Twelve years later, he is the king of New York. The FDNY cap he wore during Monday night’s US Open presentation ceremony symbolised a deeper victory in a lifelong battle for acceptance in the hated west.
He had struggled through so much during his journey from precocious talent in post-war Serbia through to underachieving Tour joker and on into his injury-hampered period at the fringes of the Federer/Nadal axis.
Before this year, his one and only Grand Slam, the 2008 Australian Open, was badly timed; within months, the other two were fighting for scraps and sunlight during a Wimbledon final destined to never be forgotten.
Everything changed this year. Another Australian Open, a startling streak of tournament victories eventually upended at the French Open by Roger Federer and then that Wimbledon breakthrough in July.
And then to conquer the US. This was about more than just lifting his reputation beyond that of wisecracking impressionist. He had to usurp Roger Federer’s grip on the hearts and minds of New Yorkers.
On Saturday, when he launched an unthinkably risky forehand smash across the bows of the Swiss darling of Flushing Meadows, it was a career-defining shot. Federer tossed away two match points, three games on the bounce and left the US Open, head hanging low. Still standing was the erstwhile young-pretender, the erstwhile clown.
It had already been a sporting memory-burn, hot-tailing on the clawing back of a two-set deficit that may have been courageous but almost looked like a waste of time.
And then Djokovic produced that moment of lunacy and turned to the Arthur Ashe crowd, peering high up into the stands at his end of the court. Arms outstretched, nodding immodestly at his own mischievous brilliance before shaking his head, seemingly dismayed by the sudden appreciation, chastising the Fed-heads for their fickle fandom.
He was still shaking his head, still smiling as he turned back to face the next serve. All the while, Federer had been stewing. Later, he would curse Djokovic’s audacity (and on Federer’s stage, no less!). “I never played that way,” he said. “I believe in hard-work’s-gonna-pay-off kinda thing, because early on maybe I didn’t always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point.”
But despite the trauma felt around the Empire State on Sunday (the New Yorker described it as a “depressing, crushing collapse”), this shouldn’t be viewed through the losing king’s prism as a fall from grace.
And as was proven by Monday’s showdown with Nadal, a match with even greater claims to the ‘classic’ tag, Djokovic knows what hard hard work is all about.
He looked too hot under the late evening sun, too sluggish and still he produced the shots to make his struggling opponent want to cry into his towel. His mini-session with the trainer seemed to either cure his back or unsettle Nadal who couldn’t hold the tide back any longer.
Both of these thrilling wins were borne out of the need for genius to shine, forced out into the open by an incalculable deep-down desire for survival. Attack is in Serbia’s DNA, for better and mostly worse.
Earlier this year, an excellent Sports Illustrated profile of the now triple-Grand Slam champion which was written during his record-breaking streak of victories and just prior to that run ending against Federer in Paris, depicted an ambitious pre-teen Djokovic who decided to practice at the storied Partizan club and other courts which lay near the danger zones during that turbulent period of air attacks, reasoning NATO wouldn’t strike twice at the same spot.
“There was no way we are sitting at home and crying,” his mother Dijana recalled for SI. “So we are on the tennis court from 10 in the morning to 6, 7, 8pm... You are practising and listening to sirens, but it was the only way. We were trying to find some way to get out.”
She also said that her son’s goal to win Wimbledon was a vital dream that kept him stable throughout the nightmare of Yugoslavia’s collapse and its complex consequences. “It gave our family something we had to fight for. Our country was in a bad situation, so we were trying to do everything for our son.”
Djokovic is an important figurehead for the new Serbia. Like his fellow citizens, the scars run deep and some of their beliefs run contrary to those of the very same nations that have learned to adore what he has done for tennis.
He has taken over London and New York in the only way available to him: with a racquet and a smile.
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