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05 December 2010

Blog: A cut above


NEWS ARTICLE

By 

  • Clive White

Photo: Srdjan StevanovicThe Serbian team

The question is, will his busby top ever be the same again? Novak Djokovic probably doesn’t care right now after leading Serbia to its first Davis Cup by BNP Paribas title. Having his head shaved on court along with the rest of the Serbian team is a small price to pay for taking the scalp of France on Sunday.

It was debateable which was the more severe: the looks of Djokovic and company after their impromptu trip to the barbers or the straight sets beatings handed out to Gael Monfils and Michael Llodra. Both rubbers were over in less than four and a half hours.

They had made a promise at the start of the season that if they won the trophy they would shave their heads, but whether Slobodan Zivojinovic, the president of the Serbian Tennis Federation, or Niki Pilic, their advisor, were privy to this is unclear, but they went under the clippers all the same.

The old country of Yugoslavia didn’t start competing in Davis Cup until 1995. Now in the space of five years two of its young republics, Croatia and Serbia, have won the most prestigious team competition in tennis – both at the first time of asking.

With leading player Djokovic only 23 years-old, Viktor Troicki and Janko Tipsarevic still young enough to improve their own rankings of 30 and 49, respectively, and Nenad Zimonjic in the top three of the doubles specialists, Serbian tennis looks set to remain a force in the sport for a good few years yet.

Djokovic, who won both his singles rubbers, was clearly the main man even if Troicki was the one who clinched the victory. His pride in what the country has achieved has always been obvious and has been one of his chief targets.

“I would put everything behind me that I have achieved in 2010 just for this win,” said the 2008 Australian Open champion. “Definitely the best feeling that we have experienced on a tennis court ever.”

It seems only a matter of time before the Serbian women follow suit in the Fed Cup. Two of its players, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, have both scaled the summit of the world’s game in the past three years.

It’s just a question of whether they can establish the kind of team spirit that their men enjoy. Both were present at the Belgrade Arena in the past couple of days, watching enviously on.

The country has always thrived in team sports, but until now it’s been sports like basketball, water polo, volleyball and handball that have led the way. Strangely, in its most popular sport, football, it is less successful on the international stage. Now, with a new national tennis centre on the way, tennis is set to join the elite sports of Serbia.

 


Cometh the hour, cometh Troicki

The Davis Cup can define a player and there was a sense of that happening on Sunday as Viktor Troicki rose to meet the enormous pressure placed upon him in the fifth and final rubber of Serbia’s final against France.

Such demands can make or break a player. Eight years ago in the Final between France and Russia in Paris they crushed poor Paul-Henri Mathieu when he lost a two sets to love lead in the decisive rubber against Mikhail Youzhny.

It was no surprise to many that of the two 20 year-olds it has been the Russian who has gone on to have the more successful career, although Mathieu’s has been blighted by injury.

Troicki is four years older than Mathieu and perhaps better placed to answer those expectations. He is ranked 30 in the world and may be expected to climb higher after this.

To most people’s way of thinking it was a bold decision by Bogdan Obradovic, the Serbia captain, to opt for him in preference to Janko Tipsarevic, the hero of their semifinal defeat of Czech Republic and definitely a man for the big occasion. But he clearly knew what he was doing.

At the US Open, Troicki came within just few points of ending Novak Djokovic’s interest prematurely in the competition. In fact, Djokovic’s five-set victory against Troicki has been credited by many people for kick-starting his impressive end-of-season form, so there’s another reason for the Serbs to be grateful to Troicki.

“I've never seen anyone return Michael's serve as well as Viktor did today,” said Guy Forget, the France captain.

 


Fans unite in one voice

It’s a well known fact that the relationship between rival fans is normally a cordial one in tennis and never was that more obvious than in the Belgrade Arena on Sunday.

Before the reverse singles started the fans of Serbia and France could be heard teaching each other their own distinct chants. The spontaneous manner in which two groups of fans open a dialogue in this way is one of the mysteries of sport, but long may it continue.

Les Bleus have been in great voice at this Final. Although their 1,400 fans were heavily outnumbered among an audience of 16,200 the discrepancy was rarely that obvious and on the opening day it was debateable who made the greater noise.

Novak Djokovic, the Serbian No. 1, was so respectful of the passionate support they gave Guy Forget’s team that after defeating Gael Monfils to square the match he found it necessary to urge his own fans over the public address system to drown the French support.

“I was saying to the crowd that we should over‑cheer them because I believe that the crowd should be involved in the game, that 15,000 cannot be over‑cheered by 1,000,” he said.

“French crowd is incredible in this match. I mean, that's why I had to involve our crowd. It was the best atmosphere today. It's very difficult when you have such a professional and organised crowd as the French.”

While Forget took defeat in the sporting manner one would expect of him, he remained critical of the “idiots” who called or whistled when the French were in the process of serving.

“When you have a big event like this, you always have 20 or 30 idiots that are whistling every time you toss the ball,” he said.

“That's very frustrating. It's very unfair. These people don't need to be on a sport field anywhere. I think that kind of spoiled the pleasure that you can have on the court because you're always fighting the chair umpire to apply the rules.

“I hope in the future, you will be able to get rid of these people, because most of the people were wonderful.”

 


ITF President talks about Davis Cup

It was not the length of the season that was the problem, felt Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the International Tennis Federation, but the balance between what tournaments want from players and what players want from themselves.

In fact, talking at a press conference in Belgrade on Sunday, he thought the season which has just been shortened by the Association of Tennis Professionals, could be even longer.

“The people see the length of the season as a matter because they believe they [the players] are compulsory obliged,” said Ricci Bitti. “But as Federer says - he's a very wise man - he doesn't care so much because he plans himself how much to play. The key problem is always the balance between player commitment and tournament requirement.”

Ricci Bitti was asked prior to the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final in Belgrade whether there was anything the ITF could do to ensure that all the world’s leading players competed in the Davis Cup.

He replied that sometimes players felt that their teams could manage without them for certain ties or that they felt their teams were not strong enough to warrant their commitment. “We cannot avoid these two considerations,” he said.

“We [the ITF] are not so conservative as it looks like. I want to remind you that the HawkEye was introduced first by the ITF in the Hopman Cup in 2004-05. Obviously this is not mentioned many times.”

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  • CLIVE WHITE

    Clive White

    Clive started writing about sport at the 1966 World Cup final, since when, he says, it’s been all downhill... for England if not necessarily himself. He joined The Times at 21 before moving to the Sunday Telegraph where he provided worldwide coverage of tennis and football. As ghost writer to John McEnroe for six years, Clive learned that sport, far from being a matter of life and death, was, in fact, much more serious than that.

 

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