But will they come for the tennis? This remains a key question facing the organizers of the Serbia Open, which is being contested this week in Belgrade. Given the crowds during last weekend’s qualifying rounds and on Tuesday’s May Day holiday, there was room—despite the absence of local hero Novak Djoković and his Davis Cup teammates—for cautious optimism. But with the Wednesday retirement of Dušan Lajović, the only Serbian player remaining in the main draw, the answer was looking less hopeful.
The 250-series event, now in its fourth year, is a big deal for both Serbia, which has never hosted an ATP tournament before, and the Djoković family, who owns it. As Novak’s uncle Goran, who serves as tournament director, proudly noted on Friday, Serbia is one of only 32 countries to hold such an event, which has the potential to “contribute significantly to the positive image of the country.” That there is much at stake here is also made clear by the fliers distributed throughout the grounds encouraging spectators to observe proper behavior during matches—not only to help “maintain high standards” at the organizational level but also to “show that we are a tennis nation.” This week’s tournament, however, indicates that there is still a ways to go to prove this point.
First, the bad news. While the popularity of tennis has seen a dramatic increase over the past decade, Serbia does not have a well-developed tennis culture. Traditionally, the public gravitates toward team sports like football, basketball, and volleyball—in which Serbia has had considerable success and spectators are free to support their favorites with little restraint. Serbian fans of the “white sport,” as it is symbolically called, fall into three categories, each bigger than the last: life-long followers of tennis (most of whom also play recreationally), relatively recent converts to the sport (including youngsters with aspirations to play professionally), and bandwagon fans, who are less tennis enthusiasts than admirers of a few successful players.
For the latter group, Djoković is not merely the nation’s best athlete—its Michael Jordan, if you will—but also its Brad Pitt and even its Kim Kardashian. That is, they fill the stands to be near the bright light of celebrity as much as, if not more than, to see Nole play. That Djoković has earned his achievements through talent, dedication, and hard work is not lost on the many parents, teachers, and even politicians who hold him up as a role model for the nation’s youth. But his success also registers in more superficial ways: his money, status, and fame make him equally a focus of the tabloids and a mainstay of the sports pages. And some of Djoković’s allure has rubbed off on tennis itself, so that regardless of who’s playing, people will come along to the “Novak” Tennis Center to see and be seen. Alas, such patrons are unlikely to make it into the stands unless a familiar face is on court.
Without well-known Serbian players to draw the crowds, the tournament must rely on either the curiosity of the general public or the passion of a much smaller group: those who really care—or want to learn—about tennis. Unfortunately, given the state of the economy, most people can’t afford the seats; or, if they do splurge, it won’t be for more than one session. Perhaps recognizing this, organizers made entry to the site free—not just during the qualifying rounds, as planned, but all week. While this has meant that hard-core fans and students of the game can watch matches on the two outer courts without tickets, it has left the stadium court mostly empty. Unsurprisingly, the largest crowds all week have not been for the tournament’s top seed, Pablo Andujar, but for its biggest name: David Nalbandian, who is familiar from both competing in Belgrade for Davis Cup and, more importantly, being a former top-ten player.
On to the good news. One thing can certainly be said for Djoković Family Sport: they know how—and where—to throw a party. With courts on the banks of the Danube, adjacent to the Belgrade fortress, and just a short walk from the city’s main square, the tournament is ideally situated. Further, evidence of a previous family business, a pizzeria in the ski resort of Kopaonik, can be seen all over their latest enterprise, from the four different restaurants on site (one, naturally, offering gluten-free items) to the Balkan beauties in tennis outfits offering samples of sponsor products; from the expert wait-staff whisking fruit juices, beer, espresso, and clean ashtrays to packed tables at the centrally-located café to the entertainment of the nightly karaoke contest presented by odd couple Mercedes and MTV.
On a more substantive level, the Serbia Open is also doing well by arguably its most important attendees: players and serious fans. According to Andujar, it is a well-run event: “I think it’s a very good tournament,” he noted after his quarter-final win over Lukas Rosol, “even if it’s new and they are [just] starting.” While Andujar admits that he and other players always want “enormous” crowds at their matches (as at Indian Wells, where the stadium was “full of people, clapping every point”), he also acknowledges that the absence of players like Tipsarević is “good for us, for these kinds of people—players that want to grow and be more famous.”
Others, too, benefit from the presence of such an event: for instance, next-generation Serbian hopefuls, like seventeen-year-old Miki Janković, who played his first ATP event this week. Locals who follow the sport closely are also happy to have international talent on display in Belgrade, even if it’s not from the best-known names on tour. Last but not least thrilled by the tournament are practitioners and students of the game, like Hristijan Kovačević and his coach, who, though they couldn’t afford stadium seats, came every day to pick up tips from training sessions and observe the match-play of the professionals whose ranks the thirteen-year-old hopes to one day join.
Ultimately, what stands out at the Serbia Open is the aspirational quality of the venture. The organizers are committed to making the tournament a future success—and not simply in financial terms. Despite this year’s merely “satisfactory” crowds, the director is already talking about developing it into a 500-series event. Though a cynic might see the place as little more than a glorified gift shop selling brand Novak, there are numerous indicators that the venue serves a greater purpose. Take, for instance, the trophy room, full of glittering prizes won by the current #1: perhaps seeing an Olympic medal or a replica Wimbledon Cup will inspire a Serbian child to pick up a racket. And if that isn’t concrete enough, how about this: the center is set to host several ITF Futures events this summer.
Originally published on The Tennis Space (6 May 2012)