French Open: Tributes paid to coach who first saw talent in Novak Djokovic

Paul Newman recounts meeting world No 1's first mentor who explained how she invited six-year-old to join in

Jelena Gencic, the coach who taught Novak Djokovic to play tennis, would have been proud. Two days after breaking down in the locker room here at the French Open on being told of her death, the world No 1 was back doing what he does best.

Gencic would have approved of his 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory yesterday over Philipp Kohlschreiber, which earned a quarter-final against Tommy Haas, but she would have enjoyed equally his post-match interview, conducted in French. Whether she was encouraging his interest in classical music, Pushkin's poetry or languages, Gencic always tried to develop his mind as much as his tennis.

Djokovic, who wrote "Jeco Love You Forever" on the camera lens as he left the court, had last spoken to Gencic a fortnight ago. At 76 she had been coaching just days before her death from a heart attack.

"Jelena was my first coach, like my second mother," Djokovic said yesterday. "We were very close throughout my whole life and she taught me a lot of things that are part of me, part of my character today. Hopefully I will be able to continue with her legacy, because she left so much knowledge to me, to the people that were close to her.

"I feel a responsibility to continue doing that in the future because she worked with kids between five and six years to 12 or 13. She dedicated all her life to that generation and to tennis. She never got married and never had kids."

Gencic's pride in Djokovic had been evident five years earlier, just a few weeks after he had won his first Grand Slam title, as she sat in a Belgrade café not far from the tennis club where she coached. Fifteen years after first setting eyes on Djokovic, her memory of the occasion was still crystal-clear.

A former tennis player who competed in the Fed Cup and also represented Yugoslavia at handball, Gencic made her greatest mark as a coach. She spotted Monica Seles when the future world No 1 was just eight and also coached Goran Ivanisevic.

In 1993 Gencic was running a summer tennis camp in the Serbian mountain resort of Kopaonik, where the Djokovics – a family of skiers – ran a pizzeria. "I remember seeing this little boy standing there and watching us," Gencic recalled. "I went over to speak to him. I asked him: 'Do you know what we are playing? Do you like it?' He said: 'You are playing tennis.' I said: 'Would you like to come and play with us this afternoon?'

"He said yes and in the afternoon he arrived exactly on time. He had a bag with him. I asked to see what was inside it. There was a racket, a bottle with water, a towel, a banana, an extra shirt and a cap. I said to him: 'Did your mother prepare your bag for you?' He was quite angry. He said: 'No, it was me. It is me who is playing tennis, not my mother.' He told me later that he had watched tennis on television and seen what players took on court."

Djokovic had never played tennis before, but showed an immediate aptitude for the game. "After three days I met his parents," Gencic recalled. "I said to them: 'You have a golden child.'

"I used to divide the players into three groups according to their ability and Novak was so good I put him in the top group straight away, even though he'd only started playing a month earlier.

"I organised a tournament for the children every weekend and I made the semi-finals and final like a proper competition, with ballboys and ballgirls, line judges, everything. Novak got into the semi-finals and then the final. Word had already gone round about how good he was and quite a few people came to watch. He was only just six years old and he was playing a 14-year-old girl in the final. He won 6-0, 6-1."

To those who have come to know Serbian players as passionate, fiery and impulsive, Gencic was not what you might have expected. Her English was very good, but she spoke in a slow and deliberate fashion, even in her own language. Her energy and warmth were evident not so much in her voice as in her sparkling eyes, which told of a great passion for life. They never shone more brightly than when she talked about her young charges.

She recalled how Djokovic had talked to her about winning Wimbledon and becoming world No 1. "I remember showing him some trophies at my house," Gencic said. "He said to me: 'Do you think I will win trophies like this one day?' I told him: 'Of course – and you will need a big house to put them all in'."

By the time Djokovic was 12, Gencic knew he had to move on. He went to the academy in Munich run by her friend and fellow countryman, Niki Pilic. "I realised I'd reached the limit of what I could do for him," she said. "Novak was so strong, so fast, so good. I always had to find older practice partners for him. They would play one set but then say they couldn't play another because he was too good."

For Gencic, nevertheless, it was always about the next generation. She recalled a tournament she had organised at her tennis school.

"One of the categories is for the youngest of the children and it was won by this little five-year-old girl, Katarina," she said. "I award cups and when I presented hers she kissed the trophy and held it aloft. I asked her, 'How did you know about doing that?' She said: 'Because I've watched Novak on television'."

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