Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Wave of Players From Serbia Sweeps Into the Open

Sports of The Times
August 30, 2007

The venerable CBS commentator Andy Rooney said the other day that he could not keep track of Hispanic baseball players. He apparently cannot distinguish the fierce El Duque from the effervescent Reyes from the low-key Beltrán, and that’s too bad.

At least baseball is all over the tube, the radio and the sports pages for 162 games every season, helping most people know A-Rod from Mo, even by osmosis. Where I have trouble is tennis. Every time the United States Open rolls around, there is a whole new crop of players, all of them around 20 years old, most of them unknown to me.

The turnover is confounding. It was only a year or three ago that I was enjoying Guga and Srichaphan and the Rockin’ Moroccan in later rounds of the Open. Where did they all go?

On Tuesday, two news media friends suggested a walk over to Louis Armstrong Stadium to watch Novak Djokovic. Sure, I said. A covert glance at the program reminded me that Djokovic, barely 20, is the Serb who recently defeated Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the same tournament in Montreal, a tremendous feat I had vaguely noted while obsessing about Bonds and Beckham and Vick.

What makes matters worse, The New York Times has run lovely stories on the Serbian tennis movement, as recently as Sunday, when I learned that the Djokovic family runs a pizza and pancake restaurant back in Serbia, but I had blanked on his name.

Clearly, three things are happening. One, I am losing my mind. Two, tennis is not the phenomenon in the United States that it was a decade or two ago. And three, other parts of the world are producing superior players at a faster per capita rate than the United States.

Maybe I am the last to realize that Serbia, with no strong centralized tennis program like the old Czechoslovakia had, has managed to put three players in the top five seeds of the current Open. Ana Ivanovic, seeded fifth, beat Aravane Rezaï of France, 6-3, 6-1, yesterday, and Jelena Jankovic, seeded third, defeated Olga Govortsova of Belarus, 6-2, 6-2. Djokovic, seeded third, will play Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic in the second round, probably tomorrow. A fourth Serb in the Open, Janko Tipsarevic, defeated Ryan Sweeting of the United States, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2, yesterday.

This wave of Serbian tennis power was celebrated in Belgrade in June, after all three young stars had done well in the French Open. Djokovic, Ivanovic and Jankovic, making a rare cameo appearance in their homeland, waved to a huge crowd in the square outside the parliament building.

“When I was a kid, I went there to welcome volleyball and basketball players,” Ivanovic recalled yesterday, adding that this time “it was me standing up on a terrace.”

The three Serbs reached the top 10 in different ways. Ivanovic, not yet 20, learned to play in Serbia during the most violent years of the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, whereas Jankovic, 22, moved to Bradenton, Fla., for her education. Djokovic also moved west, to Munich, to study under Nikki Pilic.

“I can say it was difficult to practice and develop into the professional tennis player coming from the country which never had such a big tennis tradition,” Djokovic said Tuesday. “So I had to leave in the early ages to somewhere else.”

All three Serbs speak English well, react like adults, make eye contact and generally show no signs of that common tour disease, tennis elbow of the personality.

At a wiry 6-foot-2 and 177 pounds, with a supple, all-around game, Djokovic has been a revelation, racing past some of the older mainstays. He retains a touch of the inner class clown, doing pretty good imitations of his colleagues, without ticking them off. (In the YouTube era, everybody under a certain age is a performer.)

On Tuesday, Djokovic also demonstrated sportsmanship, clapping on his racket after a fine passing shot by Robin Haase of the Netherlands.

Djokovic is still coming to grips with what he accomplished in Montreal. A large crowd filed into Ashe Stadium for the opening match Tuesday morning, at a time when that gigantic place is normally still yawning.

“I’m No. 3 of the world, so people come to see,” Djokovic said. “I’m still young, you know. I made a big breakthrough this year, so everybody’s really interested the way I play. It was the first match.

“It was a fantastic atmosphere,” he added. “A lot of crowd was behind me. I had a great support from my countrymen and from Americans, which is very important for the future, for the next matches, upcoming matches.”

There figure to be more matches in main stadiums for the three Serbs, whom I now have fixed in my mind. Now it’s on to the 8 Russian men and 18 Russian women in this tournament — before the cast changes drastically all over again next year.



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