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.
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.
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.
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.
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.