Impoverished Serb tennis on a roll
Things are looking up: Practice is no longer held in the drained Olympic-size pool.
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At home, Nole, Ana, Jelena, and Nenad – known here by their first names – are rock stars, their faces are plastered on car dealership windows and newspaper front pages. Teenage girls swoon over Nole, while Ana and Jelena – who has her own fashion line – are popular pinup girls.Skip to next paragraph
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But even though the training conditions here aren't as bad as in the late 1990s, during the Yugoslavian wars, when a dearth of indoor courts forced players to train in an empty Olympic-sized swimming pool, most of Serbia's top tennis players are only part-time residents of their native land. They're driven part of the year to other countries with better facilities. Nole's official home is Monaco; Ms. Ivanovic's is Switzerland.
There are a few tennis clubs in Serbia now, like Gemax. But the nation has no hard or grass courts. The only top-level surface available in all of Serbia is clay. There's little support either for talented young players, as Troicki well knows. During the crisis in the late 1990s, his family fled to the US, where he won a scholarship to a prestigious tennis school in Florida. At the age of 15, he returned home to his old coach and a country in ruins.
Convinced of his talent, his parents paid for everything: rackets, clothes, trips to tournaments, coaches, foreign tennis camps. When he was one of the top 10 junior players in the world – a point at which many countries lavish support on amateur players – the Serbian government gave him about $1,700 a year. Even now, he is struggling to find sponsorship and often travels to tournaments without a coach.
"The current generation of top tennis players has been developing at the worst time for Serbia, from an economic point of view," says Nenad Trifunovic, who has coached Troicki off and on since he was 7.
The only explanation for Serbia's tennis explosion, say tennis insiders here, is raw desire – of the player as well as the parents.
"We're a sports-talented nation," boasts Ivan Radosevic, the spokesman for Serbia's Davis Cup team and an editor at the Balkan's oldest sports daily. "In Serbia, everybody will accept only gold. Silver is for losers."
It's a country that is also desperate for heroes it can call its own. The most famous player associated with Serbia is nine-time Grand Slam winner Monica Seles, who was born in the Serbian city of Novi Sad and played the greatest years of her career under the Yugoslav flag in the early 1990s. But, in the wake of the brutal ethnic fracture of Yugoslavia, many Serbs feel ambiguous about the ethnically Hungarian player who later took US citizenship. Nole is often referred to here as the first Serbian Grand Slam winner.