Impoverished Serb tennis on a roll
Things are looking up: Practice is no longer held in the drained Olympic-size pool.
On a recent crisp Saturday afternoon at Gemax, Serbia's top tennis club, all four indoor courts were full. A group of middle-aged men played a languid game of doubles on one; on another, four stooped, gray-haired men exchanged shots with surprising vigor. At the far side, a class of boys – aged 8 to 11 – sent a flurry of balls in all directions under the watchful eye of a female coach.Skip to next paragraph
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There was little obvious sign that world-class tennis was being practiced here on one of the middle courts. No flashy equipment, ball boys, or spectators. No managers, masseuses, or physiotherapists. The only clue was the quality of play. A pair of tall young men in bright, expensive tennis outfits volleyed with easy concentration, stopping occasionally to exchange a word over the net.
Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic – both minor stars in Serbia's current glittering tennis constellation – were squeezing in a final practice before they headed to Moscow for the country's clash (Feb. 8-10) with Russia in the first round of the Davis Cup.
But conditions here in the nation's premier tennis venue were hardly ideal. Even the court was wrong: at Gemax, the two men train on carpet; but the Russian venue would be a hard court.
Serbs, shrug players here, are used to difficult conditions.
The Serbian invasion of the international tennis world is led by Novak Djokovic – Nole to Serbs – a 20-year-old heartthrob who made good on a promise to bring home Serbia's first men's Grand Slam trophy when he won the Australian Open last month. Though Mr. Djokovic was ill during first round Davis Cup matches (Feb. 9-11) – not able to play one round of singles play and pulling out mid-match in another – he and Mr. Zimonjic won their doubles match against Russians Mikhail Youzhny and Dmitry Tursunov. But Russia won in overall, nixing Serb hopes of advancing to the cup quarter-finals.
Locals say the only explanation for the current crop of Serbian tennis superstars is the 1999 bombing by NATO forces: the uranium, they joke, must have caused some sort of mutation. Because in addition to Nole, there's fellow 20-year-old Ana Ivanovic, the second-ranked woman in the world, and 22-year-old Jelena Jankovic, ranked fourth. The veteran Zimonjic won this year's Australian Open mixed doubles contest (with Chinese partner Sun Tiantian), while the 6 foot, 4 inch Mr. Troicki – currently 116th in the world and the newest member of Serbia's Davis Cup team – is hoping to soon break into the top 100.
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.
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.