What doesn’t kill you, make you stronger – Part I

Novak Djokovic became the first Serbian to reach the top of the ranking after his Wimbledon triumph. He started to make the breakthough last year. He was the driveforce for the Serbian national team that won the Davis Cup. He, along with his friend Troicki, to Monica Seles and “Bobo” Zivojinovic, is the symbol of a generation of athletes capable to pass through years of war and result stronger. This is the story of the Serbian tennis. A story of pride and wars, of blood and rebirths, a struggle to make dreams come true

Serbian author Zoran T. Popovic wrote: “Serbians dreamt a Great Serbia, Croats a big Croatia, people from Macedonia dreamt a Big Macedonia. Yugoslavia was the country of dreams”. Serbian dream, to tell the truth, started with a defeat, in the Kosovo Polje battle in 1389. Prince Lazar, who commanded the Yugoslavian army and perished in the battlefield, is venerated as a saint in the Serbian Orthodox Church and a hero in Serbian epic poetry.

Sports made the Serbian dream come true. Since the first Balkan war, Serbia (until 2006 joined with Montenegro) won two basketball World Championships (in 1995 and 2002) and an European Championships (in 2001). They won the volley continental title in 2001 and two World Championships bronze medals in 2005 and 2007. But the national sport, although without any international success apart from two European Championship finals lost to USSR in 1960 and Italy in 1968, remains football. But tennis, thanks mostly to Novak Djokovic who drove Serbia to their first Davis Cup triumph in 2010 and won Wimbledon becoming the first Serbian capable to reach the top of the world ranking, is contesting the record.

Origins of tennis in Serbia

Despite they could be considered no more than privileged parvenues in the tennis élite, people of Serbia play tennis at least since 1893. After the I World War, Sumadija Clubs, BOB and Belgrade tennis club were born. Tennis was also played at the Central Bank, in the Novi Sad club, founded in 1922 and at Vrsac, where the local club opened in 1924.

Yugoslavian team played his first Davis Cup tie in 1927, against India, and in Belgrade they clinched their first victory ever: 5-0 to Sweden in 1930. In 1939 Yugoslavia won the Europe Zone tournament but lost to Australia in the Inter-Zonal final. That side, however, was formed only by Croatian players. Against Germany, in the European Zone final, Yugoslavia lined Dragutin Mitic, Franko Puncec and Franjo Kukuljevic. They’re all from Croatia and Mitic and Puncec are, respectively, the second and third more present player behind another Croat, the legendary Josip Palada. In the period 1927-1992, before the independence, the first Serbian player in this special ranking is the actual Serbia Federation president Slobodan “Bobo” Zivojinovic.

For many decades, under Tito, in the Third-worldist Yugoslavia, tennis was considered a sport for wealthy people and many tennis players had more than a problem. It was Zivojinovic to bring Serbia to the peak of tennis. In 1985 he defeated Mats Wilander at the Wimbledon first round and John McEnroe at the Australian Open quarter-finals, conquering his first ever Grand Slam semifinal. He won 6-0 in the fifth set and McEnroe, after the match, shouted at him: “You are going to pay for this. I mean it”.

He defeated also Pat Cash in the Davis Cup and in 1986, in Belgrade, he added to his tally the sculps of Henri Leconte and Yannick Noah. That year he reached the Wimbledon semis after victories over Youl, Wostenholme, Flach, Van Rensburg and Krishan before surrendering to Ivan Lendl 62 67 63 67 64. Against Germany, in Davis Cup, Zivojinovic is the partner, in the doubles, of the debutant Croat Goran Ivanisevic. His father, Srdjan, presented Goran to “Bobo”.

The two went two sets ahead, wasted a match point at 8-7 in the fourth but lost 9-7 in the fifth set.

But 1987 is, above all, the year of Superbrat’s revenge against Zivojinovic. It all happened on September 5th, 1987. It was one of the  100 greatest days in New York sports, to quote the title of a book by Stuart Miller. In the US Open third round, McEnroe won the first set 6-4 and served for the second at 5-3. He was broken and quarreled with the umpire, Richard Ings for a “fine job of officiating” and harshly asked: “What match are you watching?”. Ings gave him a warning for unsportsmanship, McEnroe cursed him, and the chair umpire punished him with a point penalty for verbal abuse, giving Zivojinovic a 15-0 lead in the 10th game. Zivojinovic held for 5-5, then newly broke to go leading 6-5. At the next change of ends McEnroe again swore at the umpire, cursed out a CBS cameraman and his microphone, then asked Ings, “What are you going to do now, give me a game penalty and default me?”. That’s exactly what Ings did awarding the set, 7-5, to Zivojinovic. McEnroe lost the set following his outburst in a tiebreaker. But He had history on his side (he was 9-0 in five-setters at the Us Open) and five times he had come back from a 1-2 deficit. At the end of the day. McEnroe won 6-3 in the fifth.

During the years between the end of the Eighties and the beginning of the Nineties, a Novi-Sad born child-prodigy with Hungarian parents dominated the WTA Tour. The first “responsible” for her success was Jelena Gencic, a living sports institution in Serbia. A former handball international, she was the keeper of the Yugoslavian team at the 1984 Olympics, she decided to teach tennis in Belgrade. Even nowadays she works with an old Prince Sinergy and the bag she received in Los Angeles more than 25 years ago.

She’s not used to talk in vain. Just twice in her career she has said “You’ve something, you’re special” to a kid. The last time she was talking about Novak Djokovic: it’s due to her the shift that defined his career, the passage from a one-handed to a double-handed backhand. The first time ever she was referring to that Serbian child born to Hungarian parents: Monica Seles.

She dominated the Tour for six years. Seles won her first Grand Slam title in 1990, at the Roland Garros: she defeated Steffi Graf 7-6 6-4 in the title match saving four set points in the first set tiebreak and become, at the age of 16 years and 6 months, the youngest French Open titlist. She finished he year ranked World n.2 after her success at the Virginia Slam Championships. She outpowered Gabriela Sabatini 6-4 5-7 3-6 6-4 6-2 in the first women’s singles match played on the best-of-five distance since the 1901 United States Nationals.

In 1991 she won three majors (Australian Open, winning agains Jana Novotna, Roland Garros, defeating Arantxa Sanchez and Us Open beating Martina Navratilova) and withdraw from Wimbledon because of an injury. She then triumphed at the Championships and closed the year at the top of the ranking.

In 1992 she successfully defended the three Grand Slam titles but lost to Steffi Graf (6-2 6-1) in the Wimbledon final. From January 1991 to April 1993, when she was stabbed, she played 34 tournaments reaching 33 finals with 22 victories. She had an astonishing 55-1 record in Grand Slam events. In her first four years as a pro, her record was 231-25.

But something was changing in Yugoslavia. National pride was bursting, peoples were entrapped in the bloodiest European conflict since the Second World War. As it often happened, sports dropped a hint of what would have happened before rifles and bombs. 

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