Kapaonik is also famous for another reason. It happens to be where the Djokovic family opened its first restaurant, and where the world No. 1 hit his first tennis ball. He took lessons with the late Jelena Gencic, his beloved first coach whom Djokovic has acknowledged throughout his successful career. Three clay courts just happened to be built across the parking lot from where the Djokovics opened for business.
“For me, it’s probably the most beautiful tennis club in the world,” Djokovic says, “because it has a special meaning, obviously, but also because it’s in an incredible location.”
The area—now a patch of land covered in overgrown vegetation—is four hours south of Belgrade and features a wall littered with holes from cluster bomb damage. When bombs were falling in 1999, an 11-year-old Djokovic was in the capital city, using his time off from school to play tennis. (The bombings were targeted, so citizens mostly knew what infrastructure would be hit next.)
On the day the bombings started in March, my family—all of whom were born in Belgrade—was safely tucked away on a ski vacation in Whistler, Canada, frantically trying to reach other family members back in Serbia.
It’s impossible for outsiders to relate to what happened in Serbia during nearly three months of bombings. The reasons behind the Kosovo War—and any war, for that matter—are debated about and argued over incessantly. The one thing that can be unanimously agreed on, though, is that children, on either side of the world, should get to keep doing what they love. They should be able to play tennis without fearing for their lives.
In his homemade video, Djokovic takes viewers on a tour of his favorite tennis wall and the courts of his first lessons, as well as the dilapidated house nearby and the surrounding landscape.
“The wall survived the bombing, and many different hits,” Djokovic says. “The holes in the wall that you see are the consequence of the bombs … It’s unfortunate, but on the other hand, it’s nice to see that the wall itself endured.”
The wall has endured. Kopaonik has recovered. And Djokovic has exceeded all expectations, growing up to become a 12-time Grand Slam champion. In doing so, a nation that has often been labeled “war-torn” has become associated with something else: tennis greatness.