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For Serbs, tennis rules, and it's all about Djokovic

Despite poor funding and coaching, Serbs are excelling in a variety of sports.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2008

You're The Top: Belgrade feted Novak Djokovic Sunday.

OLEG POPOV/REUTERS

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Belgrade, SERBIA

Serbia's new keeper of national pride and morale,met cheering throngs at City Hall on the eve of key presidential elections – with a rock band playing "Simply the Best."

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But Serb tennis star Novak Djokovic, a charmer so adored that he could possibly swing the vote – only swung the racket he used to win the Australian Open last week above his head. Some 12,000 Serbs went nuts. "Nole! Nole!" they shouted, using Mr. Djokovic's nickname.

Serbs may have been voting in tense elections Sunday between a future in the East or West. But no one wanted the miracle of four Serb players in a Grand Slam final spoiled by politics that hang heavily over Belgrade now.

Tennis success has become an improbable lifter of spirits in Serbia. In the past two years, Serbia has revised pro-tennis's Top 10. In Australia, Ana Ivanovic, the women's world No. 2, reached the finals; Jelena Jankovic, No. 4, made the semifinals. Serb Nenad Zimonjic won the mixed doubles with Chinese partner Sun Tiantian. Djokovic, currently No. 3, took down fearsome Roger Federer in straight sets to win Serbia's first major. He said in Melbourne that the Australian finals had become "the Serbian Open." That got laughs when he repeated it here at a hero's welcome press conference.

Opinion on Belgrade streets was typified by Ljubica Peric, a businesswoman who said, "We are called bad Serbs by the world. We are treated like we are all [Slobodan] Milosevic. Djokovic is sweet and funny. I've met Ivanova. She is ... a star from the heavens. We love her."

That all three stars have rejected lucrative offers to leave Serbia is a matter of enormous pride. Still, how has an isolated and struggling south Balkan country of 9 million managed to so crowd the upper echelons of tennis?

Djokovic, when asked, shrugged and gave a sly answer: "It must be all the depleted uranium," a reference to the NATO bombing of 1999, when Serbia's stars were in their formative years.

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