Saturday, 23 April 2011

Novak Djokovic - Next King Of The Court?

Like all great tennis players before him, Novak Djokovic, the wiry, elastic-limbed 23-year-old who began 2011 with 24 consecutive victories, is an anomaly. Few sports have the global talent pool of tennis, so an ascent to the game's peak requires inordinate athleticism, ambition, mental fortitude and luck.

It also helps if you're from Serbia.

In the last three years, this landlocked country the size of Maine, with a population of 7.3 million, has produced some of the finest tennis players in the world. Two Serbian women, Ana Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008, and Jelena Jankovic, have attained the No. 1 ranking.

Serbia is a small nation of just 7.3 million, but it's churning out a disproportionate number of top-level tennis players. The country's star player, Novak Djokovic, is unbeaten this year and is eyeing a chance for the world's No. 1 spot at the French Open.

It's Mr. Djokovic, though, who has put his country atop the tennis world. Once known more for his comical impersonations of fellow players than his winning ways, he has emerged from the long shadows of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who until this year were the world's two best players by leaps and bounds.

Mr. Djokovic won his second Australian Open title in January and hasn't lost a match since last November, just before he led a talented Serbian squad to its first-ever victory in the Davis Cup, the sport's premier team competition. He is off to the finest start to a year by a male player since Ivan Lendl won 29 straight matches in 1986, and he's on the hunt for more. After resting during this week's Monte Carlo event, Mr. Djokovic will begin a much-anticipated clay-court campaign at the Serbia Open, where qualifying rounds begin next weekend. Then comes Madrid, and Rome, and starting late next month, he will challenge Mr. Nadal, perhaps the best clay-court player ever, for the French Open title and the No. 1 ranking. (If he passes Mr. Lendl, the remaining year-to-date streak to catch is John McEnroe's 42 in 1984.)

In February, Djokovic beat Roger Federer in Dubai.

With Nadal after a physically intense final in Miami.

Winning January's Australian Open, his second major.

The rise of Mr. Djokovic and his fellow Serbs seems improbable. For many, Serbia's hard-bitten homeland is seen as a liability. But for wealthier nations, and for parents bent on grooming their children for athletic success, Serbia's tennis players offer a lesson: In youth sports—even sports with complicated technique, like tennis—less can often be more.
Tiger Mom-style parenting did not create the Serbian tennis boom. The families of the country's top players sacrificed much for their children, but they did not take on the tricky, and often emotionally devastating, role of parent-coach, as one sometimes sees in junior tennis in the U.S. and elsewhere. They haven't been the driving force behind their children's hours of practice, either; indeed, they usually had little to no connection to tennis whatsoever.

"No one in my family knew anything about tennis," Ms. Ivanovic says. She started playing just before her fifth birthday (she had seen Monica Seles on television) and didn't begin elite training until she was 14. Ms. Jankovic did not start to play until she was 9. Mr. Djokovic's family has roots in skiing and soccer, not tennis.

When one visits Serbia's tennis clubs, a loose training method emerges, one that stresses competition and fun, and doesn't advocate long, grueling practices in early childhood. National pride and camaraderie among players, not the norm in an individual sport like tennis, are apparent, too.

Today, Serbia still has a weak tennis infrastructure. There are no more than 450 tennis courts in the country, according to the Serbian Tennis Federation. Last year, the federation had 3,300 registered junior players. The U.S. Tennis Association has 165,000. Tennis is still less popular than basketball and perhaps soccer.

"There was no system that brought us up," Mr. Djokovic says. "It was just us and our families, that's it."
Equipped with an improved serve, a formidable return of serve and a body that coils and contorts in seemingly impossible ways, Mr. Djokovic followed up his success in Australia with wins in Indian Wells, Calif., and in Miami, where he defeated Mr. Nadal in consecutive finals. But it was how Mr. Djokovic won those matches that impressed the most, especially in the Miami heat. Both times he lost the first set and then beat Mr. Nadal at his own grinding, physical game.

"Nothing left in my body right now," Mr. Nadal said after the Miami final. "Ten T-shirts today."

Like Mr. Nadal, Mr. Djokovic is a modern hybrid of two kinds of player: the slugger (think Andre Agassi) and the scrambler (Michael Chang). He slides on hard courts and retrieves shots headed far and wide, yet he can produce brilliant offense from positions of seeming desperation. Though there have been longer winning streaks in tennis, Mr. Djokovic's is unusually dominant. So far this year, he has won seven sets without losing a game.

"He's crushing us," Mardy Fish said after losing to Mr. Djokovic in Miami.

As impressive as Mr. Djokovic's individual success has been this year, it fittingly began with a team victory for Serbia. After the country's Davis Cup victory in December, residents of Belgrade, the capital city, took to the streets for fireworks and two nights of revelry that were impressive even for this haven of dance clubs and bars. The Lonely Planet travel guide once dubbed Belgrade the best party city in the world. It's a reputation Serbs prefer to being known for a multitude of wars.

As the former Yugoslavia broke apart and communist governments were replaced, the conflicts of the 1990s shattered the Balkans. The late Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic was charged with war crimes by an international tribunal. At that time, today's tennis stars were children.

Serb It Up

Members of the Serbian national tennis team, top, celebrate after winning the country's first-ever Davis Cup.

The Serbs speak of their legacy with dark humor. As a guide casually announced during a tour of the city last December, "Belgrade leads all cities in the world in the number of times it has been destroyed to the ground." Their nation continues to struggle. Unemployment was 19.2% as of last October, according to the U.S. State Department. Inflation was 14.1% year-over-year as of March. Average monthly net income: $440.

"When people look at the whole picture, they say, 'Milosevic is in power, Serbia is a country that's completely falling apart, people are not making money,' " says Janko Tipsarevic, a top-40 player and member of the Serbian Davis Cup team. "I didn't feel any of that. At the age of 12, 13, 14, you have really simple needs: to hang out with friends and play tennis, the thing you love the most at the time. I didn't care for anything else."

Mr. Tipsarevic took up tennis at age 6 and played other sports. He didn't have a home club until he was 11, when his father, Pavel, who still teaches physical education in a school, and a few friends had an idea: Carpet over an empty, indoor swimming pool at the April 11 Sports Center. Two tennis courts, plus two mini courts, were born, and Mr. Tipsarevic and others, including Ms. Ivanovic, now had a place to play regularly.

The swimming-pool courts have become a symbol for Serbian triumph over obstacles: Not only did they play through war and economic chaos, they did it on crummy courts.

Just as the image of teens dodging bombs while practicing backhands is exaggerated, a visit to the complex leaves a different impression. The courts are for singles only, and the outer lines are close to the walls, but otherwise they are much like those one would find anywhere. The lines are correctly measured, the nets are the proper height. Balls bounce cleanly and quickly off the carpet.

Ms. Ivanovic says of the courts of her childhood: "When you have perfect facilities, perfect coaches, perfect preparation, many times it doesn't happen. You feel like, 'Oh, now I have to do it,' and you forget that you play because you love it."

Dusko Vujinovic has taught tennis at the April 11 complex for 18 years. (On April 11, 1948, ground was broken on the New Belgrade section of the city.) He now works with Anastasija Cobanovic, 13, one of Serbia's top juniors, who goes to school and plays tennis eight to 10 hours a week.

"In academies in Spain, France, America, kids her age practice at least four hours a day," Mr. Vujinovic says. "I don't agree with that—it's too much for them."

Even with the best facilities, technology, instruction and competition, some training environments are too high-pressure, say some analysts. Small cities with populations of 50,000 to 100,000 produce far more than their share of elite athletes in professional football, golf, baseball, hockey and basketball, according to Jean Côté, director of the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario, who has studied athletic success in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Children in these smaller cities usually have more access to outdoor space and more freedom to play many sports without intense supervision, says Dr. Côté. The better athletes among them also might benefit, at least at early ages, from beating lesser opponents, which builds confidence. In densely populated cities, Dr. Côté says, space is at a premium and athletic programs tend toward early-age specialization and intense coaching, which he says can stifle creativity and lead to injuries and burnout.

"Young children don't have to have the best facilities and the best coaches," Dr. Côté says. "All they need is a place to play and the freedom to do it."

Though Belgrade has a population of 1.7 million, it functioned as a smaller city for its tennis players. Mr. Tipsarevic could play whenever he liked, because his father, who had three jobs at the time, was a secretary at the April 11 club. In lieu of a salary he secured unlimited access for his son. Even so, Mr. Tipsarevic did not log the hours he would have at a prestigious tennis academy.

"I don't think I played that much, but I was really serious and my parents weren't forcing me to play," he says. "For me it was a lot of fun, because at that time I was the best. I was doing something I loved."
If Serbia's lack of a system gave its best players the freedom and desire to develop into top juniors, it also forced them to leave their country in their early teens, once they began to contemplate professional careers. Mr. Djokovic played on three hard courts near his parents' pizzeria in Kopaonik, a ski resort, then moved to Munich to train at the academy of Niki Pilic, a former Croatian pro, after his parents, Srdjan and Dijana, got up the courage and finances to send him.

"Srdjan, he put everything in," says Goran Djokovic, Mr. Djokovic's uncle, of his brother. "He gambled. So many, many things could have happened."

Goran Djokovic would prefer that future generations have to risk less. The Djokovic family plans to build an academy at Tennis Centre Novak, the posh facility it built to host the Serbia Open, so Serbia's best youngsters can train at home. During the Davis Cup, the Serbian Tennis Federation said it could break ground on a national tennis center—with clay and hard courts, a gym, a medical center and dorms for students—as soon as August.

Even if these centers succeed and spur the creation of others, Serbia's passage from small-town wonder to tennis dynasty isn't guaranteed.

"To have all these players at the same time, that's luck," says Slobodan Vojinovic, the director of tennis at the Red Star tennis club. "If we're clever enough, this generation will help us build a new one. If we're not, it could be a one-time thing."

Courtesy: WallStreetJournal

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