Novak Djokovic might not like GB fans now – but he considered becoming a Brit in 2006

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic during the 2006 Australian Open
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic could have reprised Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski's all-British rivalry - Getty Images/Clive Brunskill

The irony of Serbia’s dominant win over Great Britain on Thursday is that Novak Djokovic, the world’s best player, flirted with becoming a British citizen when he was still a teenager.

Indeed, Djokovic’s brief dalliance with the Lawn Tennis Association came immediately after he had provided a preview of this week’s action by crushing British hopes in the Davis Cup.

In the autumn of 2006, Serbia and Montenegro (the former Yugoslavian states were yoked together then) scored a 3-2 victory at Glasgow’s Braehead Arena. Djokovic won both his singles matches, overcoming first Arvind Parmar and then Greg Rusedski.

And here’s another irony: Rusedski had already provided an living example of how the transfer might work. Rusedski initially met with scoffing and scepticism when he transferred his nationality from Canada in 1995. But the fuss soon died down when he reached the 1997 US Open final.

Think, too, of the way that Rusedski’s often frosty rivalry with Tim Henman created a dramatic narrative of its own, commandeering thousands of column inches and broadcast hours. In 2006, Djokovic was 19 – and so was the fast-emerging Andy Murray, who was born just a week earlier in 1987. The prospect of a Henman-Rusedski Mark II must have warmed the hearts of the marketeers.

But what about the obvious and essential problem? Djokovic was not British. Not even a tiny bit. Whereas Rusedski’s mother hailed from Dewsbury in Yorkshire.

The short answer is that such details would have been conveniently overlooked. At the time, the International Tennis Federation rules required only three years’ residency for a transfer of nationality in the Davis Cup. Plenty of lesser players have become British for pragmatic reasons, notably Slovenia’s Aljaz Bedene (whose ranking peaked at No 43 in the world).

From Djokovic’s perspective, the motivation was simple: cash. As a five-year-old growing up in the mountain resort of Kopaonik, he had been fortunate to meet Jelena Gencic, a former national champion who had already turned Monica Seles into a world-beater. But the financial pinch point arrived when he was 12, and needed to spar with other talented juniors.

Novak Djokovic during a singles match against GB's Arvind Parmar during the 2006 Davis Cup
Djokovic during Serbia and Montenegro's Davis Cup match against Great Britain in 2006 - Getty Images/Julian Finney

In this less digital age, his parents Srdjan and Dijana must have worn out their Rolodex. They begged, borrowed and scraped together the fees for Niki Pilic’s academy near Munich. After such stresses, the prospect of a lavishly funded programme, based at the LTA’s shiny new headquarters in Roehampton, would have looked highly appealing.

To fill in some of the details, the Telegraph spoke to Roger Draper, who was then only a couple of weeks into his seven-year stint as LTA chief executive – and whose son Jack played the first match in Thursday’s tie.

“It started during an official dinner at the Davis Cup tie,” Draper recalled. “Stuart Smith, who was the LTA president at the time, came up to me and said ‘I’ve just been approached by a representative of the Djokovic family. They’ve got this kid, and they don’t feel they’re getting the support and resources they need. They’re exploring other avenues. What sort of things can you do?’

“A few weeks later, we had dinner with Dijana and Srdjan at Stuart’s house in Kent. I said: ‘We can do what we do for all the other British players: provide a training venue and some financial support.’ They were just tennis parents trying to do the best for their kids. After that meeting, though, I didn’t hear anything more about it. The funny thing was that a security guard saw them come through the doors at Queen’s Club, where the LTA was based then. He happened to be Serbian, and he phoned a mate, who phoned another mate, and before we knew it, it wasn’t top secret any more.”

One possibility is that the Djokovic family were using the LTA as the stooges in a wider strategy. This suggestion was later made by Serbia’s 2006 Davis Cup captain, Nenad Zimonjic, in an interview with Djokovic’s biographer Chris Bowers. As Zimonjic explained “Maybe it was a way of saying to our country, ‘Listen, you have an unbelievable talent here, you should help it.’”

It is also worth remembering that the Djokovic clan had two younger boys to think about. Both Marko and Djordje were considered excellent prospects at the time. A few hotheads even predicted that Djordje would go on to eclipse Novak’s achievements, although neither of the latecomers ended up making a living on the tour.

“I remember driving Srdjan and Dijana around, one day late in 2006,” recalls an LTA employee of the time. “We had a look at the NTC, which was then under construction, and I took them down to Reed’s School [the specialist tennis facility attended by Henman] because that would have been the base for the two younger boys. Srdjan at that time was very confident that he could replicate Novak’s success.

“They were polite but I wouldn’t say that they were warm. They just wanted to know exactly what they would get out of the deal.”

Djokovic himself discussed the whole affair in a 2009 newspaper interview. “Britain was offering me a lot of opportunities,” he said then, “and they needed someone because Andy was the only one, and still is. That had to be a disappointment for all the money they invest. But I didn’t need the money as much as I had done. I had begun to make some for myself, enough to afford to travel with a coach, and I said, ‘Why the heck?’ I am Serbian, I am proud of being a Serbian – I didn’t want to spoil that just because another country had better conditions.”

Some might feel that Djokovic has been taking revenge on British tennis ever since. He was the immovable obstacle in Murray’s path for at least a decade, dominating their head-to-head record by 25 wins to 11. And Thursday’s straight-sets win over Cam Norrie means that he is unbeaten in Davis Cup combat between the two countries.

In the aftermath of that match, Djokovic’s furious bust-up with a few vocal British supporters could be taken as further evidence of a grudge.

In all probability, though, we are flattering ourselves if we imagine that Djokovic has the LTA on his mind. One suspects that he has barely thought about his flirtation for a decade (except when he is asked about it in press conferences).

He is the ultimate tennis warrior, and he just keeps winning.