professional game

SERBIA LOOKING FOR MORE RECOGNITION ON WORLD STAGE

Earlier this year I blogged on how players like Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis can help their home countries in terms of finances, profile and inspiration with top performances on the professional sports circuit.

In countries where money isn’t the largest commodity players have to fight tooth and nail and really aim high to make it in sport. With the Serbian Open taking place in Belgrade this week the spotlight now returns to Novak Djokovic, who helped found the competition before its inception last year.

Born on 22 May 1987, Novak was the eldest of three brothers who all set their sights on the professional game. He was spotted at eight years old by the Yugoslavian tennis legend Jelena Gencic who declared: “This is the greatest talent I have seen since Monica Seles.”

He won his first professional tournament in 2006, not dropping a set on his way to lifting the Dutch Open in Amersfoort with a win over Nicolas Massu in the final. He then took the Open de Moselle in Metz which saw him enter the world’s Top 20 for the first time.

Since then he has continued to grow and mature and his final appearance at the 2007 US Open before beginning 2008 by lifting the Australian Open shows the levels Novak can rise to.

There have been questions about his temperament, his drive and his personality but Novak has put all that behind him and as of this year he is looking to shut a lot of critics up and prove he can match the best of the best tournament to tournament.

The Serbian Open debuted in 2009 as an ATP 250 tournament offering the winner the prize of €373, 200. It was a resounding success with over 100,000 attending the showpiece that were treated to stars like Djokovic, compatriot Janko Tipsarevic, Croatian Ivan Ljubicic and Russian Igor Andreev.

“This tournament means a lot to me because I play in my country and my hometown,” said Djokovic in a statement on his official website. “I always give maximum, I’m not one of those players who can go on court and lose, even though they’re favourites,”

“I’m hoping for a full stadium, not only on my matches, but also on matches of the rest of our players. This tournament makes me proud, because it shows the most beautiful face of Serbia to the world.”

Djokovic added that he hopes the tournament will attract some of the world’s top players over the coming years which will help with attendances and in promoting Serbia to the rest of Europe. The country has produced the likes of Djokovic, Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki and Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Nenad Zimonjic over recent years and with top tennis inspiring the country this group will only expand and add to the previous success of Monika Seles and Jelena Dokic.

However Novak realises the scheduling problems for the tournament: “The tournament is held between two ATP World Tour Masters events, and most of the players save their energy for Madrid and Roland Garros. That’s why it is difficult to attract ‘stronger’ names at the moment,” he bemoans.

But the Open is a step in the right direction for one of Europe’s newest entities. The Republic of Serbia only became an Independent Republic in 2006 in yet another shifting of the former Yugoslavian states. Famous more for its wars than its sport, the players have a lot of PR work to do with the world’s media.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper back in January 2008 Novak acknowledged how the success of the likes of himself and Ivanovic was helping tennis become one of Serbia’s largest exports. Following Novak taking the 2008 Serbian Sports Personality of the Year (his only real competition was Ivanovic and Jankovic) his mother, Dijan, part of the Djokovic sporting dynasty now working in Serbia, spoke of her wish to set up a tennis academy in her son’s name to help the Serbs of the future.

“The important thing is that the idols for young Serbs now are very good kids,” she said in the same interview. “They are people who really worked hard to get where they are now. They didn’t steal, cheat, or kill somebody to get there. For 10 years it was so bad. The role models were gangsters, or drug dealers. Everything is changing.”

It shows how the war-torn state is moving forward and beginning to think like a developed country.

Ana Ivanovic was the first player from Serbia to top the WTA rankings back in 2008. “We have all witnessed the dramatic rise in Serbian tennis during the last few years and on Monday [09/06/2008] that will reach a new pinnacle when Ana Ivanovic is recognised as the WTA Tour’s new number one player,” WTA Tour chief Larry Scott said in a statement at the time.

She has taken part in the new “Me, Myself” advertising campaign by sports giants Adidas and appears in their star-studded advert campaigns blazing across television screens throughout Europe. A popular figure at home, Serbian actress Katarina Radivojevic has even asked Ana to star in a film with her.

Yet she has remained true to her Serbian roots and always remembers where she started. An insightful interview with British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph back in 2007 opened up her thoughts on the rest of the world and their attitude towards her as a Serbian.

“It was very upsetting, especially when I went abroad,” she said. “People were very suspicious when they talked to you, they wouldn’t really trust you. And we would have trouble getting visas and getting through customs. It drove me a little bit crazy. Maybe somewhere deep inside me it helped.”

She bemoaned the facilities available to players and the lack of help provided by the authorities: “Our tennis federation didn’t really help us much at all,” she complained. “I think they did a little bit more for the men, but for the women they didn’t really do anything – they almost abandoned us. It’s really sad. They should appreciate it [having three players in the top 10] because who knows when it’s going to happen again.”

Three years on, hosting their own ATP250 tournament looks like a huge step in the right direction for Serbia and can only serve to improve the country’s standing in the eyes of the sporting and media world.

With players like Djokovic, Jankovic and Ivanovic; lovely people who you never see in the papers for the wrong reasons, the future generations of Serbians can only pick good role models to idolise and forget the war-torn past. With their football side also participating at this year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa the future certainly looks promising.