Kiki: “Sport is in our blood”

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Before her breakout run to the US Open quarterfinals, Kristina Mladenović was kind enough to talk to me in the players garden behind Arthur Ashe stadium.  Our conversation was published in Serbian by B92; an extended English version is posted at Tennis Translations.  Her wins in New York will earn the Franco-Serbian player a new career-high singles ranking of #28.

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Photos by Christopher Levy.

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Catching Up with Nenad Zimonjić

Zimonjić takes a shot during the Citi Open semifinal. Photo by Christopher Levy (@tennis_shots).

Zimonjić takes a shot during the Citi Open semifinal. Photo: Christopher Levy.

I had a chance to sit down with Nenad Zimonjić at Washington’s CITI Open, a tournament he first attended in 1999 and has subsequently won twice (2011 and 2013).  While we spoke, the Serbian doubles specialist was watching the quarter-final between Dodig/Melo and Lopez/Mirnyi, sharing observations about tactics and execution with both Marcin Matkowski and his trainer Vlade Kaplarević.  Naturally, that’s where our conversation started.  A version of this interview was published in Serbian by B92.

AM: How often do you get to scout your potential opponents like this and what kinds of things do you look for?

NZ: Any kind of detail: who is struggling with which shot, what they try to do on the big points, if there are any specific plays they use, where they like to serve, where they like to return—stuff like that.

AM: Do you get a chance to do this at every tournament?

NZ: Not at every tournament.  Sometimes, you can watch on the TV screens in the locker- room or lounge; sometimes, you have indoor events where you can just go to the court and sit, which is quite convenient.  Here, I just finished my practice and they’re playing; so, I don’t mind coming out for a little bit.

AM: If you didn’t have a chance to watch them live, would you go on YouTube the night before to look for clips, or is this viewing sort of a bonus?

NZ: No, I wouldn’t—because I know all of them quite well and I’ve played against all of them many times.  So, only if it’s a team I’ve never heard of or never played against, then I try to do a little research and get as much information as I can.

After a tightly-contested match, it was the Roland Garros champions who prevailed, 10-7, in a super tiebreak. Although Zimonjić had faced the current #3 team with other partners over the past three seasons, Saturday’s semifinal was the first time for the Polish-Serbian duo.  It didn’t go well: the straight-set loss to Dodig and Melo included the first bagel set for “Ziki” in over four years. Their previous round quarterfinal against the Colombian pair of Cabal and Farah, which seemed headed for a straight-set win, got unnecessarily complicated after an intervention by Chair Umpire Paula Vieira Souza.  So, I had to ask.

AM: What happened on your serve at the end of the second-set tiebreak?

NZ: We played the point: I made the first serve, then Marcin played a volley; after that, Cabal was at the net and he tried to reflex it. Then, [just as Matkowski was making what appeared to be a winning shot] an overrule came from the chair umpire. She called the serve out—and it was way too late to do that after three [additional] shots. There’s no way you do this—we’d already played the point. Then, I made a double-fault there and it directly affected the set…

AM: Since there isn’t “Hawk-Eye” on that court for a challenge, did you think of calling the supervisor?

NZ: You can’t change anything; it’s the umpire’s call and that’s it.  But if they do an overrule, they should do it way earlier—right away.  She said she was waiting to see if the line judge was going to call it.  Why wait?  Even if it’s the same call, you should say it out loud.

Matkowski & Zimonjić greet Federer & Lammer at the net after beating them at Indian Wells. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

AM: Even before the season started, you had a setback with Michael Llodra’s injury and surgery.  Then, Qureshi, your first substitute partner, didn’t work out.  It’s been better with Matkowski, and you guys are #7 in the doubles race, but you haven’t won a title yet.  How would you assess your season so far?

NZ: Like you said, it was unpredictable.  It was something that I was hoping for: to play with Mika again after some time, because I thought we played really well together; and he was going to play only doubles, so that was a perfect opportunity for me.  But then, it was unlucky that he needed the surgery; he’s been out since then and I don’t know if he’s been practicing a bit, whether he wants to come back or not.  He’s been doing a little TV commentary and some other things, so we’ll see what’s going to happen.

At that point, the beginning of December, all the teams were set up; so, the only guys who I could actually ask were those in a partnership with a singles player, because that’s easier to get out of.  Qureshi was one of the guys, so I asked him to play.  I had to change the side I was playing and it didn’t start very well.  I was expecting more from that, to be honest; it wasn’t a long time, but I felt like it was better to switch early…  With Matkowski, I started playing at Indian Wells and that worked out well from the beginning—we started by making the semifinals there… In the past, Marcin didn’t have much success at Wimbledon, so making the quarterfinals, losing to [eventual champions] Rojer and Tecau, was his best result.

AM: Looking back at last year’s successes, being the #2 team for most of the year, do you have any second thoughts about the decision to end things with Nestor?

 Llodra & Zimonjic en route to winning the 2011 Rogers Cup in Montreal.  Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Llodra & Zimonjic en route to winning the 2011 Rogers Cup in Montreal. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

NZ: No, not really.  Maybe [under different circumstances] I would have thought more after the US Open about what I wanted to do, whether I want to continue or not.  But we didn’t have the communication that I wanted on the court: talking about tactics or things that we should work on, stuff like this.  And the opportunity to play with Mika—somebody I’ve played with in the past, is four years younger than me, and wants to play only doubles—made it a very easy decision for me to make…  I think it was good that Danny and I played together last year, but for this one I definitely needed a change.

AM: Davis Cup didn’t go very well.  What do you think went wrong there?  With Novak pulling out and Tipsarević unable to play, was it kind of a combination of factors?  How much did Troicki’s Wimbledon loss (to Pospisil, after being up two sets) weigh on him?

NZ: He knows best how it was.  I think he was very confident, and very close—one set away—to making his best result at Wimbledon: quarter-finals.  So, he was playing really, really, well and it’s a pity he didn’t make it.  Then again, he’d played many tournaments in a row and the conditions [in Buenos Aires] were for sure something he doesn’t like: very slow clay.  They used that to their advantage, which is normal, and they chose it perfectly—it was much better for them.

What affected us there is that Viktor didn’t win that singles match on the first day—he had a chance, being up two sets to love and kind of cruising through the match…. So, that affected the next day: that he lost, that it wasn’t one-all, and that he was physically a little tired.  These guys played unbelievably: [Leonardo] Mayer was on fire in the singles the first day, and also in the doubles, and [Carlos] Berlocq played really well, too. We basically didn’t have any chance.  Of course, if Novak was there, it would have been completely different.  Then again, if Viktor had won that first day, it would have been a completely different doubles match.  So, it’s a pity; but they were a better team & they deserved it.

AM: With 2016 being an Olympic year, it makes Davis Cup even more complicated.  Will Team Serbia be able to give a full effort?

NZ: Well, I don’t know. I’ve always played Davis Cup—I don’t remember when I last missed it. So, for me, it doesn’t really matter; I’ll try to help the team.  We’ll see in September which opponent we’ll draw in the first round and about the schedule— everything changes because of the Olympics. Hopefully, we’ll play at home, which make things a little easier.

AM: Four men are in contention for the ITF presidency and they’ve each proposed changes to the Davis Cup schedule & format. Do you have any thoughts on what could be changed to increase player participation and improve the event?

Serbia lost to Argentina 0-3 in the 2015 Davis Cup quarter-finals. Photo: Sergio Llamera.

Serbia lost to Argentina 0-3 in the 2015 Davis Cup quarter-finals. Photo: Sergio Llamera.

NZ: I think Davis Cup takes a lot out of you—first, the days of preparation and then the tie itself, over three days.  What could be changed is to play best-of-three sets instead; that would make a big difference to the players participating.   Also, we could have two additional players on the team: to have five or six guys that you could substitute. That would make it much easier on the top guys, if they decide to play, because then they know they might only have to play one match.  Also, maybe it could be played in two days, like Fed Cup is doing.

AM:  At least one candidate has suggested playing all of them in one location, like the World Cup.  What do you think about doing away with home-and-away ties?

NZ: This is a tradition that I think should be kept, so the countries that don’t have big professional tournaments get to see top players.  This is very nice—and good for sports.  Then again, maybe every few years, like the Olympics, we could alternate and have a world championships somewhere, playing a format like they used to do [at the World Team Cup] in Düsseldorf.  That was a good competition.

AM: Over the years, you’ve played with so many greats of the game.  What do you cherish about playing with guys like Santoro, Paes, or Nestor himself?  What did you learn from veteran players in your 20s & early 30s?

NZ: Every time I had a chance to play with a top guy, it was a huge experience.  The first one like that who asked me to play was Wayne Ferreira, then one of the “Woodies” asked me to practice.  Playing against them or playing with them, you always try to learn something, to improve as a player by seeing what they do better.  From each partner, you can learn something new and use it for yourself.

For me, playing with Henman in Monte Carlo and winning my first Masters series title [in 2004] was like that.  It was really nice.  Different personalities, different styles—that’s what’s made me a better player now.  I’ve played different sides, with more or less aggressive players, lefty, righty, players with more feel, somebody who doesn’t serve big (so you have to be ready with your volleys)—everything. Over the years, it helped me a lot that I played with many different partners.

AM: In most cases, do you feel like you were learning primarily through your own observations?  Were any of your partners more actively mentoring or advising you?

NZ: Yes, sometimes.  As partners, you try to help each other—saying some tactical or technical things. Then, through this, you learn from them, seeing what they are doing when they’re playing points. If you make some mistakes, then you talk about it and try not to do the same again.  So, these are the things that help you a lot as a player.  Sometimes, when you’re not sure what to do, you can even ask, “What do you think? What play should we use?”  This is where [communication] can be very helpful.

Generation gap: Zimonjić is closer in age to Serbian legend Slobodan Živojinović than he is to teammates Krajinović & Lajović. Photo: Srdjan Stevanović

Generation gap: Zimonjić is closer in age to Serbian legend Slobodan Živojinović (L) than to teammates Krajinović & Lajović. Photo: Srdjan Stevanović

AM: When you’re playing on the ATP tour, unless you’re with Nestor, you’re usually partnered with guys about five years younger.  But when you’re playing Davis Cup, some of your partners are significantly younger—for example, Filip Krajinović.  In a case like that, when there’s more than a fifteen-year difference, are you more aware of passing on lessons?

NZ: For sure.  In all the Davis Cup matches, I’m going to be the leader of the team because I’m more comfortable in doubles and I can help them a lot.  So, I have to think tactically— knowing what they’re capable of, what they can do—and try to encourage them to play their style but, at the same time, to play in a way that I can help them.

AM: The US Open is not your most successful Slam.  Do you go into it thinking differently because of that? Is there anything particular you’ll do to prepare for the North American hard-court swing this year?

NZ: First, it’s a big adjustment: the courts are quicker, the balls bounce much higher after grass… So, it’s a huge adjustment and you have to be ready for it.  The second thing is the weather: it’s extremely hot and can be humid here and in New York; so, practicing in these conditions is something you try to focus on. The reason why you come a little earlier to the tournaments and use this [Washington] tournament as great preparation for Montreal and Cincinnati is that there, we have a “bye,” so we’re going to play a tough first match, whoever goes through.  The cut-offs [at the Masters] are extremely tough and these guys will already have played one match.  Every match that we play here is beneficial for us—and, so far, it’s going well.

Also, I would say Marcin feels most comfortable on hard courts and indoors; so, this part of the season now should be good for us.  I’ve had success at these tournaments everywhere but the US Open. I felt like I’ve been playing good at the US Open but was just a little unlucky—last year, for instance, with the heat.  So, I can’t be unsatisfied with the way I’ve been playing there—I just have to make sure that I work hard and come there ready.  Marcin had his best [Slam] result in New York, where he made the finals.  So, he knows he can play well there. We’ll see.

AM: Are you guys actively thinking about the World Tour Finals in London?

NZ: For sure, that’s one of the goals.  We’re #7 in the race, even though we started in Indian Wells.  Then, there are some new teams… Right now, you can say that four teams have already qualified: Dodig and Melo, the Bryans, the Italians [Bolelli and Fognini ], plus Tecau & Rojer.

Currently, fewer than two thousand points separate the doubles teams ranked 5-12 in the race; so, it’ll be a fight to the end of the season for the final four spots.  In Montreal, Matkowski and Zimonjić are the fifth seeds and will play the winners of a marquee first-round match between Australians Hewitt and Kyrgios and Frenchmen Monfils and Tsonga.

Rohan Bopanna on Bangalore, Davis Cup, and Tennis in India

Somdev Devvarman & Rohan Bopanna at the pre-draw press conference in Banglaore. Photo by Srdjan Stevanović

This weekend in Bangalore, India will host Serbia in an intriguing Davis Cup World Group play-off. Under different circumstances, 2013 finalists Serbia would be hands-down favorites for staying in the elite sixteen-nation group at the top of men’s tennis. But a Serbian side without three of its top players is vulnerable, as seen this past February when the “B” team—composed of Ilija Bozoljac, Filip Krajinović, Dušan Lajović, and Nenad Zimonjić—lost in Novi Sad. Serbia’s second city also happens to be where these two nations first met to contest a Davis Cup tie, a 4-1 win for the Serbs in 2011.

India’s team for this meeting will feature three of the same players: relative youngster Yuki Bhambri and veteran Somdev Devvarman alongside doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna, who together with Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi makes up the ATP tour’s “Indo-Pak Express.” Though he and partner Katarina Srebotnik were still in the US Open mixed-doubles draw, Bopanna was kind enough to sit down for a conversation about the city he calls home, Indian tennis, and the growth of the sport in Asia. (An edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.)

Create your own caption… ©ATP

When we talked, the final rosters for both teams were uncertain. Bopanna thought he’d be paired with Saketh Myneni, with whom he’d played—and won—doubles rubbers during India’s previous two ties, and the status of the ATP #1 was up in the air. While the rest of the Serbian team was preparing to compete without their singles star, Novak Djoković spoke about both what it means to him to participate in Davis Cup and the decision he was weighing: “Of course playing for the country is something that awakens a real passion in me and a sense of. . . belonging and really positive emotion and drive. But [on] the other hand, I also have a very important stage of my life. I’m about to become a father, so that’s something that is a priority now.” Given the “wait and see” situation, I started by asking Bopanna an obvious question.

♦♥♠

AM: You said in an interview for the Davis Cup website that you think it’d be good for tennis if Novak comes to India, regardless of the outcome. But in the interest of your team winning, wouldn’t it be better if he didn’t come?

RB: You can’t think like that. At the end of the day, he’s been such a great player for his country and won the Davis Cup title with them. Not only that: if you look at it that way, we wouldn’t want any of the top players competing. Davis Cup is such a format that the rankings never matter—I mean, on one given day there can be many upsets. If you saw the last one, Wawrinka was playing Golubev in Switzerland and that was a big upset.

So, I think it’d be great for Indian tennis—not only if Novak’s playing, but even if he’s just there as part of the team. Tennis needs encouragement in our country and having a such a great player like him come and participate in an event like this would be wonderful, no matter what. Of course, it’ll be much tougher, no doubt: their team goes up from 10 to 20 with Novak on it. But we have to be ready for the best team to come to India and play. The thing is that before Thursday, they can still change the nominations.

AM: It’ll partly depend on what happens here, of course.

RB: Exactly. And Novak isn’t thinking of Davis Cup right now, because this is such a big event.

AM: There’s the US Open on this end and his baby’s due-date on the other.

RB: Yeah, he has a lot of things going on.

♣♦

Since then, Leander Paes was called in to play his fifty-first tie for India and Djoković, after a disappointing semifinal loss to Kei Nishikori in New York, opted to skip the play-off to recuperate for the final stretch of the season and spend time with his expectant wife, Jelena. Luckily, Bopanna and I discussed more than how the two teams match up.

The Garden City was named for its numerous green spaces, including Cubbon Park (where this tie will take place) and the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens.

AM: Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to attend the tie, though I’d love to see India. But I’m still curious: what would you tell Serbs visiting Bangalore (or Bengaluru, as the locals call it) for the first time?

RB: I live in the city! The first thing is that language is not a problem, because everyone speaks English; so, that’s a big bonus when you’re going to a new place. I know a lot of people do speak English in Serbia, as I’ve been there. Of course, there are a lot of great restaurants around the city, many different cuisines to sample. Bengaluru is known for its breweries as well, so people who like to drink beer will enjoy that.

Though it’s called the Garden City of India, do expect a lot of people on the road, a lot of traffic and honking. That’s normal—it doesn’t matter which city in India you go to. We are used to it, of course, living there; but if you come from a country that doesn’t have all that it can be a bit overwhelming. There are various different categories of hotels and the hospitality in India is always very good—the service is good, so that’s a good thing to expect. People in Bengaluru love tennis, so I think there will be a great crowd, too, to come watch the tie.

Tipsarević gets a lift from Paes after finishing his second final at the 2012 Chennai Open. © AFP/Getty Images

There are a number of connections between members of the Indian and Serbian squads. Most notably, Nenad Zimonjić has partnered Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, collecting trophies with both men. Two other Serbs, Janko Tipsarević and Bozoljac, have also had success with Indian partners, winning titles with Paes and Devvarman, respectively. While Tipsy kicked off both the 2012 and ‘13 seasons with quality runs in Chennai, this year was Bozo’s turn for a hot streak in India: he made the semifinals in New Delhi and won the Kolkata Challenger. Not least, the two nations have this in common: they’ve both produced remarkable results in tennis despite not having the world-class infrastructure of some of their Davis Cup rivals.

AM: Obviously, it’s a big deal to have Davis Cup at home, and I know you have the ATP 250 event in Chennai, as well as the series of Challenger tournaments in February. You have had so many top players in the past couple of decades, and a long tennis tradition as well, rooted in the British influence. How would you assess the current state of Indian tennis?

RB: I think there’s still a long, long way to go because our system is not really good. So, that is slowly picking up. [To give an example,] I have a physio from South Africa, Shayamal, traveling with me for a while and he’s now opened his own clinic in Mumbai, trying to help and get physios involved in tennis. Especially for an athlete, after training, you need a physio. So, even the awareness of that—plus fitness, along with coaching, and building a few more academies—makes for more progressive tennis. It’s going to take a while, I think, to really come up. There’s also good corporations coming out and helping a lot of these academies and teams, which raises awareness and gives everyone hope.

Bopanna & Bhupathi won the 2012 Paris Masters. © Getty Images

You know, in India it’s still the fact that people think, “Ok, so you’re playing tennis, but what else are you doing?” In India, the [professional] priorities are such that everybody needs to be either a doctor or an engineer—studying is such a big thing. A lot of people don’t realize that tennis could also be a living. And they don’t realize that it’s a full-time, committed career. . . It’s not a hobby.

Also, we have cricket in India—and it’s grown so much in recent years. Now, there are corporations trying to invest in other sports as well and trying to get recognition for them. So, tennis is still very much at the grass-roots level and needs a lot more building. Luckily, we have many more athletes coming up. . . . The fans are looking for new, different sports as well, which is nice.

AM: Speaking of other sports: in the US, there’s been some excitement about an Indian basketball player who’s going to be in the NBA, playing for the Sacramento Kings. Have you heard of him?

RB: That’s right, Sim Bhullar—I know because actually he’s the nephew of one of my friends. He was telling me when we were into Toronto [for the Rogers Cup] and they actually came to the tennis courts. My trainer took a picture with them and he’s about 5’8” and these guys are 7’5”!

AM: India, given its size, has a huge pool of potential talent that hasn’t necessarily been tapped. Will his being in the NBA make a big difference for basketball in India, like Yao Ming did in China?

RB: Definitely. I think it’s great. Hopefully, we have more of those 7-foot athletes—that’s not there in India so much. Even when I go back, at 6’3”, I’m considered above average, which I’m not when I’m traveling on the tennis tour! In tennis, I think 6’2” is the average. Especially for the NBA, you need the height.

AM: Among people in the former Yugoslavia—and not only tennis players—there’s certainly interest in forging ties with the East as well as the West. For instance, even before his Uniqlo sponsorship, Novak was quite attuned to the Asian market for tennis. Do you think the IPTL (promoted by former partner Bhupathi) is also going to help the growth of tennis in India and other parts of Asia?

RB: I think it’s going to be really good for Asia to have all these top athletes coming and playing night matches. And for us, as players, it’ll also be fun to be a part of it and playing on these different teams.

In June, Bhupathi hosted a London reception for players committed to the new International Premier Tennis League.

In June, Bhupathi hosted a London reception for players committed to the new International Premier Tennis League.

Three of Serbia’s biggest names have already signed on to play in the IPTL later this year: Djoković and Zimonjić (along with Croatian legend Goran Ivanišević) were selected by the UAE team, while Ana Ivanović is on the India team along with Bopanna, Sania Mirza, and Rafa Nadal. The league runs for two weeks, starting in late November.

Postscript: The day after this interview was published, the ITF announced that Rohan Bopanna will be one of the players honored with the Davis Cup Commitment Award this weekend.