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Srdjan and his family were born in Kosovo. Logic suggests that Serbia today wouldn't feel much connection to the region, if only because a mere 7% of Kosovo's population is Serbian. But Kosovo is where Serbian culture and the Serbian Orthodox religion began; it's central to the Serbian identity. Violence against the remaining Serbs and damage done to their churches by Kosovar Albanians—not to mention the U.S.-led recognition of an independent Kosovo by 75 nations—have, in the last few years, only inflamed Serbia's feeling of aggrieved impotence.
Djokovic has become even more involved in the issue since his famous 2008 speech. He has visited Kosovo repeatedly, dedicated victories to the Serbs there and, in March, donated $100,000 to support its historic monasteries. For that, on Thursday, he received the Serbian Orthodox Church's highest honor, the Order of Saint Sava. "The most important award I'll ever get," he says.
"Imagine a part of the U.S.A., from which the U.S.A. started—where is the cradle of your history? This is Kosovo for Serbia," Djokovic says. "There are some stronger powers we can't fight. But the most important thing for me is that I know where I'm from, I know what's going on in that part of Serbia where my family's from. We are very righteous people. We want truth to come out. That's why we're hurt. I'm being careful because it's very sensitive. But I have no reason to pretend. I know who I am."
Early Saturday evening Djokovic walked through the front door of the Partizan Tennis Club in Old Belgrade. The place was all but empty, drowsy with weekend indolence; a few elderly men laced up their shoes for doubles. Perfect: All week Djokovic had been seeking one chance to look back quietly, to center himself before the summer that seems certain to define his career. It had been seven years since he'd been there.
"This is the club that I grew up in, the club where I learned my first tennis footsteps," he said. His voice echoed in the narrow hallway as he rushed past the old stringing room, the faded team photos, toward the cramped locker room. At first he spoke easily of the titles the teams had won, about the other pros whose posters, like his, were now fading in the sun. But by the time Djokovic emerged from the club, something had changed.
He hadn't realized that every court, with its red clay freshly dragged and all but glowing, would unleash a new memory: that bee sting on his heel, the win over his archrival, Troicki, the wrenching decision to go to Munich. There was the spot where his dad would sit watching, the net where Gencic stood smiling, the hard courts from which, in 1999, he and everyone else watched the bombers streak the sky. "We weren't scared anymore," he said. "Everybody wanted to play." One minute he was giggling, the next he'd go silent and his eyes would begin to pool.
"You can't imagine," he said. "I have spent my good and my bad times in this club. I watched planes go over our heads, I celebrated my birthdays here, I cried, I laughed, I had the joy, I had sorrow—all the things you can experience as a human, I had here. Coming back, it's just overwhelming. It's too good to be true."
The next day Djokovic swatted aside López in the Serbia Open final for his 27th straight win of the year. Early in the second set, chasing down a deep, wide forehand, he slid into a full split that became a face-plant, his right wrist hammering the clay—the kind of crash that would give anyone pause. But Djokovic rose, won the next point, broke López and took control of the match. The moment showed just how tough he has become.
Yet that was just tennis, a world Djokovic has handled with ease time and again this spring. The trip to Partizan, though, touched him in a way that no opponent has lately: Suddenly, by his side was the old stringer whom he'd always begged for favors, his face lined and paler now; here came the club president, a man Djokovic once feared, hair gone whiter; here now his long-ago best friend, joking, "So, what have you been up to lately?"
A TV crew arrived, and Djokovic went to greet a 14-year-old boy whose only dream was to meet him. Djokovic hugged him, said that he understood how it felt to be young and struggling; the boy's mother stared, tears rolling down to her mouth. Her reaction seemed overwrought, until you remembered what Vlade Divac, the head of Serbia's Olympic Committee and a former NBA great, said on the first day of the tournament: "For years, especially the last 15 when there were wars, civil wars, people looked at us as bad guys. It was hard to raise kids to be proud Serbs. But Novak is giving the Serbian people that feeling now: to be proud."