Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Long Route From War

BELGRADE — You need only a short taxi ride to see how far Serbian tennis has come.

In one section of New Belgrade, a far-from quaint zone of wide boulevards and high-rises in various states of repair, sits the Jedanaesti April 11 Sports Center. Once inside, you walk underneath two huge photographs of the Serbian tennis stars Janko Tipsarevic and Ana Ivanovic and through an archway that leads to courts unlike any I have seen in 40 years of playing and covering the game. 

They are in the bottom of what, until 1993, was an Olympic-size swimming pool. Although Tipsarevic and Ivanovic have moved on to places like Wimbledon and Roland Garros, plenty of other Belgrade youngsters continue to shout and swat groundstrokes at each other in a sunken space that was converted during the war years when resources in Serbia were almost as scarce as indoor tennis facilities.

“There was no money to run the pool anymore, so I had the idea with a couple of friends to use it for tennis,” said Pavel Tipsarevic, Janko’s gravel-voiced father, with a large mug of beer parked in front of him.

Today, the former pool contains two singles courts without doubles alleys whose sidelines run within one pace of the high walls, which makes a wide kick serve an unfair advantage and a running passing shot a hazard to the runner’s health. Those two singles courts share precious room with a mini-tennis court and another half court that is used for serving practice.

The green carpet — a surface no longer seen on the pro circuit — is torn in multiple places.

Contrast that with the indoor tennis scene a few minutes away in Belgrade Arena, where the younger Tipsarevic will be part of the Serbian team trying to win its first Davis Cup on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in a modern facility officially opened in 2004 that is grand enough — with its 16,200 seats for the final — to leave Guy Forget, the captain of the visiting French team, sounding jealous.

“We wish we would have a big stadium like this in France; our biggest is smaller than this one,” Forget said in a news conference this week. “I think it’s made for big moments like this one. So, no, it’s wonderful. You’re very lucky.”

Not too many outsiders have called Serbians “very lucky” in recent years (and even now that their small country is no longer a pariah, they find themselves short of foreign investment in the midst of the global economic slump). But then Forget is surely feeling diplomatic with no desire to inflame passions any further than they will already be inflamed in a country where sporting events have turned ugly. Extra security precautions have been taken this week, but both the United States and Czech Republic teams visited for Davis Cup play without major incident earlier this season. A tennis crowd is still not the same as a soccer crowd in Serbia, even if the Serbians — who once considered tennis a minor sporting pursuit — are increasingly proud of becoming a tennis superpower.

The French will have support, too: a traveling bloc of about 1,500 fans along with hundreds of guests of the Davis Cup sponsor, BNP Paribas, which happens to be a French bank. But there can be no doubt that there will be an epic Serbian celebration if the team of Novak Djokovic, Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic manages to prevail over the French team of Gaël Monfils, Gilles Simon, Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clément.

Only the Serbs are at full strength, with Forget missing both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Julien Benneteau because of injuries. But the French players who did make it to Belgrade for France’s first final since 2002 have been in fine form this autumn, with Monfils winning the prestigious Paris indoor tournament last month and with Llodra beating Djokovic on his way to the semifinals in the same event.

The indoor hard court that captain Bogdan Obradovic and his players have chosen this week will not be nearly as quick as the surface in Paris, which may mean limited singles action for the flashy, net-rushing Llodra.

“I think I never played on a faster surface except grass,” Djokovic said of Paris. 

The combination of home-court advantage and Djokovic, the former Australian Open champion now ranked No. 3 in the world, makes the Serbs rightful favorites this week. But whatever the outcome, it has been a remarkable journey for the Serbian players, none of whom had the creature comforts and financial support from their federation that top French juniors like Monfils enjoyed.

To make it, the Serbians had to rely on their families and private benefactors and expatriation or extensive training abroad. None has been through as much as Zimonjic, the goateed 34-year-old doubles specialist from Belgrade who is the team’s senior member and who was struggling to become a professional during the difficult years when simply getting a visa was a major challenge. With the embassies closed in Belgrade, Zimonjic often had to take a bus to Budapest in the 1990s to apply for visas, waiting in line for hours with no guarantee of approval.

“When we were Yugoslavs, we had one of the best passports and were welcomed anywhere we wanted and then all of the sudden from that, you are not welcome anywhere and everybody looks at you like you are a killer or some crazy person,” ZImonjic said. “It’s then that you realize it’s not true everything you see on television.”

Yugoslavia never reached a Davis Cup final, settling for three semifinal appearances. After the country began breaking apart in 1991, Croatia and its star, Goran Ivanisevic, were allowed to take over Yugoslavia’s high-ranking slot in the extensive Davis Cup pecking order.

Yugoslavia — what remained of it — was initially banned from competing altogether. When it returned to the Cup in 1995, it was sent to Group Three, the competition’s fourth division, and obliged to play against tennis minnows like Togo and Moldova in a multiteam event in San Marino.

Zimonjic was part of that 1995 squad and later became a player-captain in 2003 and 2004 before Serbia, playing on its own, rejoined the elite World Group in 2008.

Slobodan “Bobo” Zivojinovic, the former Yugoslavian star who is now president of the Serbian Tennis Federation, remembers very well when no Serbian network was interested in even televising the team’s Davis Cup matches, which were played in tiny venues.

How the numbers and circumstances have changed. “We could have sold 200,000 tickets for this, and I mean it,” Zivojinovic said.

Courtesy: New York Times

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