The man of the moment is Novak Djokovic. Despite having got off the plane from New York just a couple of hours earlier, he was the man everyone wanted to see at Wednesday night’s official dinner, and he was the star of Thursday’s draw. He even managed to be the one whose name was pulled out of the bowl to indicate he will play Friday’s first singles.
But in the background was another man, for whom this Serbia-Czech Republic semifinal means as much as it does to Djokovic, if not more. His name is Slobodan Zivojinovic, a fuller and greyer figure today than the dashing serve-volleyer who reached the Wimbledon and Davis Cup semifinals 22 years ago and who stood on the verge of Davis Cup glory in 1991, only for political developments to ruin the script.
Zivojinovic is careful not to steal the limelight from Djokovic. As the president of the Serbian Tennis Association he sat at the top table for the draw, but declined to make a speech and doesn’t want to feature in this weekend’s tie. He is aware that his role is to support his nation’s impressive and in-form quartet of players that could take Serbia where his Yugoslavia never managed to go – to a Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final.
For Serbia to reach December’s final, it has to win three of the five nominated matches:
Novak Djokovic (SRB) v Radek Stepanek (CZE)
Janko Tipsarevic (SRB) v Tomas Berdych (CZE)
Viktor Troicki / Nenad Zimonjic (SRB) v Jan Hajek / Ivo Minar (CZE)
Novak Djokovic (SRB) v Tomas Berdych (CZE)
Janko Tipsarevic (SRB) v Radek Stepanek (CZE)
The Serbian camp’s biggest job is to get Djokovic ready. His success in New York, culminating in a highly impressive four-sets defeat on Monday night to the undisputed world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, has left him with less than ideal preparation for this tie.
And while he is fiercely patriotic and devoted to his country’s cause, he needs to be fresh to face the dangerous Radek Stepanek at three o’clock on Friday afternoon. Stepanek describes his best weapon as his ability to think, and if Djokovic is sluggish less than four days after coming off court against Nadal, the 35th-ranked Czech has the weapons to create a shock.
Presuming Djokovic wins, Tomas Berdych must re-discover the form that took him to the Wimbledon final if the tie isn’t to be largely decided by Friday night. The Serbs have chosen Janko Tipsarevic over Viktor Troicki to face Berdych in the second singles, largely because the Serb is fresh from a four-sets win over Andy Roddick at the US Open, and Berdych plays a similar game to Roddick.
As for the doubles, the Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil admitted what everyone suspected – that Berdych and Stepanek are likely to play on Saturday. So why has he nominated Jan Hajek and Ivo Minar? “We are a team,” he says, “so I wanted to nominate Hajek and Minar to show that they are important members of the team, even if I am 99 per cent certain to play Berdych and Stepanek on Saturday.”
The Czechs are back nearly at full strength (the doubles specialist Lukas Dlouhy is injured) after a team lacking Berdych and Stepanek beat Chile in the quarterfinals, and are raring to go. But everything seems to favour the Serbs. Djokovic is playing the best tennis of his life, Zimonjic is still one of the world’s top doubles players, Tipsarevic is coming off his big win in New York, and they are at home in a sold-out 17,000-seater stadium.
Among the 17,000 will be Zivojinovic. A semifinalist three times with Yugoslavia, in 1988 he led his team to new Davis Cup heights, and repeated the feat in 1989. By 1991 he was the elder statesman in a potentially Cup-winning team led by two in-form singles players, Goran Ivanisevic and Goran Prpic. In fact the last time these two teams met was in the 1991 quarterfinal, when the then Yugoslavia beat the then Czechoslovakia to seal a semi against the French in September 1991.
But by the time that came to be played, Yugoslavia had descended into the appalling civil war that dominated the world’s television screens in the early 1990s. As Croats, Ivanisevic and Prpic felt they couldn’t play for a country which Croatia was fighting, and it was left to the ageing Zivojinovic and a 19-year-old Davis Cup debutant Srdjan Muskatirovic to face the French. France won all five rubbers.
Nineteen years later Zivojinovic will watch from the VIP seats as his successors aim to go one step further than he could manage. He doesn’t talk much about what it would mean to him, but those close to him say he is very emotional about it. It would clearly mean an awful lot.
The political map of Europe has changed massively since Yugoslavia met Czechoslovakia 19 years ago. Those changes have the power to exert great poignancy over this weekend’s action.