Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Serbian Plateau: Will it lead to higher ground?

Serbia's Meteoric Rise to the top of the Tennis world comes with a whole new set of expectations.

When Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open in 2008, Serbia as a tennis nation was at the sweet spot of its ascent. Three brilliant players (Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, and Jelena Jankovic), all uniquely shaped by being born into and associated with a region of political strife and civil war, were now coming into their own as tennis players. But there was still so much to prove. So much to yearn for. All three players, while different in their backrounds and approach to the game, were united by a deep and meaningful source of inspiration. They were playing with a higher purpose, fueled by a conviction, and it showed.

Djokovic's Australian Open final victory over Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Melbourne was monumental, and it was symbolic of so much more than merely tennis; it was a saving grace, a message from the firmament: believe, it said... Rise from the ashes! It was perhaps more about spirit than it was about sport.

Novak's triumph in Melbourne was a springboard for the other high ranking Serbians to finally get over the hump.

Ana Ivanovic, having lost her 2nd of 2 previous Grand-Slam finals just one day before Djokovic claimed his A.O title, did not wait long to ride the inspiration to a landmark victory of her own: She won the French in '08 and climbed to #1 in the world for the first time on June 9, 2008.

Meanwhile, Jelena Jankovic was climbing as well. She reached the # 1 Ranking on August 11, 2008, and finished the year at # 1.

“There’s been so much going on for Serbian tennis lately that it’s just incredible to describe how we could do it in such a small period of time,” Djokovic said after dedicating his 2008 title to his family, support team, and fans back in Serbia. “Probably the fact that we didn’t have the best possible conditions gave us more motivation to succeed.”

But that was yesterday.

While Serbia's reputation still basks in the glory of these precedent-setting victories, there are new expectations that have arisen. New pressures, faced by players who seemed to be more comfortable (confident, hungry?) in the role of underdog, but who now are forced to deal with life at the top, while the rest of the tennis world targets its hunger on them.

And this raises an interesting question about the psychology of the Serbian rise to power in the tennis world: Now that the players have achieved such great success in the game, will the fire in their belly still burn deeply enough to inspire future titles, or will the comforts associated with the success cause the flame to flicker?

2009 has been difficult for each of the big three Serbians: Djokovic has already amassed 8 losses, and has appeared to accept his failures much more apathetically than he did a year ago. He seems to lack inspiration at times, and at others he seems too angry at himself on the court to be productive. Additionally, his #3 ranking, held since August of 2007, is in serious jeapardy as Andy Murray closes in on him.

Ivanovic, meanwhile, hasn't gotten past the 3rd round of a Major after her breakthrough win in Roland Garros in 2008. New coach Craig Kardon helped her get to the finals of a Masters 1000 event at Indian Wells in March, but she followed that with another disconcerting early setback in Miami just a few days later. She is firmly entrenched as # 7 in the world, but it's a far cry from being #1, as she was 10 short months ago.

Jankovic's troubles are the most alarming. After finishing the year ranked at #1, she is currently at # 4 and in danger of dropping further. Even her wins have been shaky, with error-filled matches and many service breaks. She admits frequently in post-match press conferences that she is confused. "I'm not the same player I used to be," she told media after another early exit last week in Miami. "For three months I haven't been doing well at all, and I hope to begin my season sometime soon."

While there is no denying that 2009 has fallen short of expectations thus far, this reality does not detract from the impressive body of work that has already turned out by the young Serbs. Regardless of what happens in the short-term the big three (additional props to Troicki, Tipsarevic, and others...) have changed the complexion of tennis in Serbia, in a remarkably positive manner.

They have become icons, role-models, heros, and entrepreneurs. More importantly, they've become champions. And tennis fans all over the world have embraced them as they've done it - with their hearts on their sleeves, unafraid to emote, and keen to entertain. They've been so good that Serbians can't help but be inspired. The Serbian tennis Academy is in the works and the junior program has 4 more in the top 100 world rankings. Belief begets success. While the Serbians are no doubt at a temporary plateau, belief in the future, something that is essential to growth of the Serbian tennis program, is abundant.

When the ATP tour visits Belgrade for the first time On May 4-10 of 2009, it will be a time of reflection and pride for the nation and it's players. Serbia will be on display as a nation of beauty and as a nation with a growing tennis tradition. 10 years ago very few would have imagined such success for the nation of approximately 10 million people.

But the honeymoon mustn't last forever. The Serbians need to search their souls for remembrance of the past. Time at the top of the rankings must not separate them from who they are and why they burn.

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