Novak's Work For Serbian Tennis Far From Done
32-year-old discusses success and structure of Serbian tennis
With 77 tour-level trophies and five year-end World No. 1 finishes in the FedEx ATP Rankings, Novak Djokovic’s career has been defined by consistent success.
The 32-year-old will be hoping to add another important trophy to his collection at this year’s Australian Open, where he is chasing a record-extending eighth trophy. Such a win would not only narrow the gap on great rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the Grand Slam titles race, but it would also add to the growing interest in tennis back home in Serbia.
“It obviously helps when you have a success on a global level,” said Djokovic. “Of course, it has a very positive impact in your country. Serbia didn't really have a successful or long tennis tradition before Bobo Zivojinovic and Monica Seles. That was probably the first generation of successful tennis players coming from our country.
“Then really all of a sudden, I don't believe in coincidences in life, but it looked very much like a coincidence because there was no system or structure that supported our breakthrough to professional tennis, but in one moment we had three No. 1's of the world [with] Ana Ivanovic [and] Jelena Jankovic on the women's side. Four actually, doubles, Nenad Zimonjic, as well. Janko Tipsarevic [was in the] Top 10.
“It was an amazing decade for our tennis. That obviously helped the popularity of the sport in our country. There was a lot of interest, a lot of young people choosing to grab a tennis racquet.”
With huge success across several disciplines in the sport over the past decade, children in Serbia have enjoyed a range of successful role models to idolise. But the lack of structure and high costs has made it difficult for families to view tennis as a sustainable option in a country where team sports have proven particularly popular.
“The problem that we have is still the infrastructure, but it's also the system that hasn't really followed the success as well as it should have,” said Djokovic. “I do consider myself also responsible to try to do something when I'm not playing.
“Through the tennis club that we are running in Belgrade, through my free time, I try to help the federation… to establish some system that will be a long-standing, long-term system that will allow kids and parents to have an easier access to tennis, cheaper access to tennis, racquets, tennis courts, things like this.
“For an average family in Serbia, it's really expensive to play tennis. That's the reality. They will most likely choose — if it comes down to economics — basketball, football, handball or volleyball. Those are really successful sports in our country… We still have a lot of work to do to get actually, on the grassroot level, more players.”
Serbian tennis fans continue to be inspired by Djokovic, who led his nation to the inaugural ATP Cup title earlier this month. But there are two children who don’t have to switch on the TV or attend an event to be inspired by the 16-time Grand Slam champion. Could Djokovic’s children, Stefan and Tara, lead the future of Serbian tennis?
“So far, it’s been great in terms of the tennis relationship with me and my son. He’s willing to play with me,” said Djokovic. “He’s exposed to tennis a lot when he travels with me and on the TV. He knows what’s going on. He knows Roger and Rafa, a couple of the other guys.
“His favourite shot so far is the forehand. I’m trying to get him to hit a few backhands, but he’s been telling me that he’s born with the backhand…
“I’m a father first. I can’t really put myself in the role of the coach. I really want him and my daughter to express the honest desire to take the racquet and a ball and just hit… I would be more than happy to support them in a tennis career, but it’s still too early to talk about it. That’s what my wife says.”