© Nikola Milojevic

Nikola Milojevic's success on the ATP Challenger Tour has been inspired by countryman Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic Influence At Heart Of Serbian Challenger Success

Slew of Serbians set sights on Top 100

The influence of Novak Djokovic is undeniable. One of the elite standard bearers of his generation, it is hard to argue the impact the 29 year old has had both between the lines and away from the bright lights and boisterous crowds.

A consummate sportsman, Djokovic has earned the respect and admiration of his peers and is idolized by aspiring pros throughout the world. But arguably his biggest impact is much closer to home. Enter the next wave of budding Serbian stars, who are charging up the Emirates ATP Rankings on the ATP Challenger Tour.

“He's had a big influence on every Serbian player,” said 21-year-old Nikola Milojevic. “Since he became No. 1 and has done all these amazing things, things got better for the players back home. In terms of improving conditions to practise in Serbia and having a lot more courts to play on, we owe it all to him.”

Milojevic soared inside the Top 200 of the Emirates ATP Rankings for the first time following a pair of runner-up finishes on the Challenger circuit to kick off the season. Final appearances in Noumea, New Caledonia and Tempe, USA are results of years of hard work for the Belgrade native, whose career has blossomed in 2017. The World No. 194 admits that his success would not be possible had it not been for his countryman carrying the mantle and inspiring a nation throughout the past decade.

"He would do even more for Serbian tennis if he could, but he's too occupied with his career at the moment. But you'll see, when he finishes it will be even better.

“I've reached two Challenger finals and it's only the second month of the year, so I'd say it's a pretty good start to the season. I'm so happy it's paying off and hopefully third time will be the lucky charm."

Surging Serbians

Player Emirates ATP Ranking
Age
Challenger Breakthrough
Laslo Djere
192  21
Final - Cortina & Milan '16
Nikola Milojevic
194
 21 Final - Noumea & Tempe '17
Marko Tepavac
207  22 Title - Qarshi '16
Pedja Krstin
209
 22 Title - San Luis Potosi '16
Filip Krajinovic 223  25
Final - Manerbio & Rome '16
Miljan Zekic
226
 28
Title - Todi '16

In many ways, Djokovic’s generous attitude towards taking a hands-on approach in helping his countrymen epitomizes Serbia’s close-knit culture. Flashback to November 2004, when he clinched his second Challenger title, in Aachen, Germany, vaulting into the Top 200 of the Emirates ATP Rankings for the first time. It was a significant milestone not only for Djokovic, but the emerging nation state of Serbia. Despite being mired in conflict for years, it would declare its independence in 2006 and produced one of the greatest competitors to ever step on a tennis court. At the time, the future No. 1 was one of just two players in the Top 200. Today, there are six, with many more on the doorstep.

Much like Milojevic, fellow Serbians Pedja Krstin, Marko Tepavac, Laslo Djere and Miljan Zekic all credit Djokovic with inspiring them to pursue professional careers. Krstin, 22, says that the World No. 2’s impact provided the spark to claim his first Challenger title last year in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

"For me, it's great to have Novak,” said World No. 209 Krstin, who had reached a career-high No. 159 following his triumph on Mexican soil. “You can learn so much from him and he's had a lot of good advice to give us. We look up to him a lot. You see me, Milojevic and Djere are doing well now. We're a good generation. We just need to have some better tournaments and improve on the big points. That's the key. I hope to continue winning a few more Challengers and my goal is to be Top 100 soon."

The 2016 season was an exceptional one for Serbian tennis on the ATP Challenger Tour and Milojevic has since carried the momentum into the new campaign. Krstin’s title in San Luis Potosi set the tone and was followed by maiden crowns for 22-year-old Tepavac in Qarshi, Uzbekistan and Zekic in Todi, Italy, as well as a first final for 21-year-old Djere. In total, five players from Serbia reached a total of 10 Challenger title matches last year.

"Many people in Serbia are very proud of Novak, and not only in the tennis world," Tepavac added. "Many of us would like to follow his example as a man of great character and one of the best players of all time. He makes me believe that with talent and hard work, one can achieve the highest goals of life."

"He could go down as No. 1 in the history of the game and while we will never be like him, there's no doubt we are doing much better with him around than without him,” said Zekic. “Right now we have many players in the Top 200 and we've never had that before in Serbia. It's very good to have friends to practise with at tournaments.”

Serbia is not finished producing talented youngsters. The newest member of the contingent is first embarking on his professional journey. No. 1 junior Miomir Kecmanovic claimed his first ITF Futures title in January and is up to World No. 651 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. The Challenger Tour beckons for the 17 year old.