Share via Email Novak Djokovic Men's tennis in was all about one man: At the start of the season, he was 19 years old and ranked 16th in the world. By the time he left Wimbledon - stymied in the semis by foot blisters - he was number three. But the moment that defined his stellar year was not, surprisingly, a win. Djokovic may have lost the match, but the sight of Maria Sharapova screaming him on from his guest box - with Robert De Niro alongside - confirmed he had something that Federer, whatever blazer-and-trouser combos he may concoct, will never be able to emulate: For a sense of Djokovic's flair, you could watch his Wimbledon quarter-final against Marcos Baghdatis, one of the most thrilling matches of the year, despite being five hours long, or the attacking play that defeated Federer in the final of the Montreal Masters in August.
But that is only half the story. For the rest, see Djokovic's YouTube moments: Djokovic has charm and, crucially, wit, and has taken it upon himself to be Serbia's most winning, and most committed, ambassador to the world.
In his family's Belgrade office, in one of the city's ubiquitous concrete blocks, the young man who is the family business offers drinks with the kind of manners that would please your mum. There have, it transpires, been a few phone calls from hopeful mothers. I'm happy, my family's happy, everything is going well.
Djokovic's schedule for his three-day home visit is full of public appearances and private meetings, and the office is bustling. Uncles and cousins come and go, finalising arrangements for a charity event at the Belgrade Arena - one of the largest indoor stadiums in Europe - under the direction of Novak's dad Srdjan.
Novak will be playing a doubles exhibition match with Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Janko Tipsarevic who have, in barely a year, effected nothing less than a revolution in Serbian sport. Until their recent successes, tennis ranked lower on the sporting consciousness here than volleyball, handball and water polo. Now it is challenging football and basketball as the country's most popular sport. Since the French Open, the tennis federation has seen a 40 per cent increase in people playing the sport and basketball courts are being hijacked by children wanting to hit balls over an imaginary net.
I've said on national television here that I would really love to play for one of our football clubs when I finished my tennis career. Everybody was surprised, but that's what I really want to do. When I finish, who knows? A couple of games, or half a season. I like to score. Anyway, who has the best body in the men's dressing room?
He pauses to consider this quite seriously. I would say, for sure, Paradorn Srichaphan. He has not been playing and I haven't seen him for a while. But he still has the best body in men's tennis. I don't like bodies like Rafa's. I still don't have the right breathing on the court, exhaling when you're hitting the ball. You lose a lot of energy if you're not breathing right. Maybe some yoga would help. It was the worst time in my life.
I was in the hospital and for three days I couldn't breathe because I had things in my nose, it was terrible. But the surgeon was from Italy and he knows how to do the job really well. So he's pretty famous there. Did he offer any, you know, shaping? No, that was something they didn't offer. With his white shirt tucked in to a pair of jeans, rimless glasses and his earnest responses, he has the air not so much of a sportsman as of a PhD student, or an accountant.
Alongside him sit his two younger brothers, teenager Marko and year-old Djordje, both promising players. Marko's shy, but little Djordje is not. When someone asks him who his tennis idols are, he replies: But I like myself the best. It is hard to imagine in what way punctilious Pete might have inspired such an extrovert.
But I just love the way he deals with the pressure. He always plays well, always serves well in the important moments.
Mentally he was the strongest person I've ever seen. I'm just really sad that I still haven't had the chance to meet him. Maybe in the upcoming season in the States I will. I'll probably say nothing for 10 minutes, I'll be so confused.
Then I'll say, "Let's play! You suspect they would make a pretty wild duo. He screams a lot, and I throw rackets. Does that make things awkward between them? Novak looks momentarily sheepish. But as soon as I see Jelena today I'm going to ask her what's going on. Apart from a wrestler, a drag racer and a kayaking quartet, Djokovic's only real competition for the title comes from Jankovic and Ivanovic.
At the buffet that follows her son's inevitable victory, his mum, Dijana, talks about the tennis academy that the family is hoping to establish in his name. They didn't steal, cheat, or kill somebody to get there. For 10 years it was so bad. The role models were gangsters, or drug dealers.
Djokovic's father Srdjan was a skier for the former Yugoslavia, and his parents met on the piste; throughout Novak's childhood they ran a pizza-and-pancakes restaurant in the ski-resort town of Kapaonik. While most professional sportspeople shun the slopes - because neither their coaches nor their insurance companies like it - Novak still skis whenever he can.
So which is he: I like to look nice on the skis. As well as inheriting skiing genes from his father, his mother's family contained some serious volleyballing talent. But as he watched four tennis courts being built opposite the family restaurant, the five-year-old Djokovic was enthralled. Jelena Gencic, who opened the tennis camp there, is still coaching in her seventies; Djokovic often describes her as the biggest tennis influence in his life.
Gencic remembers the day he first arrived to play. I asked him, "Who packed your bag, your mother? It wasn't any more or less safe than any other place in the street, but if you're sitting at home in the basement, thinking they are going to bomb your home, you're going crazy.
We were practising all day, and at seven o'clock we would go home and sit with the curtains closed, everything closed and dark the way it had to be. Perhaps that partly explains why Djokovic is so keen to be an ambassador for his homeland. Last time we had a practice in Belgrade we had 20 people on the court, so I said no more. It's better for him to practise somewhere else.
But of course he misses it so much. Tonight, every seat is filled, and every person present - little boy, teenage girl, adult male - seems to have a fairly open crush on 'Nole', as they call him here. The other participants in the celebrity doubles match, Tipsarevic, Ivanovic and Jankovic, are announced to loud cheers. When Djokovic appears, however, the cheers turn to hysterical screams. Grown men hurl themselves down the stadium steps to get closer. The four greet one another as the old friends they are; Djokovic, living up to his heart-throb role, offers Ana an elaborate bow that ends on bended knee.
The crowd loves it. Although they played at different clubs, Djokovic has practised and played with Ivanovic since they were five years old. She has such a great personality, very calm and very positive. And she's beautiful as well! She has a beautiful smile. She's attracting people wherever she goes because she's very bright and people recognise it and respect her. Of course she has. But I could never play with her per cent serious because I laugh with her more than anyone else. I really enjoy practising with her.
Djokovic is too gentlemanly to be drawn. I wouldn't, because they're both playing great tennis. At the end of the evening, Djokovic and Tipsarevic join the band to sing a popular, though puzzling, song about friendship sample lyrics: Djokovic's voice is not what you would call tuneful, but right now he could release a recording of his tooth-brushing routine and still have a number-one hit.
Maybe one day, he says, he could be a singer, or an actor. Even the swans turn their heads the better to catch this 6ft 1in peach-skinned girl as she walks, and talks, and sips her large Starbucks takeaway. Then talks some more. She is wearing skinny jeans, a bitter-chocolate leather jacket and a cream silk scarf.
In conversation, as on court, she covers a lot of ground quickly.