When Novak Djokovic last competed at an ATP Tour event in Belgrade a decade ago, he had only won two Grand Slam titles and had not yet ascended to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Now an 18-time major winner and the record-holder for most weeks at World No. 1 in history (317), returning to his hometown to compete at this week’s Serbia Open is a special moment.
“I get very emotional when I’m playing at home, when I’m representing my country,” Djokovic said. “We had this tournament from 2009 to 2012 and I won it two out of four years and I remember these moments very profoundly. Playing in front of family, friends, my people, you don’t get to experience that [often]. I only experienced that maybe a few times in my career, to actually play in my hometown, to actually play in front of my fans, to have that kind of support and backing. It’s definitely special.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there aren’t throngs of fans following Djokovic’s every move at the Novak Tennis Center. But the two-time tournament champion is still excited to perform at home.
“I’m just trying to enjoy every second I get to be in my country with my family, my parents who I don’t get to see so much nowadays with the restrictions and traveling and so forth,” Djokovic said. “It just brings in lots of memories from the past, my upbringing, of the roots, of how I started. This club where this tournament is played is the club where I used to play a lot when I was a kid, the local tournaments.
“I get to see many people that have seen me develop into the tennis player that I am today and the person I am today. It’s a very particular, very unique feeling that I’m trying to marvel in and feed off that energy so I can do the best I possibly can this week.”
Five of the eight singles seeds are from Serbia, and eight players from the home country began in the main draw.
“I’m really glad to see that the draw is packed with Serbian players, all the best men’s Serbian tennis players are here in this draw,” Djokovic said. “There are going to definitely be some match-ups between us, hopefully I’ll be able to play [in the] quarters against one of the guys.”
Djokovic, who will open against Roberto Carballes Baena or Soonwoo Kwon, could face eighth seed Miomir Kecmanovic in the quarter-finals. Ninth seed Laslo Djere is also in his half of the draw.
“We’re all friends, we have respect for each other, we like each other, we support each other and we give each other backing. We want each other to do well on the Tour,” Djokovic said. “We come from the same country and we obviously have very good relationships on and off the court. But once you’re facing each other, you just see opposite your side of the net an opponent, a rival you want to beat and that’s what it comes down to.”
[WATCH LIVE 2]
Last week at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, Djokovic lost his first match of the season against Daniel Evans. Stefanos Tsitsipas went on to claim his first ATP Masters 1000 title.
“I think it’s a positive thing for our sport to actually have new champions, new faces, new brands really that are going to be recognised by tennis fans around the world, that are going to be celebrated. Obviously they will compare them to us and to maybe the results that we historically made, I understand that,” Djokovic said. “But I don’t mind seeing new winners. Of course I would like always to be on the winning side myself everywhere I play, but things are different.
Djokovic admitted that some of the younger stars on the ATP Tour are showing they can compete against the world’s best, and that the Serbian along with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will “have to accept the fact that maybe we will not be in the top ranking spots of the world and some other guys will replace us there and that’s a normal cycle of life”.
“We’re still hanging in there, we’re still trying to compete with these young guys who are strong, they are playing well, they are very motivated,” Djokovic said. “I think so far we’ve been doing pretty well.”