Yugoslavian tennis star Monica Seles’ recent election into the International Tennis Hall of Fame has brought the limelight once again on Serbian tennis. Although Seles was born to Hungarian parents and adopted the US as her country in 1994, she is associated more with the place of her birth, Novi Sad, which was in Yugoslavia, but is now considered Serbia’s second largest city.
A country with a population of only 10 million, Serbia has thrown up several worthy players in the past few years. Monica was the fore-runner; so to speak, having won 53 singles titles, which include 9 Grand Slams. In 1991, at the age of 17, she became the youngest woman to top the rankings. But her powering career was cut short when she was stabbed on court in 1993 at the Hamburg Open by a fan of her rival, Steffi Graf, after which she never got back to the height of her game.
This is just one incident that brings to light the problem-ridden lives of tennis players in Serbia. The present generation of stars from the country grew up in conditions of a severely terror- and attack-ridden environment. Novak Djokovic attributes his composure on court to his childhood experiences, when he learned to remain calm during air raids by NATO forces.
Jelena Jankovic remembers fearing for her father and brothers in Serbia while she lived in the US for a better training. Ana Ivanovic often talks about practicing in dried-up swimming pools, because there were no courts or infrastructure to support players at all. Janko Tipsarevic sums up the situation, adding that “all we have in tennis here came from scratch, from nothing.” He attributes his success to his family and loved ones, and also to luck.
Despite that, 2007 witnessed the rise of the Serbs in world tennis, which continued into 2008 as well. Djokovic beat the then top-ranked Roger Federer on the way to winning the Australian Open last January; Ana Ivanovic lifted the Susan Lenglen Cup at Roland Garros in May and crowned it with a push past Maria Sharapova to take the No. 1 ranking. She lost it soon after, but the ball was in Serbia’s court again, as Jelena Jankovic rounded off 2008, holding the top rank. In addition, doubles champion Nenad Zimonjic was also ranked No. 1 in November 2008, becoming the second Serb, after Slobodan Zivojinovic, to hold the highest doubles ranking.
However, although it has a handful of players in the top ten, there aren’t too many Serbian tennis players besides them, leaving the onus of representing their country on their shoulders alone. It is for this reason that it is felt that Serbian tennis could be well on its way out in a decade or so, following the pattern of countries like Australia. This comparison has thrown up the debate between the country of birth and the country where the player is trained. Not a single Serbian player has been trained in Serbia itself, simply because of the lack of infrastructure. There was no academy or tennis federation, no support from the Government or even investment in the game. While Djokovic trained in Germany, Jankovic left for Florida at the age of 12, and Ivanovic moved to Switzerland.
But none of them, unlike Seles, adopted these as their countries. They remain loyal to Serbia and consider their experiences as an important factor in determining who they are today. While Serbia might have been deprived of basic facilities for her players, she is rising to the occasion and doing her best to honor them. Taking inspiration from these gritty world ambassadors, the Serbian Government is striving to create the right environment for future tennis stars and investing in developing world-class infrastructure. With Belgrade being touted as a possible choice for a major tournament later this year after the Berlin Open was cancelled, it indeed looks like it is paving its road to success seriously and determinedly.