Next weekend, you and your teammates are playing Serbia’s first Fed cup final. The Czech Republic is the defending champion. Are you afraid, or you can’t wait for the match to begin? What are our strengths and weaknesses? What about the Czechs?
I can’t wait. I definitely don’t have any fear. It’s normal to be nervous before such a big occasion as this, and I’m sure I will be on the morning of my first match on Saturday, but that’s a good thing – it’s positive nerves, and shows how much I care.
I think it’s a great achievement by the team, to reach the final, and I am very excited to take part and hopefully help Serbia to victory. I want to enjoy the occasion, and fight for the trophy for Serbia.
Our strength is our experience. Jelena and I played big matches on big stages many times in our careers. Also, we have both had good results at indoor tournaments on similar surfaces.
The Czech team doesn’t really have any weaknesses, they’re the defending champions and they play at home. So it’s an extremely tough tie.
Winning the Fed cup would be the equivalent of winning the World cup in football. As one of my friends said: “If we were to play World cup final in football, everything in Serbia would stop for at least a week”. Yet, there is not too much media hype about Fed cup final. Why is that? The popularity of tennis is certainly not the issue – you, Novak and Jelena made tennis the new national sport of Serbia. Is it true, however, that women’s tennis still cannot compete with the popularity of men’s?
That’s a fair comment, and it perhaps shows that although tennis has become extremely popular in Serbia, we’re still not at the same level as football. But we are doing well: we broke the Fed Cup attendance world record at our very first match! And I notice that the newspapers sometimes put us on the front page – that doesn’t happen in many countries. I know that the International Tennis Federation is very impressed by Serbia’s organization of Fed Cup ties, and the support that our fans give us.
At the same time, it’s probably true that we don’t receive the same media attention as the men, and I think that’s a question that you should probably ask journalists, because they choose how much reporting they do…
It’s been more than four years since you gave women’s tennis in Serbia its greatest achievement – a Roland Garros victory. You were only 21, and you had a Grand Slam trophy in your hands. It seemed that the world is yours. And yet, your game and results went into a steep decline almost immediately, and it lasted for years. This year, however, definitely sees you in an upward trajectory once more. So, you can maybe see more clearly now: what happened after that Roland Garros? What was the greatest problem during the previous four years? And how did you solve it, to become dangerous again?
It was a combination of factors. Maybe the whole success came too soon and I was not quite ready for it. Also I had many small injuries and they really affected my confidence. And then it just seemed like I went from one disappointment to another. Looking back, maybe I should have taken a short break and started again. I tried so many different methods to find my old form. I over-trained, and I put so much pressure on myself, which caused stress.
Now I have been able to rise in the rankings again by enjoying myself more and being a bit more relaxed about my play. I have always been a very excitable person, and impatient, and I was getting too far ahead of myself. I have learnt to enjoy the process, and take steps back to the top. For example, reaching my first Grand Slam quarter-final in four years at the US Open was a big breakthrough, and an important step for next year, when I hope to build on that and go even further at major tournaments.
You are still only 24, with enough time for a major comeback. Do you hope for another Grand Slam trophy? And which one would you like best this time?
For sure. I have been playing tennis for such a long time, but I am still young, as you said. I still have the goal of winning all the Grand Slams. Wimbledon would be extremely special, but I would probably choose the Australian Open if I could, because of my love of Australia, and the family I have in Melbourne. It’s always a very special tournament to play.
Before you, before Novak and Jelena, Serbia didn’t seem to be a tennis country at all. Then, all of a sudden, the three of you burst onto scene, almost simultaneously, and leave the tennis world amazed. Was that an ‘accident’ with no logical explanation, or are there some reasons behind it? Serbia certainly cannot claim that it helped the three of you too much…
It’s amazing to think that we all reached the top at around the same time, after so many years without highly-ranked Serbian players. It is difficult to give a good explanation for it, but I can say that we have some similarities that helped us all: we are all extremely determined people. We’re strong-willed and focused, and we would not allow anything to stop us from reaching our goals. I can’t talk too much for Jelena and Novak, but I think it’s true that, like me, they are very close to their family, and enjoyed their support. That’s something that we perhaps have as an advantage in Serbia: we are very close to our families and have a big network of support.
Whether it was an accident, or not, generations of excellent players, such as yours, don’t come up often. But what can we do to improve the chances of getting a new Ana Ivanovic?
The explosion of interest in tennis in Serbia will definitely help. I see so many kids carrying rackets around Belgrade, even when I am the city centre. The more children we have playing, the more chance we have of finding future champions, because it means that there will be greater competition, which brings greater quality: your rivals push you to become better.
We do have better training facilities than when I was a kid, but it would be great if we could have more courts and maybe even a national training centre for the very best kids.
Every tennis player’s way to the top was a torturous one, but few can say that they got to the top by the way of an abandoned swimming pool, where you had to train. Looking back, did it help you? Made you tougher? For example, during that Roland Garros final against Dinara Safina, did you think about all those trainings in the swimming pool?
I didn’t think about it during the match, but when I won and our anthem played, I had tears in my eyes and I thought about all the hard work I had put in, the many hours of practice as a kid, and how I’d dreamed about it, and shared those dreams with my family all those years ago.
I am asked about the swimming pool at the April 11 Center a lot, and to be honest, at the time I knew no different. Now, it seems crazy that I practiced in an empty swimming pool when in other countries they have so many spare courts, but when I was a kid that’s all I knew, and I simply loved it. Playing on those courts was a privilege to me. It was a lot of fun, and I have the same love for tennis as I did back then.
It was only some years later, when I started travelling to tournaments around the world that I realized how hard it was for us, compared to other nations, but we never complained: we just got on with it, enjoyed our tennis and gave it our best.
When you were 15, you once spent four hours crying after a defeat. How do you cope with defeats today? What about victories? Do you have to forget them as soon as the match is over, and concentrate on your next opponent, or you give them some afterthought?
I still sometimes cry, but not for four hours! It’s because I put so much emotion into it, so it can be quite affecting after a tough defeat. But over the years I’ve discovered that you can usually learn more from defeats than victories, and you should try to take something positive from every match, whether you win or lose. Maybe it is something tactical, like you learnt that you are more successful at the net against players with certain styles; or maybe it’s something concerning preparation, for example the time that you choose to warm-up.
Most tournaments on the tour are just one week long and towards the end of a tournament you are playing every day, so there isn’t much time to reflect on past matches. Of course, in the immediate few hours after a match it is still on your mind and you talk about it, and maybe in practice the next morning I will talk to it some more with my coach, as well as looking forward to my next match.
And I can say that some defeats, and victories too, stay with you longer than others. It’s always nice to be reminded of some of my best matches, and to think back and remember some exciting times. It gives me extra motivation to train hard and ensure that I have similar experiences in the future.
As every other popular sport, tennis is now a serious business. Of course, managers take care of that side of tennis, but do you sometimes feel that money puts pressure on you? Even we, the journalists, while writing about some tennis tournament, usually mention money in the first sentence (such as: "Madrid WTA tournament starts tomorrow, and the prize money is 4 million euros..."). Prize money, sponsorships... Do you and your fellow players sometimes feel that money distracts you from thinking about the actual game?
There’s no question that as a professional tennis player I am very lucky to be able to be paid well to do something that I love. It is my love of tennis that has allowed me to get to the top: I never thought about money. I was lucky to receive some financial assistance when I was younger, and by the time I was 17 I was self-sufficient from a financial perspective. As players, we do sometimes think about ranking points, but I almost never think about prize money. After the Tournament, the next day someone will tell me how much I won and it’s a nice surprise, but it’s the last thing I’m thinking about. Of course, one of the reasons for this is because I am fortunate to have strong sponsors, and I’ve already earned quite a lot in prize money. For the lower-ranked players it is not so easy.
Your work as an UNICEF goodwill ambassador is well known. What will you do next in that role?
It's a great honour for me to work with UNICEF. I always love to spend time with kids, and we often organize events in Belgrade when I am there. We are planning another event before the end of the year, to raise awareness about the School Without Violence programme. This initiative has been very successful, thanks largely to the help of businesses and private donors: it's clear that we are able to reduce the amount of bullying and aggression in schools, by getting more schools into the programme. We still have a long way to go, but we are making good progress.