A Parisian Postcard and a Remembrance of Mother Jelena of Serbia

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Coach Jelena Gencic and Novak Djokovic in the early days of his growth as a tennis player. Photo from Talk Tennis/Tennis Warehouse.

By Bill Simons

A Sunday snapshot, a Sunday remembrance:

A few sentences on Paris, written on the Metro en route to Roland Garros on a fine summer morning:

Yes, lovers still kiss and embrace in the back alleys and broad boulevards of this town, while a college boy—a pack on his back, a baguette in hand—weaves through rue Serpente on his retro bicycle. A band of raucous youths turns a metro car into a happening club, and a group of women on Boulevard St. Michel—some baring their breasts, others providing a staccato beat on drums—joyfully protest against inequality. Though cigarette smoking has diminished and civility towards Americans is growing, an occasional waiter proves that unbridled rudeness has not died out. While there are plenty of ads for Bollywood Express films, Da Vinci and Art Deco exhibitions retain their appeal, and the clarinetist playing Mozart still attracts more than a few Euros. The Seine—murky green, romantic and mysterious—still flows free to the sea, asking few questions and providing no answers. And then you arrive at the tennis, where a man of the world in red pants, blue blazer, and perfectly swirled scarf walks by a young boy wearing trendy sunglasses and a Philadelphia Phillies cap.

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Jelena Gencic: The Lady Who Gave Us Serbian Tennis

Our favorite wacky tennis theory that makes no sense whatsoever (except that it rings true) is that the former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin has impacted the game as much as anyone.

Well, allow us to explain…

As writer Joel Drucker first suggested, Stalin made life in the Soviet bloc so grim that for generations many would do just about anything—including learning tennis—to escape the dreary grind.

But there was another Eastern European leader who had an impact on tennis. The former Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito—war hero, nationalistic visionary, and critic of Soviet ways—created a developmental company called Genex. In 1992, 12 years after Tito’s death, Genex set up a tennis camp on three new courts across the street from the Red Bull pizza restaurant Novak Djokovic’s family ran up in the mountains at the country’s leading ski resort, Kopaonik.

Deciding who should run the camp, Genex made an obvious choice: Jelena Gencic, the country’s leading tennis coach, who had played Fed Cup and handball for Yugoslavia. Gencic had won 32 titles and had coached and traveled with a couple of pretty fair juniors, including Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic.

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This remembrance of Gencic, who died on June 1st at age 76, is all about coincidence, serendipity, and fate. It is also about fierce intention and untempered determination.

In 1992, Gencic had her first encounter with a six-year old boy the world would come to call Nole. “It was the first day of my first year in Kopaonik,” she told Christopher Clarey of the International Herald Tribune in 2010. “I was doing a tennis camp and he was just standing outside the tennis courts and watching all morning. I said, ‘Hey little boy, do you like it? Do you know what this is?'”

The young Djokovic, of course, said yes, and came back that afternoon with all his gear in place and a perfectly-packed bag, just like the pros he’d seen on satellite TV. “One racket, towel, bottle with water, one banana, a dry extra T-shirt, wrist band, and the cap ,” Gencic recalled. “I said, ‘Okay, who prepared your bag? Your mother?’ And oh, he was very angry. He said, ‘No, I am playing tennis, not my mother.'”

Worldly and intuitive, a dreamer with blue eyes, Gencic immediately sensed she had lightning in a bottle. Before her was a unique talent.

In his upcoming book The Sporting Statesman, on Djokovic and Serbia, author Chris Bowers quotes Gencic about that first day: “I tested him the way I test all my beginners, and he could do everything. At first I showed him how to hit strokes, but I soon realized he had great motor skills, massive concentration, an ability to listen and watch.” That night, she told his parents that they had “a golden child.”

Bowers notes, “Gencic taught Djokovic a one-handed backhand, but when he was about seven, he asked to play the stroke two-handed. She said that was fine, as long as he kept the slice one-handed.”

We now think of Serbia as a great tennis power with the No. 1 player in the world, plus former No. 1 player, Jelena Jankovic, 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic, and many others. But back then, Serbia was nothing in tennis. Perhaps more than any European region aside from Northern Ireland, it had passed through a maze of crazed 20th-century violence.

In this context, Gencic performed wonders. She convinced the Djokovic clan to think big, real big, and that they should place the fate of their family in their eldest son. “Let’s say that Jelena Gencic gave us strength,” Novak’s uncle, Goran, told Clarey. “She’s a serious woman. We were all together as a family, and we had our project. It was not good times, there were sanctions and the war was starting. It was not an easy time for Serbia, for Yugoslavia, but all the money we had we invest[ed] in Novak.”

“He [was] the one in front of the family, who had to have everything he need[ed]—the new racket, the good food, everything. Of course we can live very easy if he didn’t play tennis, but we have a vision … We didn’t want bad vibrations, only good energy. But of course, people were talking sometimes, saying, ‘This family is crazy, who do they think they are? How can they even think Novak will be something?'”

Gencic convinced the Djokovic family—who were skiers, but had no tennis background—that she should be Novak’s coach. She provided the first years of his tennis education, until he went off to Niki Pilic’s academy in Munich when he was 12.

Beyond this, Gencic was a knowing woman who understood the violence and isolation her land had endured. Born in 1936, she experienced, over time, Nazi bombing during World War II, bombing by Tito’s leftist Partisans, and later, the torrential NATO bombings of the late ’90s, which killed her sister. She understood that if Djokovic became a champion he would need to know how to handle himself. She insisted he learn languages, literature, and music. So she gave the boy challenging books. He studied the Russian poet Pushkin and listened to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s stirring 1812 Overture . It is no accident that Novak became a national hero in Serbia and a celebrated figure internationally. Just this week at Roland Garros, Djokovic spoke about French, Japanese, and his hopes of learning Chinese. Extolling the “beauty of language,” he spoke of the Serbian saying that says the “more languages you know, [the] more is your worth as a person.”

Many players—Venus and Serena Williams, Jimmy Connors, and Andre Agassi, to name just a few—were pushed by their parents to stardom. Others were shipped off to academies or coaches. Gencic’s relationship with Djokovic was unique. She spotted a “golden talent” with a prodigy’s athleticism and the determination a champion needs. She convinced his parents to transform their lives by investing in the boy. In turn, they entrusted both him and the family fortune with a female guide.

Years later, Djokovic shared his 2011 Wimbledon trophy with the woman he called his “tennis mother,” saying, “Pretty much what I know on court, I owe to her.”  Today, in the mountain village of Kopaonik, the pizza place is long gone, and the three courts across the way are cracked and in disarray.

But thanks to Joseph Stalin, Marshall Tito, and—far more to the point—a little-known talent scout and super coach named Jelena Gencic, the Djokovic family ended up delivering the world’s No. 1 player instead of extra-large pepperonis-with-anchovies. And the nation of Serbia is now known for its triumphs in tennis as much as its war-torn hardships.