Meet the Sabanov Brothers

The Sabanov twins at the 2022 U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston

In many ways, Ivan and Matej Sabanov come from a typical family in what was once Yugoslavia. Two of four boys, they were born near the Hungarian border in the ethnically-diverse Vojvodina region to a Croatian father and a Serbian mother. This sort of “mixed” marriage was so common back then, it didn’t warrant comment. Unfortunately, however, it was 1992: the violent conflicts related to the breakup of the country were raging. Even though their family was safe in northern Serbia, the economic conditions were very difficult.

While they were kids, their mother relocated a two-hour drive away to Osijek, Croatia for work as a Latin and Greek high-school teacher. After the brothers completed primary school, they moved to live with her. By then, they were already accustomed to having long-distance relationships with family members, as their older brother and first coach, Aleksandar, had gone to Zagreb for university. (The Sabanovs are quite an erudite family: Aleksandar, in addition to being a certified coach, speaks five languages and holds a Masters degree in Religious Studies.) After finishing a sports gymnasium, the twins were all set to attend college in the United States. But, at the last minute, they decided to turn professional instead.

It’s been a slow road for the Sabanov brothers since then, one involving years playing ITF Futures (a.k.a. the World Tennis Tour) within driving distance of home before eventually graduating to the ATP’s Challenger Tour and airline travel. Along the way, the twins have slept in their car and strung racquets for colleagues to make ends meet. For winning a Futures doubles title (which they did nearly 25 times together and a handful of times with other partners between 2013-2019), they were generally rewarded around $500. Occasionally, they would travel far from home—for example, to Nigeria in 2017—in the hopes of winning more prize money (which they did: there, they earned $775 alongside a Futures trophy).

When they needed to push themselves, improving through competition against a higher caliber of opponents, the brothers would enter Challenger tournaments farther afield: after traveling throughout Europe in 2016, they made their first mid-tier final the next year in Bangalore, India. But then, without consistent success, they’d return home to the former Yugoslavia where they could stack up wins at Futures events without having to pay a lot for flights. It wasn’t until 2018, when they were steadily playing Challengers, that they began to break even. (A big factor: participants’ food and lodging are covered by tournaments at that level.) This is the sort of un-glamorous grind that fans don’t hear much about, as tennis media focus on the big names earning the big paychecks. In many ways, though, it’s more representative of most aspiring players’ experience of the pro tour: one with lots of effort and investment without any guarantee of a return.

At the time we spoke, the Sabanovs didn’t have clothing or equipment sponsors. One brother was playing with Filip Krajinović’s old racquets and the other with Laslo Djere’s sticks. While they joked that Djoković’s racquets are too heavy for them (the twins are about 4 inches shorter than the top-ranked men’s player), they’ve since been spotted wearing Novak’s older Lacoste kit. In January, Matej was selected to play alongside Nikola Ćaćić in the ATP Cup, while Ivan traveled down under (in place of Viktor Troicki) as Team Serbia’s coach. As they did for Wimbledon last year, the brothers partnered Filip Krajinović and Dušan Lajović in order to make the rankings cut for the doubles draw at the Australian Open. With their success in Houston this week, that kind of improvisation should be a thing of the past.

Team Serbia at the 2022 ATP Cup

The quotations below are selections from a Q&A session after they won their first title at the 2021 Serbia Open. Alas, because I only have an audio recording, I couldn’t tell which twin answered which question. I’ve lightly edited their answers for clarity.


On their start in the sport: “So, we are actually a big family. It’s four brothers: the two of us, and then two more brothers. The oldest, Aleksandar, is our coach since the beginning. He started training us when we were five. Our grandfather built a tennis court in our garden, so that’s how we started playing tennis.”

On their family and national identity: “We were born in Serbia, we lived in Croatia, and now we are back in Serbia. Our father is Croatian and mother is Serbian, so we are mixed. We like to be that way.”

“Yeah, we don’t want to be specifically Croatian or Serbian. I think we are all the same, the same people; so, I don’t see the difference.”

On their early-career struggles: “Every start is very tough, especially the financial side. I remember one time, we ended the year with our ranking at 230, I think, and we decided to go to South America to play Challengers. [Note: this was in 2016, when they began the season tied at #242.] But we didn’t have money for the travel, so we went to the bank and asked to take [out a line of] credit. But of course we couldn’t, because we don’t work. So, the sister of our mother, she got money from the bank. And she gave it to us and we went to South America.”

“At the first tournament, we passed first round and then we lost. And then, we didn’t get in the second tournament—we were in Buenos Aires and we didn’t [make the rankings cutoff]; we were first [team] out. So, we spent a lot of money to pay for the hotel and food and everything. [From there], we went to Rio, where we also passed the first round and then lost in the second round. And then we didn’t have money to actually come back home—and it was like the end of the world for us. We thought we were going to die there. And, somehow, we made it back home and started [all over] again. We always work very hard. And, in the end, I think it paid off, as we see.”

“There’s one more story: we were traveling with a stringing machine to the tournaments in our car, and we were stringing the racquets for other players. Instead of 10 euros, we were charging 5 euros per racquet and then everyone was giving us the racquets—and that’s how we earned the money for the hotels and apartments. And then we started earning some money winning these Future events and then somehow we managed to earn something playing a lot of club matches in Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, everywhere. We were sleeping in the car and driving all night just to earn some money to keep playing tennis. And then it pays off—it’s beautiful.”

[By the way, though it took several years to do it, they paid their aunt back.]

On the lack of sponsor support: “We don’t have sponsors—we are just getting some Fila clothes from one manager in Germany.”

“He’s sending us his own clothes. I mean, we don’t have any contract signed; so, it’s just his goodwill.”

“It’s difficult to get the contracts in Serbia and Croatia.”

“But this won’t stop us to do our thing and to become good players; and this tournament [win] also won’t change us. We will still be the same [people] and will work hard for our dreams—this is just a small step forward.”

On a fortuitous 2020 meeting: “Last year, we met Novak Djoković in Vienna, and he invited us to come to his club here in Belgrade—to practice here. He gave us the amazing facilities and everything. So, we are very thankful to Novak—he did an amazing job. And we stayed the whole winter [2021] in Belgrade; we practiced really hard. Also, we hired our old friend, Ivan Bijelica, as a coach, and he’s now with us: he’s traveling with us and he’s coaching us next to our brother…. This week shows that we really did a good job with them all together, and we couldn’t be more happy.

On idols and mentors: “We always dreamed about becoming professionals and we watched the videos of champions like Novak and Roger and Rafa. We always downloaded the videos and watched all night long, so that was our future life—we wanted to do that.”

“The Bryan brothers were our idols since we were starting playing doubles…. And then, last year, we had a chance to practice and to spend some time with Mike Bryan, because his wife is from Slovakia and his manager organized everything. We went to Slovakia and spent six, seven days with Mike. He gave us a lot of really good advice and said that we have a good potential, that we need to keep working hard and then we will get the chance—and that’s what happened this week. We’re still in contact with Mike Bryan and he is giving us advice and encouraging us. So, we’re very, very thankful.”

“Also, there’s some other players like Mate Pavić and Ivan Dodig from Croatia—whenever we saw them on the tournaments, they were encouraging us. And that really means a lot to us, because it shows that we have potential and then, one day, we will be there and we will earn a living from playing tennis—and that’s what we’ve always wanted to do.”

On their differences (beyond the fact that Ivan plays with a one-handed backhand): “Yeah, we are different, our personalities are different, definitely. Ivan is maybe more energetic and he’s a quick temper. I am a little bit more calm, let’s say. Also [in terms of physical differences], I have two small moles on my face and Ivan doesn’t, so that’s how people recognize us.”

On court during their 2021 title run in Belgrade

On winning their first ATP title: “Yeah, besides the money and the points and everything, it shows that we have a really good level. [Even] before this tournament, we were winning against Grand Slam champions on the Challenger level—for example, we beat Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies in a Bosnia and Herzegovina Challenger [in September 2018]. We beat some more players who were winning ATP titles, so we knew that we have a good level—and that we have to be patient and wait our time. It means a lot. We will definitely keep working very hard and we want to improve more, we want to play Grand Slam tournaments and to play on the center courts of the biggest tournaments. That’s our goal and that’s what we were dreaming about our whole life, so we’re not gonna stop here.”

“I think it’s the motivation for me. I feel like I will be more motivated to practice and to do all the things to improve more after this tournament because I now I have proof that we can do this. The hard work is paying off.”

Podcast and Radio Appearances

February 2022: It was a real treat for me to have the opportunity to talk about Goran Ivanišević, the state of Yugoslav tennis before the breakup of the country in the early 1990s, and what the big-serving Croat brings to Team Djoković with Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract. Listen here.

January 2022: Thought I made several appearances on BBC Radio during Novak’s Australian saga, they seem not to have permalinks for programs over a month old. So, the only segment I can share from the complicated lead-up to the 2022 Australian Open is this one on Melbourne’s ABC radio: “Decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa sparks anger in Serbia.” Listen here.

May 2021: “All About Novak Djoković.” One of these things is not like the other: Niki Pilić, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanišević, and I were guests for an hour-long BBC 5 Live Sport discussion of the ATP #1.

July 2020: Carl Bialik invited me on to Thirty Love, his short-form podcast, to discuss Novak Djoković and the Adria Tour. Much of our conversation relates to my tennis journalism hobby-horse: shortcomings of the Anglophone-dominated international media in covering players whose native language isn’t English. Listen here.

Sport Klub’s Dubai Interview with Novak Djoković

The night before his quarterfinal match in Dubai, Djoković sat down with veteran Serbian sports journalist Nebojša Višković in the garden outside a tent housing the player gym. “Viško,” as he’s known to colleagues and Sport Klub viewers, has covered Novak since he was a promising junior—and they have a friendly rapport rooted in obviously-mutual respect. Indeed, were it not for this longstanding relationship, it’s unlikely Sport Klub would have gotten this time with the then-ATP #1. To my knowledge, Novak did no other one-on-one interviews during his first event of the season, and the three Serbian print reporters in attendance got one native-language question each per press conference.* At the start of their chat, Višković semi-jokingly observed that talking with Novak had become “a journalist’s toughest-possible task.”

In addition to providing match analysis from SK’s Belgrade studios and conducting post-match interviews at the handful of tournaments he attends each year, Višković co-hosts a weekly tennis podcast called “Wish and Go” with fellow commentator Ivan Govedarica. In that format, which they started using during the pandemic, the pair have interviewed not only every top Serbian player and plenty of local tennis insiders but also a bunch of other ATP and WTA athletes from the region (e.g., Croatia’s Borna Ćorić and doubles team Mektić and Pavić, Montenegro’s Danka Kovinić, and Bosnia’s Damir Džumhur). The conversations are quite long for today’s media climate—often running over an hour—and substantive, with hosts well-versed in both the history of the sport and the intricacies of the game. Govedarica, once a junior player, was a tennis coach and an official before he turned to broadcasting; Višković, who also coached in his twenties, is father to a current Serbian junior; and both men play tennis regularly (their on-court rivalry is one of the podcast’s running themes). Whenever I watch the show on YouTube, I lament the fact that episodes don’t have subtitles making them accessible to the wider tennis world. Until there’s a reliable transcription app for Serbian, though, I understand why this is too much work for anyone to take on in addition to the rest of his/her professional responsibilities.

This SK interview, however, is short enough to be manageable. Here’s my translation of the full interview, with occasional, hopefully clarifying, additions in brackets. Please note: I produced this translation before “Wish and Go” made a subtitled version of the interview available on YouTube (today!) and I decided to post my work, regardless, because it allows me to both introduce and comment on the Q&A content.


NV: “It seems to me that something like this is perhaps easier in Dubai. Even with all the protocol, it’s more relaxed.”

NĐ: “Well, yes, the atmosphere is different here, a bit more pleasant and less formal than at the Grand Slams and some other tournaments where you’ve been. You’ve been involved in tennis all these years and we know each other, of course; that relationship is why I wanted to do this. Plus, you’re the only representative here from Serbian tv. So, thanks for coming.”

NV: “We won’t talk about Australia, because that story’s passé and you’re sick of it, I’m sick of it, everybody’s sick of talking about it.”

NĐ: “Thanks.” [laughing]

NV: “But I will have a few questions that aren’t ‘tra la la,’ just so you know.”

[crosstalk]

NV: “Just tell me: have you put a period on that episode—Australia, full stop, turn the page, done?”

NĐ: “You know, I can’t completely erase everything that happened from my memory. And everything is so fresh. There have been some other things in my life —whether tied to tennis or not— that shook me, emotionally, that I couldn’t forget, let alone something like this. This really was unprecedented in every sense, in terms of everything I’ve experienced in my professional career and in my life overall.

But I can accept that it is as it is—and move on. What you’ll certainly not see or hear from me is that I’m running away from responsibility or from answering anyone’s questions. I have nothing to hide; I’m not avoiding anyone; and I’m here [i.e., available]. I also invited the BBC, who weren’t always friendly to me as global media. They came to Belgrade—and I thank them for that. They allowed me to say, for an international audience, what I had to say. We agreed to whatever questions they asked. They broadcast half an hour, but we talked for almost an hour and a half; so, there was a lot…”

NV: “If I could interrupt—why’d you invite the BBC [specifically]?”

NĐ: “Well, precisely because if I’d invited someone with whom I have a better relationship, then people would say, ‘Eh, here he is, setting up an interview so that they don’t ask him anything [because] they’re inclined toward him,’ like they may’ve said about RTS. Of course, it’s logical to expect that when I talk to the national broadcaster of Serbia, or someone from international media who’s been more sympathetic toward me over the course of my career—and people who follow tennis know who’s more sympathetic and who isn’t—then, some would think, ‘Here he is, running from uncomfortable situations; so, he’s hiding something and doesn’t want them to ask anything awkward.’

That’s absolutely the biggest reason I called them: I really wanted those who’ve criticized me a lot to come and ask me anything they thought was necessary to ask. And, of course, because they’re one of the world’s biggest media, with over half a billion viewers, I’d have the opportunity to speak to the world.”

Radio Television of Serbia aired a lengthy interview with Djoković the week before he played Dubai.

NV: “They didn’t just criticize you—they dragged you in the worst way.** I gave a couple of interviews to the BBC and fought for you. I’m glad that you mentioned at the beginning how long we’ve known each other… But I was sorry when I saw that you chose the BBC—this isn’t a lament, like ‘Why not me?’”

NĐ: “For what reason?”

NV: “Because we defended you during the whole Australian [episode] and then you suddenly give an interview to the very people…”

[crosstalk]

NĐ: “That’s it, though. Simply: to those who criticized me the most, come and you’re welcome to ask me whatever you want…. I had absolutely no influence on the questions they raised. We only wished for it to be in Belgrade, if possible, because I was training there, getting ready for Dubai. They accepted, came, and were very nice, polite, neutral, and firm—in the sense that, ‘Ok, we’ll ask everything that hasn’t yet been addressed from your side.’ No problem. I’m sorry they didn’t broadcast some things…”

NV: “They cut a lot.”

NĐ: “Of course, I know that they had to make cuts to fit the time slot they had, but…”

NV: “They cut what didn’t suit them.”

NĐ: “Well, that’s how it is. But, to repeat: I run from no one and nothing.”

NV: “Politics shouldn’t interfere with sports, but sports should influence politics—at least, that’s how I see it. Because there are many good things…”

NĐ: “For me, sports—excuse me for interrupting—has always been above politics. Even if, perhaps, some people who aren’t well-versed in the situation or who don’t necessarily follow tennis much think I politicized this whole thing, that I deliberately intended to enter the country by force or to attract attention to myself and somehow distract from other tennis players…”

NV: “Don’t go back over all that—we know, all of it’s clear…”

NĐ: “No, no, no—but it matters in the context of all this. Because some people think I went more into politics than sports. Just the opposite: I went because I’m an athlete and that’s the place where I’ve achieved my best results. And because I wanted to respect my colleagues, I didn’t explain or respond to all the questions until [the Australian Open] was finished. The other side, so to say, didn’t hesitate to speak in public, and it went the way it went: a very ugly picture of me was created. They really humiliated me, if I may say so, on the world stage.

And that’s why it’s very important, when I get the opportunity, and if someone asks, that I answer questions. I’ll probably repeat the same responses that I gave to the BBC because I don’t have anything else to add, especially in terms of questions about things like the [COVID] tests—I’m neither an IT expert nor do I understand how those tests are processed and registered. I mean, that’s not on me.

I did everything that was required of me and was in the same position as any other tennis player—which is very important since I see there’s some belief that I was privileged or used my position to get that [medical exemption] status due to who I am. But everyone had the same opportunity [to apply] for an exemption. Since I see that the BBC cut this, it’s important that I say it and that people hear it. So, I’ll repeat this a hundred times like a parrot: when I arrived in Australia, a WTA player from the Czech Republic and an ATP coach from Croatia with the exact same exemption—in the same situation, with the same vaccination status as I have—had already been there for days. She played in a tournament, he coached his player in a different tournament and there was no problem. Suddenly, I get there and it’s a problem. Why is that? You tell me, because I’m stopping there. ”

NV: “I said I wasn’t going to ask about Australia…” [laughing]

[The body language from 7:50-7:58 is universal, so I suggest watching it yourself.]

NĐ: “What’d you want to ask me?” [laughing]

NV: “Listen, what you’re saying is clear to everyone. It’s not [clear] only to those who won’t use their brains and don’t want to [understand], and that’s that.”

NĐ: “But Viško, it’s important for me to repeat it, not only for our people and those from the Balkans but because I know that some international media will pick this up. It’s important to say it and I hope that some people will write about this situation.

So, you tell me: is it political or is it not? If I enter, I’m a problem; but two people who entered before me with the identical situation had no problem at all?”

NV: “It’s 100% political and that’s totally clear. But, unfortunately, politics and your career are intertwined nonstop. You just had a meeting with the president of Serbia which provoked a lot of comments, upheavals, emotion, and so on.”

NĐ: “I’m aware of that. I saw that people think that I now support the president or his political party in their re-election campaign. There’s been a bunch of speculation on that topic, condemnation. I’ve become accustomed, in this period [presumably, during the pandemic], to condemnation from the international media; and now, likely because of such situations, also some domestic ones. However, I have to thank the majority of our national media, who were with me [during the Australian episode]. The nation stood with me—so, from my heart, thanks to all Serbs around the world. I felt the support, listened to the recordings, and saw the people who met me at the airport, the messages on the Belgrade waterfront tower. It was fantastic, really, and I have to mention it because I feel an [emotional] obligation.

I went to see the president because I wanted to thank the man, as the leader of our country, who stood up for me as a statesman in public, just as the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, did.*** Also, the Institute for Public Health “Batut” didn’t stand up for me, specifically, but they came out with a public statement that there was no problem with my test results. That meant a lot to me because Der Spiegel, and others who got into the investigation, picked on [the results] and thought that I was somehow cheating on them. [The IOPHOS] said, ‘Here you go: everything is perfectly clean.’

So, I went to the president as a Serbian citizen, as an athlete, as someone who felt that support. And I wanted to thank him—and to do it publicly because he deserved it, as did everyone who stood by me. I’m not getting involved in any kind of politics or any election campaigns—it’s never a good time for that. I haven’t done that before, even though I received recognition from the former president and I’ve been in the National Assembly. I’ve always tried to keep my distance from the political sphere, and [related] stories and currents. When I went to do it, I knew that people would talk about it. Like I said, it’s always a bad time to do it—there’s always a campaign; there’s always something. But I wasn’t thinking about that.”

NV: “It’s the spot [i.e., a political ad] that caused the most uproar.”

NĐ: “What spot?”

NV: “The ruling party’s [campaign] video. You appear in it—that’s actually the biggest reason…”

NĐ: “Honestly, I haven’t seen it. I heard… I only saw a video on Instagram of our meeting that [the president] posted. There was no mention of the Progressive party.”

NV: “They put a video on YouTube.”

NĐ: “I didn’t see anything with a logo on it or tied to the Serbian Progressive Party. What I saw was just an edited version of our meeting that day. For me, that was… Again, people will always look for a needle in a haystack and try to take anything they don’t like and make it into something that [supports] their side.

But if we want to look at it that way, I went ‘against’ both his party and the state when I supported the [environmental] protests. In the end, as I told him and everyone else, that had nothing to do with politics. I didn’t get involved in the negotiations or agreement between Rio Tinto and the state—I was supporting my people, who took to the streets to fight for cleaner air, water, and food. Those are elementary things and not tied to politics. It’s a problem that dates back 15, 20, 30 years. We have a problem with pollution in Belgrade and it has nothing to do with any [specific] government. I mean, it does—every government is responsible for [things like] that. And that’s why I did it [i.e., posted on Instagram about the protests]—it has nothing to do with politics.”

NV: “Nole, thank you for being forthright. You’re open to the core, as always, and that always…”

NĐ: “Well, yes, it’s honest… Viško, look: I have nothing to hide. Of course, I know that I sometimes need to “filter” things. But the truth is the truth, and my position is my position. I know that people will continue to criticize me because I decided not to get vaccinated and because I have some views that are incomprehensible to people. I respect everyone’s decision and I hope that people, even if they don’t understand, will at least respect mine. I don’t think I’m endangering anyone. It’s my decision, I’m aware of the consequences, and it’s not in my hands. It’s not entirely up to me whether I will go to Indian Wells or to some other tournaments.

At the moment, I’m here [in Dubai] and I’m enjoying tennis. I’m grateful and proud of everything that I’ve achieved. And this sport has given me so much, I’m trying to give back to the same extent. It’ll always be the case that some people don’t like me or criticize me for this or that. Sorry, because you’re part of that world, but the media often live off sensationalism—many in media, not all.”

NV: “Do you differentiate?”

NĐ: “You’ll agree, that’s how it is. Of course, I differentiate—I mean, I’m talking to you because I know you’re not like that.”


  • * Note 1: Despite my “mixed” ancestry and the fact that I was in Dubai representing my blog, not a Serbian outlet, I include myself in this category. Frankly, it was a long way for me to go to get in my allotted three questions and the limitations put on us by the ATP is something I’ll have to weigh in making future plans for tennis travel.
  • ** Note 2: I was also invited on BBC Radio before, during, and after the 2022 Australian saga and generally found the program hosts, in addition to their tennis correspondent Russell Fuller, to be quite fair. Given that the BBC is a huge media organization comprising print, radio, and tv services, there are a range of sports journalists and commentators who have covered Djoković over the years. So, I think it’s possible that “BBC” is standing in not only for some specific individuals who work for the UK’s national broadcaster but also for the whole of British sports media, who have been rough on Djoković, particularly between 2011 and 2017, when he and Andy Murray were competing regularly for major titles. Having said that, it is the case that a BBC article was cited by the Australian government in making their case that Djoković may, by his mere presence in Melbourne, galvanize anti-vaccine sentiment. As I noted on Twitter at the time, almost all international reporting on Novak’s vaccination-related views has been based on a problematic translation of comments he made in April 2020.
  • *** Note 3: I couldn’t help but notice that while Novak mentioned the Serbian PM by name, neither he nor Višković ever referred directly to President Aleksandar Vučić. Of course, I have no idea how conscious or deliberate this was on either man’s part—so, it may not be terribly significant. This would probably be a good time to clarify that the Serbian Progressive Party is not what most would consider ideologically “progressive.”

Pocerina Day Trip

This is an Atlas Obscura entry based, in part, on a May 2019 visit to Western Serbia.


“Do you want to marry God?” she asked, not five minutes into our acquaintance. It seemed less a question than an invitation.

I had picked up a young nun on the side of the road, deducing from her all-black attire that we were headed to the same place: Radovašnica monastery, at the foot of Cer (pronounced “tsair”) mountain in Western Serbia. She was from Bosnia, making her way across the former Yugoslavia from one Serbian Orthodox sanctuary to another, final destination unknown. I was from Washington, DC, driving the rural roads of Mačva in a glossy black Fiat Panda I’d picked up a few days earlier from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport. Our conversation had taken an intimate turn remarkably quickly.

“No,” I answered bluntly, hoping to cut the evangelizing short. “I only came to light an anniversary candle”—shorthand, in the regional idiom, for the end of a one-year period of mourning. Though I was telling the truth about the candles, traditional beeswax tapers bought for that purpose in one of the nearby villages, it’s also the case that I was in a hurry and Radovašnica was just the first stop on a day trip back in time.

“For Health”

Local lore has it that the monastery’s land was endowed by King Stefan Dragutin of the Nemanjić dynasty in the late 13th century, making it among the oldest in the “Pocerina” region on the north side of the mountain. Both Serbia and the still-disputed territory of Kosovo are dotted with Orthodox monasteries, many far grander in size or set in more dramatic landscape than this one. But Radovašnica, like the others, helps tell the story of Serbia from medieval to modern times. It’s also a gateway between the fields and orchards of the area’s small family farms and the mountain. “Fertile Mačva has always attracted occupiers,” narrates a tv documentary about the monastery, the main church of which was destroyed repeatedly during several hundred years of Ottoman rule, late 18th-century conflicts between Turks and Habsburgs, 19th-century Serbian uprisings, and in two world wars. Sadly, it’s not the only thing around here that’s been “demolished, burned, and plundered.”

Although Cer—named for Quercus cerris, the species of oak that covers the terrain—certainly offers plenty of hiking and other outdoor activity for tourists and locals alike, it’s best known for an August 1914 battle in which the undermanned Serbian army defeated invading Austro-Hungarian forces, resulting in the first Allied victory of World War I. It is to the memory of the fallen from that campaign that the newest Orthodox church in the vicinity, Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, is dedicated. Baptized six years ago on the battle’s centenary, the church also serves as a sort of rest stop for travelers who brave the cobblestone track that traverses the mountaintop. (Google maps will instruct you to get from one end of the mountain to the other by roads at its base for a reason, as I learned when my rental car got stuck in mud created by the combination of spring rains and dirt roads.) When I was last there, both the church and the nearby “Linden Waters” lodge were deserted, though someone had been by recently enough to leave a full bottle of Montenegrin wine on a picnic table out front. A mural behind the church proclaims “Cer’s heroes, holy warriors,” putting a spiritual gloss on what was a decidedly secular event and hinting at the contemporary church’s role in keeping Serbian nationalism alive.

About five miles to the south of the mountain’s peak is a modest museum and monument: an ossuary in the form of natural rock, embellished with the phrase, “Your deeds are immortal.” The Battle of Cer also lives on in a WWI-era song, “March on the Drina,” played at national-team sporting events, and a 1964 film by the same name. Despite this cultural legacy, it’s the case that Cer doesn’t call attention to itself. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you might think the mountain and its surroundings are what an urbanite from Belgrade, a two hours’ drive away, would call a “vukojebina” (literally, “a place where wolves fuck”). The Serbian government, however, is determined not to let the mountain or the military conquest that took place there be forgotten. In late 2018, they announced a plan to construct a memorial complex with a massive glass tower “symbolizing victory,” featuring 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside, and designed to “be visible from large parts of Serbia.” My advice: get there while the wolves still outnumber the tourists.

While you’re there: try honey made by the bee-keeping nuns of nearby Petkovica monastery, ajvar (the roasted red pepper spread made each fall), gibanica (a pie made with alternating layers of filo dough and cheese filling), and the ubiquitous šljivovica (plum brandy, the national drink).


Prologue: 2022

Note: this is an excerpt from a work in progress.

I. Spain: November, 2019

“Would you like to try some?” he asked, offering up a brown paper package he’d just retrieved from a stuffed gym bag. I must have looked dubious, as he added, “It’s good, actually.” But I was hesitant not because I feared how his gluten-free snack would taste but because I was unsure of the propriety of a writer’s sharing food with her subject.

In that moment, though, I wasn’t operating as a journalist. And Novak Djoković was less a world-famous athlete than one of a small group of Serbs hanging around after a press conference, commiserating over a painful loss. Despite our differences in status, it felt like we were in this together.

I cupped my hands and watched as he poured a mix of oats and carob chunks into them. He was right: it wasn’t bad. We both munched as we resumed our conversation—by that point, we’d shifted from tennis and sports journalism to the most apt Serbian translation for “drama queen” to recent films about Nikola Tesla.

We’d started talking some 15 minutes earlier, after Djoković stretched out on the dais near one of his Davis Cup teammates, with whom I was chatting. In front of the podium, the other Serbian players were taking turns doing their final domestic tv interviews of the week. In an unusual move, Djoković was waiting for everyone to finish up so they could leave the media center as a team. Even the players too young to have been there from the beginning knew what this day had become: it was the end of an era.

Photo taken from a distance by Argentine photographer JP

Whether the era in question began in 2001, when Jelena Janković and Janko Tipsarević foreshadowed the success to come by winning the juniors singles titles at the Australian Open, or in 2004, when Nenad Zimonjić lifted the mixed doubles trophy in Melbourne, beating defending champions Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes with his Russian partner, or even in 2007, when Ana Ivanović and Novak Djoković made their first major finals (at the French Open and US Open, respectively) and ended the year ranked among the top 4 players in the world—it hardly matters. In fact, one could argue that the era started in 1995, when rump Yugoslavia returned to international tennis competition, in both the men’s Davis Cup and women’s Federation Cup, after several years in the wilderness due to UN sanctions. Zimonjić, the only Serb whose career had spanned this entire quarter century, was now 43 and playing on artificial hips.

In November 2019, the Serbian men approached the Spanish capital for the national team tournament with two goals: to finish the decade as they’d started it, by winning the Davis Cup, and to give their outspoken, bespectacled teammate Janko Tipsarević a proper sendoff into retirement. (A group vacation in the Maldives was to follow.) Tipsarević had already competed at his final ATP event a month prior, making the quarterfinals at the Stockholm Open. He was selected for the national team despite having played only intermittently—not just during his last season but over the previous five years—due to a series of injuries which had derailed his career after two seasons ranked in the top ten. In Madrid, he and Viktor Troicki, who had performed the hero’s role in their 2010 Davis Cup victory, played two doubles matches in the round-robin group stage, winning one and losing the other to one of the very best doubles teams in the world: Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut of France, who had gone undefeated at the ATP’s year-end championship the previous week. In the quarterfinal tie against Russia, with the teams poised at one match apiece, the Serbs had opted to substitute Djoković in to partner Troicki in the deciding doubles contest. The childhood friends, who had won their first titles together as juniors, suffered a devastating loss in a third-set tiebreaker, having failed to capitalize on several match points.

The six-member team entered the interview room in silence and sat behind their microphones and tented name-cards with bowed heads, at least a few sporting red eyes and Djoković hiding his face under the bill of a baseball cap. The players’ answers were emotional from the start, with Djoković admitting the loss “hurts us really badly” and Troicki adding, “I probably feel the worst ever [after a loss]. I never experienced such a moment in my career, in my life. And I let my team down, and I apologize to them.” It likely wasn’t until Zimonjić, in the captain’s chair, choked up that the majority of the assembled press understood what was at stake for the Serbs in this Davis Cup campaign.

“Sorry,” he began haltingly. “It’s not [about] winning or losing, just for you to understand.” Through tears, he explained: “It’s that the four players sitting here. . . I would say they are the golden generation of our tennis. And I see it as an end because it’s Janko’s last match. . . . You dream, maybe, to go all the way—to celebrate, you know, with a victory. But sometimes it doesn’t happen, what you wanted to happen.”

Even though, two years later, Djoković remains on the top of the game, Zimonjić was right: the loss in Madrid marked the end of something significant. Ana Ivanović, the youngest of the “golden” group, had preceded all of them into retirement, opting to stop playing at age 29, after injury cut short her 2016 season. Though Jelena Janković hasn’t officially hung up her racquets, she also hasn’t competed professionally since undergoing back surgery after the 2017 US Open. Viktor Troicki, who rebounded from that worst-ever feeling by helping Serbia win the inaugural ATP Cup trophy at the start of 2020, spent the last year transitioning from active player to Davis Cup captain.

II. Serbia: July, 2010

Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was a summer that would change my life.

I spent a chunk of it, including my birthday, in the village of my father’s birth, 100km west of Belgrade. There was nothing unusual about this, as I’d been visiting my grandmother’s farm since infancy; nor was it a rare occurrence for me to celebrate at least part of my birthday inside, watching tv. When my grandmother first got a black and white television in the early ‘80s, my siblings and I would rush from the back yard where we spent most of our day into the living room to catch the cartoons that came on before the nightly news—most often, Looney Tunes reels dubbed into what was then called “Serbo-Croatian.” But as I got older, I watched more sports coverage, especially of my favorite event, Wimbledon, which (like my birthday) takes place in early July.

In 2010, I got a double-dose of tennis. Though Novak Djoković had lost in the semifinals at the All England Club, the Davis Cup quarterfinals were scheduled for the weekend following Wimbledon’s conclusion—and Serbia was playing in them for the first time as an independent nation. This was a huge occasion, in part because it had taken the Serbian team 15 years to climb from the lowest tier of regional zone competition to the “World Group”: the 16 best tennis nations. For the previous three seasons, they’d been knocking at the door of the tennis elite but unable to gain full entry, repeatedly losing in the first round and having to win September playoffs to get another chance the next year. Perhaps a bigger deal in the Balkans: Serbia was facing neighbors, former compatriots, and relatively recent co-belligerents in Croatia for a spot in the semifinals. As this was the first international meeting between the two men’s teams, members of which had all been born in Yugoslavia before the wars, there was some concern about what kind of welcome the Serbs would get from their hosts in Split. But apart from some hecklers in the crowd, it was uneventful off court. On court, the Serbs triumphed by a 4-1 margin, with all their wins coming in straight sets.

This victory—as well as those that followed, culminating in a championship tie played in front on twenty-thousand spectators packed into Belgrade Arena—marked a turning point not only for several members of the Davis Cup team but also for me.

Initiated into playing tennis by both parents and into being a tennis fan by my father, I’d been casually involved with the sport since childhood. Trips to the neighborhood court brought all manner of lessons, not merely in groundstroke technique but in sportsmanship as well. To this day, I can’t step on a tennis court without hearing my dad’s voice—at one moment, admonishing me for not returning balls directly to my opponent when it was his or her turn to serve; at another, expressing pleasant surprise at how well I hit a backhand. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the later rounds of majors were broadcast on network tv and I was allowed to stare at the screen for longer than usual. One of the first philosophical disagreements I recall having with my father concerned the on-court antics of John McEnroe: while we both admired Bjorn Borg and disliked Jimmy Conners, we were divided over the American who had earned his nickname “SuperBrat.” The introductory music NBC chose for their “Breakfast at Wimbledon” program still transports me back to our shared time in front of the tv—not quite as powerful or as sentimental as Proust’s madeleine, perhaps, but something like it. Though I rooted for Martina Navratilova and enjoyed seeing other WTA players in action, my early fandom reached its peak when Boris Becker—like me, a teenager—smashed his serve and threw his body around the grass courts at Wimbledon in the mid-‘80s.

In 1986, the year “Boom Boom” Becker won Wimbledon for a second time, another player in the men’s draw caught my eye. Though it’s the case that he was the stereotypical “tall, dark, and handsome” type of romance novels, I was attracted less by his features or physique than by his name—one bound to tie the tongues of Anglophone commentators. Because he shared my father’s first name, Slobodan (a name which would become infamous within a few years for reasons having nothing to do with tennis), I knew that meant he also shared his homeland. Growing up as an “ethnic” American, I was accustomed to people using Yugoslavia as a punchline: the long name, obscure location, and ambiguous geopolitical position, never mind the compact car, were the source of much teasing in the waning days of the Cold War. (One coach affectionately called me “half-breed,” something unimaginable today.) But Yugoslav passion for and prowess in sports were no joke. For one thing, Sarajevo had hosted the winter Olympics in 1984, while I was in high school. For another, the country had been collecting medals in team sports for decades: football, handball, volleyball, water polo, and (above all for an American) basketball. So, I had already experienced both collective exhilaration and cultural pride as a spectator of European championships and Summer Olympics. But since “Bobo” Živojinović was the first Yugoslav tennis player of whom I was aware, seeing him advance to the singles semifinal at Wimbledon—and, later that summer, win the men’s doubles trophy at the US Open—ignited a new feeling in me.

My favorite sport being played by people with names like mine, speaking the language I’d learned by communicating with my grandmother? That was something special. The rise and dominance of Monica Seles a few years later—she first won the French Open as a 16-year-old in 1990—was even more significant. Before she was stabbed by an unstable fan of one of her rivals, Seles had won eight grand slam titles playing under the Yugoslav flag.

Of course, all of this happened before the violent breakup of Yugoslavia—and before my ethnic identity became a source of shame rather than pride. As a child, I heard countless stories about both the traumatic events and heroic exploits of the two World Wars in which Serbs had fought alongside the Allies. In the center of our village, there was a monument bearing the names of both my grandfather and great-grandfather; their portraits, in uniform, hung in our living room. During our summer trips, I felt just as comfortable on Croatia’s Adriatic coast as in rural Serbia. At home in the DC suburbs, my parents hosted an annual “slava” celebrating our patron, Saint Nicholas, at which ex-pats from all over Yugoslavia outnumbered the Americans. Serbo-Croatian, spoken abroad, was like a secret language that only a select few could understand. And even though I’d had to correct the pronunciation of my name the first time the teacher called roll in every class for my entire school life, having such strong ties to another culture and what felt like a permanent home in a different country—as opposed to the various apartments, duplexes, and houses where we’d lived in California, Ohio, and Maryland—had always grounded me.

When the Serbian team became Davis Cup champions in December 2010, I felt something unfamiliar: pride in the part of myself that I’d tried to keep at a distance for nearly two decades. In retrospect, it seems unsurprising that when Novak Djoković began the 2011 season not just by winning the Australian Open but by going unbeaten for weeks, then months, totaling 41 matches and 7 titles in a row, I was hooked. No longer dependent on network or even cable tv, I watched every one of his matches during the first part of the season on my desktop monitor thanks to digital streams. At least weekly, I would call my father with updates or send him links to online coverage of the winning streak. Then, just a few days before my birthday, Djoković won Wimbledon, beating Rafael Nadal for the fifth time that year, and took over the top spot. Within the month, I had put my job search on hold and written my first piece about tennis. Within two months, I had booked a flight to Belgrade and talked my way into media credentials for the Davis Cup semifinal against Argentina.

In an interview during that September week in Serbia, Djoković recalled his twelfth birthday in 1999, during which NATO bombs dropped on his hometown, observing: “The war made me a better person because I learned to appreciate things and to take nothing for granted. The war also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I’d prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too.” It didn’t require twenty major titles and countless other records for Djoković to prove that there are good Serbian tennis players. Indeed, that had likely been established as a fact long before he made the promise to himself. But the burden of representing a twenty-first century Serbia to the world is one that he and, to a lesser degree, the other members of the golden generation still carry. It’s why tennis, for them, is more than a game.

All About Djoković

Belgrade Open 2021 Novak Djokovic (SRB) v Federico Coria (ARG) photo: Marko Djokovic/ Starsportphoto ©

In the lead up to the busiest part of the tennis season, I had the pleasure of joining BBC radio host Steve Crossman and tennis correspondent Russell Fuller on a 5 Live Sports special program discussing what makes the ATP #1 tick.

You can listen here and read excerpts from Fuller’s interviews with former players and Djoković coaches Niki Pilić, Boris Becker, and Goran Ivanišević here.

Introducing: Marko Topo

On the center court in Belgrade today, one of Serbia’s top juniors made his ATP debut. Marko Topo, 17, faced Argentina’s Federico Coria, who was promoted into the main draw after Pablo Andujar withdrew with an injury. Topo was impressive in the first set, which he won 6-4, going toe to toe with the ATP’s #94 player as if this level of competition were something he’s used to. Mid-way through the second set, however, the young Serb over-exerted himself—opting for a tweener at the end of a 25-shot rally (which Coria smashed back to win the point)—and seemed to hit a wall. He lost a bit of confidence after that, his head and his level dropping. Coria took advantage: winning the second set 6-2, then blanking the youngster in the third, 6-0. Despite the lopsided final set, it was a solid effort for Topo’s opening-day performance on the main stage. Watching on from the balcony of the Novak Tennis Center was none other than Djoković himself, whom I later asked for his impressions.

AM: I’m curious to get your scouting report on young Marko Topo. And more than what his potential is as a player, I’m wondering if you could reflect a little bit on what it might have meant to you to have a tournament like this at home when you were his age, and what kind of opportunity you think these juniors are getting by having an ATP tournament in Belgrade?

: It was tough luck [for him] to get injured. He was coming into the tournament with a slight back pain and it got worse today as the match went on; but he showed the fighting spirit, and I’m proud of him. I just saw him as he walked out of the court and congratulated him for not giving up and staying there and, you know, showing a good attitude on the court. I think that’s very important for a young player on the big stage like this to have a great opportunity to play with the best tennis players in the world. Coria, I think, is top hundred, a clay-court specialist. He was never going to hand Marko the match—he had to earn it. So, I thought he played very well for a set and a half. Then after, it just became more physical, where Coria was just more comfortable. But I think, overall, Marko showed a lot of positive things in his game, his behavior, and fighting spirit.

He really appreciated the opportunity to have a wildcard and play the main draw, and I’m very, very pleased with him. So, you know, not many negative things I can say. Actually, on the contrary, I’m really pleased with the way he’s playing, the way he has been improving. He’s been training here at our center with our coaches for a while now, moving between Serbia and Germany, where he grew up. So, we are very happy to have him around and I think he’s got great potential to become a successful tennis player professionally.

Now, there are many factors in play and elements that have to come together so that his formula of success is accomplished, but he’s got the means and we’ll do everything we can to support him, as much as we will do with Hamad [Medjedović, who] is playing tomorrow. Obviously, they are the same age, they know each other, and they’re both top-20 juniors in the world.* Both of these guys, I think, they can help each other actually; hopefully, they can spend more time training and traveling together. As I remember, back in the day, with Viktor Troicki—even though Viktor is a year older than me, I spent a lot of time with him on and off the court and we grew up together, played a lot of matches for our teams here in Serbia and individually. In individual tournaments, we faced each other quite often, but also we shared the room when we were traveling and I think if you have someone to really motivate you and pull you along, it makes your path and your journey much easier, and just more exciting. So I think these two guys, they seems to be in a really good relationship and I would want to see them spend more time together traveling and training.”

*Medjedović is currently ranked #22 by the ITF, with a juniors career-high of #9; Topo is #33 with a career-high ten spots above that.

ATP 250 Belgrade Open 2021 Marko Topo v Federico Coria foto: Srdjan Stevanovic/Starsportphoto ©

Moving on to the man—or, rather, boy—of the hour, I wanted to get an introduction to Marko Topo. What I learned from our conversation is that Topo is the child of immigrants. He was born in Munich to Serbs who left Croatia in the 1990s due to the conflict there. Like many in the former Yugoslavia, he’s an ethnic mix: “a bit of everything,” as he said. He started playing tennis when he was six years old: that is, in 2009. Although he’s a dual citizen of Germany and Serbia, he opted to play for the country where his family’s roots are: “I moved here when I was 12, and. . . I got so many choices to play [with] the wildcards and they’re giving me so much. So, I’m just feeling more Serbian and I just feel at home here.”

Topo told the Argentine reporters present (virtually) that, “It was an amazing feeling to play here—to play with the top guys, to play with Federico. For the first set, I had the control. I played good: I served well; I pushed him back [from the baseline]. I was leading the game and [stepping into] the court. And then in the second set, I just felt a little bit of losing energy. My head started to think also about my back—I had a little bit of pain. So, I started to think too much, maybe. And that’s it. My level dropped [and] he raised his level. He played solid to the end and he won it.”

Informed that Djoković had said “very nice things” about him in his own press conference, Topo lit up. He then described what it means to him to have Novak as a mentor: “to be almost a friend with Nole, to practice with him is an amazing thing. . . For me, he is the greatest of all time. He’s my idol. I can’t say anything [else] about it. I mean, he’s the biggest in our sport. It makes me proud to hear good stuff about me from him. . . . I’m still young—I’m 17—and to be part of this academy and to be part of Nole, to have the chance to speak to him is just amazing and I’m very grateful to be here. And I’m grateful to have this chance to play, to get the wildcard.”

The rest of our exchange, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

AM: “When you picked up a tennis racquet, if my math is correct, Novak was already number three in the world (which is a little bit of a crazy perspective for those of us who are older!). Basically, your whole life, Novak has been at the top. So, I would imagine that even before you met him, he was probably your idol?”

MT: “Yeah, that’s true. I mean, when I started to play, the best guy of our country was Novak. He did so much for our sport. He’s just, for me, the greatest, like I said. It’s amazing that he is already 12 years at the top—I don’t know how he can manage it, but he’s just unbelievable.

AM: “Novak said that you’re training there. Does that mean you have your own personal coach or are you working with somebody from his center?”

MT: “I moved here two weeks ago. I’m just new here. So, yeah, we have to solve that problem. I’m training at the moment with Boris [Bošnjaković]. I was at Djukić Academy before, [where] I trained with Petar. So, we have to manage how to get a coach for me—maybe from another country, so I’m looking forward to that.”

AM: “I’m assuming you’re going to play all the big junior events for the rest of the year. And then, are you thinking of going pro immediately after you turn 18 or are you going to go to college? What are your plans?”

MT: “Now, the next tournament for me is Roland Garros, the junior one. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to play the big tournaments, junior Grand Slams. I will combine that with some Futures and Challengers, wherever I can get the chance to get a wildcard or just to get in. So, I will mix it up with some pro tournaments and some juniors. Then after my junior career, so next year, I’m looking forward to immediately go to the pros. Hopefully, everything will go as fast as possible, to get up there maybe where Nole is now. . . . That’s my plans.

AM: “Your plan is to go all the way to number one?”

MT: “I mean, I think it’s the dream of every tennis player—some reach it, some not. [But] everyone is fighting for that.”

Points from the Coria-Topo match are #3 and #1 on the highlight reel.

AM: “Could you give us a little bit of a self-assessment in terms of what you think your strengths are as a player and what areas of your game you still need to improve?”

MT: “I’m a young player, so I have to improve a lot. I have many strengths and many, I would call them, problems in my game because I’m young—I mean, it’s normal. I have to improve. I think my game is based on an attacking game. I’m trying to play aggressive, maybe a bit different than Nole. But, yeah. My forehand—I like my forehand. I’m serving also well. Today I was not serving that good, but normally I’m serving well. And I have to improve on my fitness a little bit. That’s it overall.”

When Topo contrasted his with his idol’s game, he laughed a bit, as if to acknowledge his own audacity. It struck me as a potentially revealing moment—of what, precisely, we’ll have to wait and see.

Not Throwing Away Their Shots: Taro Daniel & Sven Groeneveld on Their Belgrade Experience

Taro Daniel made an unexpected run to the semifinals at the Serbia Open as a “lucky loser,” pushing eventual champion Matteo Berrettini to a third set before succumbing to the big-hitting Italian.

Serbia Open semifinal highlights

But perhaps this run wasn’t as surprising as it looks on paper, where the 28-year-old Daniel beat three higher-ranked players, two of whom (Sousa and Delbonis) have titles on clay. Daniel himself is no slouch on the surface: his family moved to Spain when he was 14 years old and that’s where he won his first three professional titles at ITF Futures events in 2012. Flash forward a few years and Daniel also won his first two Challenger titles on clay—albeit in Italy and Germany, not Spain—and qualified for the main draw at Roland Garros. In May 2018, he won an ATP title on clay in Istanbul, beating then-#102 Matteo Berrettini in the first round.

I caught up with Daniel—virtually, of course—after his last match in Belgrade to find out how the Japanese player felt about his two weeks in Serbia’s capital, where he also competed in a Challenger tournament at the Novak Tennis Center.

Tennis-ATP Serbia Open Belgrade 2021- Taro Daniel (JPN) v Matteo Berrettini (ITA) Beograd, 24.04.2021.foto: Marko Djokovic/Starsportphoto ©

“It’s a great feeling, to be honest, even though I lost. I was, energy-wise and physically, pretty drained today. But even then I found probably some of the best tennis I ever played for a little period at the end of the second set there. And, you know, I’ve been working really hard off the court with my coach. Also, I had my mental coach and my trainer with me; so, [it was] a very intense couple weeks here. But some stuff is paying off on court. So, I’m really happy with that and I can see the potential I can have in possibly improving a lot more.”

Since I’d noticed that Daniel had quite a few people cheering from his box during the semifinal, I wondered how things were going with coach Sven Groeneveld and the rest of his team.

“Yeah, it was just a coincidence that this time I had such a big team, because usually, especially with COVID, I’ve only been traveling with my coach. But it just happened that the mental coach was able to come this week and also my trainer. I wanted him to come at the beginning of the clay season to [help] adapt to the movements on clay, so it just happened to be.”

Regarding his mental coach, Jackie Reardon, Daniel said they’d been working together since shortly after the tennis tour resumed last August.

“You know, I’ve kind of struggled the last couple of years with enjoying the tour. I’ve worked so hard—and that’s kind of been my default setting, too. So, I’ve always kind of felt that if I suffer, then I should get a reward. That worked really well until I got to this level: I mean, [top] 100 in the world or 80 in the world, 110. But then I felt like something’s missing in order for me to take the next step. I think, obviously, there’s some stuff in the game of tennis; but then I think I’m playing well enough to be able to be [ranked] 50 or 60, as long as I have the right mind-set. I need to start believing in myself more and being happier with what I’m doing with tennis and bringing more joy into the game. But those things need to be trained, you know. And that’s actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I need to get into really, really uncomfortable situations to bring that out. So, it’s been a really intense but amazing process.”

At risk of faulty post-hoc reasoning, I’d suggest that process has already paid off, even before last week’s success in Belgrade, as Daniel won a Challenger title in Hamburg last October.

I also asked Daniel about his prospects for Tokyo, as well as his thoughts about the Olympic Games going forward while the pandemic is ongoing. Recent polls show that a majority of the country isn’t enthusiastic about the Olympics taking place. For one thing, Japan is hardly leading the pack with regard to vaccinating its population.

And, just last week, the government announced a state of emergency in an attempt to get case numbers under control in its biggest cities which, according to the Associated Press, are “home to about a quarter of Japan’s population of 126 million.” In mid-May, after the state of emergency has been lifted, IOC President Thomas Bach will visit Japan to get a progress report on preparations.

Currently, Daniel is ranked #112: fifth among Japanese ATP players, just behind Yasutaka Uchiyama (#108) and Yuichi Sugita (#109). With only 56 players gaining direct entry, and the rankings cutoff set for June 14 to include results from the postponed French Open, the competition is stiff. Daniel said that while he’d like to play in Tokyo, it isn’t his top priority for the year.

“We’re so close now with the two guys in front of me, we’re kind of in a really tight race. I’m obviously trying to make the Olympic cuts and I know that the [limit is] like four per county; so, it’s pretty important to try and make it. But, at the same time, it’s not my main focus. My main focus is to really keep investing in my mental strength and my tennis, and then… I’ll just let things be. But, obviously, that’s one of my goals, to make it there.”

“And then, with all the uncertainties with the Olympics, it’s so difficult to say. Because even if I’m from there and I know people that are working directly for the Olympics, they know exactly the same amount that I do, almost. I feel like everybody is really lost. And that’s the message that’s kind of being transmitted to the public, as well, [which] I think is normal because it’s such a complicated situation. And I think it’s also normal that the people are pretty afraid to have such a big event, you know, because can you really concentrate on the quality of the sport being played while there are so many concerns around all the other stuff? [But] I think once it happens, it’ll be okay. You know, I’m sure the Japanese are really good at organizing; so, when the athletes are in the village, it won’t be like a super-spreader thing in there. I mean, I don’t know what kind of protocols they’ll have for the public—for spectators. So, we’ll see. I don’t know anything, really, if it will go ahead or not, but I hope it will.”

When I asked whether he, like his coach, took the opportunity presented by the local surplus to get vaccinated in Serbia, Daniel reminded me that he’ll be playing the qualifying rounds for Roland Garros the week of the second Belgrade event. So, unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for him to return for a second shot.

Turning to Groeneveld, the high-profile coach had positive reviews for the Serbian Open, which has been granted a second life after an initial run from 2009-2012. Though he and Reardon had already shared some of their impressions of the organization on Twitter, the Dutchman also followed up with me by text after the tournament: “The facility, staff, and all of the services—for food, transport, laundry, stringing, and hotel—were run perfectly. We never had to wait for anything, as if they have been running this event for years and years.”

Despite the nine-year break between ATP tournaments in Belgrade, members of the Djoković family have had more recent practice in event management: Novak’s uncle Goran is the director at the Sofia Open in neighboring Bulgaria and his youngest brother Djordje was in charge of last summer’s well-intentioned but ill-fated Adria Tour. One of the ways in which the Serbia Open echoed its controversial predecessor was in having a lower-tier competition the week prior to the main event, with three-quarters of the participants in the former, like Daniel, playing in the qualification rounds of the latter.

Groeneveld was particularly grateful for the tournament’s efforts in facilitating vaccination for competitors and team members. “The vaccination was organized by the ATP tour manager, Denis Živković, who was collaborating with the local officials. We went to a facility where the vaccine was administered and all of the people there knew we were invited and took care of us, making sure we kept our distance during the procedure. Official tournament transport was taking us back and forth. Very smooth!” Serbia, unlike most countries in continental Europe, has a vaccine surplus—hence, the government’s willingness to provide shots for foreign guests. (As I discussed in a recent Twitter thread, there’s also a problem with vaccine hesitancy in the country; but the reality is that Serbia has about twice as many vaccines as needed for its population of roughly 7 million.)

Groeneveld confirmed, “I will be heading back to Belgrade around 21-22 of May to get my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, which is during the start of the ATP event.” The Belgrade Open, a one-time special proposed to fill the calendar gap resulting from pushing back Roland Garros, runs May 22-29.

As for his Japanese charge, Groeneveld observed, “Taro really took advantage of his ‘lucky loser’ spot and showed he is making progress in all areas. Nine matches in two weeks is great prep for the remainder of the clay court season.”

Serbian Davis Cup Team Unexpectedly Begins a New Chapter

Yesterday, the Serbian tennis federation (Teniski Savez Srbije, or TSS) announced the selection of Viktor Troicki to be the national team’s new Davis Cup captain.  This decision came as a surprise to most tennis observers in Serbia, as well as to the captain of the last four years, Nenad Zimonjić.  In their press release, the TSS said that the federation’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to appoint Troicki to a four-year term based on a proposal from a commission for the selection of the Davis Cup captain.  (Thought the Board members are listed on the TSS website, and include one familiar name in Goran Djoković, Novak’s uncle, it isn’t clear who sits on the relevant commission.)  They briefly thanked Zimonjić for his service before turning to a review of Troicki’s career highlights, starting with his heroics in the 2010 Davis Cup final against France and skipping his year-long suspension for breach of the ITF’s anti-doping rules.

In a lengthy statement posted on Twitter, Zimonjić expressed his dismay not only at the TSS decision itself but also at the process that led to it.  According to Zimonjić, the players knew both that he wanted to stay on in his role and that the deadline for applicants for the captain position was October 24.  At that time, he was informed by the TSS that he was the only candidate who met the criteria.  Then, a week later, he received a phone call from Troicki himself telling him that other players had met in Paris, presumably during the Masters tournament there, and expressed a wish for him to be their new captain.  On November 3, Zimonjić learned that the players had submitted a special request to the TSS and that the Board of Directors agreed to extend the application deadline by more than a month, giving Troicki time to collect his thoughts and put them on paper.

When Troicki contacted Zimonjić with the update some six weeks ago, he didn’t offer any “concrete reasons” why the players wanted a change.  Nor, apparently, has anyone else, at least so far.  Zimonjić claims that at no point this year—one that started with Serbia lifting the inaugural ATP Cup in Sydney—did players raise concerns, express dissatisfaction with his leadership, or indicate a desire to replace him.  He continues: “Throughout the years, I tried to help all our players and be a support to them at all times, not only during Davis Cup competition but in every situation (I had excellent communication with all of them, supported them, followed their development, and was there for them with help).”  Zimonjić further notes that he played alongside “4-5 different generations of players, starting from the very bottom level of Davis Cup competition [after then-Yugoslavia was relegated from the World Group due to sanctions] and going all the way to the title of world champions in 2010,” enumerating the various roles he has performed over his two and a half decades on the Serbian team: “singles player, doubles player, playing captain (in 2003-04), mentor, and. . . an older brother (as someone 8-15 years older than other members of the team, that’s how I behaved).” Zimonjić, who received the ITF’s Award of Excellence when Serbia made their second Davis Cup final in 2013, holds team records for doubles wins (30-19), overall wins (43-31, beating out Djoković & Tipsarević, who are tied at 34), and ties played (55).

Davis Cup 2017 doubles

Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjić celebrate a doubles win against Spain in the 2017 Davis Cup quarterfinals.

In an interview published today in Sportski Žurnal (but conducted before Zimonjić posted his comments on social media), Troicki acknowledged that he didn’t expect this responsibility now, before the end of his playing career, and that he had “very mixed feelings” when he first got the news.  However, while he was initially surprised by the development, the new role represents a dream come true for the 34-year-old and he feels “honored to have been selected”: when the players choose you, he explained, “that’s not something you refuse.”  As for the reasons prompting this decision, Troicki didn’t offer much detail: “We’re all grateful to Zimonjic, who was an excellent captain.”  “There were no disagreements, simply a need to refresh and change” after many years, he added, pointing to recent overhauls to leadership on other Serbian national teams, like football (soccer), as if to say that change is everywhere.

As for Zimonjić, he declined to speak to Vojin Veličković when the long-time Serbian tennis writer contacted him on Thursday night. It seems the TSS hadn’t bothered to inform him of their decision, leaving it to the journalist—who, like other beat reporters, had received an email from them some six hours earlier—to convey the bad news. Later, Veličković reflected on this lapse in collegiality: “Who would be a better captain is a professional question, and the federation has the right to its assessment; but whether one should inform someone about the outcome of his application and tell him that he’s no longer a part of a competition to which he’s dedicated a quarter-century of his life is a human one.”  Although Zimonjić hasn’t officially retired, it’s tough to read yesterday’s comments as anything but an end to a significant chapter, if not a farewell.

Our excellent results were also the consequence of excellent teamwork. The team members and the national team’s results were always my top priority. I tried to convey that to all the players as well: what it means to be a national team member, to represent your team and country, and to contribute as an individual to a greater goal.

My desire was always to represent Serbia in the best possible way and in the best light, to give our nation reasons to be proud and happy, to all rejoice together and celebrate our shared historical successes!

To all players, I wish good luck and great success in the future, both in individual and in team competition.

Big greetings to all sports lovers and our loyal fans, our people who have rooted for us all these years at competitions in Serbia and around the world, with whom we managed to celebrate great successes and share many beautiful moments, for which I’m especially glad.

With wishes for many more reasons for celebration in the future: let’s go, Serbia!

Particularly given that Serbia hosts no ATP tour events, who knows when the veteran doubles specialist, who as of his last interview was still attempting to make a comeback from bilateral hip replacement surgery, will next appear before a home crowd.  What comes across in his typed statement is a mix of pride, principle, bemusement, and sadness.  “For me,” Zimonjić writes, “it was always a great honor, privilege, and responsibility to represent my country and my people, and to contribute as a member of the national team.”  After listing his best results at team events, including four appearances at the Olympics, he observes, “I’m very proud of all these accomplishments, as well as of the fact that the players chose me to be the captain for both Davis Cup and the ATP Cup.  In that regard, I was sure that my expertise, experience, knowledge—and therefore my function as team captain—wouldn’t be in question.”  Like the now-former captain, readers of the public comments from Serbian tennis insiders are left without answers to the key questions: namely, why replace Zimonjić now?  Perhaps above all, why—after all his contributions to the sport and given the apparent closeness among members of the team—do it in this way?