Friday, December 30, 2011

Advantage, Serbia: Tiny nation becomes power

   While training indoors during the winter at the Partizan Tennis Club in Belgrade, Serbia, in the early 1990s, Dusan Vemic couldn't help but notice a precocious 6-year-old on the next court.
   Vemic was 17 at the time. The boy's name was Novak Djokovic.
   "He was always an interesting little kid," recalled Vemic, who has played for the Sacramento Capitals of World TeamTennis for the past two seasons. "He was like a little professor. You could have a serious conversation with a 6-year-old. It doesn't happen that often.
   "He was talking about things he needed to work on and how to warm up. He was like a professional tennis player. He was not playing tennis; he was working tennis."
   Eight years later, Vemic played on the Davis Cup team when Djokovic was brought in as a hitting partner.
   "You could see he was a special talent," Vemic said. "He was a sponge as well. He would take all the advice we would give him. That's another quality he has. He will continue to get better and be a great champion when he looks back."
   Djokovic recently completed one of the greatest years in tennis history. He won three Grand Slam singles titles and 10 overall, rose to No. 1 in the world and went 70-6 (with two of the losses resulting from retirements), including 6-0 against Rafael Nadal (all in finals) and 4-1 against Roger Federer.
   And Djokovic is just the beginning for Serbia. Against all odds, the tiny country bombed by NATO forces in 1999 has produced four No. 1 players in the world in the past three years. Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic (both in women's singles) and Nenad Zimonjic (men's doubles) all climbed to the top in 2008.
   In the men's game, Serbia also has No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic and No. 22 Viktor Troicki. With Djokovic leading the way, the nation won its first Davis Cup title last year.
   How has Serbia, smaller in area than South Carolina and somewhat larger in population than Dallas-Fort Worth, become a tennis power?
   "It's definitely the spirit," said Serbia's Ilija Bozoljac, the runner-up at Challengers in Aptos in July and Tiburon in 2009. "Kids are really competitive and hungry. That's the key. If you lose in Serbia a couple of times, you feel ashamed.
   "If you're 200 in the world, it means nothing in Serbia," continued Bozoljac, a flashy player who uses two hands on both sides. "In the States, everyone thinks you're really good, which you are. But (the Serbian) mentality makes you want to go for more. In the States, it's the opposite. You can get a sponsor and support, but players are getting spoiled."
   The poor economy in Serbia has a lot to do with the motivation of juniors and their parents. According to the U.S. Department of State, the official unemployment rate last April was 22.2 percent.
   "Serbian kids are fighting for their life," said Vemic, a crowd pleaser with great athleticism who reached the doubles semifinals at the French Open in 2008 and Australian Open in 2010. "U.S. kids don't have that as the last option. They have education, a good lifestyle and many more opportunities. Serbian kids are a little more hungry. We've been struggling (economically) the last 20 years, that's for sure."
   Added Djokovic in the New York Times last September: "There is something in the mentality that obviously helps us, because we have all experienced the war, we have all experienced tough times, to have the right conditions to become a professional player."
   Jankovic agreed.
   "When you get used to (those) conditions and not-so-good facilities like some other countries have, I think it makes you stronger," she told espnW.com in September. "You feel good especially when you come to playing on those perfect courts like you have in the States. ... You feel like you're in heaven and you're ready for everything.
   "When it comes to our cases, we earned it the hard way. We came from a small country without really a tradition in tennis. We came a long way. It shows it doesn't matter where you come from, what kind of facilities you have. If you have the will and the desire and the motivation, the hunger to succeed, you can do it, so I think we showed that."
   Vemic said Serbia's rise to power in tennis has been "like a wave." On the men's side, he and Zimonjic, both 35, came first. Then came Tipsarevic, 27, Troicki, 25, and Djokovic, 24. On the women's side, Monica Seles, 38, paved the way for Jankovic, 26, and Ivanovic, 24.
   "There were a couple of good guys before Novak, Ana and Jelena became the best in the world," Vemic said. "Tipsarevic pulled everyone in the top 100. Novak was right behind at 16, 17 years old. Jelena was the No. 1 junior, and Ana also was good in the juniors. The whole timing of one of the veterans breaking through to the top level gave the others confidence. We all train together from time to time."
   Serbia's success, Vemic added, "makes me feel good. I enjoy every good result. I can only hope and believe that I contributed a little bit."
   Blake withdraws -- James Blake, the runner-up in the Sacramento Challenger in October, reportedly has withdrawn from the Brisbane International, which begins Sunday, and the Australian Open, Jan. 15-29, for personal reasons.
   Blake, 32, hopes to begin his year at the SAP Open in San Jose, where he reached the singles semifinals in 2009 and 2003 and won the doubles title in 2004 with Mardy Fish. Next year's tournament is set for Feb. 13-19.
   National junior tournament -- No. 22 seed Catherine Bellis of Atherton defeated Jaclyn Switkes of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 to reach the girls 14 quarterfinals at the USTA Winter National Championships in Tucson, Ariz.
   Also in the girls 14s, No. 31 Jenna Friedel of Mill Valley lost to top-seeded Emma Higuchi of Los Angeles 6-2, 6-1.
   In boys 12 singles, third-seeded Sam Riffice of Roseville beat No. 22 Jenson Brooksby of Sacramento 6-3, 6-0 to advance to the quarters. No. 21 Paul Barretto of Bel Tiburon fell to No. 1 Noah Makarome of Wesley Chapel, Fla., 6-3, 6-3.
   Results of the boys and girls 18s and 16s in Scottsdale, Ariz., were not available.

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