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Marko, Darko, and Djoko 05/07/2009 - 5:22 PM

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by Pete Bodo

Tennis is a family game. Almost anyone old enough to walk and hold a racket can play, and so can the miracle octogenarian. Everyone knows about those notorious tennis dads and moms, but remember, too, that husband and wife, or parent and child, can play and even play with each other. Also, anyone compete in tournaments, including the sanctioned ones that generate official rankings. If you're a USTA member, or part of any other ITF affiliate, and you earn a ranking, you're name is right there in the book, alongside that of Serena Williams, or Mardy Fish.

Beyond that, knowledgeable fans know that the most familiar and easily navigated path to glory runs through the living room and basement rec room. Many of the best pro players emerge from families immersed in the tennis culture. Who can forget Ivan Lendl's childhood tales of being leashed like a dog to the net post by his tennis nut mother while she played matches? Or overlook the fact that Chris Evert's father was a Fort Lauderdale teaching pro - who, in fact, had dated Gloria Connors (Jimmy's mother) back in their collegiate days? Todd Martin's mother used to set up the playpen alongside the fence at the court where she played with her husband, and the Austin family produced three siblings who each played on the pro tour at one time or another: Pam, Jeff and Tracy.

Even when a promising player's family isn't crazy for tennis, it often gets that way when a youngster's talent becomes manifest. A precocious player requires a support system, and that usually means family involvement and even sacrifice. Tennis is not just something that people do; it's something people live. The game sometimes enters through the side door and gradually overwhelms a family. In what other sport do parents (Richard Williams?) and even siblings (Venus and Serena, Andy and Jamie?) play so large or visible a role?

I got to thinking about all this once again as the Serbian Open got underway the other day. That a single player (Novak Djokovic) backed up by his family could exert such a profound influence on the game is both telling and surprising. It's as if Kobe Bryant and his family decided they wanted their own NBA franchise, and got it. Or Brett Favre and his kin starting an NFL team. It seems a little screwy, to tell you the truth. There's something startlingly . . . unprofessional . . . about the idea. I mean, what does Novak's uncle Goran know about tennis? It had better be something, because the dude is the tournament director of the Serbia Open.

Well, I'm not one of those sanctimonious finger-waggers who expects everyone to be pure as the driven snow, or who enjoys pointing out that this or that person isn't, or may not be. The fact that the Djokovic family has taken the initiative, and assumed at least some risk (I believe that's the case, but don't quote me on it - apparently the government of Serbia is also involved in all this) is admirable. It shows that they're fairly courageous, not averse to working, and have an instinct for giving something back to the game, for growing tennis in a new and fertile corner of the world.

The Djokovices brought pro tennis to a nation that had virtually no tradition or history in the game, but in which (thanks to them) tennis has rocketed in popularity to become the most popular sport. Given the way tennis is structured and run, I'm amazed that the Serbia Open exists at all - this sport isn't exactly known for its carpe diem approach to creating new tournaments in promising markets (BTW, now that we're mired in this global recession, what was that about China being the vast, new, dying-to-be-exploited market?).

Still, Serbia having a tournament is one thing; Novak Djokovic owning it, promoting it, and competing in it is quite another. At some level this is simply surreal. And let's remember that Novak himself is all of 21 years old. Shoot, a few more years at this rate and the stadium at the site (officially, it's the Milan Gale Muskatirovic) is going to be named the Novak Djokovic Coliseum at the Serbia Open. Sitting in the locker room, Roger Federer will turn to Rafael Nadal and ask, "Who are you playing?"

Rafa will answer: "I'm playing Novak in The Novak. Second match after two."

Roger: "Yeah, it's tough playing him in The Novak. . . crowd noise is just too much."

I mean, does anyone else think this is a little weird?

I've been poking around the Serbia Open website, and Djokovic's own "official" site as well. It's kind of cute, and refreshing, to see exuberant, bang-'em-on-the-head headlines like: Unexpected! Zimonjic and Nestor Defeated! or Exciting Contest of Serbian Players (the headline for the Novak vs. Janko Tipsarevic match). In one of the photo galleries I found an image of the press interview room; it was set-up just like it usually is at tour events, with players, an ATP handler, a few film crews, a player seated behind the table - but only one person who appeared to be an actual journalist. I relay this only to emphasize the Just build it, they will come aspect of this entire endeavor. It's built. I hope that over time everyone does come, because it took courage and vision to make this a reality.

The team that beat Nenad Zimonjic and Daniel Nestor (the no. 2 doubles team in the world) and inspired the second of those headlines I quoted above? It was Darko Madjarovski and Marko Djokovic, Novak's 18-year old brother. Darko and Marko never even hit balls until a week ago, and they survived a tight match with two of the most talented, veteran doubles players on the main tour. The score that was posted at the Serbia Open website was 7:6, 2:6, 10:6 - do with it what you will. And let's have no whispering about this upset - this was a day the world's top doubles team (Bob and Mike Bryan) also went down, in Munich.

Marko showed that he has a touch of that Djokovic hubris when he said, “This is not a surprise, the result is real and I hope that we will win the tournament.” Darko Madjarovski was a little more circumspect, perhaps because at 25, he's seven years older than Marko, Madjarovski waxed philosophical, saying: "It was a great honor to step out to the court with Zimonjic and Nestor. The ball is round, everything is possible. We are moving on."

I hope the weather stays sunny and warm, because apparently there aren't any covers for the courts at the Milan Gale Muskatirovic. You know how it is with a big project like this, it's easy to forget some of the details: Rain? Who woulda thunk it?!!!. Once upon a time, the site (can we agree to just call it the Milan Gale?) was some sort of tennis facility. The Djokovic family bought it, figured out a way to rehabilitate it, and bought out the sanction of the tournament usually held in Amersfoort. That made room on the calendar for the Serbia Open. Tennis benefited from the swap: it may have lost a minor regional tournament, but it gained a national championship. Let's face it: any tournament that begins with the name of a nation and ends in "Open" has a certain amount of heft.

I don't know if you saw Neil Harman's Net Post column the other day, but he wrote that three years ago, when Djokovic was temporarily stateless because of the split between Serbia and Montenegro, the LTA made an aggressive effort to move the Djokovics to England. Among other things, they allegedly dangled a membership in the All-England Club, as well a a retirement home in Eastbourne, overlooking Devonshire Park (the site of the annual WTA tournament). It speaks to the depth and passion of the Djokovic family's patriotic feelings that they turned down the offer.

Now, they have a tournament of their own, and a captive domestic audience. As Novak has said, "This is very important, especially for my family, for myself and for all the players from Serbia, to have a tournament for the first time in the history of our country. Everybody is really excited."  Harman reported that Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero, two former  no. 1s, had asked for wild cards but were turned down because Goran Djokovic had awarded two of the three on offer to a pair of little known Serbs (Filip Krajinovic and Arsenije Zlatanovic), and gave the other one to Marcos Baghdatis.

It just so happens that Novak was drawn to play fellow Serbs Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki, in back-to-back matches. He's already taken care of Janko - Viktor is next. So, with Marko and Novak still alive and kicking, things are looking pretty good for the Djokovic family, whose business apparently is officially known as Family Sport. It's all about family for the Djokovices. And the Serbia Open is all about the Djokovic family and their fellow Serbs, which includes Daniel Nestor - sort of. Let's remember that he was born in Belgrade.

Darko. Remember that name if you find yourself rebelling against peer group pressure to name your kid Cody, Tucker, or Kwame.


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Posted by RR 05/08/2009 at 07:07 PM

@zolarafa, If I didn't miss something, last week in Rome, they didn't have covers on their courts out of center court and actually I saw the same scenes in the rain in some other tournaments. Still I agree with you that they shouldn't have forgotten about that but it's not only this event's issue.

Posted by RR 05/08/2009 at 07:10 PM

@zolarafa, If I didn't miss something, last week in Rome, they didn't have covers on their courts out of center court and actually I saw the same scenes in the rain in some other tournaments. Still I agree with you that they shouldn't have forgotten about that but it's not only this event's issue.

Posted by RR 05/08/2009 at 07:11 PM

eek, sorry, double post :(

Posted by twixx 05/08/2009 at 07:11 PM

JT, you are so out of your mind.

danilo, you`re welcome.

Posted by zolarafa 05/08/2009 at 10:18 PM

RR
I watched Rome, but missed that part. If indeed they did not have covers either, then it should have been mentioned. No double standards! and it could happen to everyone.

Posted by Hola 05/09/2009 at 01:46 AM

Niki Pilic is a Croat not a Serb, and American Monica Seles an ethnic Hungarian

Nannette Pilic's wife is a Serb and at the time Monica Seles was born it was Serbia, Yugoslavia

But doesn't Novak live in Monte Carlo to avoid paying taxes in Serbia
Christopher, so what? Sean Connery advocates independence for Scotland but lives in Mallorca. I believe Murray lives in London but claims to be a Scot patriot.

Posted by tina (live from Belgrade) 05/09/2009 at 05:53 AM

Looks like we just might have a Croat-Serb final here. As a self-identified "Yugonostalgist", it seems a fitting outcome.

Oh, and the Darko/Marko team looked like deer caught in the headlights last night, but I will say, they both have pretty strong serves, great returns when their opponents weren't hitting big service winners/aces, and solid net play.

Posted by JT 05/09/2009 at 03:11 PM

No twixx, you don't get it! Obviously...

Posted by tina (live from Belgrade) 05/09/2009 at 06:44 PM

Ok, I was wrong about the Serb-Croat final, since Karlovic lost this afternoon.

And as for "playing on the Novak" - I did notice tonight that the sign for the speed gun is sponsored by the company making "aqua novak" - a mineral water given out for free at the tournament. But the "aqua" lettering is very small, so the sign has the kph under the name novak - really making it seem as if they are, in fact, "playing on the Novak". Still, I've been to a lot of tournaments, from the Hamlet Cup in Commack, NY to the Volvo Stratton Mountain to Indian Wells, Key Biscayne, and three Grand Slams. For the first year of a tournament, I'd say it's right on par with the first year of New Haven, when it was still the Volvo tourney - but there's better public transportation here.

Sorry, can't tell you the inside gossip about Zivojinovic and the Family Djokovic. Or being entertained in part of Tito's train. Someone's actually paying me for that.

Posted by justice 05/10/2009 at 08:03 AM

Oh Pete - in this article you're not objective at all - the envy and all the other "diseases" of the heart and soul own you.

Posted by danielle 05/10/2009 at 05:20 PM

the thing with Novak is that no one had help him beside his parents when he was 9, no facilities, no government..nobody, only his parents. That is the difference. For example in England, country invest a lot in Andy Marry, they saw a talent in him and offer him everything..not to mention spain players, or american..... Novak didn`t have that, no one invest in him beside his parents and they did everything, went trough everything to help him ti develop his career. They had to pay extra money and send him abroad... Now he is trying to help next generation in Serbia, so they can earn some points in Serbia, so they can play some tournament in their country ...so they don`t have to travel always in other country to play tournaments to get some ATP points....so i thing he made a great move and try to do smth for next generation in Serbia..I am sure when he was young he wished to play in his country and earned some ATP points here....

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