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01 December 2010

Blog: Serbia's "fifth man"



  • Clive White

Belgrade Arena

The vast indoor Belgrade Arena has played a key role in the rise of Serbian tennis these past three years, but unlike the sport in this country it took its time getting there.

Construction of the stadium, ostensibly for the 1994 World Basketball Championships, began in 1992, but because of the Balkan conflict, economic sanctions and runaway inflation it was 12 years before it finally staged a sports event.

Prestigious championships came and went without ever being staged, like the 1999 World Table Tennis Championships. It lost the right to host those championships because the city was bombed by NATO forces that year.

For years the giant, incomplete structure, positioned on a main highway in New Belgrade was more a symbol of defeat than victory. Slobodan Milosevic gave his last public speech there at the 2000 presidential election campaign rally just two weeks before being ousted from power.

It was eventually completed under new management in time to host the 2005 European Basketball Championship and three years later successfully staged the Eurovision Song Contest. It is now established as a major pop concert venue.

Since September 2007, when Serbia defeated Australia 4-1 in a World Group first round match, the Beogradska Arena has also become a tennis fortress; Serbia is unbeaten there in four Davis Cup by BNP Paribas ties.

With its capacity of 16,200, making it one of the largest indoor tennis arenas in the world, it has become the “fifth man” in the Serbian team. The hushed library atmosphere of Wimbledon Centre Court it isn’t.

The racket created by Serbia’s passionate fans - who still have some way to go before fully understanding tennis etiquette - is a major obstacle for opponents as the teams of Australia, Uzbekistan, United States and Czech Republic will testify.

Guy Forget, the France captain, reckons the only way to deal with what he politely calls a “warm” atmosphere is for his players to be “quiet and forget about it”. Easier said than done. He might be best advised to equip them with ear plugs.

In fact, it’s debateable which has achieved the greater decibel level at the Belgrade Arena: any Davis Cup tie or the recent Guns N’ Roses concert.

“We wish we would have a big stadium like this in France,” Forget told the Serbian press after his first sight of the stadium on Tuesday.

“It's very nice. You can have concerts, basketball matches, anything here. I think it's made for big moments like this one. So, no, it's wonderful. You're very lucky.”

It remains to be seen whether he will be equally effusive about the Belgrade Arena after this weekend.


Charity man Leconte rolls back the years

Henri Leconte may be seen as “the enemy” here in Belgrade by some, but, in fact, the former French Davis Cup hero is very much a friend of Serbian tennis, as he proved by turning out at a charity event on Tuesday in aid of the development of junior tennis in the country and also victims of the recent earthquake at Kraljevo.

Leconte doesn’t have happy memories of the Pioneer Sports Hall where the exhibition matches took place: 25 years ago he and Yannick Noah lost 4-1 there in a World Group relegation play-off when their opponents went under the name of Yugoslavia.

Slobodan Zivojinovic and Goran Prpic, the Croatian Davis Cup captain, were again on the other side of the net, although this time with rather less riding on the outcome.

Other former players included Ilie Nastase, Niki Pilic, Emilio Sanchez and Bruno Oresar, while Jelena Jankovic, the Serbian women’s world No. 8, cut a welcome, solitary slim-line figure on court. They were joined by musicians Van Gogh, Kiki Lesendric and Piloti and Vlada Georgijev.

“It was a great opportunity to raise money for the federation and the earthquake victims,” said Leconte. “I heard that Slobodan [who nowadays is president of the Serbian Tennis Federation] intends to build a big stadium with a lot of indoor courts, the work on which will start next year.”

Half the proceeds will go to rebuilding the Svetozar Markovic primary school that was badly damaged by the earthquake in Kraljevo.

Whatever memories the Pioneer Sports Hall may hold for him, it took just one look at the Belgrade Arena to reawaken Leconte’s competitive juices. “The stadium is just magnificent – I wish I could play here,” he said.

“The surface seems to be very slow so it’s probably better for Novak’s game. But to play a final here – what a match!”

Leconte is hoping for better fortunes for the current France team. In fact, he is quite confident of them.

“It’s the end of the year, it’s the final of the Davis Cup, and you have to be at your top,” he said. “I think the French team did the right thing to train as hard as they did at Saint-Cyprien [their training base for five days].

“They seem to have a good record of playing away. They beat Australia in Australia, they beat Sweden in Sweden. They have a good team. Anything could happen, someone could get injured and France has better capability to change their team than Serbia.”



Match made in heaven


It isn’t often that Davis Cup opponents wish each other well and mean it – leastways not in the Final. Yet this weekend in the doubles rubber Nenad Zimonjic and Michael Llodra will each be hoping the other plays well against them – although, of course, not too well.

It happens, from time to time, that doubles partners come up against one another in Davis Cup competition, but it isn’t often that two decide to join forces shortly before going head-to-head in one of the most important matches of their lives.

The next time these two step foot on a doubles court they will be on the same side of the net, in Australia in January. “It’s a funny situation,” remarked Bogdan Obradovic, the Serbian captain.

It’s the timing more than anything that some people find odd, not least Zimonjic’s decision to end his highly successful partnership with Daniel Nestor, a point emphasised in the most emphatic manner possible when the pair won the Barclays ATP World Tour doubles title in London last week.

If doubles partnerships are likes marriages, this one was the equivalent of a couple announcing their divorce while still deeply in love.

Nestor has taken the “rejection” well, though, which isn’t at all like a spurned spouse. The Canadian is, however, deeply envious of Zimonjic’s Davis Cup success.

“That’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do better in, in Davis Cup,” said the 38-year-old six-time Grand Slam men’s doubles champion. “That’s one of the reasons why I’ve played for so many years, continued to play.”

Asked if he would be in Belgrade to support his former partner, he replied: “No, I’ve supported him enough for three years.”

However, he conceded that he might “check the score every now and again”(on the Davis Cup website?) in between watching football and ice hockey games and spending time with his real-life partner.

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  • More photos

    • Belgrade ArenaSlobodan Zivojinovic (SRB)
    • Henri Leconte (FRA) and Jelena Jankovic (SRB)Charity team

    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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