The unlikely lads: How Serbia became Davis Cup favourites

Final between the tiny nation and mighty France starts today with Djokovic and Co tipped to triumph

Nenad Zimonjic remembers all too well what it was like growing up in war-torn Serbia. As a teenager, Zimonjic was one of his country's most promising tennis players when the Balkan conflict exploded in 1991. The bloodiest battles in Europe since the Second World War were mostly fought outside Serbia's borders, but Belgrade became a key target of Nato's bombing campaign in 1999 and sanctions hit hard.

"I was probably playing tennis in the worst time for the country, the worst time for athletes," 34-year-old Zimonjic recalled. "We had the embargo and sanctions. We could not compete as juniors. Every time I left the country I had to travel by minibus to Budapest, which is six hours away, then fly somewhere else. They were really rough times. It was difficult to get visas to travel."

The Serbian economy has struggled ever since, meaning that sporting organisations have to fight for every dinar. The national tennis federation, which operates out of a rented property in a quiet backwater of Belgrade, has an annual budget of £1.26m and a staff of nine. Compare that with Britain's Lawn Tennis Association, which built its own £32m headquarters in Roehampton, employs 273 people and gets by on £60m a year.

"There is no system in Serbia and the tennis federation doesn't even have its own facilities," Zimonjic said. "Countries like Spain, France and the US have really good systems. They have federations that organise training programmes and coaches. We don't have that. It's all down to individuals."

This weekend, nevertheless, Serbia is on the brink of one of the most remarkable achievements in tennis history. Fifteen years after their debut in the Davis Cup and just three years after going it alone – they had previously competed as a joint team with Montenegro – Serbia are in the final for the first time.

With home advantage, moreover, this nation of just 7.3 million people are favourites to beat France, who have a population of 64.8 million and have won the 110-year-old annual team competition nine times. The final begins today at the 16,200-capacity Belgrade Arena, with Janko Tipsarevic facing Gaël Monfils and Novak Djokovic taking on Gilles Simon. Zimonjic and Viktor Troicki meet Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clément in tomorrow's doubles, with the reverse singles on Sunday.

Djokovic, the world No 3, is the home team's trump card, but Serbia are not a one-man band. Tipsarevic, the world No 49, was the hero of their 3-2 semi-final victory over the Czech Republic, winning both his singles rubbers. Zimonjic is the world No 3 in doubles, having won the most recent of his 39 titles at last week's ATP World Tour Finals in London. He has played 36 Davis Cup rubbers since his debut 14 years ago.

What the Serbian men have in common – along with their compatriots Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic in the women's game – is an extraordinary will to win. All of Serbia's best players eventually had to leave the country, with virtually no support from their national federation, in order to find suitable training facilities.

Tipsarevic and Ivanovic, for example, both spent their early years practising at the Jedanaesti April 11 sports centre in Belgrade, where the only indoor facilities during the harsh Serbian winter were in a converted swimming pool, which was drained because it was too expensive to heat. Two of the courts were less than full-size and players were forbidden to serve out wide because the walls of the pool made it impossible to return the ball. Cross-court rallies were not encouraged for the same reason.

Djokovic, meanwhile, went to train at Niki Pilic's academy in Munich at the age of 12 thanks to financial assistance from what was the Yugoslav army's sports club, Partizan, in Belgrade.

Given the hardships, how have Serbs achieved so much? "I believe we are a talented country for pretty much everything," Zimonjic said. "It's all about competing, proving that you're maybe better than the others, even though you know they are from a bigger country, have better facilities, better training conditions and more support.

"You try to prove everybody wrong, to make the most out of it. What we've been trying to do for the last two years is also maybe improve the way we can represent our country, especially after what we went through with the sanctions and embargo. The Serbian people have had a lot of bad press. I believe that athletes are helping to say something nice about our people.

"Winning the Davis Cup, to say we are world champions, would mean a lot to everybody – to the players, to the federation, to the people. We are undefeated in that arena, so hopefully it will stay that way. It would definitely be the biggest result in history for Serbian tennis."

While Serbia has a tradition, as did the former Yugoslavia, of producing champions across many sports, success in tennis has been limited. Monica Seles, an ethnic Hungarian who was born in Serbia, became the youngest-ever winner of the French Open at the age of 16 in 1990, while Slobodan Zivojinovic, now president of the national tennis federation, reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1986.

In recent years, Djokovic and Ivanovic have both won Grand Slam titles, but until their victory in March over the United States (population 310 million) Serbia had never won a tie in the Davis Cup's World Group, which brings together the 16 most successful nations. Djokovic and company first earned their place in the top division four years ago by beating Britain 3-2 in a tie in Glasgow. Britain have since dropped into Europe Africa Zone Group Two and would have been relegated to Group Three, the lowest tier, but for a victory over Turkey this summer.

Serbia's opponents this weekend are a country that has given the Davis Cup the greatest respect ever since the "Four Musketeers", Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste, helped them win the trophy six years in succession from 1927. France have won the Davis Cup three times in the last 20 years, most recently in 2001.

While Serbia's four-man squad largely picked themselves, Guy Forget, the French captain, had a much larger pool of players to consider, which is no surprise given the country's huge resources. The French federation's annual budget of £144m is more than 100 times bigger than that of their Serbian counterparts. France has 11 players in the world's top 100, which is bettered only by Spain, with 14. Injury has deprived Forget of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the world No 13, while the captain's selection of Simon (No 42) in the second singles spot behind Monfils (No 12) was a surprise to some, given the recent form of Llodra (No 23).

Llodra beat Djokovic en route to the Frenchman's first appearance in a Masters Series semi-final in Paris last month. This time, however, it will be Serbia's best player who will have the support of his home crowd. "It's Serbia's chance of a lifetime," Djokovic said. "Who knows if we'll ever get the same opportunity to play the finals in front of our crowd?"

How finalists compare

Serbia

Population: 7.3 million

Federation's annual budget: £1.26m

Staff employed by national federation: 9

Tennis courts: 1,500 (400 indoors)

Men in world's top 100: 3

Previous Davis Cup best: World Group first round (2007, 2008, 2009)

France

Population: 64.8 million

Federation's annual budget: £144m

Staff employed: 300

Tennis courts: 32,715 (8,575 indoors)

Men in world's top 100: 11

Previous Davis Cup best: winners (1927, '28, '29, '30, '31, '32, '91, '96, 2001)

... and Britain

Population: 62.3 million

Federation's annual budget: £60m

Staff employed: 273

Men in world's top 100: 1

Tennis courts: 23,000 (1,500 indoors)

Previous Davis Cup best: winners (1903, '04, '05, '06, '12, '33, '34, '35, '36)

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