in the players’ boxes of the world — Srdjan and Dijana wore shirts bearing Novak’s portrait during the US Open — might still rub some the wrong way.
But Novak is certainly something now: a 2008 Australian Open champion and two-time US Open finalist who, at 23, has won nearly $20 million in prize money and was recently named Serbia’s most eligible bachelor (even though he is based in tax-friendly Monaco).
His picture can be found on posters throughout Belgrade as he swings a broom instead of a tennis racquet as part of a national campaign to "Keep Serbia Clean." It’s a pitch that can be absorbed on multiple levels in a society still struggling to root out corruption.
Back in the older part of the city is the most concrete evidence of Djokovic’s impact. There, at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, sits the club that he and his family and other investors built. It is the site of a two-year-old ATP event, the Serbian Open, owned and operated by the family.
But Djokovic’s talent has not just served himself and his kin. His talent has served a bruised nation, one that has seen its territory shrink and shrink some more in the last 20 years.
As the country has grown smaller, its tennis has grown bigger, with Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic both reaching No. 1 in the women’s game and with Djokovic shining brightest for the men but hardly shining alone, with his Davis Cup teammates Janko Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic all part of the surge.
The paradox of shrinking Serbia and its tennis growth industry is not lost on Djokovic.
"I think it is very symbolic, and I think it’s very much deserved — for the tennis team, for the country, for the sport —because we put a lot of effort into improving the image of our country in the recent years," he said. "The history of our country is cruel. We have to face those issues or, should I say, we had to. Not anymore I hope, because we are going in the right direction, and we are ready to forgive, ready to move on."
Although Djokovic once explored the possibility of representing Britain because of frustration with training conditions and government inertia in Serbia, he is ever more the Serbian patriot and has been vocal in opposition to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. He took the stance, in part, because Srdjan and his siblings — ethnic Serbs — were born in Kosovo.
It was the dispute over Kosovo that led to NATO’s bombing of Belgrade and other areas of the former Yugoslavia from March to June 1999.
"We remember all these things and we will never forget, because it’s just very strong inside of you and very deep inside of you," Djokovic said. "It’s traumatic experiences and so definitely you do have bad memories about it. We heard the alarm noise about planes coming to bomb us every single day a minimum of three times for two and a half months, huge noise in the city all the time, all the time. So in my case, when I hear a big noise even now, I get a little traumatized."
But Djokovic, like his nation, has survived the big noises.