Saturday profile: Novak Djokovic

Mr Unstoppable: As a child, he didn't let bombs falling on his native Belgrade keep him off the tennis court. Will his success signal the end of the Federer/Nadal era? By Brian Viner
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While tennis is all the rage in Serbia, sales of bread and cakes are doubtless wobbling. Novak Djokovic, the country's transcendent sporting superstar, has not only broken the duopoly in men's tennis of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, which had for so long seemed inviolable, but he has done so on a gluten-free diet. And, moreover, with charm, charisma and humour.

Djokovic's on-court impersonations of other players, not least Nadal's habitual fiddling with the seat of his pants, have delighted fans of what is so often a po-faced game. The Serb is not averse to throwing and smashing his rackets when the mood takes him, but like Federer and Nadal before him, he is impossible to dislike. Not since Athos, Porthos and Aramis represented the King's musketeers have three such formidable but approachable ambassadors arrived in Paris, where the French Open begins tomorrow, the day Djokovic turns 24.

That some bookmakers make Djokovic a narrow favourite to win the second of the year's four Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian and French Opens, Wimbledon and the US Open) is in itself remarkable. Because even though Djokovic won the first, in Melbourne in February, it is the mighty Nadal who traditionally bestrides the clay courts of Roland Garros.

Nadal has won five of the last six French Opens, his extraordinary dominance punctured only by Federer. Between them, the Spaniard and the Swiss have won 21 of the last 24 Grand Slam events. And yet the hot streak that everyone in tennis is talking about belongs to Djokovic.

He has started the 2011 season by winning all seven tournaments he has entered, beating Nadal in four consecutive finals, the most recent in Madrid, on clay. Outplaying Nadal on Spanish clay is like mastering Rembrandt in Dutch oils, practically enough to throw the earth off its axis.

And to claim those seven tournaments Djokovic has had to win 37 consecutive matches, a consistency of excellence unrivalled since John McEnroe started the 1984 season with 42 straight wins.

Should the Serb prevail in Paris, he will have surpassed McEnroe's feat. It is already a more notable achievement, according to the New Yorker himself, who never dishes out praise where it is not due. "Given that there's more competition, more athleticism and deeper fields now, I'd say his record is even more impressive than mine," McEnroe said this week.

Whatever, Djokovic is in danger of leaving our own Andy Murray floundering in his slipstream as he accelerates towards his goal of becoming the first world No 1 without a first name beginning with R since Andy Roddick in February 2004. Murray and Djokovic, just a week apart in age, are friends and occasional practice partners. As teenagers it was hard to say which would rise the higher. Yet in the final of this year's Australian Open the Serb made the Scotsman look decidedly ordinary.

Murray can perhaps take heart that Federer, who beat him in his only other Grand Slam final, the 2008 US Open, is at last approaching the downslope of an astonishing career, but the explosive ascent of Djokovic, not to mention Nadal's enduring presence at the summit of the game, must fill him with apprehension. It could just be that, as very good as he is, the supreme misfortune of his career is to coincide with those of three of the greatest players of all time.

Such a claim cannot yet be made of Djokovic, not quite, not with only two Grand Slam titles (the Australian Opens of 2008 and 2011) to his name. But McEnroe is but one of many experts who sees no reason why the Serb can't become a player for the ages: he has all the shots, combined with sometimes mind-boggling athleticism. And a manifestly fierce will to win.

That will was forged in what were, to say the least, challenging circumstances. Even as Nato bombs were being dropped on Belgrade in 1999, the 12-year-old Djokovic was practising on the beleaguered city's tennis courts. It was his rigorous routine, he later recalled, which gave the whole family purpose (he has two younger brothers), and kept them sane.

He would later recall that the tennis court "wasn't any more or less safe than any other place in the street, but if you're sitting at home in the basement, thinking they are going to bomb your home, you're going crazy. We were practising all day, and at seven o'clock we would go home and sit with the curtains closed, everything dark the way it had to be".

Djokovic came under the tennis spell when four courts were built opposite his father's Kapaonik restaurant, and he insisted on having a go. Jelena Gencic, who ran the lessons there and is still cited by Djokovic as his greatest sporting influence, tells an enlightening story about the first day he crossed the road to play. "He arrived half an hour early with a big tennis bag. Inside his bag I saw a tennis racket, towel, bottle of water, banana, wrist bands, everything you need for a game. I asked him, 'Who packed your bag, your mother?' He said, 'No, I packed it'. He was only five. I said: 'How did you know what to pack?' And he said, 'I watch TV'."

If Djokovic succeeds in topping McEnroe's 42 wins, Nadal will have had to relinquish the title of king of clay, and attention will turn to what for so long has seemed unthinkable. That one man, named neither Nadal nor Federer, might lift all four Grand Slam titles in a single year.

Born 22 May 1987, Belgrade, Serbia

Education Playing since the age of four, most of his youth was focused on junior tournaments. Aged 12, he spent three months at a tennis academy in Munich.

Family One of three sons of Srdjan, a professional skier, and Dijana, a ski instructor. His brothers are both tennis professionals

Career Has won two Grand Slams, the 2008 and 2011 Australian Opens. Unbeaten in his last 37 matches, he is the world No 2 behind Rafael Nadal and is seen as the man to beat at the French Open, which starts tomorrow.

He says "I am very emotional on and off the court. I show my emotions."

They say "He's playing at a really high level. We've got to accept that. When someone is better than you there is nothing you can do other than congratulate him." – Rafael Nadal