Novak & Ana
War-torn Serbia has produced the two most brilliant and beautiful players in tennis right now. They are funny, charismatic, and if they ever get together and have kids, the rest of the world may as well give up
Interviews by Emma John and Adrian Deevoy
Sunday January 6, 2008
Men's tennis in 2007 was all about one man: Novak Djokovic. At the start of the season, he was 19 years old and ranked 16th in the world. By the time he left Wimbledon - stymied in the semis by foot blisters - he was number three. But the moment that defined his stellar year was not, surprisingly, a win. It was his appearance in the US Open final, against Roger Federer, in September. Djokovic may have lost the match, but the sight of Maria Sharapova screaming him on from his guest box - with Robert De Niro alongside - confirmed he had something that Federer, whatever blazer-and-trouser combos he may concoct, will never be able to emulate: style.
For a sense of Djokovic's flair, you could watch his Wimbledon quarter-final against Marcos Baghdatis, one of the most thrilling matches of the year, despite being five hours long, or the attacking play that defeated Federer in the final of the Montreal Masters in August. But that is only half the story. For the rest, see Djokovic's YouTube moments: his full-throated karaoke rendition of 'I Will Survive' at the French Open; his on-court impersonations of his fellow players, from a crotch-fiddling Nadal to a prancing Sharapova. Djokovic has charm and, crucially, wit, and has taken it upon himself to be Serbia's most winning, and most committed, ambassador to the world.
In his family's Belgrade office, in one of the city's ubiquitous concrete blocks, the young man who is the family business offers drinks with the kind of manners that would please your mum. I put it to Novak Djokovic that with his sporting ability, the four languages he speaks and the Monte Carlo second home, not to mention last year's $3.9m (Ł1.9m) prize money, he has to be the most eligible bachelor in Serbia right now. He laughs. There have, it transpires, been a few phone calls from hopeful mothers. 'Yes, that's one of the things that's happening now,' he says with a smile. 'But it's just part of the success. I'm happy, my family's happy, everything is going well.'
The evidence is around us. Djokovic's schedule for his three-day home visit is full of public appearances and private meetings, and the office is bustling. Uncles and cousins come and go, finalising arrangements for a charity event at the Belgrade Arena - one of the largest indoor stadiums in Europe - under the direction of Novak's dad Srdjan. Novak will be playing a doubles exhibition match with Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Janko Tipsarevic who have, in barely a year, effected nothing less than a revolution in Serbian sport. Until their recent successes, tennis ranked lower on the sporting consciousness here than volleyball, handball and water polo. Now it is challenging football and basketball as the country's most popular sport. Since the French Open, the tennis federation has seen a 40 per cent increase in people playing the sport and basketball courts are being hijacked by children wanting to hit balls over an imaginary net.
'Football has always been big here, even though we never achieved anything,' says Djokovic, who is a big fan of Red Star, the 1991 European champions. 'I love football and it's the sport I would really like to play. I've said on national television here that I would really love to play for one of our football clubs when I finished my tennis career. Everybody was surprised, but that's what I really want to do. When I finish, who knows? A couple of games, or half a season.'
Is he any good? 'Yeah!' What kind of player? 'Attacking. I like to score.' This makes sense: given his propensity to strip off his shirt for tennis fans, he would particularly enjoy the celebrations.
Anyway, who has the best body in the men's dressing room? He pauses to consider this quite seriously. 'Oh. Whooh. I would say, for sure, Paradorn Srichaphan. He has not been playing and I haven't seen him for a while. But he still has the best body in men's tennis.' Better than Rafa? 'Rafa? No, no... I don't like bodies like Rafa's.'
I ask if he has any bad habits. 'Breathing,' he replies. Er, right. 'It's something that's bothering me a bit. I still don't have the right breathing on the court, exhaling when you're hitting the ball. You lose a lot of energy if you're not breathing right. Maybe some yoga would help.' In 2005 he had an operation to fix what he calls a 'deviation' in his nose. Sounds weird. 'Yeah, it was! It was the worst time in my life. I was in the hospital and for three days I couldn't breathe because I had things in my nose, it was terrible. But the surgeon was from Italy and he knows how to do the job really well. He did nose surgery with Paolo Maldini and even Prime Minister Berlusconi. So he's pretty famous there.' Those are some important noses. Did he offer any, you know, shaping? 'Aesthetic wise? No, that was something they didn't offer.'
More than a hundred journalists turn up to Novak's morning press conference. With his white shirt tucked in to a pair of jeans, rimless glasses and his earnest responses, he has the air not so much of a sportsman as of a PhD student, or an accountant. Alongside him sit his two younger brothers, teenager Marko and 12-year-old Djordje, both promising players. Marko's shy, but little Djordje is not. When someone asks him who his tennis idols are, he replies: 'I like players from the past like Andre Agassi. But I like myself the best.'
Djokovic's own hero was, and remains, Pete Sampras, because, aged six, it was Sampras he watched win Wimbledon in 1993, jump- starting his love of the game. It is hard to imagine in what way punctilious Pete might have inspired such an extrovert. Djokovic laughs. 'We're totally opposite. Totally opposite personalities. Totally opposite game. But I just love the way he deals with the pressure. He always plays well, always serves well in the important moments. Mentally he was the strongest person I've ever seen. I'm just really sad that I still haven't had the chance to meet him. Maybe in the upcoming season in the States I will.' What will he say when he finally does meet him? 'I don't know... I'll probably say nothing for 10 minutes, I'll be so confused. Then I'll say, "Let's play!"'
One player he has befriended - ever since they began competing - is Andy Murray. You suspect they would make a pretty wild duo. 'Well, we haven't partied too much,' says Djokovic, looking almost demure. 'But on the court you can see how we're both playing with a lot of emotion. He screams a lot, and I throw rackets.' The pair have always been closely compared in ability and potential; but over the past year, while Djokovic has been fulfilling his, Murray has been left nursing injuries and kicking the sofa. Does that make things awkward between them? Novak looks momentarily sheepish. 'Actually, I lost his number.'
Perhaps he has the gossip on what is happening between Jelena and Andy's brother Jamie, who looked so cosy at last year's Wimbledon? He grins. 'No. But as soon as I see Jelena today I'm going to ask her what's going on. I heard she was denying everything, but I think I saw them at the US Open together, so I don't know.' And speaking of these things, what is the deal with him and Sharapova? 'There is no deal,' he says, though he is clearly not offended at the question. 'Obviously when you see her sitting there in the final of the US Open cheering for me you think, "What's going on?" But it's just a nice friendship.'
By 5pm, Djokovic has changed into a velvety brown suit, far more befitting his sex-symbol status, for Serbia's sports personality of the year awards, held at one of Belgrade's slightly shabbier hotels. Apart from a wrestler, a drag racer and a kayaking quartet, Djokovic's only real competition for the title comes from Jankovic and Ivanovic. At the buffet that follows her son's inevitable victory, his mum, Dijana, talks about the tennis academy that the family is hoping to establish in his name. 'The important thing is that the idols for young Serbs now are very good kids,' she says. 'They are people who really worked hard to get where they are now. They didn't steal, cheat, or kill somebody to get there. For 10 years it was so bad. The role models were gangsters, or drug dealers. Everything is changing.'
Afterwards, the Djokovic family head for dinner with one of their own idols - Alberto Tomba, aka Tomba la Bomba, the legendary Italian skier and multiple world champion. Djokovic's father Srdjan was a skier for the former Yugoslavia, and his parents met on the piste; throughout Novak's childhood they ran a pizza-and-pancakes restaurant in the ski-resort town of Kapaonik. While most professional sportspeople shun the slopes - because neither their coaches nor their insurance companies like it - Novak still skis whenever he can. So which is he: speed or style? 'I like to think it's a combination of both,' he says. 'But I try to have more style. I like to look nice on the skis.'
That Djokovic became a tennis player at all is something of a curiosity. As well as inheriting skiing genes from his father, his mother's family contained some serious volleyballing talent. 'Nobody actually played tennis in my family,' he says. But as he watched four tennis courts being built opposite the family restaurant, the five-year-old Djokovic was enthralled. Jelena Gencic, who opened the tennis camp there, is still coaching in her seventies; Djokovic often describes her as the biggest tennis influence in his life. Gencic remembers the day he first arrived to play. 'He arrived half an hour early with a big tennis bag,' she says. 'Inside his bag I saw a tennis racket, towel, bottle of water, banana, wrist-bands, everything you need for a game. I asked him, "Who packed your bag, your mother?" He said, "No, I packed it." He was only five. I said: "How did you know what to pack?" And he said, "I watch TV."' His mum Dijana says that even as a young boy he was a perfectionist. 'I always tried to win,' Djokovic agrees. 'I was as competitive as I am today.'
It was his tennis routine that saw the family through during the Nato bombing campaign in 1999. 'All our family were here in Belgrade during the bombing, and all day we were on court,' Dijana says. 'And this is what saved us. It wasn't any more or less safe than any other place in the street, but if you're sitting at home in the basement, thinking they are going to bomb your home, you're going crazy. It's not good. We were practising all day, and at seven o'clock we would go home and sit with the curtains closed, everything closed and dark the way it had to be.'
Sponsors weren't interested in a young Serb, even when he won junior European titles, so Djokovic's parents had to rely on their extended family for help. Perhaps that partly explains why Djokovic is so keen to be an ambassador for his homeland. 'He always feels he needs to act diplomatically,' says his coach, Marian Vajda. 'He loves his country.' And yet, ironically, his popularity has become so overpowering that he has to train abroad. 'Even to come to see his family is hard,' Vajda says. 'He gets so bothered. Last time we had a practice in Belgrade we had 20 people on the court, so I said no more. It's better for him to practise somewhere else. But of course he misses it so much.'
Belgrade Arena holds 20,000 people. Tonight, every seat is filled, and every person present - little boy, teenage girl, adult male - seems to have a fairly open crush on 'Nole', as they call him here. The other participants in the celebrity doubles match, Tipsarevic, Ivanovic and Jankovic, are announced to loud cheers. When Djokovic appears, however, the cheers turn to hysterical screams. Grown men hurl themselves down the stadium steps to get closer. The four greet one another as the old friends they are; Djokovic, living up to his heart-throb role, offers Ana an elaborate bow that ends on bended knee. The crowd loves it.
Although they played at different clubs, Djokovic has practised and played with Ivanovic since they were five years old. 'She's a fantastic girl,' he has told me earlier, 'one of the nicest I've ever met. She has such a great personality, very calm and very positive. And she's beautiful as well! She has a beautiful smile. She's attracting people wherever she goes because she's very bright and people recognise it and respect her.' Has she ever taken a game off you? 'No!' Then: 'I'm joking. Of course she has. But I could never play with her 100 per cent serious because I laugh with her more than anyone else. I really enjoy practising with her.' Who's better, Ana or Jelena? Djokovic is too gentlemanly to be drawn. 'I just say... I don't know! I wouldn't, because they're both playing great tennis.'
The exhibition match is only one set long, much of it a showcase for his on-court silliness and, of course, impersonations. At the end of the evening, Djokovic and Tipsarevic join the band to sing a popular, though puzzling, song about friendship (sample lyrics: 'I myself am a migratory bird'). Djokovic's voice is not what you would call tuneful, but right now he could release a recording of his tooth-brushing routine and still have a number-one hit. Maybe one day, he says, he could be a singer, or an actor. 'Or who knows what,' he says. 'I'm really enjoying my time.'
Interview by Emma John
Taking an early evening constitutional along the western shore of Lake Zurich, Serbian tennis star Ana Ivanovic is talking, 19 to the dozen, about the curious world she inhabits. Even the swans turn their heads the better to catch this 6ft 1in peach-skinned girl as she walks, and talks, and sips her large Starbucks takeaway. Then talks some more.
She is wearing skinny jeans, a bitter-chocolate leather jacket and a cream silk scarf. In conversation, as on court, she covers a lot of ground quickly. No sooner has she dispatched the subject of Robbie Williams than she is happily lobbing George Clooney into the conversation and skilfully volleying the topic of Slobodan Milosevic back over the net.
As we head up Zurich's old cobbled streets, she is talking about travel, which, as a professional tennis player, takes up 90 per cent of her time. 'I live in a suitcase,' she says, but you know what she means.
Ivanovic reels off the matches played and the countries visited in the past year alone, and you cannot begin to calculate the air miles and the WTA kudos she has accumulated. There was the Australian Open (she reached the third round), French Open (she lost the final to Justine Henin), Wimbledon (memorably beaten in the semis by Venus Williams) and the US Open (knocked out, fourth round, that Williams woman again).
Meanwhile, without so much as a sip of barley water, she was also off to the Tier I events. 'Tokyo, Miami, Berlin, Rome, San Diego, Toronto, Moscow,' she says in a resigned sing-song.
By the time we have meandered back towards Starbucks (she needs refuelling), it has been made plain that no matter how moneyed, mollycoddled and media-massaged these tennis princesses may be, most of them put in more court appearances per year than Pete Doherty.
Does your personality change once you're on court?
I'm more aggressive. It has to happen because if you're too soft you're going to lose. I'm very easy-going off court, but I really want to win once I'm walking on to the court.
At that moment, do you hate your opponent?
I try not to think about the person, just their tactics, their weaknesses and strengths. I play against the ball. It doesn't really matter who you're playing at that point.
Even if you're facing one of the Williams sisters?
That's a little harder. They play very aggressively.
Are you a bad loser?
Very bad. Even if I play backgammon with my coach I hate to lose. I won't talk to him for, like, an hour. So imagine how it feels when you lose at tennis. That makes me determined not to lose because I hate it so much. Even at a set down and match point I always believe I can come back.
But sometimes you must know it won't happen...
Sometimes. In Australia against [Vera] Zvonareva, I was 6-2, 5-1 and 40-0 down and I was thinking: 'Nothing's going my way today.' And when you're having a bad day, there are normally a lot of people watching, so it's sort of embarrassing.
What do you do half an hour before a big match?
I like to be alone and listen to music. Every match I play, I have a tune in my head over and over. It might only be a few words or a small piece of the tune, but it can drive you mad.
Can your mind drift during matches?
It's not always possible to concentrate completely, so you'll find yourself thinking about something someone said earlier. That's when you have to pinch yourself and get back to what's happening on the court.
Have you ever cheated?
No. Actually, I did once. I was a junior and there was no referee and I played against this Russian girl and she cheated so badly. She was calling balls out that were a metre inside the line. I was so angry, I thought: 'Every time she cheats, I'm going to cheat her back.' So I did.
Earlier this afternoon, Ivanovic made a fleeting appearance on the sports floor of an upmarket (this is Switzerland, they don't do downmarket) department store. As a resident of Basel, she is treated as a local in Zurich. Her approachability is appreciated and fans cluster around as she dispenses multilingual goodwill and free Adidas T-shirts.
Ivanovic's sponsorship deal with the sportswear giant was engineered - like her entire career - by her manager, Dan Holzmann, a Swiss-based German entrepreneur, who took on Ana when she was 14. He needed only two hours before deciding to invest the half a million dollars it would take to groom the naturally gifted girl. Within 18 months of her 2003 pro debut, Ivanovic had paid this seed money back. Holzmann continues to negotiate shrewdly - with Adidas, Wilson, Aqua Viva and Verano Motors - on his charge's behalf. With her global marketability and his business acumen, they make an enviably winning team.
Having remained unmolested for the duration of her lakeside date, Ivanovic is spotted by a few youths. They blush and jostle and, much like your reporter, ask her random questions that she claims to enjoy more than talking tennis tactics. 'Get it over the net and between the lines,' she says of her complex technical game. 'At the end of the day it's really that simple.'
Do you remember the war starting in Serbia?
No, I was too young, but I remember the bombing in 1999 [by Nato, during the Kosovo War]. That was something I'll never forget - the biggest shock of my life. My parents tried to keep it away from us, they wouldn't talk about it or put the news on. But schools were shut, nobody went to work, everything stopped. It was a bit scary, but people really stayed together and protected each other.
Describe your bedroom as a child.
When I was very young I shared my bedroom with my brother. He's four years younger than me. Later we had separate rooms. Mine was apricot-coloured - nice, eh? I was so happy because I had a TV in my room. I wasn't crazy about putting posters up of movies stars or singers. I only really loved Monica Seles - I so was obsessed.
Your parents must have found your tennis obsession strange...
Yes, firstly because I was such a clumsy kid. I couldn't run without knocking something over. Then I wanted to play tennis and no one in my family knew anything about tennis. Looking back, I really don't know what attracted me to it, but I still have a video of my first-ever practice, when I was five. Watching it now, there was a little bit of talent there; I could hit the ball.
Do you feel that you missed out on a normal teenage life?
Not really - I never liked going out to parties. Partying and drinking were never my thing.
Do you cry easily?
I'm quite an emotional person. I cry a lot. I do not like conflict, so if I have an argument with my parents I'll often cry. I become too emotional. I cried after I lost in the Stuttgart Open. Another bad day for me and she [Tatiana Golovin] played better than me. But there'll be plenty more opportunities.
The world's fourth-ranked woman tennis player insists on buying and fetching the foamy mugs of ubiquity from the Starbucks counter. 'I just love these places,' she says without a hint of irony, and if you were 20 years old and had gone from war-torn Serbia to itinerant tennis ace, you might feel the same.
Ivanovic is a wealthy woman these days - she won more than $3m (Ł1.5m) in 2007 alone. She wears Armani Code perfume, goes on regular frock-shopping raids with her lawyer mother (dad, handily, is an economist) and invests her sponsorship millions on the advice of top European businessmen.
Tall, beautiful, talented, minted. That's it, she's getting the next coffee, too...
Your website is among the most-visited of any female athlete. Which do you visit most often?
I shouldn't say Lime Wire [a music-sharing site], should I? I go to iTunes! And YouTube is always interesting. You can find anything on YouTube.
Who, to your mind, is the most attractive woman on the tennis circuit?
[Laughs] It's hard to say for a girl but... [Maria] Kirilenko. She's quite attractive.
Are women attracted to you?
Oh my God, I've had a few uncomfortable experiences but I'm so allergic to that. I just can't... even now when I see my friends and they just want to kiss the cheek. I prefer men.
Do you prefer men to be philosophical or funny?
I like men who are thoughtful, but overall I would prefer them to be funny.
Here's a funny but slightly philosophical joke: no matter how good you get at tennis, you'll never be better than a wall.
A war? Oh, a wall. Yes, that's funny.
Could you ever date a short man?
I know you should say it's about the person inside, but probably not. I'm tall and it's too difficult.
Why don't you just marry Novak Djokovic and have unbeatable tennis babies?
[Laughs] We're still so young. We're both just 20. We have many more years in front of us yet.
Are all Serbians good-looking?
As a people, Serbians are very tall, and we have olive skin and dark hair, which can look very nice. You have to be very beautiful to stand out.
Would you ever play tennis drunk for fun?
No, I've never done anything drunk. I'm an in-control person. I was tipsy a few times but I can't drink. I told you, I'm a real party-pooper.
Can what you wear affect your game?
It really can. You'll be wearing a dress you don't feel comfortable in or you'll think: 'These shorts keep coming down all the time!' You lose focus if you think your shorts are falling down.
Are you able to jump the net?
No, I'm not. I should learn.
You may need to do that at Wimbledon this year. Is there anything you wouldn't do in order to win Wimbledon?
Oh, I'd do so much that you can't imagine - as long as it wasn't really bad.
Sell your soul?
No, I need that.
I love, love, love my grandparents.
Eat a dog?
Eat a dog?! No, nothing that crazy. And I wouldn't do something like jump in the Thames naked. I'm just not that type of person. But you probably understand that by now.
A church bell sounds six. It comes from an elegant clocktower with a wide, round face. Standing beneath the steeple, like its human embodiment, Ana Ivanovic watches the young couples drift by in the fading sunlight. 'I'll have a family and live in my own home one day,' she says without emotion. 'But that's for the future.'
Interview by Adrian Deevoy
Career highlight: Beating the top three, Roddick, Nadal and Federer, in consecutive days in August last year
Biggest disappointment: Limping out of his 2007 Wimbledon semi-final against Rafael Nadal
Look out for: His powerful, angled forehand and his excellent banter at press conferences
Career highlight: Beating Maria Sharapova to reach her first grand slam final at the 2007 French Open
Biggest disappointment: Having to pull out of the WTA's Rome tournament last year with a knee injury
Look out for: Her strength from the baseline and upcoming appearances as a Unicef ambassador