Serbian stars' success belies humble roots

NEW YORK -- They grew up playing tennis in a war-torn country, with no access to world-class coaches or facilities. An old swimming pool, carpeted over, was their tennis court.

Who knows what might have become of Serbians Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Novak Djokovic had that pool in Belgrade been filled with water.

Instead, the makeshift court produced three of the best tennis players in the world. Ivanovic and Jankovic each achieved the No. 1 world ranking in 2008, and now Novak Djokovic is at the pinnacle of men's tennis. Impressive considering the Serbians' humble beginnings in the sport.

"When you get used to [those] conditions and not-so-good facilities like some other countries have, I think it makes you stronger," said the No. 11 seed Jankovic after defeating Jelena Dokic, 6-3, 6-4, in the second round Thursday. "You feel good especially when you come to playing on those perfect courts like you have in the States. … You feel like you're in heaven and you're ready for everything.

"When it comes to our cases, we earned it the hard way. We came from a small country without really a tradition in tennis. We came a long way. It shows it doesn't matter where you come from, what kind of facilities you have. If you have the will and the desire and the motivation, the hunger to succeed, you can do it, so I think we showed that."

Though it has a population of just 7.3 million, Serbia -- part of the former Yugoslavia -- is now a tennis power. There are six Serbs in this year's U.S. Open draw, including three men ranked in the top 20: Djokovic, No. 16 Viktor Troicki, who fell in the first round, and No. 20 Janko Tipsarevic, who on Thursday advanced to the third round with a 6-0, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Philipp Petzschner of Germany.

The women's draw features three Serbians: Jankovic, 2008 French Open champ Ivanovic, and No. 54 Bojana Jovanovski, who had the misfortune of facing Serena Williams in the first round -- briefly.

And yet, the sport doesn't have much history in Serbia. Djokovic, who became No. 1 July 4, developed his game in Germany, and Jankovic has trained at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida.

"We don't have big tradition in tennis," said Vladimir Todorovic, a Serbian reporter from Sportski Zurnal covering the U.S. Open. "They do by themselves," he said of the success of their players.

Djokovic, Jankovic and Ivanovic have all become idols in Serbia, particularly Djokovic, whom Todorovic called the most popular athlete in the country today.

Of course, it's one thing to become No. 1 and quite another to remain there. Ivanovic rose to the top in June of 2008, after she won at Roland Garros. Her stay lasted a total of 12 weeks, at which point she was replaced by Jankovic. Ivanovic has not shown the same form since and is the No. 16 seed here, having advanced to the third round with a walkover after Petra Cetkovska couldn't take the court.

"I think it's a lot harder to stay there than to get there," Ivanovic said of her countryman Djokovic's achievement. "I think he's doing great. It's very important to stick with the same things, you know. You have to keep motivated and keep, you know, inspired and hungry for success. Because sometimes, you know, it's easy to take things for granted, and before you know it, it slips away."

Jankovic held the top spot for a total of 18 weeks, but has not returned to No. 1 either. She had this advice for Djokovic as he hopes to hold onto No. 1 for a while.

"Just to play his tennis the way he's been playing," she said. "Just stay positive and believe in himself like he's been doing and so far so good. I wish him lots of luck and success to keep his form up the whole year and finish the best player in the world like he has been this season."

In the meantime, the carpeted pool that spawned a generation of top tennis players is no longer a court. Todorovic said it is in transition.

After all these years, it's going to be a pool again.

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