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.
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  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 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.”