"Novak Djokovic," said Vladimir Petrovic, Serbia's ambassador to the U.S., "is the single biggest positive p.r. this country's ever had. He's a positive face of the new democratic Serbia."
By Friday at the Serbia Open his voice had gone raspy and his eyes were rimmed with pink. Still, Djokovic kept rolling. His lingering cold was the one sign that Belgrade was taking its toll, but his wins in spite of it—not a set dropped—showed just how settled he is now.
A year ago Djokovic was a mess. An ill-conceived decision to hire coach Todd Martin to beef up his serving and volleying backfired; Vajda eased into a part-time role, Martin and Djokovic didn't jell, and the result on court was the most disoriented No. 2 player you'll ever see. "The guy couldn't buy a second serve," Courier says. "He looked like he was throwing a javelin."
By April, Martin was gone and the new serve junked, but the damage lingered: a quarterfinal exit in Paris, a disastrous straight-sets loss to Tomas Berdych in the Wimbledon semis. But Vajda was back full-time, and in July, just as Djokovic began grooving his old service motion, he met the man who today may mean more to him than any other: a holistic nutritionist named Igor Cetojevic.
Throughout his career Djokovic had been plagued by respiratory problems and niggling injuries. "Bird flu, anthrax, SARS ... common cough and cold," Roddick said mockingly at the 2008 U.S. Open. "He's either quick to call the trainer or he's the most courageous guy of all time." But Djokovic had long tried to find a solution, even to the point of doing breathing exercises with a Belgrade opera singer. Cetojevic, who says he studied traditional Chinese medicine at a college in Belgrade and earned a degree from the Indian Institute of Magnetotherapy in New Delhi, streamlined Djokovic's diet and cut out gluten altogether. Djokovic, child of a pizza parlor, shed a few pounds yet felt stronger.
"The whole allergy thing was coming from gluten," he says. "I didn't know. We grew up on gluten—bread, pasta—and I was consuming it in big, big amounts. I guess I'm very sensitive."
Cetojevic, who is also a member of the Serbia Messengers motorcycle club, is a fixture at Djokovic's matches, yelling huzzahs from the players' box, though he has little idea of what he's watching. "He doesn't even know the tennis terms: He calls a match a game," Djokovic says. "He's a very funny guy. He brought this positive energy to the team and a fresh voice."
With his entourage now solid, his body reset and his nerve tempered by the fires of the Davis Cup, Djokovic's confidence soared. It sounds simple, a matter of just getting all the elements lined up, but few players figure out how to get the balance just right. That harmony includes his girlfriend of five years, Jelena Ristic. "Everything came into the right place," he says. "My mind-set is different now; I have a different approach to my life, to my profession. I'm more stable emotionally. I feel much tougher mentally: That's the learning and experience you get playing at the highest level. Physically, I've always tried to stay fit, I've been very dedicated—and that's what's paying off right now."
Still, it must be jarring to come back to the city of your youth, a place where you were once an unknown, and see your face plastered on billboards, your name on sugar packets and key chains. There's your brother wearing a T-shirt with your face on his chest. There's a life-sized faux terra-cotta statue of you. There's nearly every male in town sporting your peltlike hairstyle, like a scene out of a film called Being Nole Djokovic. "The restaurant is called Novak, the café is called Novak—even the water is called Novak," said an attendant on the tournament grounds. She laughed. "I'm the only thing here that is not called Novak."
It's a fight for him to remain normal in Belgrade, and Djokovic kept trying to connect with those who knew him before he became a national symbol. He called a boyhood pal he hadn't seen in four years, urging him to please come by. He took the most delight—"Time for revenge!"—in thrashing the Slovenian player Blaz Kavcic in the quarterfinals because Kavcic had beaten him at 14. The past, even the most distant, matters to him more than ever now. Without it, Djokovic would be adrift.