Master Class: A Conversation with Nenad Zimonjić

I had an opportunity to sit down with doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjić at the start of the Citi Open in Washington.  Returning to competitive play after a month’s rest, the Serb was in a reflective mood while discussing his rivalry with the Bryan brothers, his numerous partners in recent years, and the ITF’s recent decision to suspend his Davis Cup teammate Viktor Troicki for eighteen months.  (An edited Serbian version of the interview appeared on the B92 website.)

Nenad Zimonjić and Julien Benneteau celebrate a point during their win over Mardy Fish and Radek Stepanek in the Washington final. Photo by Mariya Konovalova.

Nenad Zimonjić and Julien Benneteau celebrate a point during the Washington final. Photo by Mariya Konovalova.

As a winner of multiple Grand Slam titles, including back-to back Wimbledon victories in 2008 and ‘09, Zimonjić is fairly well known in tennis circles.  Together with Canada’s Daniel Nestor, he wrestled the Bryan brothers for the top spot in men’s doubles for three years, winning the year-end ATP championships in 2008 (Shanghai) and 2010 (London).  He has also won four major titles in mixed doubles, two with Slovene veteran and frequent partner Katarina Srebotnik.  While not known for his singles career, he has played solo as recently as this winter’s Davis Cup tie with Belgium and lists a 2004 win over Andre Agassi, then ranked #6 in the world, among his achievements.

Perhaps less appreciated outside of the Balkans is the role Zimonjić serves—part older brother, part elder statesman—within the Serbian tennis community.  Given his compatriot’s success in singles, it’s little surprise that the first name that comes to most people’s minds when they think of Serbian tennis is Novak Djoković.  Nevertheless, at 37 years old and with 49 doubles titles to his name, “Ziki” is widely regarded as the stalwart of Team Serbia.  Not only has he appeared in 44 Davis Cup ties but he also possesses at least one trophy to mark every year since 1999 (and the range of experiences and insight that comes with that kind of longevity).  Though Djoković is the player now most relied upon to bring points in their Davis Cup clashes, Zimonjić remains a strong presence both on and off the court.  His effect on younger players can be observed in any number of ways: a striking recent example was his steadying influence on the talented but streaky Ilija Bozoljac in their dramatic win over the Bryan brothers in Boise this spring.

Last week, it was my turn to listen and learn.

***

AM: The last time you played here, two years ago, you and Michael Llodra won the title.  Does having won a tournament before affect or motivate you in any particular way?

NZ: It’s always nice to come back to the places where you’ve played well, especially defending a title.  I don’t find it to be a pressure—it’s more like you remember that you played really well, you have good memories, and that can help you in the results.  Then again, it’s been two years now, since we had Olympic Games last summer.  But I’ve always had good experiences here in Washington; I remember playing well most of the time, so hopefully we can do the same this year.

AM: You’ve played two great matches against the Bryan Brothers this year with a lot on the line and won both.  What does it mean to beat the most accomplished team in doubles history?  Will you miss them here this week or are you and other players kind of glad when they’re not in the draw?

NZ: Not really.  I enjoy playing against the best—this is why I compete, this is why I train every day: because I want to play the best on the biggest stages.  So, if you meet them in the finals, that’s the best possible thing.  In my career, I’ve had a lot of matches against the Bryans and some of them were really big matches—some I lost, some I won.  They’re probably going to go down as the most successful team of all time and it’s nice that I’ve had the chance to play against them with various partners on various occasions.

What they’ve achieved this year is amazing, really.  Actually, it started from winning the Olympic Games—from that point on, I thought they played incredibly well.  They were so consistent, they had really great results, and they won a tournament they’ve never won (and which means a lot to them), Indian Wells.  They had chances in the past, but they didn’t make it, and it took them a while.  But now they can say that they’ve won everything that you can win in doubles.  Obviously, they want to keep winning as much as they can—and everybody on tour wants the same thing.  So, for me to play them is always a big challenge and it’s always nice to compete against the best.

AM: One difference between the Bryan Brothers and other teams is that they have worked together for so long.  Even if they weren’t twins, such a long-term partnership is an advantage.  What have been the challenges for you over the past year or so playing with so many partners?  Have you learned anything new about yourself and how you work in this period?

NZ: Obviously, it helps when you play with the same partner.  When you practice a lot together, you’re going to improve.  You’re going to have ups and downs, but you get to know each other and find a way to help each other—that’s the advantage the Bryans have.  They work extremely hard.  Then again, there are a lot of changes in doubles.  So, where they benefit the most is the beginning of the year, because a lot of guys are just getting to know each other.  This is where they have a head start—they get ahead of everybody and it’s difficult to catch them.

By playing with many different partners, I got the chance to improve my game.  Sometimes playing a different side, different styles—that helped me to become a better player.  But, my most successful partnership was with Daniel [Nestor], and that’s when we were there with the Bryans.  For the three years we played together, it came down to the last match of the season to decide who was going to be number one.  The first year, we finished #1; the second year, they finished #1; then, the third year, they finished first and we tied for third.  It was very competitive.  We played against them, I believe, fifteen matches and won nine of those; so, head-to-head, we had better results.  But, at the end, we decided to split.

Then, I thought I had a good partnership with Mika.  It took a while to get going, probably because we were expecting a little bit more from ourselves.  We knew that we were capable of playing really well, but it took time because he is also focused on his singles and we didn’t have much time to practice.  Unlike the Bryans, who practice day-in, day-out and can even play points in practice, with Mika, I can count on the figures of one hand how many times we played practice points against somebody.  So, this is something that was missing.

We stopped because they were expecting their third child during Wimbledon and I couldn’t really take a chance about when it was going to happen.  So, we decided to play with different partners.  He played with a good friend of his, his Davis Cup teammate and now captain, Arnaud Clement, for his last tournament as a professional player.  After that, Mika dropped in the singles rankings, so he had to play different tournaments.  He skipped the whole summer, when we were defending a lot of points—we won Washington and Montreal, reached the finals of Cincy.

AM: It was something like two thousand points.

NZ: Yeah.  So, when he came to the US Open, I’d been playing with different partners (two tournaments with [Paul] Hanley, with Janko at Queens and the Olympics, and with [Alexander] Peya at Wimbledon).  We still had a chance to make the [World Tour Finals]; but we knew the US Open was probably the last chance, since he’d made plans not to go to Asia—where we again had done well, winning Beijing and playing the finals in Shanghai.  So, it was a lot of pressure and that’s where we decided to split.  I had to find a different partner for the next year because I really didn’t know what to expect from him.

That’s when I decided to play with Robert.  We started the year working extremely hard, trying to get to know each other, understand our games, and find the best game style for us to play.  But in the end, it didn’t really work out.  What I can say is that we tried extremely hard, both of us.

AM: You won Rotterdam, right?

NZ: Yeah, we won Rotterdam, and we played the finals in Stockholm and Dubai—those were good results, good moments.  But we didn’t really get to understand each other, and I think it was a good decision that we stopped.

AM: How has it been working with Julien Benneteau?

NZ: Benneteau is again a singles player with whom I don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice, similar to the situation with Mika.  But we get along really well, and we were lucky to start with a win—a huge win—in Monte Carlo.  That gave us a chance to make the Masters, which is something he hasn’t achieved yet.  So, that’s a good motivation for us—and for me, it’s a challenge to make it again with a different partner.  A good thing about the Bryans winning everything is that the rest of the teams are going to fight until the end of the year to see who’s going to make it.  Even if the Bryans don’t play another match for the rest of the year, they’re going to finish number one, which is a great achievement for them.

Julien and I are hoping to work at our partnership.  It’s difficult when you start without being seeded.  We had some tough draws, then some injuries that Julien had at the French Open during his singles match.  So, it’s a little frustrating when things like this happen, but it’s part of the sport and hopefully we can continue a good partnership from here.

AM: As of today, you guys are #9 in the race, but fewer than 1000 points—essentially, spitting distance—separate the teams ranked 3-13.  Other than winning, what do you need to do over the next few months to secure a spot in London?  Are there specific adjustments you and Julien need to make as a pair?

NZ: Not really.  Sometimes you have to be a little lucky with the draw.  Here, we have a pretty tough first round, with Nestor & Lindstedt, seeded third.  The difference is that if we keep winning, starting in Washington and then Montreal, it’s going to improve our ranking so that we can get a top-eight seed at the US Open.  That would give us a little better chance to get to the quarters.  It doesn’t really matter who you play then—you’ve made some points, which is good for the race.  Later on, when you play Masters series, being seeded or getting a “bye” makes a big difference; you get a better draw, for sure.  This is where it’s a little difficult to start with a new partner, who isn’t ranked high enough.  But, I believe in our game—we proved that we can beat anybody.  Our first tournament, we played against the best teams and we won; so, I’m sure we can keep playing well.  The main thing is to stay healthy, and the results will come.

AM: Have you been in touch with Viktor since the ITF decision?

NZ: Of course I’ve talked to Viktor—he’s my great friend, like everyone on the team.   We’ve known each other a long time and know each other well; so, this news is extremely difficult for all of us.  Naturally, I already knew about this, because I was there when it happened in Monte Carlo.  I think it came down to a big misunderstanding—and Viktor will be the one to suffer, even if he’s not guilty.  I’m one-hundred percent confident that he hasn’t taken any prohibited substances.  Something very unusual happened: I think it’s partly his fault and partly the fault of the person who did the test.  She should have told him, in fact, that he absolutely doesn’t have the right to refuse to take the test.  If he were told in that way, I think he’d have done it at any cost and then everything would’ve been fine.  We’ll see what happens in the end—he has the option to appeal and I trust that we’ll at least reduce what I think is an extremely strict and heavy penalty, particularly given that he’s never tested positive for anything.  I hope it’ll end well.

AM: Moving on to Davis Cup, how will Viktor’s absence affect the team, both psychologically and strategically?

NZ: With anyone from the team absent, it makes our path harder.  If we all participate, if we’re all healthy, we have a lot more options and possibilities as far as tactics, freshness, and so on.  Certainly, it won’t be easy, given that we play right after the US Open and that Novak will surely come late.  We’ve also got to adapt to the time difference and a different surface.  Regardless, we’ve had to deal with this situation before when Novak wasn’t on the team or, this year, Janko hasn’t been with us twice.  So, in the worst-case scenario, if Viktor can’t play, I trust we’ll still find a way to get the win.

AM: Do you have any input on who will replace him, since this player might be partnering you in doubles, or does Captain Obradović make the decision on his own?

NZ: The captain always consults with me about who I’d want to play with, even though it’s not ultimately my choice who ends up being my partner because we have to decide based on who needs to be freshest for singles the next day or for some other reason.  But for the most part, we talk together—all the players.  Because I’m the oldest and most experienced, there are some things that I can predict better, at least where doubles are concerned.  So, we’ll see.

If Viktor’s not there, it decreases our options for doubles since Novak probably won’t come until Wednesday and he’s supposed to play on Friday; then, for him to play all three days would be too hard.  Whether I’ll play with Janko or maybe a fourth player—Bozoljac or Lajović—we’ll have to see what the situation is.  We have plenty of time, and those are decisions that get made a day or two in advance.

AM: What kind of reception do you think the Canadian team will get in Belgrade?

NZ: Well, Daniel and Miloš are Canadians and they’ll be representing their country.  Daniel was born in Belgrade, but he definitely feels Canadian.  Of course, the Serbian crowd will cheer for us.  But I believe there will be both Canadians and, say, Montenegrins who will be a great support for Miloš, considering he was born in Podgorica and his family is there.  So, that’s something we’re expecting.  I think it’ll be interesting in that regard, since 75% of their team—Dančević, too—have roots in the former Yugoslavia.

AM: How do you rate Serbia’s chances to get to another final?

NZ: I think we have chances against any team in the world—especially if Novak is there, because he can always deliver two points, no matter the opponent or surface.  He’s proven that and I trust it’ll be the case this time.  I also hope Janko, who has at least three tournaments before Davis Cup, will play himself into form and lift his confidence, which will be extremely important, given that he and Novak will play singles.  And that, too, will be a very important point.  I think the Canadians have a very strong team with Nestor and Pospisil, who has shown that he can play both singles and doubles exceptionally well.  Then again, we’re playing on clay—a surface on which their second player, whoever it is, really shouldn’t be able to threaten either Janko or Novak.  So, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of form Miloš is in; with his serve, he’s a very troublesome player who can surprise anyone.  But I think that kind of surprise is much harder to pull off on clay, over best-of-five sets—and that’s why I think we have an advantage irrespective of Viktor’s presence.  Of course, circumstances could arise in which Nole arrives late, or a player is tired or injured, and we don’t have an adequate substitute; but they could have the same problems.

***

Benneteau and Zimonjić went on to win not only their first match in Washington but, in fact, the whole tournament, beating Mardy Fish and Radek Stepanek in the final.  Afterwards, Nenad shared a few thoughts on the week as well as on the state of men’s doubles more generally.

Citi Open men's doubles trophy ceremony. Photo by Mariya Konovalova.

Men’s doubles trophy ceremony. Photo by Mariya Konovalova.

On the Citi Open
It feels really great to win such a big tournament.  It’s a 500 series, but not just that: it was a very strong field—you didn’t have any easy matches here.  To return after a long break and to play this well and win the tournament without losing a set is really the best way to come back to the tour.  It was a lot of fun, I have to say, for both of us to play—we had a great time here, on the court and off.  So, hopefully this will help us for the upcoming three tournaments.

On the popularity of doubles
I think in the States, doubles is quite popular—England, too.  The biggest problem is, I think, scheduling.  The biggest problem is maybe not putting the doubles at the good times, which is before the singles.  I would compare it to a boxing match or some concerts, where you go and you want to see the best at the end.  The best here is definitely singles, no question about that.  But doubles is a lot of fun: it’s a good game, it’s something different that you don’t see in singles.  I think this is a good combination—you can use both “products,” if you can call them that, and make them popular and people can enjoy them.  Before, you had guys serving and volleying, playing that style; now, in singles, you don’t have that any more.  Still, you have it in doubles, where you have these reactions and quick points that you’re not going to see in singles.  Then again, the rallies, the running, some incredible points that you’re going to see in singles, you’re not going to see in doubles.  So, I would never compare it, but I believe that you can make tennis really popular by promoting doubles as well.

On his and Federer’s racquet changes
I changed it completely.  I’ve played with the same racquet from, I would say, 2001 and this was the first week playing with this racquet.  Usually, you don’t do this in the middle of the season, if you’re not 100% sure.  But you’re never really right when you start playing—it’s one thing in practice.  So, when you come to play, it’s always nice to have this confirmation with wins and shots that you make, that, “OK, this is it, this was a good decision.”  Then, you move on.  For me, it was a very nice transition.  It’s the same brand (Head) racquet and I think it was good for me….  I don’t know about [Roger], but I’m guessing that maybe it’s a bigger sweet spot, which is the case with my racquet, and a little bit of extra power.  This is what can make a big difference nowadays, with everybody serving big and hitting the big ground-strokes.  You want to find the best equipment that you can, with the strings, with the racquet, with the shoes—this is what’s very, very important.

On playing other doubles specialists & predominantly singles players
I want to play against the best players.  For me, it doesn’t matter if you’re a singles or doubles player.  There are singles players that are really good in doubles and there are some that are not as good.  Also, the other way around…. So, you want to play against the best and to challenge yourself as an athlete.  You want to play the best singles guys, the best doubles guys—you want to play them all.  And nowadays, it’s interesting because it’s changing a little bit, the way the guys are playing.  Some of them have decided to stay back, playing from the baseline and hitting big ground-strokes; some teams are playing traditional doubles, which is what we are doing, serve and volleying; some guys are playing I-formation.  There are a lot of tactics going on; so, as a player, you have to be adjusting to all of this, practicing to get better to face all these opponents.

On doubles formats and scheduling
Regarding no-AD scoring and match tiebreaks: I think it’s a good format.  We don’t really know, because nobody made a survey after that change, if it’s the right decision to go super tiebreaker at the end or to play a regular set with no-AD—which would take maybe five or ten minutes longer, but which I think could be a little more fair.  Then again, maybe some of the singles guys would then decide not to play….  This format where you play super tiebreaker is a little tricky because you could be the much better team for the first set and most of the second, then you end up losing the set [snap!]—and you’re in the super tiebreaker and everything happens so quick.  So, sometimes this is not fair that teams like this lose—you don’t have a chance, really, to get back in the match since the super tiebreaker’s really quick.  On the other hand, the points are very interesting: every point counts, every point is a big point, it’s a lot of fun for the crowd, and we are adjusting to it.

But the format that we’re talking about and the point about playing doubles before the singles, the best example is in the [World Tour Finals] at the end of the year in London, where all the matches are televised.  The turnout is really amazing, it’s a lot of pleasure for the players and the fans.  You have both a day session and a night session and you can watch a doubles match and a singles match with the best eight teams and best eight players in the world.  I think this is the winning combination and this is what we should aim to do as much as possible.  Sometimes, the same players will be in singles and doubles, and then you have to play doubles after; but every other time, I think you should play doubles before—maybe a little closer than what we did today [the men’s doubles and singles finals were scheduled at noon and three, respectively].  Because I think if we started at one o’clock, that would still give us time to finish the match and have the ceremony.  In any case, this is much better than to play after, in my opinion.

Regarding best-of-five set matches: As a player, if you play best-of-five, you have a lot of chances to get back in the match.  If somebody wins against you, he’s definitely the better player that day.  So, you have no excuses, really.  But, in my mind, because tennis is very physical now, I think it’s really long to play best-of-five.  I love to watch tennis—I love playing, I love watching, and for me it’s too long.  I think this format that we’re testing in doubles, which is no-AD, could be very interesting in the future in singles if they were to try to change something.  Then, you would not have these long games—same thing as what happened in volleyball, with the rule changes, same thing in table tennis.  I think those are good changes.  Maybe the only difference I would suggest in singles is that it could be the server’s choice, not the receiver’s, about where to serve….  Then, you will have quick games and the matches won’t go really long—advantage, deuce, advantage, deuce—and maybe playing best-of-five wouldn’t take such a long time.  But you would make it a special thing at the Grand Slams to play best-of-five, with no-AD—why not?  This is something that maybe we should try.  At the end of the day, the best players will be at the top no matter what rules you play—everybody will adjust…. We’ll see where tennis will go, but some changes wouldn’t be bad at all.

***

Although they lost to Colin Fleming and Andy Murray in the first round of the Coupe Rogers in Montreal, the French-Serbian pair earned enough points in Washington to be seeded at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati next week.  They also moved into the sixth spot in the race to London.

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