First: Dušan Lajović on his Breakthrough Season

By the time I arrived in Miami, Dušan Lajović was already well practiced at waiting. Although he’d lost in the final round of qualifying two days earlier, he was hanging around Crandon Park, next in line to get into the main draw of the Sony Open as a “Lucky Loser.” Spending all day on site, waiting for a message that might not come, Lajović had time to talk at length about recent developments in his life on the ATP tour. (An edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.)

When we met in a small room under the stadium court, Lajović was, at #89, the de facto Serbian men’s number two player due to the absence of both Janko Tipsarević and Viktor Troicki from competition. Just that week, he’d had dinner in a local Chinese restaurant with Troicki, then training in Miami, and posted his Davis Cup teammate’s fortune on Twitter.

Dutzee tweetBut it is Tipsarević whom he credits with being among the biggest influences on his young career: not only does Lajović share Janko’s manager (Dirk Hordorff) and clothing sponsor (Fila) but the older player also serves as a mentor, providing court-side advice and general insight about existence as a professional tennis player. Though Tipsarević was obviously disappointed not to be able to compete in the Davis Cup finals, he is likely proud of the way his protégé has performed, both in his November debut at the Belgrade Arena and during the first months of the new year. It was this stretch of time that “Dutzee” and I discussed in most detail.

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AM: This has been a season of “firsts” for you: qualifying for your first main draw of a Slam, first win at a Slam, first entry in the top 100, first time playing as Serbia’s #1 in Davis Cup, first main draw at a Masters series event, maybe even the first opportunity to travel with a physiotherapist (Stefan Duell, whose services he also shares with Janko). Out of all these firsts, what stands out to you—which achievement means the most?

DL: I would say that qualifying for a Slam was the biggest for me, even though more came after that, since I won a round in the main draw. Last year, I was in the final round of qualifications in Paris [at Roland Garros] and I lost pretty badly. Qualifying in Australia was tough for me because there’s a lot of wind there and I’m not really used to playing in those conditions. But I was mentally strong in the qualies, even though I lost in qualies of the previous tournament (in Chennai) and was a little bit down. So, qualifying at the Australian Open took some of the pressure off; after that, I kind of relaxed and started playing much better. Then, the results kept coming: I also qualified in Rio and won a round, so I feel like I’m ready for the next level.

Lajović at 2013 Roland Garros (photo by Hector for Tennis Alternative).

Roland Garros 2013 (photo by Hector for Tennis Alternative)

AM: When you think about the Australian Open, do you see that as the turning point, after which things changed, or was your success there actually proof that things had already changed?

DL: I think it’s all connected. In Australia, I also had a good draw—a wildcard in the first round [Lucas Pouille]. But that’s a lot of pressure, too, because you have to win that match. If you lose, you’re in a tough situation, even though you qualified, because you lost to a much younger guy who’s up & coming but not that experienced. So, I still needed to win that match. That win also showed me that I’m ready. A year ago, I might have lost it, but now I feel like everything is falling into place.

AM: What was more difficult: the transition from juniors to the pros or the last few years, since you entered the top 200?

DL: In juniors, during the early ITF stage, I actually wasn’t very good—nor did I play many tournaments. So, when I started playing seniors, every point I earned was a really big deal and I’d feel like, “Ok, this is going really well.”

This feeling lasted through his nineteenth birthday. By 2010, however, Lajović was having doubts. Even though he made the finals of one Futures tournament in June and won the title at another in August (results which helped him move up a hundred spots in the ATP rankings to 415), he considered going to the US for college or perhaps even quitting tennis altogether. It was the Davis Cup finals in December of that year which helped change his mind.

DL: I was there with the guys, just to experience the atmosphere and everything. And the next year, I broke into the top 200—from 430 at the beginning of 2011 to 190 by the end of the season. So, this was the biggest jump in my career.

At that point, needing a coach with the flexibility to travel with him more regularly, he split from Nemanja Lalić, who’d been guiding him for nearly seven years. Still, he says, “When I’m home in Belgrade, I always call Nemanja and we practice together. We’re really close. I think this was very important for my career, that he was not just my coach but also my friend.”

AM: So, which was harder: the period from 18 to 21 or between then and now, when you’ve reached the top 100?

DL: I think getting to the top 100 was much harder, because there’s this mental pressure that you want to break in. I was in a position to do so last summer, when I was around #115—I had some chances while playing in two different tournaments. There was a lot of pressure because I was also supposed to be earning points to get direct entrance into the US Open, so I kind of put the burden on my back and it broke. I lost in the second round at two tournaments in which I could have gone much further and slipped in the rankings.

Since that point, I told myself not to think about breaking in to the top 100—just think about becoming a better player. Once you do this, the top 100 will eventually come. When you stop thinking about whether you’re #101 or 90, I think you can improve more easily…. We’re human, so we can’t completely block these kinds of thoughts—they’re always there. But you have to try to keep it in the back of your head and put the priority on your game.

AM: Even before the Australian Open, playing your first live rubber in the Davis Cup final was a sort of “coming out” party. Although people in Serbia knew you, that was when fans and media in the rest of the tennis world were introduced to you. What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed in this new stage of your career?

Lajović vs Stepanek (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

Lajović vs Stepanek (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

DL: I really felt this during Davis Cup finals. Some people would say I was thrown to the sharks, but it was a really great experience. Though I was saying this at the time, I really didn’t know what it would mean to me until more recently. My match with Stepanek is an example: even though I was losing badly, I was still fighting for every point. And this is something important that helped me play well this season—realizing that you have to stay humble until the end of the match. Even if you’re leading in a set by a break, when you get up from the bench [after a changeover], you can’t let yourself relax.

Now, even when I have a break, I run to the baseline to get another one—I think maintaining this high level of energy is one of the things that’s kept me going this season. If your opponent suddenly starts playing better, it’s not necessarily because you did anything wrong; so, you have to stay positive. In a couple of losses I’ve had this year, I think that was a big part of the problem—that I wasn’t pushing it to the limit. But if I can keep the positive energy up, I think it’ll be even better for my season and my career.

AM: You mentioned getting thrown to the sharks in Davis Cup. In terms of sharks, you’ve faced a number of them lately, starting with Tomas Berdych. Watching a match of yours in Brazil, I was thinking that you might need to get a little more mean. You seem like a nice guy and you’re very calm and level-headed on court, so there’s no need to get crazy. But, sometimes, maybe more of a killer instinct would help?

DL: Yeah, that’s true. I would say that killer instinct is coming a bit more this season. It all has to do with personality, I think. Maybe I was a little bit insecure before, but now I try to be more confident and to know what I’m worth. While it’s important not to be arrogant on the court, you have to be a fighter. Fair play is for me the number one thing during the match, but you also need to be a little bit “rude” on the court, if I can say it that way. Maybe that was a piece that I was missing, this shark instinct, and it’s very important. But I feel like it’s coming—that I’m going in the right direction.

AM: Have there been any perks to being in the top 100?

DL: Let’s face it, there aren’t many better jobs in the world than living on the tour. You get to travel a lot—ok, from one side that’s a good thing; from the other, you’re away from home for more than thirty weeks a year. But, I think that tennis players have a pretty nice life once they’re in the top 100 or top 50.

When you’re playing Challengers, you can have tournaments in some pretty small places and you need to change several planes [to get there]. When you play tour events, they’re always in big cities, so you can fly direct or maybe one connection. You also know for sure that you will have a big hotel. I’ve played a Challenger in Uzbekistan, so you can imagine what that’s like—in Qarshi, near the border of Afghanistan. There, the hotel was really bad, and the breakfast… You can never know what kind of food you’re going to get, so you’ve got to be careful.  When you’re at a tour event, food is provided on site or there are good restaurants in the city.

From that side, it’s much better to play these events. And all the best players are here and you have the chance to compete against them, which is what I always dreamed of. So, I would say that as soon as I don’t have to play Challenger events, I will try not to play them, to just keep playing here—even if it means playing a bit more in qualies when I don’t get in [directly]. But now I have a good ranking, so I think this will also help me to gain more experience on the tour.

AM: Other than being able to play more highly-ranked players, and some big names, is there any difference in how people treat you—in the locker room or elsewhere?

DL: Yeah, they’re getting to know me, and everybody says “hi.” Once you get there, eventually everybody will know you. For me, it doesn’t matter if somebody in the top ten knows you and he’s your friend or if somebody’s top 500. If he’s a good person, it’s the same—he’s your friend.

AM: How about in terms of media and fan attention? How much about yourself are you interested in sharing, beyond aspects of your game?

DL: I realize that the better you get, the more people will know you and they’ll want to know more. I think it’s a good thing nowadays, with Twitter and everything. On Twitter, I’m not very active, but I try to keep my fans (as much as I have them) posted about some different things that I like.

“Little fuzzy koala”

“Little fuzzy koala”

Because I don’t think that I would just put, “Yesterday, I lost; tomorrow I play at this time…” I feel like they can find all this kind of information online, and they want to know something that’s behind the curtain, something that they could not see on tv or whatever. I still haven’t had any interviews where I get asked something personal—there are always one or two questions about what I do in my free time or something like this… which you can basically answer automatically. I didn’t have any goofy questions and I haven’t been in the tabloids*; somebody maybe posted my tweets a couple of times in the newspaper, but that’s it. So, I don’t feel any different yet.

[*Strictly speaking, this isn’t accurate.  Tennis players in Serbia are frequent tabloid fodder and Lajović is no exception (here he is looking dapper during a night out with teammate Ilija Bozoljac, for example).  But it’s good to know that Dutzee doesn’t spend his free time Googling himself or reading the gossip pages.]

AM: Speaking of Twitter, you usually keep it pretty light: updates about your matches, some pictures, this and that. But earlier this year, you re-tweeted an article Sergiy Stakhovsky posted—a story about British player calling it quits. Why did it seem worth sharing?

DL: I played once against Jamie Baker. I didn’t know him as a person; I saw him at tournaments, but personally we never connected. He was just there and I didn’t know what was on the other side. So, when I read the article… I don’t want to say some bad words now, but I was like, “Oh my god.” I mean, I thought, “Shit, this is bad,” you know? A tough life. This person was there and I never knew anything about it. Maybe he didn’t share with anybody, or maybe some people knew but they weren’t speaking about it. When you read it from somebody else and see how tough it is, I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’ve been through many things like this”—apart from the injuries he had.

AM: When you described playing Challengers, I thought maybe that’s why the Jamie Baker story struck you. I don’t know if this saying exists in Serbian: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Was it that sort of feeling, that it could be you? We can both point to talented guys in the top two or three hundred—on some level, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be ranked higher; on another level, we could identify the reasons, though it’s not necessarily about quality.

DL: All the guys who are [at the top] are there because they want it more than the other guys—this is my thinking. Even if you do all the things properly, there are probably some things you should do differently to get up there. Maybe you’re practicing, going to sleep, doing everything right, and at some point you’re thinking “Why am I still number 150 and not 80? I’m doing everything that all the guys who are 50 or 80 are.” But maybe you need to change something that you haven’t even thought of to get there.

I also think that your thoughts are very important in terms of going in the right direction. Because even if you do everything right, if you look at this guy and think, “Why is he there and not me?”—you should not pity yourself. It may be going badly now; but at some point, if you’re doing everything right, it will come. And if your maximum is to be at 120, then you’ve got to face it and say, “I gave it everything that I could, I’m 120, and I couldn’t do more.” But if you don’t give your maximum, you don’t know how far you can go. So, if my maximum is 89, ok, it’s 89; but when I finish my career, I will know I gave everything to get there. Right now, I can’t remember the whole article about Jamie. But apart from things you can’t control, like injury or illness, it’s all about yourself—how much you want it and how much you give to get there.

 in Zagreb

Lajović on the stretch (© PBZ Zagreb Indoors)

AM: Isn’t it the case, though, that unless you get to a certain point in the rankings, the financial side of the sport is pretty difficult? Where would you put that cut-off—is it where you are now? For instance, when you won that round at the Australian Open, you got the biggest paycheck of your career. How much does that help?

DL: Well, it also makes a difference in terms of not having to think about the financial situation when you travel. I would say that all the players from Serbia didn’t have a good financial status to compete regularly, in every tournament, or to travel when they were starting. So, some of them were borrowing money, and some found sponsors, but nobody had his own money to do so. This, from one side, was a good thing for us and why, as people always ask us, we’re so hungry to succeed.

But from the other side, when I was playing Futures or Challengers, there were times when I didn’t know if I could go to this or that tournament. I’m lucky to have parents who provided for me, even when they didn’t have anything—they always found a solution. I always knew the pressure, but I knew they did this because they believed in me and wanted to see me do something I like. From this point of view, I could never give up and say, “Ok, it’s hard for you guys and it’s hard for me, so now we’re quitting.” Because I know how much I gave of myself and how much they gave of themselves for me to keep playing tennis.

AM: Did you get much financial support from the Serbian tennis federation?

DL: In the years when I was young, it was difficult. The situation in our country was not good, so [the federation] didn’t have money or a system to help players. Over the years, it’s gotten better—it can always be much better. At the point when it was most important, I would say that I didn’t have the help, the resources I needed. But I wasn’t always the best player in my country, so from that side I can also realize that they didn’t see my potential. When you look at other countries, like Spain, they have like fifty guys that they sponsor. But when you’re from Serbia, you’ve got to do 90% on your own.

AM: Until what stage was your family your main support?

DL: I would say until I was top 200, but maybe even a year ago. But it all depends. I mean, I still live with my parents because I’m barely home—I travel for two months, then go home for five days. If you’re top 200, you can be top 200 [by playing] Challengers and still not earn anything, just be on the edge of covering costs. Or, you can be top 200 with maybe a few ATPs, and then you have more money than a guy who’s the same rank as you.

AM: When you won a match at the Australian Open, other than its relaxing you a bit about finances and making it possible for you to hire Stefan, did you do anything for yourself as a reward or indulgence?

DL: Not really. I mean, I don’t go shopping very often; but when I do, I’m just searching for one thing that I really need. Because I have a phone, I have a car, I have this and that… I don’t need anything special. Maybe at one point, I’ll start buying some crazy things.

AM: I don’t think that’s necessary—I just wondered if you marked the occasion.

DL: No, I didn’t. For me, the best thing is to be with people I love. Then maybe go for a nice dinner—I really enjoy good food. But I was just there with my coach; I don’t think we did anything.

I also feel like this is something I should have done earlier—winning a round [at a Slam]. That’s why, even though it’s big for me, I want to feel like it’s normal because I really want to do greater things. So, if I buy an expensive watch for myself when I win one round, what will I do if I win a Slam?

Doubles: Serbia vs Switzerland (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

Doubles: Serbia vs Switzerland (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

AM: A question about the first round of Davis Cup: if Zimonjić & Krajinović had won the doubles rubber, you would have had to play Roger Federer instead of Michael Lammer. Would you have liked to play Federer in that situation, or were you happy to get the win?

DL: No, no, I really wanted to… I think this is also a big difference from a couple months ago. When I played in the finals, I wanted to give my best; but, on some level, I think I didn’t play to beat this guy. When I played against Stanislas, I went on the court to really try to beat him, even though he just won the Australian Open.

This is also something that has improved a lot this season: that it doesn’t matter who you play, you’ve got to go on court and expect to win. Otherwise, don’t go on the court. I think that if you have this [attitude] every match, doesn’t matter against which player, then you will keep improving. Maybe I just needed this kind of experience against top-10 players to see that I need to go on court and try to beat these guys as well, not to have [too much] respect for them.

Then again, I had to play the other guy on Sunday—and we didn’t want to lose. Even though we lost [the tie against Switzerland] 3-0, I really wanted to win. [Lammer] also wanted to win and he played well—better than his ranking. So, I was happy to win this match, even though it didn’t mean anything; but it would have been much better to play Federer in a live rubber.

AM: At the beginning, we talked about some of the “firsts” you’ve recently achieved. What’s the next “first”—the next big step you’re going to take?

DL: I wouldn’t mind for it to be an ATP title. Why not? I have Futures titles, Challenger titles, so now I need an ATP title.

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Two days after our conversation, Lajović got called in to replace an injured Tommy Haas, who’d received a “bye” into the second round. If his more experienced opponent, Yen-Hsun Lu, felt any relief not to be facing Haas (against whom he has an 0-2 record), that feeling wouldn’t have lasted long: the Serb got an early break and went on to take the first set 6-1. Another break early in the second proved more difficult for Dutzee to hang on to and Lu sent the match into a deciding set by winning the tiebreak.

I suspected I wasn’t the only one on Court 7 wondering whether—or to what extent— Lajović’s chances of a victory diminished when he wasn’t able to wrap up the match in two sets. As if giving voice to my doubt, a Serbian woman in the crowd urged “Dule,” as he is also known, not to rush during his first service game. His bark in reply seemed cause for concern. (As I later learned, however, this invested elder was Dušan’s mother, and his tone with her likely borne more of familiarity than frustration.) A break in the sixth game proved decisive. Despite a wobble of nerves after the umpire called for a replay of what Lajović thought was a winning point, he took the match 6-1, 6-7(3), 6-3.

Lajović serves during his win over Lu.

Lajović serves during his win over Lu.

After he’d had a chance to recover from his three-setter against Lu, Lajović shared some thoughts about his main-draw showing. (You can read his comments in Serbian on B92.)

AM: How does it feel to be a Lucky Loser?

DL: Pretty lucky. I got the chance to play and I used it the best I could. If somebody had asked me five days ago how I’m doing, I had a totally different feeling when I lost. So, now I’m pretty happy and I appreciate that I got in… And that I played a good match last night—it’s a really good thing for me.

AM: Was it all awkward that the guy you were drawn against is someone with whom you share a physio?

DL: Yeah, we did the preseason together a couple of times and we’ve practiced many times. But, when you’re in these tournaments, you can always play against anybody; so, you’re prepared for the possibility. Then again, Stefan couldn’t watch—he was watching from the locker room, actually.

AM: You mean he couldn’t watch in the stands because he can’t cheer?

DL: It’s better if he doesn’t watch on the court—it’s his rule and we respect it. But it was ok, nothing too weird. I’ve played a few times against some people who are friends in my personal life, so it’s kind of something you have to get used to.

Fellow players Filip Krajinović & Kiki Mladenović showed up to support Lajović.

Fellow players Filip Krajinović & Kiki Mladenović showed up to support Lajović.

AM: Even though you didn’t have your coach or physio out there, you did have a nice little cheering section, including your mother. What’s it like when you have friends or family watching?

DL: It’s always good—I love when my family’s there. Whenever they have the chance, they come to watch me and it’s the best support I could have. So, I’m really enjoying the time and that my mother’s here.

AM: The first set went perfectly according to plan, but when the second got more complicated, there was a question about how that might affect you going forward. Were you frustrated after you lost the early break advantage?

DL: I think that the problem was that I was feeling little tired in the second set since I’ve been here all day for the last four days. I had to be here from before the first match until the last match because there was always a chance to get in. This is really tiring when you have to stay all day in the club, plus practice. So, even before the match, I wasn’t really fresh.

After I won this second-set break, I felt so tired all of a sudden. Probably I was a little bit empty, emotionally, from winning the break—and I couldn’t keep up the energy. After I lost the break, I thought, “If we go into a third [set], it will be even harder for me, and I should try to finish in two.” But this wasn’t going. So, when I lost the second set, I said, “Ok, now you know there is only one set left and you’ve got to push as much as you can.” In the end, I did it, though I was maybe even cramping in the third set a little bit.

AM: In terms of the disappointment of losing the second-set tiebreak, and heading into a third set, would you say your concerns were more physical or mental?

DL: Both—equally both. The good thing is that I was serving well in the third set. Because if we had played longer rallies, it would be even harder and I don’t know if the ending would be the same.

AM: I know fitness can be an issue with some of the younger guys—Raonić and Dimitrov, for example—especially at Slams, since you aren’t as accustomed to playing longer matches. Is stamina something you’re working on?

DL: Well, I haven’t played many best-of-five; but with those I did, I didn’t have physical problems. I feel I’m pretty fit to compete on this level, though I don’t know how I’d feel when it gets to the point of playing four or five best-of-five matches in a row. But I feel I could handle it physically, because I always do a good, tough preseason in Kenya, where it’s really hot and we practice more than five hours a day. Ok, when you play a match it’s different—you get tired more because emotions are working. But I think I can handle it physically.

AM: Since your coach (Jan Velthuis) isn’t here, what do you do for match preparation?

DL: I speak with my coach over the phone—it’s not a problem. He advises me before the match and gives me tactics. We always talk after every match, so it doesn’t feel like he’s away.

AM: When you’re going into a match like tomorrow’s, do you ever target a very specific thing you’re going to work on, or is it more general?

DL: For me, it’s better when I think more generally. Because I have my own game and I always try to focus on that, and then just do things that I need and which may not be good for my opponent. When I focus on his game, I’m not doing my game as good as I should and everything breaks down.

AM: Looking forward to the match against Dolgopolov, what can you expect?

DL: Expect the unexpected, I would say. He is playing really well the last couple of weeks—doesn’t matter on hard court or on clay. He beat Rafa last week, so he’s in good shape with a lot of confidence. For me, it’ll be a big challenge to play him, first of all. I hope that I can just keep my game on a high level… For sure, I’m going to go out on the court and try to beat him, but this will be tough, especially because he’s playing so well. The only thing for me is to keep my game like I did last night, and in the previous weeks, and to manage to stay focused during the whole match. Then, I think I have a chance.

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Post-script: the unexpected took several forms in the third-round match between Dutzee and Dolgopolov. Although there were a number of welcome developments, such as the Serb’s level of play in the first and third sets, the match ended on several less pleasant notes, not least of which was a controversial call in the final set tiebreak.

Lajović handled the set-back in stride and had reason, despite a defeat seemingly snatched from the jaws of victory, to be pleased with his week. The Monday after Miami, he achieved a new career high of #78. We may see more firsts from him when he returns to his favorite surface: European clay.