Friends, Serbs, Countrymen

Novak Djokovic-AP

Djokovic has set up a platform after two consecutive Grand Slam semifinal showings, but he will now have to aim higher, and at the same time ensure the plank isn’t pulled out from underneath him. Once a giant-killer with nothing to lose, he has now become a trophy opponent himself, the sort that inspires men to play above themselves. By Vijay Parthasarathy.

While the Russians came in a rush, woman after woman, man after man, the Serbian surge in tennis has drawn lesser attention; yet for this strife-torn, land-locked and culturally diverse country to have produced four top players is a miracle, although what role the motherland played is debatable.

Novak Djokovic, perched just behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the pecking order — though the latest results state otherwise — trained in Germany. His good friend, World No. 4 Ana Ivanovic, began training at five and in the absence of genuine facilities, resorted to hitting balls in an abandoned swimming pool; when she was 12, she had to briefly endure the threat of NATO bombs falling in the area.

“All that we have in tennis in Serbia came from mud, from nothing,” up-and-coming Serbian star Janko Tipsarevic explained recently. “No one invested a dollar in any one of our players except their parents. So the only people we can say thanks to are our parents.”

There is one hardcourt in all of Serbia and no consolidated national tennis centre. And that court, according to Jelena Jankovic, the hard-hitting World No. 3 and Serbia’s highest-ranked woman player, competes with basketball. Jankovic herself trained with the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida, and speaks of how she feared for her family’s safety while watching American jets pounding her city, Belgrade.

Tennis does not usually inspire patriotism — out there it’s each man for himself — but such experiences have forged a complex, unique spirit in these tennis players. It has, to judge from their words, made them more determined to succeed.

Federer arrives in New York this week, wary at the very least, of one more potential spanner in the works. It’s still early days, but after his breakthrough three-set win in Montreal, Djokovic will hope to establish the kind of mental edge that Rafael Nadal exerts over Federer on clay. Until Hamburg, Federer had notoriously failed to beat his Spanish rival on dirt, often succumbing to nerves than superior play, and even after breaking Nadal’s streak of 81 wins on that surface, was unable to finally break the jinx on Roland Garros. Whether Federer can win the French remains to be seen, but a Grand Slam is a step-up from ATP tournaments, a different ball game. Djokovic has set up a platform after two consecutive Grand Slam semifinal showings, but he will now have to aim higher, and at the same time ensure the plank isn’t pulled out from underneath him.

Once a giant-killer with nothing to lose, he has now become a trophy opponent himself, the sort that inspires men to play above themselves. Sustaining his position for the next half-a-decade is going to be a stiffer challenge, something that James Blake and David Nalbandian are still struggling to do.

But for now, the gaps at the top are closing slowly: this is turning into a three-horse race. Djokovic makes a convincing foil to the big favourites. In Montreal, the lad took out the world’s top three in ascending order: first Roddick, then Nadal, then finally Federer. His lead over the currently fourth-ranked Davydenko is slender; but for more than a year it has been evident that the 20-year-old Serbian with the twisting torso is the future of men’s tennis.

This is not mere hype. Gael Monfils, possibly the fastest kid on the tour, is yet to establish himself as a contender, the injury-prone Andy Murray might never be one, the gifted Tomas Berdych must minimise on his errors, while Richard Gasquet, owner of the sweetest backhand in the sport, has made more visits to the lost-and-found than a pup. All of these men (and some others) have the talent to be the world’s best player, but it is Djokovic who has capitalised on his opportunities.

Ana Ivanovic-AP

The Serb is the hottest player this season, the most consistent. His first title came just over a year ago; four have come already this season. In between, he has made steady progress at Grand Slams. His performances at the French Open and Wimbledon showed that Federer and Nadal weren’t the only ones to adapt well to switches in surface. Everyone, from Federer to Borg, believes Djokovic is ready to win a Slam. He is exuberantly cocky, at any rate.

This is what he had to say after winning the Rogers Cup: “...I have nothing against the sponsor, but obviously I’m going to have to arrange somebody to call Novak’s Cup for next year.”

Djokovic is a colourful character, given to mimicry, and one hopes success and pressure don’t change him.

Tennis needs its assorted artistes; not because sport is a flippant occupation, fit to be devalued by clowns, but because the pursuit of athletic perfection is subsidised by its audience, who must be entertained. The jester in Djokovic performs for us, the athlete for himself and the connoisseurs.

Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic are not doing too badly, either. Jankovic has won 62 matches this season and lost 12; this win-loss ratio is fairly remarkable, considering she lost 10 straight first-round matches last year.

Ivanovic made the Roland Garros final after demolishing Maria Sharapova. Her comprehensive loss subsequently, to Justine Henin, did not take any of the sheen away.

There is the tendency to objectify pretty women like Ivanovic (and Sharapova), but if that is one way of bringing charisma to the game, then so be it. It’s not a crime to look pretty, and she’s certainly not opposed to it. Sport needs players like Ivanovic, and others unlike her. It needs all kinds.

Jelena Jankovic-AP

Pete Sampras’s era was characterised not only by the dour-faced American great, but also by men like Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and in the early part, Becker and Edberg; Steffi Graf competed alongside Navratilova and Evert and then against Seles, Sabatini and Sanchez-Vicario. These were great players, and memorable characters.

This generation, on the other hand, feels a bit flat. The Russian, Dmitry Tursunov, tried hard, and for a while his blog was the coolest thing going on the ATP site. Then he won in Mumbai and strangely he hasn’t been as animated. Djokovic, it appears, has taken over: he practises karate kicks in the locker room, his impressions of fellow players have surfaced on YouTube. Tennis is reaching out.

Tennis has never been this popular in Serbia; courts, according to Tipsarevic, are booked months in advance. Parallels, if only very few, exist between Serbia and India: Sania Mirza’s rise in the rankings has encouraged several to follow in her path. Mirza has seemingly begun to mature, a fact that is reflected in her improved rankings.

Perhaps, there are lessons India can draw from the Serbian experience.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC BORN: 22-May-1987. PLACE OF BIRTH: Belgrade, Serbia. PLAYS: Right-handed. TURNED PRO: 2003. SINGLES CAREER TITLES

2007: Adelaide, ATP Masters Series Canada, ATP Masters Series Miami, Estoril. 2006: Amersfoort, Metz.

FINALIST

2007: ATP Masters Series, Indian Wells. 2006: Umag.

DOUBLES FINALIST 2007: Adelaide. ANA IVANOVIC Born: 6-November-1987. PLACE OF BIRTH: Belgrade, Serbia. Plays: Right-handed (two-handed backhand). Turned pro: August 2003. CAREER HIGHLIGHTS SINGLES TITLES

2007: Berlin, Los Angeles. 2006: Montreal. 2005: Canberra.

FINALIST 2007: Tokyo (Pan Pacific), Roland Garros. JELENA JANKOVIC Born: 28-February-1985. PLACE OF BIRTH: Belgrade, Serbia. Plays: Right-handed (two-handed backhand). Turned Pro 2000. CAREER HIGHLIGHTS SINGLES TITLES

2007: Auckland, Charleston, Rome, Birmingham. 2004: Budapest. 2003: ITF/Dubai-UAE.

FINALIST

2007: Sydney’s-Hertogenbosch. 2006: Los Angeles. 2005: Dubai, Birmingham, Seoul.

DOUBLES TITLE 2006: Birmingham (with N. Li). MIXED DOUBLES TITLE 2007: Wimbledon (with J. Murray).