Top-ranked Novak Djokovic defeated Nicolas Almagro 6-3, 6-4, to reach the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday.
Afterward, Djokovic had some revealing moments in the post-match Q&A, where he recounted stories about the people and things that affected him most as he headed for a life in tennis.
He was asked about Jelena Gencic, the Yugoslav tennis legend who famously spotted the young Novak on his first day at her Kopaonik tennis camp. When the 6-year-old was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he promptly replied, “No. 1 in the world.”
Q. How much are you in touch with Jelena Gencic these days?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Jelena Gencic? I spoke to her a couple weeks ago when actually I was in Belgrade before going to Dubai. We try to be touch all the time because we haven’t seen each other for four or five years.
Yeah, she has had an incredible effect on my career, and she has learned me all the basics of the tennis. I always go back to her and, you know, share the success that I had and remembering those moments in the childhood when we were starting to play tennis.
She was one of the very few people, including my family, that actually believed in me, that believed that I could be the best and I could be, you know, a Grand Slam winner.
Q. Why is it so long that you hadn’t seen her?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Um, it was — she was away for a little bit, and then I, you know, I started traveling, and then I — you know, we lost contact.
But then, you know, we came back. What’s important now is that we are in touch.
Q. That sort of famous moment when you first showed up and it said you had a headband in the bag and everything ready to go, talk about that moment and also how she instilled belief into this little kid.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Yes, you know, it’s a nice story considering the fact that Serbia was not a tennis country. We didn’t have any tennis history. We had Monica Seles that played for Yugoslavia before she came to the United States, and _ivojinovic and couple more player, but, you know, Serbia was never specifically a tennis country.
It was more team sports, basketball, volleyball. That’s where we had lots of success. So young kids coming up, you know, 90% were — you know, whoever wanted to become an athlete was looking up to these team sports.
Tennis was very expensive, especially at the time when we had wars and economical crisis and a lot of problems as a country. So to be able to buy a racquet and pay a coach and all these things was really expensive for our standards.
But, you know, my parents made a sacrifice. You know, I’m blessed and grateful, you know, to be out here and with their help.
I was fortunate, as well, to be meeting on the way, you know, of me growing up as a tennis player, developing as a tennis player, some people like Jelena Gencic, Niki Pilic, those people who have great knowledge about this sport and experience.
Jelena, she’s 75 now, I think, and she’s still playing seven hours a day each day; and Pilic as well. He’s that generation that’s playing six hours a day.
So these people are more than just tennis coaches. They breathe tennis, you know. They lived every day — they have this positive fanaticism about the sport. So that’s where I have this discipline and professionalism. It comes from that time.
Q. Did you ever think at some point when you were a kid that team sports would fit your personality better, or was the individualism of tennis something that really attracted you?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I think the individualism of tennis and just being a very special sport, something that wasn’t developed in our country, wasn’t that popular and supported by the country.
So it’s hard to say what I felt as a kid. As a 4-year-old I can’t really remember. I just remember I fell in love at the first sight.
Again, it was not by accident. They were making three tennis courts in front of our restaurant. It was probably for a reason. It was kind of a destiny for me to be able to start and play tennis and get the racquet.
You know, in my family nobody played tennis. They were all professional skiers or soccer players or something else, you know.
So that’s how I started, you know. Really, I’m spending a lot of time hitting balls and I was watching — whenever I wasn’t on the court I was outside and watching somebody playing. I was really obsessed with the sport, and I guess that desire is still present.”