Jelena Gencic never really stopped coaching Novak Djokovic right up until her death last weekend at age 76.
The top-ranked men’s tennis player told journalists yesterday that the coach who discovered him as a 6-year-old reminded him just two weeks ago to chase the French Open title, the one Grand Slam tournament he hasn’t won.
“She told me, ‘Listen, you have to focus, you have to give your attention to this tournament,’” Djokovic said after beating Philipp Kohlschreiber 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals. “‘This is a tournament you need to win.’ She was giving me this kind of inspiration and motivation even more. So now I feel in her honor that I need to go all the way.”
Djokovic will play 35-year-old Tommy Haas in the last eight. The 26-year-old Serb made his first Roland Garros final in 2012, losing a four-set match to Rafael Nadal of Spain played over two days because of rain delays. He may face Nadal in the semifinals this year.
After yesterday’s victory, he paid tribute to Gencic, a former tennis and handball international for Yugoslavia who coached him until he was 12. She also coached Grand Slam champions Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic.
“Life gives you things and takes away close people in your life, and Jelena was my first coach, like my second mother,” Djokovic told reporters.
Djokovic added his team had done “the right thing” when they decided not to tell him of Gencic’s death before he had to play his previous round against Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria. They told him afterward, and he was so upset he canceled his post-match press conference.
‘Still a Shock’
“Regardless of the timing, it’s still a shock,” he said yesterday. “But I think it was better for me and for my match that the news came after.”
Djokovic smiled as he said Gencic had still been giving tennis lessons to young kids two days before her death.
Djokovic grew up in war-torn Serbia. He turned 12 in 1999, when the then-Yugoslavian region was bombed for 11 weeks in a NATO campaign to end former President Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. During nightly air raids, Djokovic and his family hid in the basement of his grandfather’s apartment in Belgrade, the city where he practiced with Gencic during the day.
Djokovic said he’d like to continue her work in Serbia.
“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,” he said. “Hopefully I will be able to continue on and follow up where she stopped with her legacy, because she left so much knowledge to me and to the people that were close to her.”