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

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

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.

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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.

Harvard statistics professor Carl Morris points out that the "odds" of a single US city dominating all three major US sports – as Boston's Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots now do – are 1 in 29,000. Slobodan Zivojinovic, head of the Serbian Tennis Association, says he's asked the odds of so many top Serbs in tennis all the time. He argues that Serbia is so challenged that the players are "hungrier."

Experts here point to a combination of factors: a sports-crazy culture, enormous sacrifice by players' families, the war years in which sports was a main outlet, and a tough-minded desire to persist in the midst of adversity. "Sports is the one place we've found happiness lately," says Deijan Stankovic of Beta news service.

Bogdan Obradovic, coach of the Serbian Davis Cup team, told the Monitor that "when you do sports in Serbia, there is enormous pressure from your peers to be the best. The people around you, whatever you do and wherever you go, aren't satisfied until you are No. 1.... I've spent a lot of time with Nole on the court. When he was 13, I told him he should consider turning pro. He told me he was going to be No. 1."

Serbs have excelled in sports. Between 2000 and 2006, they attained European and international championship or playoff status in basketball, volleyball, and water polo. Sports clubs abound – from rowing to swimming to gymnastics. Yet until recently, those were badly funded and coached.

An Australian sportswriter lamented after no Australians made the Open finals: : "Serbia has a mere 1,600 registered tennis players, and 94 tennis clubs. Australia has 6,000 registered junior players in one program alone and 310 coaches...."

(Djokovic and his family have furthered plans to create a formal tennis camp in his hometown. Called by the media here a "Serbian Wimbledon," the project involves 14 courts, four of them open, accommodations, and coaches.)

Foreign media have made much of Serbia's war years in Serbia, especially the NATO bombing of Belgrade, as the top stimulus for the rise in Serbian tennis. Advocates say the atmosphere of fear threw down a challenge to make good. Skeptics say that if anything, the war forced the three main stars to seek refuge outside Serbia and get better coaching. Djokovic went to Germany, Ivanovic to Switzerland, and Jankovic to Florida.

A foreign national who lived in Serbia until last year gave an intermediate explanation: "It isn't a particular coach or role model. I just think they focus on sports as a viable outlet for energy and creativity … at a time when a lot of things are not moving forward as Serbs would like after getting rid of Milosevic. There's been disappointment; sports is something they can ... be joyous and celebratory about. Serbs are fed up with politics."

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