Not Throwing Away Their Shots: Taro Daniel & Sven Groeneveld on Their Belgrade Experience

Taro Daniel made an unexpected run to the semifinals at the Serbia Open as a “lucky loser,” pushing eventual champion Matteo Berrettini to a third set before succumbing to the big-hitting Italian.

Serbia Open semifinal highlights

But perhaps this run wasn’t as surprising as it looks on paper, where the 28-year-old Daniel beat three higher-ranked players, two of whom (Sousa and Delbonis) have titles on clay. Daniel himself is no slouch on the surface: his family moved to Spain when he was 14 years old and that’s where he won his first three professional titles at ITF Futures events in 2012. Flash forward a few years and Daniel also won his first two Challenger titles on clay—albeit in Italy and Germany, not Spain—and qualified for the main draw at Roland Garros. In May 2018, he won an ATP title on clay in Istanbul, beating then-#102 Matteo Berrettini in the first round.

I caught up with Daniel—virtually, of course—after his last match in Belgrade to find out how the Japanese player felt about his two weeks in Serbia’s capital, where he also competed in a Challenger tournament at the Novak Tennis Center.

Tennis-ATP Serbia Open Belgrade 2021- Taro Daniel (JPN) v Matteo Berrettini (ITA) Beograd, 24.04.2021.foto: Marko Djokovic/Starsportphoto ©

“It’s a great feeling, to be honest, even though I lost. I was, energy-wise and physically, pretty drained today. But even then I found probably some of the best tennis I ever played for a little period at the end of the second set there. And, you know, I’ve been working really hard off the court with my coach. Also, I had my mental coach and my trainer with me; so, [it was] a very intense couple weeks here. But some stuff is paying off on court. So, I’m really happy with that and I can see the potential I can have in possibly improving a lot more.”

Since I’d noticed that Daniel had quite a few people cheering from his box during the semifinal, I wondered how things were going with coach Sven Groeneveld and the rest of his team.

“Yeah, it was just a coincidence that this time I had such a big team, because usually, especially with COVID, I’ve only been traveling with my coach. But it just happened that the mental coach was able to come this week and also my trainer. I wanted him to come at the beginning of the clay season to [help] adapt to the movements on clay, so it just happened to be.”

Regarding his mental coach, Jackie Reardon, Daniel said they’d been working together since shortly after the tennis tour resumed last August.

“You know, I’ve kind of struggled the last couple of years with enjoying the tour. I’ve worked so hard—and that’s kind of been my default setting, too. So, I’ve always kind of felt that if I suffer, then I should get a reward. That worked really well until I got to this level: I mean, [top] 100 in the world or 80 in the world, 110. But then I felt like something’s missing in order for me to take the next step. I think, obviously, there’s some stuff in the game of tennis; but then I think I’m playing well enough to be able to be [ranked] 50 or 60, as long as I have the right mind-set. I need to start believing in myself more and being happier with what I’m doing with tennis and bringing more joy into the game. But those things need to be trained, you know. And that’s actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I need to get into really, really uncomfortable situations to bring that out. So, it’s been a really intense but amazing process.”

At risk of faulty post-hoc reasoning, I’d suggest that process has already paid off, even before last week’s success in Belgrade, as Daniel won a Challenger title in Hamburg last October.

I also asked Daniel about his prospects for Tokyo, as well as his thoughts about the Olympic Games going forward while the pandemic is ongoing. Recent polls show that a majority of the country isn’t enthusiastic about the Olympics taking place. For one thing, Japan is hardly leading the pack with regard to vaccinating its population.

And, just last week, the government announced a state of emergency in an attempt to get case numbers under control in its biggest cities which, according to the Associated Press, are “home to about a quarter of Japan’s population of 126 million.” In mid-May, after the state of emergency has been lifted, IOC President Thomas Bach will visit Japan to get a progress report on preparations.

Currently, Daniel is ranked #112: fifth among Japanese ATP players, just behind Yasutaka Uchiyama (#108) and Yuichi Sugita (#109). With only 56 players gaining direct entry, and the rankings cutoff set for June 14 to include results from the postponed French Open, the competition is stiff. Daniel said that while he’d like to play in Tokyo, it isn’t his top priority for the year.

“We’re so close now with the two guys in front of me, we’re kind of in a really tight race. I’m obviously trying to make the Olympic cuts and I know that the [limit is] like four per county; so, it’s pretty important to try and make it. But, at the same time, it’s not my main focus. My main focus is to really keep investing in my mental strength and my tennis, and then… I’ll just let things be. But, obviously, that’s one of my goals, to make it there.”

“And then, with all the uncertainties with the Olympics, it’s so difficult to say. Because even if I’m from there and I know people that are working directly for the Olympics, they know exactly the same amount that I do, almost. I feel like everybody is really lost. And that’s the message that’s kind of being transmitted to the public, as well, [which] I think is normal because it’s such a complicated situation. And I think it’s also normal that the people are pretty afraid to have such a big event, you know, because can you really concentrate on the quality of the sport being played while there are so many concerns around all the other stuff? [But] I think once it happens, it’ll be okay. You know, I’m sure the Japanese are really good at organizing; so, when the athletes are in the village, it won’t be like a super-spreader thing in there. I mean, I don’t know what kind of protocols they’ll have for the public—for spectators. So, we’ll see. I don’t know anything, really, if it will go ahead or not, but I hope it will.”

When I asked whether he, like his coach, took the opportunity presented by the local surplus to get vaccinated in Serbia, Daniel reminded me that he’ll be playing the qualifying rounds for Roland Garros the week of the second Belgrade event. So, unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for him to return for a second shot.

Turning to Groeneveld, the high-profile coach had positive reviews for the Serbian Open, which has been granted a second life after an initial run from 2009-2012. Though he and Reardon had already shared some of their impressions of the organization on Twitter, the Dutchman also followed up with me by text after the tournament: “The facility, staff, and all of the services—for food transport laundry stringing and hotel—were run perfectly. We never had to wait for anything, as if they have been running this event for years and years.”

Despite the nine-year break between ATP tournaments in Belgrade, members of the Djoković family have had more recent practice in event management: Novak’s uncle Goran is the director at the Sofia Open in neighboring Bulgaria and his youngest brother Djordje was in charge of last summer’s well-intentioned but ill-fated Adria Tour. One of the ways in which the Serbia Open echoed its controversial predecessor was in having a lower-tier competition the week prior to the main event, with three-quarters of the participants in the former, like Daniel, playing in the qualification rounds of the latter.

Groeneveld was particularly grateful for the tournament’s efforts in facilitating vaccination for competitors and team members. “The vaccination was organized by the ATP tour manager, Denis Živković, who was collaborating with the local officials. We went to a facility where the vaccine was administered and all of the people there knew we were invited and took care of us, making sure we kept our distance during the procedure. Official tournament transport was taking us back and forth. Very smooth!” Serbia, unlike most countries in continental Europe, has a vaccine surplus—hence, the government’s willingness to provide shots for foreign guests. (As I discussed in a recent Twitter thread, there’s also a problem with vaccine hesitancy in the country; but the reality is that Serbia has about twice as many vaccines as needed for its population of roughly 7 million.)

Groeneveld confirmed, “I will be heading back to Belgrade around 21-22 of May to get my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, which is during the start of the ATP event.” The Belgrade Open, a one-time special proposed to fill the calendar gap resulting from pushing back Roland Garros, runs May 22-29.

As for his Japanese charge, Groeneveld observed, “Taro really took advantage of his ‘lucky loser’ spot and showed he is making progress in all areas. Nine matches in two weeks is great prep for the remainder of the clay court season.”

Davis Cup Diaries

The Davis Cup semifinal between Serbia and Argentina in September 2011 was the first sporting event I attended with credentials allowing behind-the-scenes access.  Knowing Serbia as I do, I suspected their tennis federation’s communications representative wouldn’t care that I wasn’t a journalist but an academic visiting to do research for a project conceived just over a month before.  At the time, I thought it was a one-off: a fun way to pass the time during a short stint between teaching jobs.  Little did I know that this was the beginning of an adventure lasting two years (and counting) and taking me to tournaments across the US and in three other countries.

Most people reading this won’t need a reminder of the kind of 2011 Novak Djoković was having.  (If you’d like to refresh your memory, Brian Phillips’ pieces about the final two matches of the Serb’s US Open run or Jon Wertheim’s nomination of him for SI’s Sportsman of the Year are good ways to do so.)  He returned home, just days after winning his third Slam of the season, with an almost unthinkable 64-2 record.  Though much has been written about his year, two things that sometimes get overlooked in reviews of his accomplishments are the fact that Novak wasn’t in great shape when he arrived in Belgrade and would be in even worse condition by the end of the Davis Cup weekend.  During the US Open final against Nadal, he received treatment on his back and was clearly hobbled in the fourth set, serving at well below his average speeds.  Add to this the mental fatigue of a long year and the physical exhaustion of jet lag (never mind the whirlwind media tour that preceded his flight from New York), and it makes sense that Djoković didn’t play in the first singles match of the tie.

But with his team down 1-2 entering the third day of competition, Nole opted to enter the fray.  It was a no-win situation.  On the one hand, he had to play—both because his team, the defending champions, would almost certainly lose otherwise and because his home fans expected it.  On the other hand, he couldn’t really play—he simply wasn’t physically fit enough for a five-set match against one of the best players in the world.  Despite this, he put up a brave fight in the first set, eventually losing to Juan Martin del Potro in a tiebreaker.  While it was obvious to anyone watching closely that he wasn’t 100%, no one expected him to fall to the ground three games into the second set.  Given that the DJ opted to play Goran Bregović’s rousing “Kalašnjikov” at that moment, I’m confident I wasn’t the only one in the Belgrade Arena who had no idea what had happened—perhaps, I thought, he’d merely lost his footing and would bounce back after being evaluated.

Despite the warning signs (grimaces and awkward stretches during the first set and a medical time-out before the second), Djoković’s retirement was still somehow a surprise.  In his press conference after the final rubber, Janko Tipsarević noted that while he was disappointed by the loss, he had a “full heart” due to the risk his teammate had taken for them.  Only later, when Novak missed six weeks of play with a torn rib muscle, was the extent of his sacrifice clear.  Although he returned for the last three events of 2011, one could say that Djoković’s season really ended there, with thousands of his compatriots looking on in shock and sorrow as he was helped off court, towel over his head.

***

I’ve been back to Belgrade twice since that fall: for the Serbia Open in 2012 and the Davis Cup semifinal in 2013.  Because the project I’m working on aims to explain something about Serbia itself (not just Serbian tennis) to non-natives, I tried to capture a bit of the city’s scenery during my frequent walks downtown.  First-time visitors to Belgrade will get a history lesson by observing the architecture.  The mix of styles and degrees of dilapidation make it fairly easy to identify different periods: from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences to the more decadent designs of the turn of the twentieth century, from the massive slabs of Communist-era concrete to postmodern structures of glass and steel (either from the 1980s or the first decade of the new millennium).  While many buildings of historic significance have been refurbished, plenty of evidence of both war and economic hardship remains.

Marked on the above map are the primary locations of the photos that follow: the temple of St. Sava (near my home-base in the Vračar district), the Arena (across the river in “New Belgrade”), Tennis Center Novak (venue for the now-defunct Serbia Open), Kalemegdan fortress, and Republic Square (the heart of the old city).  Since buildings, flowers, and food were my most frequent subjects, I have no choice but to share photos of some of them.  Taking far too many pictures of inanimate objects is, I think, one of the lesser-known hazards of traveling alone.  Other things I’ve learned: trying to take action shots with a pocket camera is not advisable.

In the spring of 2012, my visit coincided with the run-up to a parliamentary election, so I was able to observe that process in various ways—by watching tv, reading the local papers, and documenting political speech in public spaces, from graffiti to official campaign posters.  Soon, I’ll offer more analysis of the intersection of sports and politics in Serbia.  For now, suffice it to say that there were rumors that then-president Boris Tadić had deliberately called the election to coincide with the final day of the Serbia Open, so he could be photographed handing the trophy to the most popular person in the country.  As it turned out, Nole pulled out of his home tournament, due in large part to the death of his grandfather some ten days earlier—and Tadić lost the election (though I’m sure there’s no causal relationship between these two events).

In the fall of 2013, Serbian media covering Davis Cup were focused on three stories.  The most sensational of these concerned Viktor Troicki, who, because he is serving an eighteen-month suspension for an ITF anti-doping rule violation, was not allowed to attend the tie.  Contrary to comments from the understandably emotional Troicki and his loyal team members, there was nothing out of the ordinary—and certainly nothing personal— about this prohibition.  He was not being treated like a “terrorist” or “murderer,” per Djoković’s hyperbole, but like a suspended player.  The second story centered on members of the visiting team: three Canadians have strong ties to the former Yugoslavia, with Daniel Nestor and Miloš Raonić born in the region.  Needless to say, the locals were particularly interested in what the guests made of their one-time home, whether they speak the language, and which elements of the cuisine they enjoy.  The third story was really a question: how would Novak rebound from losing in the US Open final earlier in the week?  It was partially answered by his straight-set handling of Vasek Pospisil on the tie’s opening night.  As in 2010, the Serbs came from behind to win the semifinal, with Tipsarević once again scoring the decisive point.  But unlike 2011, the team’s top player got through the weekend unscathed.

(Most of the images marked with asterisks are the work of Srdjan Stevanović.)