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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Today's young Serb players came of age years after Ms. Seles's star had faded, at a point when Serbia's international image was at rock bottom.Skip to next paragraph
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In 2003, Troicki was in the locker room before a top juniors tournament when a representative from Nike arrived to hand out gear to young players the company sponsored. When the rep saw Troicki – not on his list – wearing Nike clothes, he offered the young player a contract on the spot. But when he heard Troicki was from the poor and internationally vilified Yugoslavia – which Serbia was then still part of – it didn't exactly strike the rep as fertile ground for brand exposure. He took back the contract and said they'd wait to see how Troicki did at the tournament. The young Serbian tennis player never heard from him again.
"I think he's regretting it now," laughs Troicki, who now has deals with Prince and the Italian sportswear line Diadora. "In Serbia, tennis is the most popular sport now."
At the Tennis Center Usce, 10-year-old Ognjen Pjevic practices his serve on a scuffed clay court in an unheated plastic dome. A scraggly-haired boy with a shy smile, he idolizes Nole. He says he begged his parents for months to let him learn to play. Finally, he wore them down and a few months ago received a new tennis racket and lessons.
Usce is a far cry from the glitz of Gemax, but it, too, is bursting with kids who want to be tennis superstars. Players here pay about $60 a month to use the facilities, plus $20 a lesson – not insignificant amounts in a country where average salaries hover around $660 a month.
Owner Nenad Kmic says parents pay because they see it as an investment in their children's future. No one from the club has gone pro yet, but a few have won tennis scholarships abroad.
"Do you know why Britain has no tennis stars? The rich British send their children to boarding schools," he says, implying that British parents aren't invested in their children's success. Serbia is different, he explains. "The society here is such that people are very attentive to their children."
But, he admits, these days many parents go too far. Tennis mania has gotten so out of control that the national tennis federation hired a child psychologist to write a brochure for parents. The photocopied pamphlet – "You too can be a winning parent" – warns parents that not every child will become a tennis superstar.
"Be realistic," cautions one bullet-pointed section. "Don't let your child develop the feeling that the opponent is the enemy," warns another. Words of wisdom, perhaps, in a place literally torn apart by nationalism.