Serb and volley: the tennis school that conquered the world

Pound for pound, it's the world's greatest tennis nation. But how has Serbia managed to produce a generation of superstars on a shoestring budget and against all sporting odds?
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Under the watchful eye of her coach, 12-year-old Marija Mastilovic is going through her repertoire in a dilapidated sports-hall in a quiet suburb of Belgrade. She cracks her forehands and backhands, pounding the ball with every ounce of her slender frame, throws herself into her serves and charges into the net to punch her volleys.

The lights above the four courts are dim, but the enthusiasm of Marija and her fellow tennis pupils shines through. The sound of racket on ball echoes around the bare concrete walls, interrupted only by occasional instructions from the coach, Nikola Cetnik, a fatherly figure who combines a ready smile with a firm tone when issuing instructions. There are several hundred spectator seats on one side of the hall, but the only people in them are a handful of parents.

Marija, her face a picture of concentration, seems to have every shot in the book, but you soon realise there are certain strokes she never plays. She hits all her serves down the middle and you never see her chasing balls out wide into the tramlines. Everything is straight up and down.

Look more closely at the four courts here at the Jedanaesti April 11 sports centre and you understand why Marija is playing this way. This is not a purpose-built tennis complex. It's not even a multi-purpose sports hall. It is a converted swimming pool. Two of the courts are less than full-sized and the walls of the old pool are just a few centimetres from the outside lines.

"We actually have to forbid the players to serve out wide because the ball would just go straight into the wall," says Sead Dervisevic, the centre's tennis director, with a shrug. "You also can't get to some angled cross-court shots because the wall gets in the way, so you have to get to the ball early. The playing surface is good here, but there are obviously things you can't do. It's only in the summer, when we can use the clay courts outside, that players can learn how to use the full width of a court."

You might think champions would be thin on the ground in a country where the best indoor courts are in a swimming pool converted because it was too expensive to heat, but this is Serbia, pound for pound the greatest tennis nation on earth, and the April 11 centre's most famous ex-pupil is Ana Ivanovic, 20, who today becomes the world's top-ranked female player following her victory in the French Open on Saturday. Two 23-year-olds, Jelena Jankovic, the world No 3, and Janko Tipsarevic, one of the most improved players in the men's game, trained here. Novak Djokovic, 21, the Australian Open champion, honed his game at another club across the city.

Cetnik, who was Ivanovic's coach between the ages of five and 11, calls Marija off the court and asks her to tell his visitors about her training programme. "I sometimes practise here five times a week," she says after climbing up the steps out of the pool. "I usually come here after school. I would love to be a top player one day. Everyone wants to be like Ana and Jelena."

Ana and Jelena have shown their fellow Serbs that anything is possible, even when you leave the comfort of your own pool to swim in the world's great oceans. Ivanovic, whose natural beauty and sporting prowess make her a marketing executive's dream, had already been a beaten finalist in two of the four Grand Slam tournaments that represent the pinnacle of the game before she went one better by winning her first major title at the weekend. Jankovic, a smile almost permanently lighting up her striking features, is a favourite with fans everywhere, not least at Wimbledon, where she won the mixed doubles title last summer in partnership with a local hero, Jamie Murray.

Ivanovic and Jankovic were apparently locked in a private duel to become the first of the new Serbian wave to win a Grand Slam tournament, but Djokovic beat them to it in the Australian Open in January. Between them, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had mopped up the previous 11 Grand Slam titles until Djokovic swept all before him in Melbourne, trouncing Federer in straight sets along the way. An iron-willed player with a confidence bordering on arrogance, he has turned the top of the game into a three-way fight for supremacy.

Throw in the world No 34, Janko Tipsarevic, and the world doubles No 6, Nenad Zimonjic, and you have one of the most improbable success stories in the history of tennis, a group of champions emerging from the rubble of a nation racked by post-war economic and political strife.

Sport was always important behind the Iron Curtain. The old Yugoslavia never went as far as East Germany, which routinely fed its most athletic young people with performance-enhancing drugs in pursuit of the legitimacy and recognition that it thought gold medals would bring, but Marshal Tito knew that sport could help unite the disparate nations he kept under one flag for so long. For the most part, however, the emphasis was on sports such as football, basketball and volleyball, in which the cost of equipment was minimal and the team ethic fitted in with the Communist regime's philosophy.

Serbs occasionally found tennis fame – Slobodan Zivojinovic reached the 1986 Wimbledon semi-finals, and 16-year-old Monica Seles (ethnic Hungarian, but born in Novi Sad) became the youngest-ever winner of the French Open in 1990 and went on to win another eight Grand Slam tournaments – but sport became an irrelevance when the Balkan powder-keg exploded in 1991. As President Slobodan Milosevic waged war with his neighbours, the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since the Second World War were mostly fought outside Serbia's borders until Belgrade became a key target of Nato's 1999 bombing campaign.

Dervisevic remembers the difficulties in keeping the centre open. "When the bombing began we shut down for three days, but after that we decided that we should continue as normal," he says. "We were open every day. One day a power station just 400 metres from here was hit by a bomb. All the windows here were blown out. It was a horrifying experience, but we carried on. We wanted to keep things as normal as possible for the children. I think the experience gave us all strength."

Ivanovic was one of those who tried to keep her training routine going as bombs exploded around the city. "I would say those were the toughest times," she recalled. "It was very hard. It went on for three months. It was very hard to practise, and we couldn't at the start of the bombing. Later on we got used to it. We would practise at seven in the morning and try to live as normal lives as possible."

By the time peace broke out, it was not only the country's military installations that lay in ruins. With the Serbian economy shattered by war and economic sanctions, inflation raged and substantial sections of the population lived below the poverty line. Today, the Serbian economy is still weak and some political tensions are unresolved. Many Serbs remain bitterly opposed to independence for Kosovo, their anger evident when protesters in Belgrade set fire earlier this year to the US Embassy and a McDonald's in protest at America's recognition of the new state.

So how did this troubled nation of fewer than 10 million people produce three of the world's top tennis players? "Everyone asks this and it's not easy to give a simple answer," says Dusan Orlandic, general manager of the Serbian Tennis Federation. "It's a case of a particular set of circumstances coming together, with three gifted young people emerging at the same time. They started to dedicate themselves to tennis at a difficult time for our country, but I think that helped create a situation in which they were especially motivated to be successful. The tennis federation and particularly the families of the players have worked very hard to create a situation in which they can succeed."

The players are certainly not the product of a systematic programme of coaching and player development. Until very recently, the only tennis coaching schemes in Serbia were run by private organisations or by the clubs that have traditionally been the focal point for sport in the country. Djokovic, for example, practised at what was the Yugoslav army's sports club, Partizan, which helped pay his travel expenses.

The Serbian tennis federation remains badly under-resourced, particularly in comparison with counterparts such as Britain's Lawn Tennis Association, which spent £32m on a move last year to a swish new tennis centre in south-west London. Not that fine facilities are a guarantee of success: while there was the now customary swarm of Serbs at the start of the French Open in Paris, Andy Murray was the only British player with a high enough ranking to play in the singles. By the start of the quarter-finals, the English-speaking world, including wealthy former tennis powerhouses like the United States and Australia, did not have a single representative left in the tournament, while the three leading Serbs all reached the semi-finals. Djokovic eventually lost to Nadal and Jankovic to Ivanovic, who went on to beat the Russian Dinara Safina in straight sets in Saturday's final. All three will be major contenders when Wimbledon starts in a fortnight's time, while Djokovic will be one of the main attractions when the Artois Championships begin today at Queen's Club in London.

Orlandic smiles when he considers the comparison between the LTA andhis own organisation, which employs just seven people (the LTA has a staff of 120 at its national HQ and as many again in its regional offices) and operates out of an anonymous residential property in a backwater of Belgrade.

"We rent this building," Orlandic says, sitting back in a chair in his simple office. "For the last two years we've been waiting for the government to help us build a national tennis centre that they promised to us."

Does the federation own any property at all?

"No. We own one van."

Is it a large van?

"It's big, but very old. We've just signed a contract with Audi for a couple of vans and cars, but we won't own them.

Fuelled by a surge in local interest in tennis (when Serbia played Australia in the Davis Cup last year the tie was watched by nearly 60,000 spectators – a world record for any match other than a final), the federation's annual budget has risen this year to €1.5m (about £1.2m). The LTA has an annual income of £43m, more than half of which comes from Wimbledon profits.

"It's been very difficult for us over the last 10 or 15 years because the political and economic situation in the country has been so bad," Orlandic says. "There are only 10 or 15 big companies in the country that have money. The rest are very poor. Three years ago, the government started to give a little more support to tennis, but it's still nothing compared to what federations like the British and French have to work with. Seventy per cent of our budget comes from the government. We get some additional money from sponsors and a small amount from subscriptions, though we have only 2,000 registered players in Serbia."

Tipsarevic, a thoughtful character who has a quotation from Dostoevsky ("Beauty will save the world") tattooed on one arm in Japanese ("I was going to have it done in Russian but it didn't look good"), remembers what a struggle it was for his family to keep his tennis going during his childhood. "When I was growing up as a player there were no sponsors, no federation, no nothing," he says. "I don't blame the federation, because the political situation of the country was a complete mess. Everything was going down. We had Milosevic in power, who not only destroyed the country but completely destroyed our sport.

"Today, in Serbia there aren't more than 20 playable courts indoors. They're all courts with carpet surfaces and you couldn't play a proper match on them. The carpet is really old. There are probably only two or three clubs which have suitable courts. The problem is there are now no tournaments on the main professional tour where we play on carpets. They're all hard courts these days."

The paradox is that Serbia's very inability to provide enough support in terms of financial help or facilities was a key factor in the development of their best players. Family and friends made sacrifices to help them go abroad to train, where they received top-class coaching. Djokovic, whose family are now planning to build their own tennis centre in Belgrade, was sent at 12 to an academy in Munich. Jankovic went at the same age to Nick Bollettieri's training camp in Florida – she remembers watching with horror as American television reported on the bombing back home – and 14-year-old Ivanovic practised in Switzerland after a German businessman sponsored her.

Jankovic is in no doubt that the difficulties they had as teenagers have been a big factor in their success. "If you compare all three of us top 10 players, you can see we're very strong," she says. "When we go on court it's as if we're going to war. We don't care who is on the other side of the net. I respect all my opponents, but when I go on court I don't care what their ranking is or who they are. I just go out there to win."

Ivanovic agrees. "I think we're all very good fighters, with a tough mentality," she says. "I think we also appreciate the opportunities we had when times were so tough and that makes us want to take every opportunity we have."

Cetnik, Ivanovic's coach during her swimming-pool years, remembers her single-minded determination. "She was always a perfectionist. Sometimes I would give her a one-metre-wide target to hit on the far side of the court. Even if she hit it eight times out of 10, she would be disappointed. Other children would be happy with five or six out of 10."

A desire to succeed is one thing, but the big three also have great natural talent. Jelena Gencic, a former national champion who has coached for more than 30 years, remembers when Djokovic turned up at her training camp in the mountain resort of Kopaonik, where his family owned a restaurant.

"He practised with us for about four hours a day," she says. "I used to divide the players into three groups according to their ability and Novak was so good I put him in the top group straight away, even though he'd only started playing a month earlier.

"I organised a tournament for the children every weekend and I made the semi-finals and final like a proper competition, with ballboys and ballgirls, line judges, everything. Novak got into the semi-finals and then the final. Word had already gone round about how good he was and quite a few people came to watch. He was only just six years old and he was playing a 14-year-old girl in the final. He won 6-0, 6-1."

By the time Djokovic was 12, Gencic knew he had to go abroad to further his career. "He was so strong, so fast, so good. I always had to find older practice partners for him. It got to a stage where they would play one set but then say they couldn't play another because he was too good. I realised I'd reached the limit of what I could do for him."

Gencic pays credit to the players' families. "I know how hard it has been for them to find the money," she says. "They've had to pay not only for them to practise and be coached but also to travel to tournaments, both here and abroad, and to go to training camps. Life was very difficult here when these children were growing up. There was no money, no work. Being successful at a sport, making a career out of sport, was a way out of our crisis. I think both the players and their families recognised that."

The argument that hardship and war drove the players to find a way out of their situation is a seductive one, but there are other countries around the world in similar situations with much bigger pools of potential talent. Certainly, Tipsarevic thinks that it's simply a quirk of fate that a generation of great players have emerged from one country at the same time.

"I really don't believe it's down to this Rocky Balboa fighting mentality that people talk about," he says. "I don't believe that the reason we fight more on court than the British or the French or whoever is because we were poor as kids. I think it is just luck, a complete coincidence."

Nevertheless, Tipsarevic is happy to ride the wave of interest that has seen tennis become one of the most popular sports in Serbia. "It's amazing," he says. "I feel like a rock star, yet I'm only ranked 30 or something in the world."

Gencic sees at first hand the influence the leading Serbs have had on the next generation. "Late in the summer, I always organise a tournament at my tennis school. One of the categories is for the youngest of the children and last summer it was won by this little five-year-old girl, Katarina. I award cups and when I presented hers she kissed the trophy and held it aloft. I asked her, 'How did you know about doing that?' She said, 'Because I've watched Novak and Ana and Jelena on television.'"

Back at the April 11 centre, Dervisevic wonders how to cope with the growing demand for tennis. "We could fill these courts two or three times over, and that's true throughout Serbia," he says. "We open at seven in the morning and we don't close until midnight, yet the courts are full all the time."

The lesson for the rest of the world is clear. If you want to produce champions, throw them in at the deep end.

First Serbs: the trailblazers

Slobodan Zivojinovic

One of Serbian tennis's most colourful stars, the 6ft 6in Zivojinovic, now 44, reached a career-high ranking of 19. In 1986, unseeded, he beat John McEnroe to reach the Australian Open semi-finals. In 1991, he left his wife to marry the singer Lepa Brena. In 2000, their son was kidnapped by Serbian mafia and returned for a ransom after six days.

Monica Seles

Born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (in present-day Serbia), Seles, 34, grunted her way on to the scene when, aged 16, she became the youngest winner of the French Open. She dominated in the early 1990s until a deranged Steffi Graf fan stabbed her on court in Hamburg. Seles came back but struggled for form. She recently appeared in the US version of Strictly Come Dancing.

Tatjana Jecmenica

One of a batch of Serbian hitters who toil in the lower reaches of the top 100, Jecmenica, 29, reached No 72 in 1996. She won 10 singles and doubles tournaments. Jecmenica now coaches at her own school in Novi Sad.

Jelena Dokic

A troubled career has seen the 25-year-old switch allegiance between her native Serbia and Australia more than once. Dokic reached No 4 in the world in 2002. In 2003, a bust-up with her erratic father saw Dokic slip down the rankings. In 2004, she went home to Serbia and disappeared for a while before returning to represent Australia.

Boris Pasanski

Belgrade-born Pasanski reached 55 in the world two years ago. His two highest-profile matches hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. In 2006, he was thrashed at Wimbledon by Andre Agassi in the American's last appearance in SW19; and last year, he was embroiled in an alleged betting scam – some observers accused him of throwing a match. Pasanski denied any wrongdoing.

Ana Timotic

Before Ivanovic and Jankovic, there was Ana Timotic – who managed a career high of 199, in June 2006. She now languishes in the bottom half of world top 1,000.

Simon Usborne