Djokovic, Jankovic, Ivanovic: The Serb Tennis Uprising

Posted on August 21, 2007

Does Serbia’s success have to do with happenstance -- or hunger?

By Richard Vach

Former tennis powerhouses such as the U.S., Britain, Germany and Sweden are currently pumping tens of millions of dollars into player development, longing for the days when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, Boris Becker and Michael Stich, and Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander reigned at the top of the game.

Meanwhile, defying the logic of huge national tennis federation budgets and training facilities, Serbia has emerged as a tennis powerhouse in 2007. The breakaway nation post-Wimbledon featured players at the No. 3 ranking on both the men’s and women’s tours, three total players in the Top 10 — and reportedly more on the way.

“We just work very hard, that is the explanation,” said Jelena Jankovic, who climbed to No. 3 on the WTA Tour Rankings following Wimbledon, speaking with JAX Tennis earlier this year at Amelia Island. “I think be positive, work hard and good things will happen.”

If only it were that easy. Or is it? The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has not cut any corners in shelling out millions in an attempt to create the next Venus or Serena Williams, but to little avail. And of the next-highest-ranked group of U.S. youngsters, many flatly admit that their European counterparts just work harder (see: “Appetite for Success? Up-and-coming U.S. women,” this issue).

The success of Jankovic, fellow top 10-ranked countrywoman Ana Ivanovic, and No. 3-ranked ATP player Novak Djokovic has more to do with individual work ethics than national player development. The Serbian tennis federation lends little help to players, with the government more concerned (at least before the breakout of their trio) with recovering from their war-torn past and straightening out their less-than-upright political system.

The 19-year-old Ivanovic will regale you with stories of how she practiced her strokes in an empty swimming pool between NATO air raids when she was 11, and now lives in Switzerland. This was roughly 10 years after Monica Seles inspired Ivanovic and other youngsters of the former Yugoslavia by winning the French Open. Jankovic’s junior career blossomed when she was grabbed up by Nick Bollettieri’s tennis factory, which she still lists as her residence in Florida. Djokovic left Serbia at age 12 to train at a tennis academy in Munich run by ex-pro Niki Pilic.

While Serbian officials have trumpeted the trio’s accomplishments and vowed to grow the sport, don’t look for multiple tennis academies popping up anytime soon in the country that is still not a member of the European Union, and still can’t hunt down its wartime criminals.

Mental and Physical Leaps

Jankovic says she came close to quitting the game last year when she grew frustrated as the losses piled up and her ranking slid down. Her turnaround came after an increased focus on her fitness, and a determination to learn from losses rather than letting them drag her down.

“I always try to learn, I don’t try to look for excuses when I lose a match, I try to analyze my mistakes and what I can do better to keep improving and becoming a better player each time,” Jankovic said.
She can also take her mind off tennis with her studies, as she is currently in the second year of pursuing a degree in business.

Jankovic, Ivanovic and Djokovic all reached the semifinals at the French Open in June, officially christening the Year of the Serb in professional tennis.

Ivanovic was the brightest star on the U.S. radar last year when she won the title in Montreal, beating former No. 1 Martina Hingis and going on to capture the US Open Series standings title. It was a far cry from being rescued from hitting tennis balls in an empty pool by a Swiss businessman of Serbian descent, who heard of her talent and invested an eventual half-million dollars in the then-14-year-old.

“Everything has happened too fast — it’s still hard to absorb everything,” said Ivanovic, who in August won LA and climbed to No. 4 on the WTA Tour Rankings.

Of her contemporaries, Ivanovic has received the most grief about her mental fortitude in big matches. This year she was clobbered in nervous performances in the French Open final where she lost to Justine Henin, and the Wimbledon semis where she was dismissed by Venus Williams.

But in the end, it may be Djokovic who has made the biggest transition. Last year in Flushing Meadows, the Serb was a sometimes-prickly teen more known for taking injury time-outs at crucial moments during big matches than actually winning them. But the last 12 months have seen a mental growth spurt for the now-20-year-old who seems wise beyond his years when speaking with reporters, and more comfortable in his skin.

“I showed to myself and to everybody else, that I have enough quality to be in the top three and four of the world,” Djokovic said after his run in Paris.

Unlike pretenders seeking entry to the private Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal party, Djokovic has shown he can compete with the Swiss and Spaniard on any surface. Early in the year he stretched Federer to three sets on both clay and hardcourt, and won the first set off Nadal this year at Wimbledon before succumbing to injury. In August he beat Federer, Nadal and Andy Roddick to win the Masters Series-Canada title.

Just as Venus Williams early in her career announced that her younger sister Serena, who had yet to blossom, would make an even bigger mark on tour, Novak says there are more Djokovics in the wings. Both 15-year-old Marko and 11-year-old Djordje attend the same Munich academy that produced older brother Novak, and the buzz is that one if not both of the siblings are can’t-miss prospects. If work ethic is any indicator, consider that both took a pass on coming to watch their older brother’s run into the late rounds at Wimbledon this year — to stay home and practice.

“I think it’s on them now, the big pressure, because everybody back home or wherever they show up, everybody go to see them, how they play,” Djokovic said. “The good thing about their careers in life is that they have me to show them, to help them, to give them advice.”

Currently on the Serbian women’s side, after the Top 10 Jankovic and Ivanovic there are no players ranked inside the Top 200. Look for that to change as Djokovic, Jankovic and Ivanovic are all of the mind to take their hard lessons learned and lay the foundation for a future Serb dynasty.

This article appears in the September 2007 issue of JAX Tennis magazine, Northeast Florida's Tennis Source at