Identifying a future champion in any sport is a multistage process. It is truly remarkable to be able to recognize special talent from a large group of beginners in a particular sport.
For sure, only a small group of tennis experts boast the ability to select a future champion at first sight. In this group, we must include the legendary Serbian coach, Jelena Gencic.
Ms. Gencic was born in Belgrade,former Yugoslavia in 1936. She grew up in a family with three brothers and three sisters.
S. M. – What are your memories from that period of your life, before and during WWII?
J. G. – Most of the time was spent with my siblings playing in and out of the house. The first lessons of life and discipline that helped me later in life came from my grandfather. He was a doctor and the first Serbian surgeon. All the grandchildren exercised every morning outdoors regardless of the weather conditions. He expressed repeatedly that in a healthy body there is a healthy mind all the while we were running, doing various gymnastic exercises. After exercising, we washed our faces with cold water. Our grandfather made it a habit to read to us and tell stories in French and Russian.
S. M. – How did you develop an interest in spots, particularly tennis?
J. G. – My brothers were recognized athletes at the national level. I followed in their foot steps with a love of sports; first with hand ball and later with tennis. In both sports, I competed at a high level. I played at the amateur level for Yugoslavia’s National handball team along with being a national tennis champion. I also spent time as a director on national television working on educational programs for children. Later I was totally dedicated to the game of tennis, and for years was a Fed cup tennis coach for the former Yugoslavia.
S. M. – You are the well known coach of many top players and people give you credit for your early discover of some of the biggest talents.
J. G. – My last major discovery is the number one ranked player of today, Novak Djokovic. When I first met him at the mountain resort Kopaonik, in Serbia, where I ran a summer tennis camp and his parents had a small restaurant called Red Bull, he was six years old. He would watch my training through the fence. One day I asked his name and if he would like to join us. He replied “That is what I was waiting for”. The next day he was at the playground half an hour before practice. When he took the racket in his hand, I immediately noticed that he was different from other children. I talked to his father about him and told him that he was a golden child who one day will be a great champion. The next five years, Novak and I spent time learning about tennis and the preparation for life. He would like to listen to classical music and read serious literature. I kept repeating to him that money should never be his main motive for the sport. We prepared mentally by lifting a plastic vase, pretending it was the Wimbledon trophy. We also practiced on how to behave in tournaments. He has always had a strong will and he knew what would be important for him to succeed. I wanted Novak to play a one-handed backhand, but one day he politely asked me if he could try a two- handed backhand because he thought he could hit the stroke harder with more accuracy. Today his two handed backhand is one of the best strokes on the tour.
S. M. – When did you feel it was time to say good-by to Novak?
J. G. – In his early years it would be beneficial for Novak to have appropriate training and sparring partners. I helped him over the course of the next four years to move in with my friend Nikola Pilic who owns the tennis academy near Munich in southern Germany. Niki was known as someone who knew how to polish players and prepare them for success. He is the only coach in the history of tennis to win the Davis cup with three different teams: Germany, Croatia, and Serbia in 2010.
S. M. – Have you had successful experience with other young players over the years?
J. G. – From an early age I trained Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic. I coached them in junior tournaments for four years. I taught Monica almost everything she needed to know to be successful in tennis. Her father, Karoly really sacrificed much for her career. He was very persistent and attended nearly every session. He never interfered and always co-operated. Goran was a little fussy and prone to outbursts which followed him through out his professional career. He always stayed in my memory as an extremely good guy who was serious about training and was very coachable.
S. M. – Many parents have come to you to evaluate their children; they say that you are honest and rarely mistaken.
J. G. – I never make a mistake in judgment. Let’s take Novak Djokovic for example. I told his parents that he would win his first grand slam before he would turn seventeen years old. It actually happened when he was nineteen years old. The reason was financial in nature because he was not able to play in all the tournaments that I planned for him in preparing him for professional tennis and winning the big one.
S. M. – What is it that you see in young players that will determine a future champion?
J. G. – In early identification of young talent I do not use measuring instruments or tools. I trust my natural instinct and life experience. It is important that the child has good hand eye co-ordination and quick reflexes. The child must recognize the incoming ball to have enough time for early preparation. Also, recovery time plays an important role. The basic motor skills are necessary and later technical upgrade is an easy job for the coaches and players. It is important to recognize the level of motivation of young players as well as their strong mind set that later will make a difference between champions and average players.
S. M. – In closing our interview, Ms. Gencic, do you have a new name as a successor to Djokovic and Seles?
J. G. – My latest discovery is Aleksa Bucan, he is now 12 years old and will be the next tennis star. Remember that name.