Tennis: Serbian players polish their image at the Australian Open
It has been a rough week for Serbia's image in the tennis world, with scores of young Serbian fans brawling with their Croatian counterparts in the usually more sedate alleyways of the Australian Open on opening day.
And yet it has been another fine week for Serbian tennis, with Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic all living up to their seedings and moving into the third round with perhaps much grander things to come.
"I think it's very exciting for all of us and also for the young kids back home; I hope that's motivation for them," said the 19-year-old Ivanovic after defeating Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, 6-2, 3- 6, 6-2, in the second round on a warm Thursday free of major upsets.
The game is booming in Serbia, generating increasing buzz in the media and the cafés of Belgrade and generating plans for the national training center that its top players agree is lacking.
The 13th-seeded Ivanovic, a tall and elegant brunette with one of the better forehands in the women's game, might be sending her best to all the youngsters "back home," but the truth is that her talented generation had to leave home to make it.
Ivanovic went to Roger Federer's home city of Basel, Switzerland, to train. Jankovic, who is on the verge of breaking into the women's top 10, left for Bradenton, Florida, and the Bollettieri Tennis Academy at age 12, which was the same age that Djokovic, one of the most promising players in the men's game, left for Niki Pilic's Academy in Munich. He later trained in Italy.
"I think it would have been very difficult to have gotten where I am if I had stayed in Serbia," Jankovic said.
The gifted ones who stayed behind have made slower progress, like the 126th-ranked Ilia Bozoljac, who qualified for the men's main draw here but lost to Tommy Haas of Germany in straight sets Thursday. Bozoljac, 21, said he trained in his teens in Belgrade with a coach financed by the best Serbian men's player in history, Slobodan (Bobo) Zivojinovic, an unseeded Wimbledon semifinalist in 1986. But Bozoljac said he had received no financial aid from his country or its tennis federation.
"Zero," he said. "It's been me, myself and I. Economically, the situation in Serbia is pretty bad."
When Jankovic left for Florida, the Yugoslav conflict had yet to play out and Slobodan Milosevic was still in power, but she and her fellow stars continue to leave even with the nation at peace because they cannot find optimum practice conditions. Though Jankovic just bought a house in Belgrade, she also has one in Bradenton and spends only a few weeks a year in Serbia.
"Our facilities are not that great, especially in the winter time," Jankovic said, as she sat in the Australian summer sunshine. "The indoor courts at home are not heated. It's quite cold. You get sick. Plus, we don't have hard courts, so if you want to prepare for a hard- court tournament, it's very difficult. We have some kinds of carpet, but it's not the same as the carpet you find on the tour. It's always difficult to prepare, but we are doing our best."
Their best is increasingly impressive and for now, they have all continued to represent Serbia, despite Jankovic's father's being Montenegrin and despite British tennis officials holding some exploratory conversations with Djokovic last year.
"I had a few proposals, but I think I will stay Serbian. That's where I belong," Jankovic said. "I think athletes are the best ambassadors for our country. We show that we are talented. We try to represent Serbia in the best possible light, because Serbia is known as having wars and all these bad things. But now I think we are starting to change and show a better image of the country."
There is certainly no shortage of personality among them. Jankovic, seeded 11th, is an effervescent 21-year-old with an oval face that looks like something Brancusi might have sculpted. Born in Belgrade to a Serbian mother and Montenegrin father, she came relatively late to the game, starting at age 10, and is the kind of agile, speedy athlete who would have presumably thrived in any sport of her choosing.
Her two-handed backhand, particularly down the line, is one of the best in the game and helped her to her first major breakthrough last year, when she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
Djokovic is a confident, communicative 19-year-old with close-cropped dark hair and a lithe yet powerful frame and balanced game. Despite all the attention focused on his very well-chronicled British friend Andy Murray, who is seeded 15th here, it is Djokovic who so far has had the most success of any men's player his age.
"On the one hand, Andy had it easier than me tennis-wise," Djokovic said in a recent interview. "He had the best conditions, best coaching, a lot of help from a country and everything. But because he had that easier way, on the other hand, he has a lot of pressure, because everybody expects everything from him, especially media. I think it's a great thing what he's done playing with such a pressure. It's a great achievement."
Still, it is Djokovic who has won three tour titles, including Adelaide this year. He also reached the quarterfinals of the French Open and fourth round at Wimbledon last year with a good chance of doing the same here on Friday against Thailand's surprising Danai Udomchoke. Mild tendinitis in his right shoulder and bicep has been causing Djokovic some discomfort, but he has yet to drop a set here.
Djokovic has known Ivanovic since they were 5. "My father and Ana's father know each other well," he said. "They went to high school together. My father owns a restaurant in the mountains in Serbia. He has owned it for 20 years. Ana and her father came for a skiing vacation there."
Djokovic's father, Srdjan, was a national-level skier in the former Yugoslavia, and Djokovic might have been a skier instead of a tennis player if the decision had not been made to build three courts in front of his family's restaurant. He was 4.
By age 7, he had decided he wanted to be number one in the world after his first coach, Jelena Gencic, told him that he had the talent to dream that big. Gencic was not without experience in the matter: She once advised one of Yugoslavia's greatest talents, Monica Seles, who reached No. 1 and won eight Grand Slam singles titles and who also had to become an expatriate to make it, eventually adopting American nationality.
Djokovic's goal no longer sounds quite so far-fetched with him sitting at No. 15 in the rankings and with a possible match against Federer looming in the fourth round. But it has not all been smooth to this point. Breathing problems in 2005 required him to have nasal surgery, and his outspoken nature and tendency to make liberal use of injury time outs has rubbed some of the establishment the wrong way, including Federer, who questioned Djokovic's integrity during Switzerland's Davis Cup victory over Serbia in September.
"I don't trust his injuries," Federer reportedly said after beating him in singles. "It's not funny. I'm serious. I think he's a joke, you know, when it comes down to his injuries. The rules are there to be used, not abused."
Presumably, Federer would not bother lecturing a player of little consequence. The Swiss is well aware of the leading pretendants to his throne, but being Serbian can make it difficult to compete commercially. Djokovic has complained in the past about the difficulty of attracting sponsorship as a Serb.
"It's always more difficult when you are from Serbia than from the U.S.A. or some big country like that," Jankovic said. "But I think eventually if you are good enough, you are going to get what you deserve but maybe it will be more difficult and take more time."
It doesn't help your cause when some of your alleged fans spoil the festive mood at a Grand Slam event while wearing your national colors. But Serbian tennis remains more of a feel-good story, and the best feelings, judging from the look of Jankovic's backhand and footwork and Djokovic's forehand and serve, should be yet to come.