In the fall of 2011, a reunion took place between Novak Djoković and his first coach, Jelena Genčić. For reasons that remain unclear, and despite their obvious closeness, the two hadn’t seen each other for several years. During that time, Nole won his first few Slam trophies, led the Serbian team to a Davis Cup championship, went on a 43-match undefeated run to start the 2011 season, and became the ATP #1. It is significant, then, that the achievement the two most joyously celebrated on this late-November day was his Wimbledon title.
In my view, Genčić was not only Novak’s most important teacher but also the first Djoković “mythologist.” It is she who first told him that he was destined for greatness. It was her experience, insight, and faith that gave the Djoković family confidence to put so many of their hopes for the future in the prospects of a little boy. Hers were the words his elders repeated amongst themselves to help justify the sacrifices they were making and would continue to make. So, understanding the relationship with Genčić, his “tennis mother,” is a route to better understanding Novak: the child he was as well as the man he’s becoming.
While the March 2012 60 Minutes feature on Djoković excerpted a few minutes of this conversation, a Serbian tv program, Agape, aired its full length, providing a significant perspective on his early development as both a player and a person. The first segment and opening part of the second are mostly in English. I will provide translations in updates to this post.
To start at the end, with the closing montage voice-over (42:11):
When was the last time you heard a story that encourages, inspires, and endures?
Kopaonik, 1993: Novak Djoković meets Jelena Genčić for the first time. He watches the training through the fence around the court. He’s there every day, until Jeca finally asks him, “Would you like to play tennis, too, dear?” “This whole time I’ve been waiting for you to invite me.”
A little man with a big dream, a neat bag for practice, and a short cross-court backhand shot. “This one is mine,” thought Jelena, and said aloud, “For you it is written. You’ll be in the top five in the world at 17.” The boy drank in every word.
He beat the best of the best, stronger in body and richer in soul. Jelena taught him that the arm doesn’t play tennis, but rather the soul which leads it. Jeca and Nole: thousands of hours on court, hundreds of serves, slices, forehands, volleys, and smashes—as well as hundreds of poems, books, concerts: the wisdom of the ages. And even many springs and falls and winters—until there came a summer, when… [cuts from images of childhood training in Serbia to Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2011] He becomes first… and lifts the golden trophy above his head. Novak Djoković, world #1.
On Monday, September 23, while also celebrating his 100 weeks at number 1 in the ATP rankings, Djoković and his girlfriend of eight years, Jelena Ristić, got engaged. In light of this news, it seemed appropriate to share some of Novak’s observations on his important relationships (34:47).
JG: Can I ask you about something different now?
NÐ: You can.
JG: You know how it always was when we talked like this—we wandered here and there… [Therein commences an exemplary digression about a dog of their mutual acquaintance.] Can I ask, how is Jelena?
NĐ: She’s good—excellent.
JG: Give her my best.
NĐ: I will.
JG: He may not remember (or, he does) when he brought her—where else, to see me, but the tennis courts, right?
NĐ: Jeca, what can I say, other than that I’ve always liked the name Jelena. So…
JG: I knew it!
NĐ: That has followed me.
The interviewer chimes in (35:59): How much does this harmonious relationship with Jelena [Ristić] mean to you and what about her won you over?
NĐ: Well, we’ve been in a relationship for six years now and she is also my great support, someone I lean on a lot. She won me over first of all with her sincerity, her intelligence— and, ultimately, we developed a great understanding, a great love…. Without this you can’t maintain any relationship.
To be honest, that balance in my private life and the equilibrium that I have between my professional and private life very much helps me be happy and emotionally fulfilled and to somehow carry everything more lightly. People need to be dedicated to their professions, particularly one like tennis, which is the most demanding sport today as it has a longer season than any other. So, you have to be professional and persistent, in the desire to fulfill your dreams. But, on the other hand, your whole life can’t be reduced to work.
You need to have the right balance, to cherish and respect love—toward your family, parents, brothers, girlfriend, wife, friends. You shouldn’t forget where you come from, from what country. You shouldn’t forget the past: situations you’ve been through, people who helped along the way. That’s how I was brought up and I’ve tried my whole life to surround myself with people who honestly want the best for me. And I really believe that it’s precisely because I was around people like Jelena [tapping Genčić on the knee]—both Jelenas—as well as my family, my friends, people who truly wished the best for me, people who aren’t there because I’m a successful tennis player but who’ve really been there, with me, for a long, long time. Of course, my parents, who were there my whole life, who raised me and believed in me and my abilities. So, there it is. Because of these people and their support, I’ve managed to overcome my psychological barriers and crises, and so on (problems, even in puberty, like everyone else)—and succeeded in arriving in the situation where we are now: to be #1.
NĐ: …and to come to Jeca’s house!