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No wonder Novak seemed like the oldest soul at the academy. One afternoon, 20 minutes before he was due to hit with Pilic, Novak passed Pilic's lunch table en route to warming up. Told that it seemed too early, Novak said, "I'm not going to waste my career." Pilic was stunned. "He was 13½!" the coach says. Serbs point to the bombing as the crucible of Djokovic's competitiveness, but he also had no choice. The family had put all its chips on him.
A year later Djokovic had just finished a grueling training regimen in the Austrian Alps, and all the players were readying for a party. He buttonholed his then manager, Dirk Hordorff, and said, "If I go out tonight, would it be good for my tennis?"
"Just go," Hordorff said. "You worked hard, drink a glass of wine... ." Djokovic cut him off.
"I didn't ask you, 'Would this be good for me?' he said. "I asked, 'Would this be good for my tennis?'"
Novak became the top U-14, then the top U-16 player in Europe. He wasn't surprised. "Always he was very confident, and he was very sure that he was going to be on top," says Ernests Gulbis, the Latvian now ranked No. 63 in the world, who met Djokovic at the Pilic Academy. "Nothing arrogant, but with all his thinking, all his work, he was really professional already at a young age. Me, at 16? I was a joke. I didn't take care about practice at all. And he was doing everything."
The family kept trolling for investors. No one bit. As a junior Novak won the third Futures (third tier) tournament he entered, then the second Challengers (second tier). But the Serbian Tennis Federation had no funds to give him. "Nobody cared," Goran says. "Srdjan is going around, trying to convince people, please invest. Like you are selling fruit or dairy: Here's an investment for you. It was a very tough time." Junior tournaments came and went without Nole. There was no money for travel.
Early in 2006, the year after Djokovic had become the youngest man in the ATP's Top 100, Srdjan was so disheartened that he had Dijana talk to England's deep-pocketed Lawn Tennis Association about the possibility of 18-year-old Novak and his brothers switching nationalities to play for England. (Marko, then 14, and Djordje, 10, were well-regarded prospects in Serbia.) "The decision in the end was mine," says Novak. "I never wanted to change countries; it's something that is part of me. We are all really proud of where we come from. And though we've been through tough times, it makes us stronger."
A month later everything changed. In Paris, Djokovic met the respected, serene Slovakian coach Marian Vajda, consulted with him informally and reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros. That netted him $149,590. With Vajda as his full-time coach, Djokovic went on to win his first ATP titles—and a total of $104,000—in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, and Metz, France. He ended the year ranked No. 16. Srdjan exhaled. He even tried congratulating his son for cracking the Top 20, but Novak stopped him. "When I'm Number 1," he said, "then you can congratulate me."
Nobody in Belgrade likes to talk about how close Serbia came to losing a national treasure. In December, Djokovic led the country to its first Davis Cup win; he brought Serbian musicians into the locker room in Melbourne to celebrate his second Australian Open title in February; he hustled into a T-shirt stamped with the Serbian flag for the trophy ceremony after beating Nadal in Madrid.
There were plenty of less graffittied, less rubble-strewn cities Djokovic could have chosen for his tournament and tennis academy three years ago. Belgrade was his only choice. Such pride is a far cry from the attitude of the last great Serbian-born player, Seles, a native of Novi Sad who tiptoed around her heritage as if it were a box of nitroglycerin and finally took the step Djokovic couldn't. Seles changed her citizenship, becoming an American in 1994.