Serbia Open

Novak Djokovic splits with Sergio Tacchini as Serbia Open in jeopardy

By Romana Cvitkovic

Novak Djokovic’s latest venture includes an “amicable” split with clothing sponsor Sergio Tacchini and a new deal with Japanese brand UNIQLO which will be made official in Paris on Wednesday. Chatter surrounding the decline of the Serbia Open tennis tournament is also surfacing as tournament director Goran Djokovic is set to resign, also putting up the sale of the tournament license starting in 2013. Get the full scoop below.

Novak Djokovic splits with Sergio Tacchini, signs with UNIQLO

Novak Djokovic signed a 10-year deal with clothing brand Sergio Tacchini in November 2009, but as announced today by Danielle Rossingh of Bloomberg News, the two have decided to part ways early as Djokovic has “outgrown” the brand. At the time of signing, Djokovic had reached world number four and had only one slam under his belt. Since then, he has climbed to number one and won four more slams, and gone on one of the most remarkable winning runs in sport landing him in TIME’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2012.
A spokesperson for Tacchini released the following statement: “It has been mutually and amicably decided that, as of the 2012 Roland Garros Grand Slam, Novak Djokovic will no longer be the brand ambassador.” It is reported that an announcement will be made on Wednesday in Paris to disclose a new sponsorship deal between Djokovic and Japanese clothing company UNIQLO, for which their current ambassador is tennis player Kei Nishikori.

In 2010, Djokovic won only two tournaments which was in stark contrast to his ten titles the following year. Signing a European player as an ambassador for a company recovering from bankruptcy was a gamble, but it initially paid off with a boost in sales. However, Djokovic’s success in 2011 seemed to have taken Tacchini by surprise — both because of bonus tournament payouts and because of manufacturing struggles to keep up with demand.

Under the terms of the original deal, Djokovic was to receive “incentive bonuses linked to tournament wins and end-of-year rankings, … a share of all Tacchini revenue from sales in China, and [a share of] worldwide revenue from Djokovic-branded Tacchini products.” 

Things seemed to be looking up back in July of 2011 when after his Wimbledon victory, Djokovic traveled with the owner of Sergio Tacchini, Billy Ngok, and U.S. billionaire businessman Ron Burkle, to Serbia to discuss plans for investment, including a Tacchini plant, in the Niš area. Unfortunately, that trip never developed into anything.

Djokovic’s latest tennis kit in Rome last week was not a big hit with fans and now the answer is clear as to why. The week before in Madrid, he still wore the spring kit and it seems more than likely that his kit in Rome was a strange interpretation of a Serbian flag more than anything else.

Serbia Open in jeopardy as tournament director resigns and tournament license up for sale in 2013

On the heels of Djokovic’s split with Sergio Tacchini, Serbian fans get bad news that the Serbia Open may be no more starting as early as next year. The Djokovic-family driven Serbia Open, an ATP Tour 250-level tournament in the capital of Belgrade, may soon cease to exist. According to Serbian newspaper Novosti, Novak’s uncle and director of the Serbia Open has not only submitted his resignation but also the sale of the tournament license starting in 2013.

The license cites that the dates of the tournament will stay as the first week of May, and as the tournament is currently sandwiched between Monte Carlo and Madrid, that significantly decreases the list of possible buyouts of the rights to the tournament. Several cities are in proposed talks to buy the rights with Spanish cities at the top of the list including Seville, Marbella and even Palma de Mallorca.

After it’s inaugural tournament in 2009 which was won by Djokovic, the tournament stayed mostly relevant as the top Serbs and Croats played, bringing the locals out. 2011 held it’s strongest field ever as the top eight seeds were ranked 37th in the world or better, including three Serbs. However, after the pullout of Djokovic this year due to the passing of his grandfather and the failing of any top Serbs to show up and even play, the tournament experienced a major setback. While the initial weekend of the tournament proved successful as several Serbs played qualifying and two were granted wildcards in the main draw, much of the rest of the tournament lacked luster, fan interest low and international media scarce.

For what is quickly turning into a tennis-loving nation, Serbia may very well be without any tour-level tournament again next year. The inevitable is here and the Serbia Open may soon cease to exist.

Benoit Paire: the French hurricane

Regular watchers of the sport we love are well aware of the concept that as an individual sport, tennis is often more than just about the game: It’s about the people. Team loyalties are out of the window, and aside from an affinity to watch prettiness – the Del Potro forehand, the Gasquet backhand, the impeccable moves of a Djokovic, Nadal or Federer – there are those colourful personalities that make any match in this sport always worth watching.

Which is why when the presence of said personalities in a final comes round, everyone gets to share in the joy, and this Sunday, we did. We met Benoit Paire.

At twenty-one-years-old this Frenchman boasts an impressive physique where his long legs and long torso meet with a perfectly sculpted piece of facial hair that would make American hipsters cry in envy. It’s not Benoit’s athletics that give him his fans, it’s his fabulous repertoire of on-court theatrics that does.

Catch him drinking cans of sugary Coca-Cola during changeovers in his matches, or pointing angrily at the heavens as he mutters away in French to all and sundry. Watch him stalk around in little circles between points and try to strategize as he alternates between flubbed misses and shots of absolute brilliance. Meet the French hurricane that is Benoit Paire, and you’ll never look away from the side courts again.

I won’t lie and pretend I noticed Benoit on a practice court once upon a time and discovered the genius within. Nor will I pretend I found him in a no-name match and was intrigued by his display. No, the only reason I found Benoit and added him to my arsenal of favourites was thanks to the draw gods of Flushing Meadows, where in 2010 he qualified and made his way to a second-round meeting with the also-pretty-and-hence-very-popular Feliciano Lopez of Spain.

It was a typical outer-court match on the third or fourth day of a Grand Slam. With many favourites still present in the draw, spectators ringed both show courts and not-so-show courts, watching epic battles present themselves as fighting qualifiers overcame seeded favourites; hometown heroes pushed against former champions; and the draw narrowed down from overwhelming 64 to a manageable 32.

Crowd favorite Feliciano Lopez is there, shaking out his long blond locks (let’s not lie, they’re a secondary character on court on any day) as he battles out a third set with French qualifier Benoit Paire. The 18-year-old’s height is only emphasized by an added three or four inches of hair – or perhaps it’s just the shape of his head. Between strokes of brilliance and flubbed shots that came out of a children’s clinic, Paire yelled at his coach in French, yelled at the crowd using body language and gibberish, and finally joined in their cheering of his opponent with an eyeroll, clapped hand to racket, and ironic, “Lopez, Lopez!”

In one word, he was hilarious.

By the end of the fourth set, we are in stitches and torn between the two oh-so-pretty yet completely lost souls on court. We are all behind Feliciano, but somehow it doesn’t seem so wrong to cheer the Frenchman for the occasional perfectly placed backhand winner, or alternatively, a dramatic display as he falls over, lies on the ground, points his racket at the sky and hurls out theatrics in French.

We’re in love.

Four months later at the Australian Open, Paire’s French superiors have appreciated his efforts in Oz, and granted him a wildcard. I find him wandering the courts on day one, standing in the shade as a crowd of Australians gather to watch Ryan Harrison hurl insults at our homeland while losing to Adrian Mannarino in the first round.

I’m always feeling a little sorry for these soldiers on their first day, like privates wandering the grounds of a Grand Slam, far cry from their usual challenger haunts. So I’m all, “Hi, Benoit?” And he doesn’t speak English, and I didn’t make it past year ten French, so all I say is, “congratulations on the wildcard… I saw you in New York.” He looks at me and there’s a glint in his eye. “You know, against Lopez.” He cracks a smile. “Great match… Very funny.” He mumbles at me, almost blushing, and walks off. It’s only later, on his profile at the ATP website, that I learn that match wasn’t memorable just for me: The US Open 2010 is Paire’s favourite tennis memory.

That is, if we don’t count what happened today. Following upsets over Fabio Fognini, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Jarko Nieminen and the number one seeded Pablo Andujar, Benoit Paire made it to his first ever ATP 250 final – and semifinal, and quarterfinal… For those of us tuning in for some Paire-patented expletive-yelling; self-pummelling or Coca-Cola-swigging, it was slightly disappointing, with Benoit staying relatively (the key word) calm as he saved break point after break point, set point after set point, match point after match point – only to be eventually broken, with both sets and the match going to his opponent, the Italian Andreas Seppi.

Disappointing? I don’t think so. Paire is a talented tennis player – his marathon match against Lopez as a teenager was testament to that, and he’s only shown it further over his last two years on the tour since. Advancing to the final in Belgrade was no fluke: the Frenchman posted win after win over higher-ranked, more experienced and certainly more consistent tennis players than he – yet he followed up each upset with another one of a higher grade. His old-school Coke swilling on the sidelines and entertaining commentary paled this week next to more old-school persistence, focus and buckets of tennis talent. More focus, less frustration and we should be getting lots more entertainment when it’s time for Flushing Meadows this year.

Top Players Rest Up for Back to Back Masters, Leaves Room for Others to Shine

The only member of the Top 10 in action this week is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is playing the BMW Open in Munich. There are three European clay court tournaments in the week leading up to Madrid and Rome, all ATP 250 events that are often overlooked by the top players. This is a good decision for everyone involved, except maybe the tournaments and sponsors, who depend on the big names to bring in revenue. For top players, the shot at winning a Masters like Madrid or Rome, or the a Grand Slam like the French Open is far more important that gaining a few points at a smaller event. The clay season is a grueling stretch. Madrid, Rome, and the French Open all occur within a five week period, leaving little room for rest or recovery. On the flip side, smaller tournaments are a great chance for some of the lower ranked players to pick up much needed points, or a good chance for higher ranked players to get back their form.

Estoril Open

Located in the scenic seaside town of Cascais, Portugal, this tournament always manages to grab one or two big names to headline its draw. In ’08 and ’10, they even managed  to snag Roger Federer. This year the main attraction is the defending champion, Juan Martin del Potro. So far, del Potro is yet to play a clay event this season, so the decision to play Estoril could be considered a smart one. He won here last year, and considering the field only contains one other player in the Top 20, this is a great chance for him to get some much needed match play on the red dirt. Speaking of the No. 2 seed, Richard Gasquet could also use some match play. The Frenchman was forced to pull out of Monte Carlo after injuring his ankle playing soccer. It’s tough to see anyone taking the title away from del Potro this year, but look for two time champion Albert Montanes to trouble him. Gasquet will likely have to contend with Casablanca finalist, Albert Ramos.

BMW Open

It’s unclear why Tsonga felt he needed to sneak in another tournament the week before two important events, but he is the clear favorite to win this title. He made it to the quarters in Monte Carlo before losing to countryman Gilles Simon, but elected not to play last week, so perhaps he’s looking for a bit more clay practice before heading to Madrid. Tsonga has landed himself in a distinctly German quarter. In fact, the only other non-German in the quarter is Marcos Baghdatis. However, that bunch includes three wildcards and a qualifier, none of whom should trouble the Frenchman. There are some tough opponents in his half though, including last year’s champion, Nikolay Davydenko, Marin Cilic, and Mikhail Youzhny.

Serbia Open

They should really just go ahead and rename this the Djokovic Open based on the Djokovic family’s connection with the event; however, this year, it would be missing its namesake. Novak Djokovic, as well as fellow Serbs Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki, have all elected to skip the event this year. Don’t worry, the Serbia Open will not be completely without a Djokovic, as Marco Djokovic was awarded a wildcard. Unfortunately, he lost to Fillippo Volandri on Monday. Again, do not fear, you can get your Djokovic fill at the merchandise shop where you can still pick up shirts, hats, and pillows with Novak’s face on them, even though he’s not playing at the event… Anyway, the Serbia Open features the weakest draw of this week’s events. The No. 1 seed is Pablo Andujar, who recently won Casablanca and has actually been having quite a good year. Another title win here could do him some serious good. The only other really notable name in the draw is David Nalbandian, who has an excellent opportunity to pick up some more points. Look for those two to make the finals.

If none of these events interest you, I suggest you take a cue from the pros and rest up for the big events. For those of you in the US, there are a lot of early mornings coming in the next few weeks.

Djokovic still going, Del Potro’s winning return on clay and Medina ties Venus

Home Comfort for Djokovic:

Novak Djokovic’s unbeaten start to 2011 continued as he lifted his home Serbian Open title for a second time, his fifth title this year, defeating Feliciano Lopez 7-6, 6-2 in the final. It means the 23-year-old picks up the title without dropping a single set. After a scare at 5-5 in the first set he served himself out of a break point and never looked back. He received a standing ovation from the 5,000-strong crowd with two superb sliced dropshots, an ace and a service winner in the final game. “I wish to thank my family and my staff for supporting me all these years and also the fans who make this event that much more enjoyable for me to take part in,” he said after winning the tournament his family organises. “I am really glad that Feliciano had such a great tournament after accepting my invitation to come here. We are making a huge effort every year to bring the top players to Belgrade and it’s not easy because it takes place only a week ahead of the Madrid Masters. Hopefully, we will be able to make it an ATP 500 event very soon and I am looking forward to returning next year.” Lopez was in humorous mood after the final whistle, saying: “Last night I dreamed of being the hero of the year by beating you here but once again, you showed that you are a truly great player.”

All Go for Del Po:

Returning Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, playing his first clay tournament for 23 months, lifted his third title on the surface, and ninth overall, by besting Fernando Verdasco 6-2, 6-2 in 76 minutes at the Estoril Open in Portugal. The 23-year-old has won 23 of his last 26 matches and has risen from No.484 in the South African Airways ATP World Rankings in February to No.32 this week. An out of sorts Verdasco struggled throughout and the world No.15 will undoubtedly be unhappy with his performance here. “It was my best match of the week,” claimed Del Potro. “Finals are difficult to play, you never know if you will play your best tennis or not. Today, I won and I played really nice tennis. Everything was perfect. To beat Fernando you have to play good tennis. I served really well and was very confident on my forehand and backhand too. I took all my opportunities, especially on my break points. Hopefully I will be at the same level in my next match.”

Medina Ties Venus in Estoril:

Anabel Medina Garrigues tied Venus Williams for the most clay-court titles among active players by lifting her ninth title on the surface at Estoril last weekend, her tenth overall. She dominated Kristina Barrois 6-1, 6-2 and did not drop a set all week, upsetting Greta Arn and Klara Zakopalova along the way. The loss took Barrois to 0-2 in WTA finals having lost to Maria Sharapova at Strasbourg last May. “I played very aggressively and hit it high and deep. Kristina couldn’t do her game,” Medina Garrigues said. “She’s a creative girl – serve and volley, slice, drop shots – and I was there. I felt like she lost her concentration a little bit. I think I played well this week. I had some lucky moments, like in the first round I was close to losing a set, and I had a close match with Zakopalova. It wasn’t as easy as it looked this week and I’m happy to win my 10th title.”

Davydenko Back on Track:

Russian Nikolay Davydenko put a nightmare start to 2011 behind him as he defeated Germany’s Florian Mayer 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 to lift his 21st ATP Tour title at the BMW Open in Munich. It is his second title in the German capital having triumphed there in 2004. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the 29-year-old, though, as he had to save five break points during the first set as well as fight back from a break down to take the decider. It is Mayer’s fourth defeat in four finals. “In finals I just feel stronger, more relaxed, my confidence is very high and I just go out there fighting,” said Davydenko. “It was a very important result here (to return to the Top 30) and I’m just so happy.” Mayer was in buoyant mood despite the defeat. “It was a fantastic week,” said the 27-year-old. “Of course I’m a little disappointed losing the final, but I see the positives this week. I had never won a match here in Munich coming in to this year’s tournament. I had very difficult opponents in my four finals playing [Roger] Federer, [Gael] Monfils and Davydenko twice. It could certainly have been easier opponents but it’s nothing I can change. It’s a great feeling to break into the Top 30 for the first time in my career, now I want to go even higher.”

Vinci Reigning in Spain:

Roberta Vinci lifted the Barcelona Open for the second time and extended her record at the tournament to 14-1 with a final victory over Lucie Hradecka on Saturday. After triumphing here in 2009 she was only stopped by Francesca Schiavone in last year’s final before repeating her heroics of two years ago once more. The unseeded Hradecka had done well to reach the final, ousting No.7 seed Iveta Benesova and No.5 seed Sara Errani along the way, but it was Vinci who kept her cool to win 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(4). “Lucie is very powerful. The key for me was to be aggressive and focused, and that’s why I won today,” Vinci said afterwards. “I was a little nervous before the match because it was a final, but I believed I played some good tennis today! This is a great tournament. I feel like it’s my tournament! I’m in love with Barcelona. I always play great in this beautiful city and I’d like to thank [tournament director] Arantxa [Sanchez-Vicario] and everyone here for making this tournament so great.”

Monfils Cheesed Off in Madrid:

Gael Monfils has revealed that it was a cheese allergy that forced him to retire from his match-up with Juan Monaco in Madrid when he was 2-6, 0-3 down. He threw up before going on court, experienced dizziness and blurred vision, and threw up again once he had left the playing area. “I only had a little bit, not on purpose, certainly,” said Monfils. “I ate some pasta and it was in that. But once it’s in my body, I can’t do anything.”

Soderling Lone Ranger Again:

Eurosport is reporting that Swedish star Robin Soderling has parted ways with coach Claudio Pistolesi already having only begun their partnership this season. He is looking for a replacement.

Clijsters’ Injury Woes Continue:

Kim Clijsters’ frustrating run with ankle problems continues as she has withdrawn from the Italian Open, putting her French Open participation in doubt. She joins both Venus and Serena Williams as well as Vera Zvonereva in withdrawing from the event.

Spain Continue Nadal Accolades:

World No.1 Rafael Nadal has received another top accolade from his country, having been made an honorary ambassador of the Marca Espana by the Prince of Asturias, Don Felipe. He was joined by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, Antonio Garrigues, orchestral conductor Inma Shara, The Instituto Cervantes, the Vicente Ferrer Foundation and the Spanish football team, who won last year’s FIFA World Cup for the first time.

Murray’s Former Coach claims he is Best in World:

Andy Murray’s former coach at the famed Barcelona academy, Pato Alvarez, describes the Scot as the best he’s ever worked with. “You can’t go wrong with Murray. He’s the best there is,” Alvarez told the BBC. “He’s a better player than Nadal and the other top guys. He’s more explosive. He has a better backhand. He has a better serve.”

“Best Five Months of My Career” – Djokovic:

Serbian star Novak Djokovic has described his current 30-match unbeaten stretch (28 in 2011) as the greatest run of his career. Better than that, it is one of the best in ATP history. Now he has set his sights on upstaging the ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal, and may get a chance to do so this week should both men reach the final of the Mutua Madrid Masters. Yet he is weary that he is yet to best the Spaniard in nine meetings on this surface. “I didn’t think it was realistic to go without a loss in the first three-four months but it happened,” he mused. “I guess anything is possible if you really believe that you can achieve and if you’re fit, physically, if you’re mentally fresh and motivated and if you’re dedicated to the sport. This is something that I have been doing lately,” he continued. “I’ve been working very hard on my game, on my mental approach as well and my stability and now it´s paying off. There is no secret; it’s just something that I’ve been working on in the last couple of years playing on the tour. I knew that I had quality and I just need to get some things together and it’s happening right now.” Speaking about that possible Nadal match up, he said: “I don´t really feel like talking about an eventual final against Rafa because there is a long way to go and there are many other great players who want to win this title as much as we do. I will just try to take one match at a time and we’ll see how far it can go.”

“No More Surface Specialists” – Moya:

Former world No.1 Carlos Moya has spoken of his belief that Rafael Nadal is not unbeatable on clay, and that there are no more surface specialists like when he was at the top of the sport. “No one is unbeatable on any surface,” Moya told Spanish newspaper Marca. “If you ask the players who’ll get more points on clay this year, obviously they will say it will be Rafa. But on a bad day, bad night, a bad match, anyone can have one. The specialists we saw a decade ago no longer exist. Before there were players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Goran Ivanisevic who specialised on super fast courts or grass and players such as Guga Kuerten who had to do so much just to get good on hard courts. Now you have players who do well on fast surfaces and on clay and vice versa. Those who can dominate on any surface are the ones at the top: Nadal, [Roger] Federer or [Novak] Djokovic and before it did not happen.”

Tomic and Dellacqua in for Roland Garros:

Bernard Tomic and Casey Dellacqua have been handed Tennis Australia’s two wild cards for the French Open based on an agreement between the French and Australian tennis associations. 18-year-old Tomic is frequently touted as a future Aussie star but behavioural issues have blighted his career thus far, while Dellacqua has had a torrid time with injuries and has only just returned from a 12-month lay-off.

12-City Champions Tour set for 2011:

The new-look 2011 Champions Tour will feature twelve events across the States and will get underway including the talents of former home-grown heroes Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe. Mats Wilander, Michael Chang and Bjorn Borg will also feature across the tour which sees the senior pros competing for $1m. Four stars will attend each event and will square off in semi-finals with the two winners progressing to the final.

Cavaday’s Had Her Day:

British No.5 Naomi Cavaday has announced her retirement from professional tennis at the age of 22. She reached a career-high No.174 in the world last May but currently languishes as the world’s No.231. She entered the main draw at Wimbledon three times, losing in the first round on each occasion. Her defeats to Ai Sugiyama in 2006 and Venus Williams in 2008 sandwiched her most famous moment in 2007 when she held two match points against Martina Hingis before eventually going on to lose. She suffered with depression and an eating disorder during her six-year career and now will work as a coach with the Lawn Tennis Association.

Rankings Watch:

Nicolas Almagro continued his recent ascent up the South African Airways ATP World Rankings this week and climbs above Gael Monfils to No.9 in the world. Marin Cilic and Gilles Simon are back in to the Top 20. Nikolay Davydenko and Juan Martin del Potro’s titles last week see them climb to No.28 and No.32 in the world respectively, while Spain’s Marcel Granollers is in to the Top 50 again. Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis drops 31 places to No.64 while the American Alex Bogomolov Jr. (13 places, No.91), Denis Gremelmayr of Germany (10, No.95) and France’s Benoit Paire (13, No.99) all enter the Top 100. Li Na is the new world No.6 in the Sony Ericsson WTA World Rankings, climbing above Sam Stosur in the process and equalling her career best. Jelena Jankovic also climbs to No.7 meaning Stosur is now ranked eighth. Roberta Vinci climbs from No.42 to No.37 after her Barcelona win and Anabel Medina Garrigues’ victory in Estoril sees her leap from No.61 to No.42. Monica Niculescu of Romania jumps 10 to enter the Top 50 at No.49 and Barcelona finalist Lucie Hradecka is up 14 to No. 52. France’s Virginie Razzano (No.94), Sandra Zahlavova of the Czech Republic (No.99) and America’s Jill Craybas (No.100) are all in to the Top 100.

GOAT Race Update:

Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are in action at the Mutua Madrid Masters this week, adding ten points to their totals. Will Nadal move further ahead on his favoured clay? We’ll find out as the week wears on.

Roger: 605, Rafa: 780