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Thursday, May 31, 2007
Updated: June 7, 10:45 AM ET
Trio of Serbian stars leading the charge

By Bonnie DeSimone
Special to ESPN.com

PARIS -- Every so often, the Tectonic plates of tennis shift and grind against each other and a new nation surges up like a raw young mountain range.

Sweden did it in the '80s, Croatia in the late '90s, Russia and Belgium after Y2K. Most of the time it just takes one charismatic player to lead the way. Serbia is the latest mouse to roar, with as many top-10 players on the men's and women's tours combined as the United States.

No. 6 Novak Djokovic is viewed as one of the few players with a prayer against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal -- he's in Nadal's half of the bracket -- at the French Open. The WTA's No. 5, Jelena Jankovic, is having a scorching season and No. 7 Ana Ivanovic won her eighth straight match Thursday.

Their concurrent success is a total coincidence, but it does offer at least symbolic relief to a country that has endured more than a decade of war and economic turmoil.

"In this moment, sport is the best product and tennis is the most beautiful face of our country," Dusan Orlandiz, general manager of the Serbian Tennis Federation, said by telephone.

Speaking of beautiful faces, it doesn't hurt that all three Belgrade-born players are bright, attractive, multilingual world citizens who were ready for their close-ups the minute the cameras swiveled toward them. They developed that cosmopolitan outlook as expatriates, unable to find the facilities and coaching they needed closer to home.

Djokovic, who just turned 20, first left Serbia at 12 to train in Germany; the 22-year-old Jankovic emigrated to Nick Bollettieri's Florida academy at around the same age; Ivanovic, 19, trained part-time in Switzerland, where she now lives, and has family in Australia.

"There was no system -- everything is due to the parents," said Vojin Velickovic, tennis editor for Sportski Zurnal, a Belgrade-based daily newspaper.

Men's No. 80 Janko Tipsarevic, who upended Marat Safin in Paris to advance to the third round Wednesday, preceded the trio into the professional ranks and said he's not completely crushed at being left behind.

"I am really grateful for every Serbian player that is better ranked or a better player than me, because that thing is awaking in me this positive jealousy that if [Djokovic] can do it, why can't I do it?" said Tipsarevic, 22. "His wins are really, really big influence on me, in thinking that I can be much better than whatever, 80, at the moment.

"People have to understand that all that we have in tennis here came from mud, from nothing. No one invested one dollar or one Euro into any one of our players … the only people who we can say thanks to today are our families.''

Serbia exports nearly a quarter of the world's raspberry supply, but until recently, it didn't germinate many top tennis players.

The most notable exception is Monica Seles, who departed what was then part of Yugoslavia to enroll at Bollettieri's in 1985, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1994 and inspired all three current stars with her brilliant if sadly interrupted career. Slobodan "Boba" Zivojinovic reached No. 19 on the men's tour and played in two Grand Slam semifinals.

Instead, the best athletes in Serbia tended to gravitate toward team sports such as water polo, volleyball, soccer and basketball. A couple of dozen have played in the NBA, including former Los Angeles Laker center Vlade Divac.

"Now individual sports has come and people are very interested to play it, professionally as well," Djokovic said Thursday after his four-set second win over French qualifier Laurent Recouderc. "There is a lot of kids in the last year, year and a half that I know that started playing tennis because of us. I think we have a lot of talent for sport in general."

The sultry Ivanovic, who defeated Sania Mirza of India Thursday, has made a sizable intercontinental media splash. She posed nude from the waist up for one magazine cover, coyly turned to the side to avoid an X-rating, with a sub-headline stating the obvious: "una diva." A Serbian celebrity magazine posed her with the caption "Teniska Lolita,'' which needs no translation.

She's backing the walk with talk, however. Ivanovic won her first WTA event last year in Montreal, defeating Martina Hingis, and has played consistently this season, reaching the final in Tokyo and winning last week in Berlin.

"Now people recognize me wherever I go,'' said Ivanovic, who said she considers herself an ambassador of sorts. "And it's kind of nice feeling, because the people actually follow the results. But on the other hand, you lose a little bit of privacy. But yeah, it's exciting, it's different.''

Jankovic has pulled off a combination that has eluded most of the top women this season -- playing every week, staying sound and continuing to win. Working quickly between points, her glossy black ponytail flying, she has advanced to the semis or finals in eight of the 15 tournaments she has played this season and has three titles in her holster. She'll meet Venus Williams, whom she downed in the semifinals in Charleston a few weeks ago, in the third round.

The daughter of two economists, Jankovic was a gifted child pianist and avid student whose favorite book is a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Serbian author Ivo Andric. She's outgoing, comfortable in her own skin and in the spotlight, and once turned down an offer to play a bit part in a Serbian sitcom.

Like Ivanovic, she also attracts attention for her appearance. In Rome, where Jankovic beat No. 3 Svetlana Kuznetsova for the championship, a reporter somewhat tactlessly asked the Serb whether her exotic, almond-shaped eyes reflected Asian heritage.

Jankovic handled it with characteristic humor. "No, I just got this look from somebody, postman or who knows," she said glibly.

On a more serious note, Jankovic said in Paris she hopes her success means that future prospects won't have to go far from home to hone their games.

"The top players are, I think, motivating and really trying to push the younger kids to do as well,'' she said.

All of the Serbian players have lobbied for the construction of a national tennis center, a vision that should become reality within the next couple of years, according to federation official Orlandiz. He said the city of Belgrade has donated downtown land for a facility that would include a fitness center, residential quarters and 15 or 16 courts, some indoors, and mostly clay, the predominant surface in Serbia.

In the meantime, there is still a bit of a disconnect between performance and infrastructure. The Serbian Davis Cup team swept the Republic of Georgia in a World Group playoff game in March to earn a shot at joining the 16-team top group for the first time since the nation was part of Yugoslavia in the early '90s.

But the matches were played inside a 1,500-seat indoor shooting range in a hard-to-reach suburb because officials hadn't anticipated much interest when they booked it months ago. That all changed after Djokovic reached two Masters Series finals in a row, losing to Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells and defeating Guillermo Canas in Miami.

Thousands of young people flocked to downtown Belgrade for a pre-Davis Cup party where Djokovic played street tennis with the mayor, and it was clear the actual competition would have sold out a much larger venue. The team will face Australia in September in a 20,000-seat arena built to host the European basketball championships.

If the dream pairing of Jankovic-Ivanovic materializes -- and they say they want it to -- Serbia could become a force in Fed Cup play as well.

Tipsarevic said political strife, not the tennis federation, was responsible for the sport's long dormancy.

"We had [late, disgraced president Slobodan] Milosevic in power, who not only destroyed our country but completely destroyed our sport,'' Tipsarevic said.

"But … tennis is starting to be so popular, you really cannot imagine. I have a friend who is trying to start to work as a coach. He cannot find a free court until September. Everything is completely booked."

While the Serbians' joint ascent might be a happy accident, Ivanovic singled out one key similarity.

"I think we're all very good fighters and we have, like, tough mentality, so I think that's probably what we have in common,'' said Ivanovic. " … They should appreciate it back home because who knows when it's going to happen again."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering the French Open for ESPN.com.