Late on the afternoon that the 2011 Serbia Open began in Belgrade, Novak Djokovic sat down in a large tent for his opening press conference. He had driven onto the grounds of what will soon be his own tennis academy in a cockatoo-white $90,000 Mercedes, wearing natty brown suede shoes with tassels that dangled like stemmed cherries. He showed not the slightest sign of strain.
This was strange, because Djokovic, the former clown act of tennis who has transformed himself into the most dominant athlete of the year, had every reason to feel the world bearing down on his once-suspect psyche. Unbeaten in 2011, riding a streak that would soon have him surpass runs by greats Ivan Lendl and Björn Borg and current No. 1 Rafael Nadal (and on Sunday would reach 39 since Dec. 5), the second-ranked Djokovic was starting his clay-court season before hometown fans who expected—no, demanded—that he keep on winning. Not only that, but as the omnipresent face of a tournament owned by his 150-employee company, Family Sport, the 23-year-old Serb known nationally by his nickname, Nole, also bore almost sole responsibility for filling the seats in a country with almost 20% unemployment.
Yet in a week marked by cold and rain, by Nadal's admission that Djokovic's rise was unstoppable and by a parade of Felliniesque characters that would faze even the most jaded New York City bouncer, Djokovic never so much as rolled an eyeball. No player can prepare for all the energy-draining nonsense that gravitates, like filings to a magnet, to the newest man who would be king, but Djokovic brushed off a nagging chest cold and played to his sellout crowds, gave every minispeech with feeling, greeted each sponsor with a smile, took each question as if hearing it for the first time. In the final, against Feliciano López on May 1, he shook off the scariest fall a player has taken on court this year—and won. Seconds later a courtside wall collapsed, sending fans sprawling onto the court. Djokovic barely blinked.
In fact there was only one moment when he visibly stiffened. It came early in the pretournament press conference, on Monday, April 25, when a Dutch reporter said, "It's a lot easier to represent, say, Switzerland than Serbia. How do you see that?"
Djokovic stared. "Can you repeat the question?"
It was clear what the reporter meant: Unlike Switzerland—Roger Federer's dull bastion of clocks and discreet banking—Serbia was reviled in the 1990s as a nation of gangsters; it engaged in attacks on Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia; and it committed atrocities against Albanian Muslims in Kosovo under President Slobodan Milosevic's policy of ethnic cleansing. Unlike, say, Zurich, Belgrade was bombed for 78 days in 1999 by a U.S.-led NATO coalition, and the towering, empty-faced wreckage of those bombs still flanks its downtown streets 12 years later. Nor has Switzerland been accused of lax pursuit of an accused war criminal, as Serbia has with Ratko Mladic, its military commander in Bosnia in the early '90s.
"How do you see that?" the Dutch reporter repeated.
Djokovic didn't say what he could have: that Serbia has now had three consecutive national democratic elections; that last year its president, Boris Tadic, increased the reward for Mladic's capture tenfold, to 10 million euros ($14 million); and that Serbia's legislature had voted to officially apologize for the 1995 massacre of 8,000 people in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. Nor did Djokovic say that, earlier that day, he had taken some fellow players to Belgrade's 671-foot-tall Avala Tower—destroyed in the '99 attacks and rebuilt last year—and scrawled in the guest book, The symbol of Belgrade: We'll be back.
Djokovic fingered the microphone. "Well," he began, "I don't think that... ."
Then he hesitated. How to describe the terror and rage he felt as a 12-year-old when the air raid sirens wailed and explosions thundered across Belgrade? How to describe the way it all got balled together, the tennis and the bombing, because tennis is what kept his family sane? The way his life, his future career, became the prime focus of his parents' attention and his success became his family's goal and salvation? "He is something special," says Novak's mother, Dijana. "I always say he is the child of God."