The war in Yugoslavia and the bombing of Belgrade were a frightening distraction for a young boy trying to become a tennis champion. But it also meant no school and more tennis, says Novak Djokovic. And he credits the war and the hardships it caused with instilling a hunger in him that ultimately drove him to fulfill his dream of becoming the world's top ranked player. Djokovic tells his story to Bob Simon for a 60 Minutes profile to be broadcast Sunday, March 25 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Djokovic takes Simon to the basement of his grandfather's apartment in Belgrade, where he and his family spent a few hours in the middle of each night during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign on the city. The fear and the disruption of sleep caused him to lose focus. "Because we were waking up every single night more or less at two, three a.m. for two and a half months," he tells Simon. "But the best thing about it...I always try to remember those days in a positive, in a very bright way...We didn't need to go to school and we played more tennis," says Djokovic.
He was a 12-year-old tennis prodigy during the bombing campaign, and now looking back, Djokovic says it was a formative time for him and his family. "[The war] made us tougher. It made us more hungry, more hungry for the success."
Now the world's number-one tennis player has more than tennis on his mind. As a Serb, he represents the small country condemned by many for its role in the civil wars that destroyed the former Yugoslavia. He is a hero in Serbia and is mindful of what he represents to his people. "We have a harder way to succeed in life as Serbs because of the past that we had and because of the history we had," he says. "We have to dig deeper..."
Djokovic dug deeper into his tennis game last year, managing to finally beat the game's best players, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and taking three of tennis' four major tournaments, including the sport's Holy Grail, Wimbledon. It was the peak of a mountain he began climbing at the age of six, when he started taking lessons with his beloved mentor, Jelena Gencic, who Simon also interviews.
"When I finished the match, when I ate the piece of grass, I had the flashback of my whole childhood, what I've been through," Djokovic says. "Memories, the first tennis courts that I grew up on...the days spent in Belgrade. And it was beautiful."