Yet at seven it was he who insisted on a change that serves him still. Though determined to hit a one-handed backhand like Sampras, Djokovic found he was too weak to handle higher balls with it, so he began hitting with two hands. Such are the tweaks that determine tennis history. For along with his Gumby-like elasticity, it's Djokovic's alchemical backhand, the kind that transmutes the most defensive shots into hard, dipping winners, that helped him solve Nadal the way Federer never could. Djokovic has now beaten Nadal in seven of their last nine meetings, feasting on the same high, topspin-laced crosscourt forehands from Rafa that shred the Swiss maestro's one-hander.
Seven, too, was Novak's age when Gencic first put him on national TV. A child host asked the prodigy if his tennis was work or play. "Tennis is my job," Nole said. "My goal in tennis is to become Number 1."
Asked when he has time to indulge in normal childhood games, he answered, "I play at night."
By the mid-'90s Serbia had been shattered by the breakup of Yugoslavia and by a series of savage wars that left its populace economically isolated, socially shunned and desperate for stability. Nole's goal to win Wimbledon "gave our family something we had to fight for," Dijana says. "It was a very bad time because our country was in a bad situation, so we were trying to do everything for our son."
For four years Gencic refined Nole's skills, but much of his drive came from his dad. Srdjan, with no tennis knowledge, became certain that his son would be No. 1 someday—"believed Novak was an unbelievable player even when he was not unbelievable," says Niki Pilic, the Croatian former pro who is now a coach—and he told everyone who would (or wouldn't) listen. Critics put off by the sight of Srdjan and Dijana in matching T-shirts emblazoned with their son's face at the 2010 U.S. Open wouldn't be shocked to hear that nothing, not losing streaks, adolescence or injuries, could shake Srdjan's faith. At each level he would look around at the opposition and tell Novak, "You're better than all of them."
At the Partizan Tennis Club, the most storied in Belgrade and the Serbian base for Tipsarevic and former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, Srdjan insisted on paying for the best coaches. Money was tight, and the Djokovic family, including Novak's younger brothers, Marko and Djordje, "were suffering," Goran Djokovic says, "because Novak had to have the top food, the top equipment, the priority of the priorities."
After the first week of NATO bombing the whole family began venturing out with Novak to practice, sometimes at Partizan, sometimes at courts near recent bombing targets, which, they reasoned, might not be bombed again soon. Five hundred combat missions were flown into Serbian territory each day, but the Djokovics put their heads down and kept hitting. "There was no way we are sitting at home and crying," Dijana says. "So we are on the tennis court from 10 in the morning to 6, 7, 8 p.m. Also our two other kids are practicing during the bombing. You are practicing and listening to sirens, but it was the only way. We were trying to find some way to get out."
On June 10, 1999, when the suspension of bombing finally was announced, Novak and his brothers spilled onto the terrace, hopping and hollering, "We are safe now! We are safe!"
Six months later Gencic asked Pilic, Ivanisevic's mentor, to consider Novak for his tennis academy in Munich. Pilic dismissed the idea at first; 12½ seemed too young for his grueling regimen. But Novak, accompanied by Goran, took his first plane ride to audition for Pilic, and the 1973 French Open finalist gave in. The boy arrived in midwinter with little cash; Pilic's wife dubbed him Jacket, because he didn't have one. Goran stayed five days. When he left Nole cried.
The stakes were high. Novak developed quickly, but the Djokovic restaurant depended on seasonal business—sometimes good, sometimes not. The academy cost more than $3,000 a month, and even when Pilic threw in a discount, the travel costs there and to tournaments near and far squeezed Srdjan. "He borrowed the money with high interest, from the loan shark, 10, 15 percent a month," Goran says. "Who knows how much? I don't want to count it."