Novak Djokovic wants to win the French Open in the memory of his former coach and mentor, Jelena Gencic.
Gencic spotted Djokovic’s talent as a six-year-old in Serbia and remained an important person throughout his life.
She died of a heart attack on Saturday, and Djokovic’s team kept the news from him until after he had beaten Grigor Dimitrov because they knew it would hit him hard. The world No 1 immediately cancelled his press commitments but spoke movingly and eloquently after beating Philipp Kohlschreiber in the fourth round yesterday.
Djokovic said: “It hasn’t been easy, but this is life. Life gives you things, takes away close people in your life, and Jelena was my first coach, like my second mother. 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, and I have the nicest memories of her.
“This is something that will stay forever and 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. I feel the responsibility also to continue on doing that in the future, because she worked with kids between five and six years to 12, 13 years old, and she was dedicating all her life to that generation and to tennis.
“She never got married, she never had kids, so tennis was all she had in life. She was 77 years old, and before she passed away two days ago, last week she was giving lessons to kids. So she didn’t really care about the nature of the illness. She had breast cancer. She survived that. She’s one of the most incredible people I ever knew.
“I feel even more responsible now to go all the way in this tournament. I want to do it for her, also. I remember the last conversation we had two weeks ago about Roland Garros. She told me, ‘Listen, you have to focus, you have to give your attention to this tournament. 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 honour that I need to go all the way.”
The French Open is the only grand slam title Djokovic has not yet won, and he survived his first test yesterday, coming from a set down in cool and windy conditions to defeat German Kohlschreiber 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
It has been a difficult time off the court for Djokovic. Last April he was playing in Monte Carlo when he learned of the death of his grandfather while in October his father Srdjan was taken seriously ill.
Djokovic, who faces Tommy Haas in the quarter-finals, said: “In one way the experience that I had with my grandfather’s passing away last year helped me a little bit to stay tough this time, because it took me a long time last year to recover. It was very emotional.
“This year again a very close person, so another shock for me. But I’m handling it better. I’m trying to focus my thoughts on the nicest memories that we had and the moments we spent together.”
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal found his form on his 27th birthday yesterday to brush aside Kei Nishikori and reach the last eight.
The seven-time champion has famously only lost once at Roland Garros, to Robin Soderling in 2009, but he looked unusually vulnerable in his first three rounds. Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan both won the first set against Nadal while, although he played better against Fabio Fognini on Saturday, he was still well below his best and fortunate to win in straight sets.
The Spaniard certainly looked more like his old self in a 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 victory over 13th seed Nishikori, striking his forehand with a lot more ferocity and moving better around the court.
The first set was relatively even, but Nadal took his chance in the fifth game while Nishikori was not able to take his. After the Japanese player held at the start of the second set, Nadal won seven straight games, and a single break in the fourth game of the third set was enough for the third seed to come through in two hours and two minutes.
After the match, Nadal was presented with a huge layered cake decorated with tennis rackets and balls on the court as he celebrated his birthday at Roland Garros for the eighth time.
Next up for Nadal is Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka, who last night beat Frenchman Richard Gasquet 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 8-6.