Short answer: No one knows.
A few days after 28-year-old Novak Djokovic’s 9th grand slam win at Wimbeldon, we got to wondering what makes Serbians so good at tennis. We asked the internet this question, and it turns out others have been wondering the same thing for the past few years. Bizzarely, no one seems to have found the answer yet.
One 7-year-old Yahoo Answers post, signed by someone claiming to be a USPTR coach, takes a blunt approach, stating: “They work very hard, make no excuses, and they are not wimpy, crying babies like most of the juniors playing tennis in the US.”
Over on Cafe Babel, Nebojsa Viskovic, a sports journalist for twenty years who is considered by many to be the best sports commentator in Serbia, tried to explain away the Serbian victories sweeping the tennis world since 2006 with a bit more whimsy. “What’s happening with tennis is almost unbelievable,” he says. “We have no tennis tradition, we had really bad infrastructures, and Serbia didn’t invest a single dinar in the sport. The players managed it all by themselves. How? It’s a mystery, a miracle. It just happened, like a rose growing in a desert.”
Ana Ivanovic, Novak Djokovic, and their generation are paving the way. Young Serbs are eager to shine a light on their country through their sporting successes, which extend to basketball and volleyball, amongst others. Back to Viskovic for an explanation: “Serbia still doesn’t have a name for itself on the world stage due to all of the things that have happened here. But sport is the best publicity.”
Micheal Downey, president of Tennis Canada, sees players like Djokovic as trailblazers. “[His] success has driven the growth of tennis to another level in Serbia. That small nation has now developed so many top players and without significant tennis resources that richer nations have to apply. [...] There are thousands of young Novaks hitting the ball throughout Serbia.”
Overall, the discussions around tennis seems to be very culturally specific. In an article in the Economist in 2012, the Age of Europe is formally announced, bringing an end to the US-dominated tennis world, a product of the formal academies that pumped out champions.
When it comes to Serbia, the closest thing to a consensus that emerges when reading all the pieces is that the players grew out of adversity. A somewhat exoticising piece from the New York Times in 2007, places Novak on the courts during NATO air raids, having to keep his composure. “During those air strikes, when the warning sirens blared and the sounds of explosions echoed in the distance, Djokovic stayed outside and continued practicing. Trips to bomb shelters had to wait.”
Finally, in Djokovic’s own words, “here was no system that brought us into professional[ism]. It’s just a hunger for success, a mentality that we’ve been through a lot of difficult times in the past. We appreciate some things much more in life and we fight for every match.”()
There is an undeniable romantic and tragic notion behind a generation of players raised in warfare to be the toughest on the courts. But it doesn’t add up. Why haven’t other war-torn countries produced top-level tennis players?
If you’ve got your own thoughts on the matter, please leave a comment on our Facebook Discussion Page.