The first inkling that Djokovic had tunneled into Nadal's head came on April 3, when he beat the Spaniard in an extraordinary three-set final in Miami. That Djokovic should take Nadal on a hard court was scarcely a shock. But that the player Federer once called "a joke when it comes to injuries"—the player who once quit a Wimbledon semi against Nadal because of various ailments—had ground down the most relentless fighter in tennis left their peers slack-jawed.
"That was a game-changer for the locker room," says U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier. "After the match Nadal went into a big cramp from dehydration and fatigue—and Djokovic didn't. That's remarkable. For someone to outtough Rafa? I'd never seen that."
Djokovic hadn't either, and, yes, he takes massive pride in being the first. But he insists that none of his recent progress—the winning streak, his heightened fitness—is a matter of suddenly having become serious. At the party in Belgrade, as a video of Djokovic decked out as Ironman played on multiple screens, he mangled Summer of '69—"Nothing can last forever ... forever: NO!"—and a man garbed as Superman swept in to dance and sing.
No other tournament is as tiring for Djokovic, but, he would say a few days later, "I look at it from the bright side: I want this to succeed. I want to help out, do my best to promote the tournament, to be with my family. As much energy as it takes, it takes. I love being around people who care about me, and I care about them. This is the purpose of living: being happy, being peaceful. Tennis is my life, obviously; I need to focus, I need to win. But it's not the only thing. I'm not going to play forever."
Midnight loomed. No one cared. Djokovic's Davis Cup cohorts have long been awed by what teammate Janko Tipsarevic calls "the switch," Djokovic's ability to transition overnight from lighthearted to hyperfocused. And even on off days, no other player monitors his diet and alcohol intake more strictly than the 6'2", 176-pound Djokovic, Tipsarevic says. His fixation on becoming No. 1 has been legendary in Serbia for 15 years now.
Still, that was hard to picture, what with Djokovic howling Livin' la Vida Loca across the room. An old family friend, Zoran Krstic, insisted, "Yes, tonight he is like this, but tomorrow?" Krstic held out his hand level, added, "He will ..." and slashed the air twice, like a sword hacking through anyone in the way.
After two days they'd had enough of the basement: too dank, too crowded with strangers and gypsies. The Djokovics had gone down there from the first-floor apartment of Novak's grandfather because, for most people in Belgrade in March 1999, news reports and frantic phone calls about NATO jets heading their way evoked hellish visions of World War II: Dresden, London, whole cities leveled and smoking. When the sirens began, all the adults in the apartment building in the hill neighborhood of Banjica fell into a panic: Where to go, where to take the kids? Will we be safe? Will we die?
The bombs kept falling—rattling windows, punctuating conversations with ominous echoes. But people adapt. Soon all the Djokovics and their friends decided to stay home, huddling fatalistically in the Djokovic apartment. "After one week we were doing [our] normal jobs, thinking, 'If it comes, it comes,' " says Goran Djokovic, Novak's uncle and the director of the Serbia Open. "And the family, we start again to play tennis."
Novak turned 12 that May. His parents, Srdjan and Dijana, had both been competitive skiers in the Yugoslav sports system, athletes who could just as easily pound a soccer ball or volleyball with power and grace, and they wanted their oldest son to follow their path on the slopes. What could be more natural? They lived most of the year in the mountain town of Kaoponik, where they ran the Red Bull pizza restaurant, and knew nothing about tennis. But at six, Nole had been entranced by the sight of Pete Sampras winning Wimbledon, and when a famous Belgrade-based youth coach, Jelena Gencic, began a summer camp on the new courts across the street from his mountain home, he insisted on attending.
Dijana helped pack his bag—towel, water bottle, cap, extra racket and shirt—and Gencic, who had coached Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic as kids, still hasn't gotten over how carefully, how much like an adult, Novak unpacked it all. Soon, back in Belgrade, Gencic was feeding him balls, reading him poetry, telling his parents how special he was. "My second mother," Djokovic says. "The base of everything I have on the tennis court, and a lot of things off it, is from her. She took care of my life in general: What I was doing in school, what I was having to eat and drink. We were listening to classical music together. She wanted to teach me how I should behave on and off the court, how professional I should be."