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05 March 2011

Blog - Miracle between the mountains


Photo: Srdjan StevanovicMarin Cilic and Ivan Dodig (CRO)

By Gordan Gabrovec in Zagreb

Located in the Herzegovina region of the western part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is very close to the Croatian border, there is a small town called Medjugorje (literal translation to English would be "between mountains"). It has over 4,000 inhabitants, mainly Croatians. Even though it is so small, this town is a worldwide known place, especially among Catholics.

Thirty years ago, six young people from the village (back then it was more of a village than the little town it’s grown into) claimed they saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Since then "Our Lady of Medjugorje" has been appearing monthly before the same six people. Millions of people come to Medjugorje every year trying to find lost faith, peace, health and many other things, however, the Roman Catholic Church has yet to officially recognise the believed phenomenon of Medjugorje.

As the number of tourists visiting Medjugorje grows from year to year, local people started to build hotels and other facilities to satisfy wishes of their guests. Until 1995, there was only one improvised tennis court in Medjugorje. Just one year after you could find ten newly built tennis courts around the neighborhood.

A lot of children wanted to play tennis. Boys wanted to follow in the footsteps of Goran Ivanisevic, and girls tried to follow the example of a young phenomenon named Mirjana Lucic. Among those kids you could find Ivan Dodig and his uncle, Zarko, who founded a tennis club in Medjugorje. There was also Ivan's little neighbour, Marin Cilic, playing tennis as well. For years to come, the two would practice hard and dream about playing big tournaments, big matches, winning titles and playing Davis Cup for their beloved Croatia.

Years passed by before they could live their dream. They followed different routes. Cilic became a fast rising star in Croatia. Dodig was playing Davis Cup representing Bosnia and Herzegovina until 2006, hoping to get some financial help so that he could keep playing. Dreams and faith kept him in tennis even when times were harsh.

On Friday, they both lived their dream. Two boys from Medjugorje were playing Davis Cup for their beloved Croatia. In sporting terms, this is truly a tennis miracle from the small town between the mountains.

Back to the future

By Maximiliano Boso in Buenos Aires

It’s been two years and four ties since Argentina played their last Davis Cup home tie, which was against Netherlands. That is until this weekend.

Argentina’s passionate tennis fans are definitely taking advantage of coming to watch their players, captained by Tito Vazquez, as they battle Romania.  

There are some coincidences. The stadium is the same: Mary Teran de Weiss stadium at Parque Roca, in Buenos Aires.

The 2009 match against Netherlands was the first for Vazquez as the Argentine captain in his second stint leading the team. And now, as before, he is dealing with injured players.

In 2009, Vasquez couldn’t count on David Nalbandian and Juan Martin del Potro. This time Nalbandian and Juan Ignacio Chela have injuries, but are playing. On the other hand, Del Potro is focused on his comeback from a right wrist surgery, and was unavailable for this tie.

Another coincidence has to do with Chela. As his own team comes back home after two years absence, the 31 year-old player is also making his return to the Argentine team.

Chela was an important member of the team that whitewashed Netherlands, but he was still trying to recover from a series of injuries that put his career on a borderline when falling to No. 205 in the world rankings by the middle of the year.

However, Chela never gave up and had a great comeback in 2010, winning two titles and reaching the final in Buenos Aires a couple of weeks ago. Back again in Davis Cup, he successfully teamed with Eduardo Schwank in doubles to clinch the first round tie 3-0 against Romania.

At an age when many players think about retirement, Chela says with usual calm: “As long as I feel good, motivated and healthy, I will continue playing. Being back in the Davis Cup team is a gift that I appreciate”.

The return of a serving giant

By Lee Goodall in Boras

As early as the second game of Joachim Johansson’s singles against Teymuraz Gabashvili on Friday, the fans inside the Borashallen realised the forgotten man of Swedish tennis was fully fit - and firing on all cylinders. Johansson had officially retired from the game because of injuries, but recently announced he was healed and healthy and was going to return.

This is the guy, remember, who owns the fourth fastest serve of all time - a 245km/h delivery struck in Davis Cup play back in 2004, the same year he made the semifinals at the US Open.

Andy Roddick still holds the record for the fastest serve of all time (249km/h), and it was obvious from the start that Pim Pim - currently ranked in the 700s - was going to go close to that record in only his fourth match since late 2009.

In Johansson’s second service game he thundered down two successive 238km/h deliveries, followed by a 240km/h ace. The data guys on site here in Sweden confirmed his fastest serve of the day was a 241km/h effort in the third set, while during the second set tiebreak one first serve that missed the centre line by a whisker was clocked at 247km/h. Had that serve been good, it would have been the second fastest serve of all time.

You didn’t need technology to confirm just how big the 6-foot-6 Swede was serving yesterday - and this from a man who has undergone surgery on his right shoulder twice. “It was incredible,” agreed captain Thomas Enqvist. “And sometimes you wonder whether it’s his first or second serve. Sometimes he kind of hits them the same speed!”

Since this blog was posted, Ivo Karlovic hit a 251km/h serve which broke Andy Roddick's previous world record of 249km/h. Karlovic struck the serve during Saturday's doubles rubber at the World Group first round tie between Croatia and Germany.

Fernando in the house

By Sandra Harwitt in Santiago

Fernando Gonzalez is without a doubt Chile’s most successful player of this time period.

He’s won 11 career titles, was the 2007 Australian Open finalist, and teamed with Nicolas Massu to win the 2004 Athens Olympic gold medal in doubles. In fact, he’s so famous here at home in Chile that at the 2008 Beijing Olympics fellow athletes selected Gonzalez to carry the Chilean flag in the opening ceremony.

Unfortunately, Gonzalez is not playing in the Davis Cup first round tie against the United States this weekend in Santiago. It’s not because he doesn’t want to play; it’s because he’s unfit for action as he heals from hip surgery in October.

But Gonzalez certainly didn’t stay away even if he couldn’t suit up. He sat on the Chilean bench on Friday supporting his teammates.

Gonzalez, who had his hip surgery in New York, will need to go back to the surgeon to be checked out. If things are going according to plan he’s hoping to return to the tour for the beginning of the clay court season in May.

Creative umpiring

By Chris Bowers in Vienna

Carlos Ramos - that most human and fearless of umpires - had his own way of controlling the crowd in Hangar 3 at Vienna Airport.

With Austria's fans suddenly happy after their doubles pair of Oliver Marach and Jurgen Melzer had broken to lead 4-3 in the first set, a group of fans started a Mexican wave - only they didn't get it going until the players were back on court and ready to resume the match.

Ramos called for quiet, and when that didn't work, he said: “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, you can continue later but the players are ready now.” It had the desired effect.

A different kind of “Pim Pim”

By Lee Goodall in Boras

We should have seen it coming - the signs were everywhere. Even at the food stalls just a few feet from the court.

While carefully selecting something sweet to complement my late Swedish lunch (open sandwich, naturally) my attention was grabbed by the words stamped onto a small bag of jellied confectionary - Pim Pim!

No, not an example of Joachim Johansson’s brand awareness as it turns out, but a well-known bright red sweet popular throughout these parts.

An ugly duckling or a swan?

By Richard Fleming in Charleroi

Spain is making its first visit to Belgium for a Davis Cup tie, and so it’s fitting that the contest should be staged in the city of Charleroi.

As the Charleroi Tourist Board’s pamphlet informs me: “Charleroi was named after Charles II, King of Spain, a four year-old child placed on the Spanish throne after the death of his father, Philip IV.”

Indeed, Charleroi began life as a fortified fortress, founded by the Spaniards in 1666, but taken by Louis XIV a year later.

Situated 50km south of Brussels, the area of Charleroi pre-dates the Spanish occupation, with suburbs such as Gosselies once housing a fortress and home to Raoul de Viesville, the first lord of Gosselies during the 12th century.

All reasonably interesting to a curious tourist as is the fact that Napoleon once spent a night in the city on the eve of the Battle of Fleurus (1815).

The belfry in the town hall has been listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO. Impressive.

From the top of the 70m high belfry, 47 bells ring out every hour to the apparent “Melody of Charleroi”, composed by Jacques Bertrand and entitled, “Land of Charleroi – it is you I love best.” I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on that one.

And then there’s Queen Astrid Park, in which visitors can enjoy “several remarkable monuments and sculptures dedicated to Queen Astrid, to the painter Pierre Paulus, and to the Soldier Pigeon, erected in homage to Belgian pigeon breeding.” There’s also a rather tired-looking statue of comic book character “Lucky Luke” on his trusty steed.

One unofficial city guide, though, has a different take, advising visitors that “Charleroi is often considered the ugly duck in Belgium, and even won the prize for most depressing city in Europe in 2009.”

Seems the Tourist Board have a fight on their hands…

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    Sandra Harwitt

    Sandra, an American sportswriter for longer than she's willing to admit, has travelled the world to cover tennis for major publications, such as, The Miami Herald and Associated Press. Her biggest problem of late is managing to pack worldwide purchases into suitcases and still meet the airline weight restrictions.



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