Introducing: Laslo Djere

From an interview with the Serbian #5 conducted by Sport Klub’s Saša Ozmo after Laslo Djere made the Budapest semifinals. The 21 year-old Djere hails from from Senta, in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina.  He’s currently at a career-high ranking of #153 & will move inside the top 150 after following up his performance in Hungary with several more wins at the ATP’s stop in Istanbul.

On his recent run:
“It all came together in Budapest, so I really played very well.  Additionally, I think I’m more used to the conditions than others—there was a strong wind throughout the tournament. In Prostejov [Challenger in 2015], I also got three good players [Klizan, Lajović, & Souza] back-to-back.  Last season was a bit weaker, without such big wins, but I knew that I have the quality and now I’ve gotten five tough matches in a row.”

On being a work-in-progress:
“I think I’ve made the most progress in terms of movement, and I worked a lot on my serve with coach Dejan Petrović, which is now paying off. Of course, there’s always more room for improvement, especially trying to play more aggressively than I did before—the aim is to dictate play with my forehand, which I did effectively in Budapest.

“The first two weeks of preparations for the new season, I was at home and in Kikinda [Vojvodina], where my conditioning coach Vladimir Zorić is from.  We did two fitness training sessions a day and one tennis session.  The third and fourth weeks of preparation we trained in Novi Sad—we started relatively early in the morning and worked hard, twice a day on tennis and once on fitness. I can tell you I ran a lot over that month, but the focus was on endurance so that I could welcome the season as prepared as possible.”

On his short-term ambitions & plans:
“If I can continue in this rhythm I played in Budapest, I believe I can get into the top 100 in the next six months. That’s up to me: the only path is a continuation of such form. In order to achieve that goal, strong matches like the ones from last week are essential, so I can mature through these matches for the ATP level. One thing is for sure—I’ll keep working hard.”

So far, Djere has played one main draw at a major: 2016 Roland Garros.  Even though he’s at the ATP 250 tournament in Istanbul this week, he won’t yet play the top tier regularly.

“Clay is my favorite surface—I grew up on it and feel best on it.  I’ll play another Challenger before Roland Garros, then qualies in Paris; but, after that, we don’t yet have a specific plan—what’s certain is that I’ll go back to Challengers, since I still have to prove myself at that level.”

On the transition from juniors to seniors:
“It’s hard for the best juniors because they’ve gotten used to the best conditions, they were treated in the best possible way, and received a lot of attention. At the beginning, I didn’t get a lot of ‘special invitations’ for tournaments, nor did some of my colleagues who were also good juniors; so, you have to re-start from scratch and it’s hard—especially at Futures [events], where conditions are very bad. Also, there are a lot of older players who know how to play.  All together, it makes the transition difficult.”

On the mental aspects of tennis:
“I’ve been working for four years with Antal Mart, a psychologist from Senta who is also a former table-tennis player; so she’s a sports psychologist in the true sense of the word. I see her in between tournaments and it’s helped me a lot in my career.  It’s hard to single out one thing, since we’re working on a bunch of small things; but when those little things line up, then I play at my highest level.

“When it comes to crucial moments in matches, I focus only on the present and on the next point, and try not to have any thoughts that could distract me. That’s my way.”

On idols & role models:
“I wasn’t inclined toward any one player in particular, but as a kid I watched Roddick and Hewitt the most. Later, and still, I looked up to our players: Viktor, Janko, Nole, & Ziki.  They traveled the same path, more or less, that I’m on now.”

Translation by Ana Mitrić.

 

 

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Kristina Mladenović: “Sport is in our blood.”

This is an English version of an interview published on Serbia’s B92.

Mladenović was born in France in 1993, about a year after her parents moved from the former Yugoslavia for her father’s job.  Dragan Mladenović was a professional handball player who was part of the Yugoslav Olympic team that won a gold medal in Los Angeles (1984).  “Kiki,” a top junior in 2009, made her first WTA singles final this year, losing to Sam Stosur on the Strasbourg clay.  Points from her wins at the US Open this week will put her at a new career-high ranking.
AM: What question, if any, are you tired of answering?
KM: There are obviously routine questions about matches, but it’s normal to respond to those.  I think it’s annoying to have the French press always asking, “Are you ok handling the media pressure & expectations?” because it’s been a few years now since I first arrived on the tour.  That’s part of the job and it’s actually a good sign if I have to deal with it.
AM: Both your parents were professional athletes and you & your brother have chosen to follow in their footsteps.  What do sports mean to the members of your family, since everyone is involved in sports but each person is doing something different?
KM: It’s a big thing–sport is in our blood.  To us, it’s normal and natural.  But to have such a family–my father was a professional handball goalkeeper, my mom played volleyball at the international level, my brother is a promising young football player, trying to become professional as well, and me on the tour–it’s amazing. It’s not like our parents pushed us into their way of life.  I’m actually impressed with all of us–it’s something really special. We make fun of it quite often, actually: like when friends come over, there’s always some game on tv and they ask, “Can’t you put a movie on or something?!”
AM: Are you competitive amongst yourselves?
KM: Definitely.  In our free time, I might go watch my brother or play with him or we’d go for a run all together.  We’re a really sporty & healthy family.  This is our style of life.
AM: Your parents clearly understand the pressures & traveling & other aspects of your professional life, but you’re the only one in the family playing an individual sport.  Does that mean there are some things they don’t really grasp?
KM: Yeah.  I’m quite lucky that because they’ve been professional athletes on such a high level, they understand a lot.  They can’t really help me tactically or technically, even though they’ve been by my side for many years and are also improving and learning a lot about tennis.  But they know me best and are such nice and cool parents–and they understand that though tennis is my job, it’s not my whole life.  It’s amazing to have such a good relationship with them.
AM: How did it come about that you chose tennis?  Did you also try team sports like volleyball when you were young?
KM: Yeah, actually I was playing both volleyball and tennis. My parents just introduced me to tennis as a change of pace.  There was a club close to home, so I thought it was a good idea.  As parents, they just wanted my brother and me to be healthy–you know, for kids it’s great to be sporty and not always inside playing video games or whatever.  Actually, I was really talented in volleyball–even better than at tennis.  But I was just a little bored with it; at a young age, like 8-9, it wasn’t that interesting for me because I was already much taller than the other kids & playing better.  So, I chose tennis & went my own way both because I was talented and because it was also more of a challenge.  I fell in love with the sport and had success at an early age, playing my first Slam at 14 and a half.  But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy–everyone has their own story, a tough path to achieve what they want.
AM: I wonder if there’s also a cultural aspect to it, too, with the long tradition of tennis in France, whereas in the former Yugoslavia there was more of an emphasis on team sports?
KM: Yeah, actually, I have this inside me: even though I chose tennis & I’m a professional player, I’m really a collective-minded person.  So, I really love all the Fed Cup stuff and Olympics–I get so pumped.  It’s different when I’m playing alone–I handle myself differently.  I definitely feel like I’m coming from a team-sport family and culture–and I can’t deny my Serbian roots.
AM: I was going to ask you about the cultural connection.  Obviously, you were born in France, speak the language, & play for the country; but do you go back to Serbia often to visit?  Do you still have family there?
KM: Unfortunately, my two grandmothers died recently, so I have no more grandparents left.  That makes it more difficult to get back there, even though I have uncles and cousins.  It’s especially complicated with the tennis schedule and all the travel–I’m not often at home either.  But I always say in my heart I’m French and in my head I’m Serbian–and let people guess what that means.
AM: Though you’re a singles player now near your career-high ranking, your biggest titles are in doubles. How did your partnership with Daniel Nestor come about & what effect does all your doubles success have on your singles career?
KM: It started easily: he asked me one year before Roland Garros, and I was really impressed that someone like him, a doubles legend who’s won absolutely everything, wanted to play with me.  So, I said “Of course!”  And right away we made the French Open final, then won Wimbledon and the Australian Open.  It’s amazing–really unbelievable–for me to already have all these experiences and titles at age 22.  What can I say?  At the beginning of my career, I played doubles as a way to practice for my singles, since that’s my priority.  But to have Grand Slam titles on your record is such a big privilege and I really respect that and try to remind myself every day that it’s something I can talk about with my children in the future.  I’m enjoying doubles, I’m proud of it, and I’m happy it’s helping my singles–to reach the same level in singles, if possible, is the goal.
AM: In Washington, you won the doubles title playing with Belinda Bencic for the first time. Now you’re back with your steady partner, Timea Babos?
KM: Yeah. She’s exactly my age–four days older than me–and we have such a great relationship.  I know Timea really well and we decided at last year’s Wimbledon to play together.  It’s definitely great to have a fixed partner: there’s all this routine stuff which makes it easier to practice every day. And when it’s your best friend on the tour, it makes it even better.
AM: Last December, you were one of the breakout stars of the IPTL. What were the best things about that experience?  Do you think it had an impact on this season?
KM: Yeah, of course. It’s related to what I said before about collective sports, team spirit.  It was a lot of fun and completely different from what we are used to on the tour.  It reminded me a bit of Fed Cup, but it’s not your country people.
AM: You were on the mostly Balkan team with Novak, Zimonjić, Čilić, Ivanišević...
KM: Yes, exactly. It was definitely an amazing experience to be part of such an unbelievable group, filled with Grand Slam champions in all disciplines. There were just a few exceptions–showmen like Monfils.  I was really impressed & I’m proud to have been called to participate again in such an event.  I think it’s great for tennis to have a different kind of competition & also for the crowd to follow it on tv.  The rules are fun–not that it will become like this on the tour any time soon, but to have it during the off-season is great for the fans.  For myself, I really enjoyed it: stadiums were packed, the atmosphere was amazing, and I had very tough matches–interesting to play at such a high level [during a break].
AM: Caroline Wozniacki was the other woman on your team, but since she wasn’t there as much, you had to step up. Some of those match-ups could have been quarter-finals at a major tournament. KM: Definitely. My teammates were making fun of me, saying “You are the MVP!” Obviously, there was a lot of expectation and pressure, as you had to try to bring as many games as possible to your team.  I think I responded pretty well.  I loved it and felt good playing, so I can’t wait to have some more fun again this year.
AM: You’ve been on tennis fans’ radars for a while and won your first major doubles title in 2013. Now that you’re in the top 40 for singles, do you feel like it’s taken longer or about what you expected to get here?
KM: I was also #35 about two years ago, my best ranking, so I’m coming back.  You know, everyone has their own story, their own way, their own process–you never know. For some, it goes easily and they stay at the top; for others, it’s up and down; some arrive to the top 10 and then they’re struggling.  There’s not really one key to success.  The only thing I can request from myself is to work hard every day, to know where I’m going and what I have to improve. Once I do this, I can do more.  I’m happy just trying to do my best–I’m not worried about the time it’s taking; I’m just trying to enjoy every win.  And think that’s the best way to improve.
AM: You experimented short-term with a couple of Serbian coaches, Dušan Vemić and Nemanja Kontić, but that didn’t work out. What’s your coaching arrangement now?
KM: Since February, I don’t have a coach.  And, actually, I think it’s working pretty well so far.  Those two experiences didn’t work out very well–I didn’t feel myself in that kind of structure.  So, I decided to go on my own. Of course, I’ve always had my family support around me.  They’re not annoying, pushing, and trying to advise too much in tennis–they can advise about other stuff. They would never say, “You have to do forehands like this.”  That’s why they’re really cool and bring me a lot of support about the important things in my life.  Right now, I think I’m handling it pretty well–I know what I have to do to improve, so I’m just doing it on my own.  I don’t pretend I can reach my goals alone, and the situation is pretty open–I can always find someone, but it has to be a good fit.
AM: Do you set goals for the season–and is it about ranking or more specific things?
KM: When you’re at this level, you really have to think about stuff like that–it’s what pushes you to be better.  Of course, I have technical goals–I have to improve this and that, my fitness, my forehand, my backhand–but you also try to put yourself ahead in the ranking.  So far, I’m pleased with what I’ve achieved.  For next year, I think it would be nice to be a seed [in the top 32], because I’ve been playing a lot of seeds in the first round!
AM: Getting a former US Open champion is a tough draw.  What does the win over Kuznetsova (6-3, 7-5) tell you about your current form?
KM: Yeah, when the draw came out I saw it would be difficult. I respect Svetlana a lot–she’s a two-time Slam champion and really a tough player with a huge career.  On the court, I had to play great, a very solid match, to beat her and it’s definitely one more very nice win for me. I’m definitely pleased–every first round in a Slam is very difficult to win. This is what’s amazing in women’s tennis today: everybody has improved a lot & I feel like every player can be dangerous.  I’m trying now to focus on each match, even if it’s not such a famous name.  I’m a humble person and respect every opponent–anybody can be tough and play great tennis, especially for one match.
After her 7-5, 6-1 win over Bojana Jovanovski, we followed up with some routine post-match questions.
AM: How did you feel about the match today?
KM: The score definitely made it look easy, but it was actually a really tricky match, as I expected.  I was down 4-2, almost 5-2 in the first set and I somehow fought really hard and turned it around.  I don’t think either of us played our best–it’s never easy when you know each other really well.  We’ve practiced together many times–and we’ve known each other since we started tennis.  A funny story, actually, is that I played Bojana in my very first tournament–in Serbia, when I was in holidays with my parents, around 7 years old.  When you know somebody really well, sometimes you try to change the way you play to surprise her somehow. So, with this kind of match, I’m just really glad to get through.
AM: Are you feeling lucky that instead of facing Sharapova in the third round, you’re getting an unknown 18-year old, Daria Kasatkina?
KM: Well, it’s true that it’s an unknown name and I don’t know much about her either, but it’s tough to say.  Instead of Maria, I could be playing Gavrilova, who’s beaten her in the past.  So, Maria was the higher rank and the best player in this part of the draw.  But this girl has an unbelievable story–she’s supposed to be out of the tournament already and now she’s won two interesting matches against solid players and two completely different styles of game, which means she must be pretty talented and solid mentally as well. She’s stayed composed and got two wins in what may be her first main draw of a major–that’s pretty amazing. So, I’m actually expecting a tough match.
With Maria, you don’t have anything to lose and you know her game perfectly well through watching and playing against her.  You know how to play and she has all the pressure–plus, I have the game.  This way, it looks much easier on paper and I have more experience; on the other hand, you don’t know anything about the opponent and it’s an important match, which can be dangerous.
~Interview conducted by Ana Mitrić and translated by Saša Ozmo.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov talks Russian tennis, compares ATP eras, & more

From an interview with Kafelnikov, a multiple-Slam champion, conducted by B92’s Saša Ozmo before the men’s semifinals at Roland Garros.

On Russian tennis, more successful of late on the WTA side:
“It’s much easier to produce top female players than top male players for many reasons.  Young guys don’t have that spark and don’t believe they can reach the top—but I hope that we’ll see a change with Andrey Rublev.  He was the best junior last year, is still only 17 years old, and is getting better all the time.  He’s growing and becoming more mature—hopefully, he’ll be the one we’ve long sought.  He has a champion’s attitude, which is very important, plays aggressively, is good from the baseline, and has nice technique.  I told him and his team that he needs to work on his physical strength, because he plays a great set but then runs out of energy.  He’ll be a very good player if he gets stronger.”

On the possibility of coaching:
“If I see potential and the project appeals, then I might agree.  Coaching is a lot of work, which is clear from former colleagues like Becker, Ivanišević… I see them often, but don’t ask about the details—I don’t think that’s relevant.  However, I observe how they’re handling it and it seems to me they’re happy and doing a good job.  The players they’re training listen to them and respect them; if I find something like that, maybe I’ll become a coach, too.”

On the ATP, then & now:
“I have no regrets at all about retiring early [in 2003, a few months before turning 30].  Honestly, I can’t explain how players are still capable of playing in their later years—Federer is soon 34 and still playing at a high level.  I think the reason for this is that today’s average level of play is much lower than in our time.  Actually, I talked to Boris about it only a few days ago, and he agreed.  So, the best can keep enjoying it and winning Grand Slam titles, since no one else can come close.  In our time, there were 15-20 guys who could potentially win a Grand Slam trophy, but it’s not so right now.”

“The whole approach is different.  In our era, there were many more styles of play than exist now: there were serve-volley players, a lot of ‘chip & charge.’  Now, for the most part, everyone plays from the baseline and tries to strike the ball as hard as he can.  This isn’t the direction tennis should go—I think we need different modes of play.  But nothing’s likely to change if we don’t do something about the courts.  It seems to me that every tournament is played on the same [speed] surface—even Wimbledon is now similar to concrete.  If that doesn’t change, the situation will remain as it is.”

On Nadal’s future:
After the Spaniard’s victory over Djoković in the 2014 Roland Garros final, Kafelnikov made a bold forecast: that it was the last trophy for Nadal in Paris.  He maintains that position.  “So far, my prognosis is accurate.  I love Rafa—he’s a great guy, an excellent tennis player, and has achieved much success.  However, last year I felt (for the first time) that he’s becoming physically weaker.  In previous years, he played much closer to the baseline, and now it’s different, especially in the match with Novak—Djoković was inside the court and dictating the pace while Rafa stood four meters back.  The trend continues: Rafa is already 29 and can’t beat opponents by outrunning them, particularly in best-of-five matches.  Along with that, it doesn’t feel like there’s the same intimidation factor in the air—players aren’t afraid of Rafa any more.  So, I stand by my prediction.  While I’d like it to happen, I’d be shocked if Rafa wins another Grand Slam trophy.”

On his career & retirement:
“It feels good when I look back on it.  I was lucky that I caught different eras, playing with Becker and Edberg, then with Agassi and Sampras, and even Federer after that.  In fact, I competed with three generations of top players, so I’m very satisfied with my career and what I achieved.”

Having dabbled in professional poker in the first years after leaving tennis, Kafelnikov has since found another pastime.  “Poker is my past, but I try to play golf as much as possible, to see how good I can become.  It’s my daily life—I play golf every day for four to six hours.”

 

~ Translated from Serbian by Ana Mitrić.

Novak Djoković on living, learning, & looking for inspiration

From an interview conducted by B92’s Saša Ozmo during the first week of the 2015 French Open at Roland Garros.

On being a role model:
“It’s among the things that please me most—hearing that I’m a role model to children and that I somehow inspire them to get involved in sports.  It makes me happy that they want to follow my lead, above all the personal virtues and values I represent.  Of course, it’s also a great responsibility, as it has always been.  Thankfully, I’m aware of the fact that many young people, especially from Serbia, look up to me and track my every move: not only every point but also every word and act—how I contend with all that a life on the public stage brings.  While it’s a responsibility that I accept as an integral part of what I do professionally, it’s also a privilege.  I have the opportunity to accomplish things the way I always wanted, both during my career and especially after it—and that is to pass on my knowledge and experience to others in order to help them and provide better conditions, both academic and athletic.  I’ll do that through my foundation, as well as through various other projects I already have in mind.”

On learning:
“I don’t have a university education and sometimes I miss that part of my life—going to school every day, being part of a system, having friends and memories from that period.  On the other hand, I know I’m blessed to have the opportunity to pursue the sport I fell in love with at first sight and that has given me so many things in life.  At the same time, I’ve long been aware of the fact that I have to work on my education myself.  My parents and close friends helped immensely with that.  They helped me keep growing and evolving, even while on the move.

“I believe that every person has a choice in life, even though it sometimes seems that’s not the case.  I’m talking about some of the most ordinary things now: the way you treat other people, whether you’re going to be kind or, because you’re having a bad day, unpleasant.  That always depends on you.  Somehow, I’ve always tried to learn more—to explore every field of knowledge, even though I know I need to prioritize, to reconcile them with the life I lead and to stick to the plan.  For instance, music: recently, I’ve been learning to play the saxophone because I’ve always wanted to.  I never had the chance before; but I got one as a birthday present, so I’ve started to play.

“There are certain guidelines that I receive from the people around me—without them, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish everything I need to do.  As a successful tennis player, I give off the impression that everything runs smoothly; but by no means can I take all the credit for that.  Although I win the matches on court, there is a big team of people around me, from professionals to my family, wife, son, and friends.  They all sacrifice their time and energy to help me become a better person.  Thanks to my personality, I’ve drawn the energy I needed from all of them and from the others I’ve met over the years.  Foreign languages have always fascinated me, and I’m interested in organizational sciences and sports management. . . Also, in the past four-five years, since I changed my diet, that has become my greatest passion—healthy, organic, unprocessed food.  I’ve read a lot about that and taken online nutrition courses.  So, there are plenty of things one really can do for oneself.”

On staying down to earth:
“My childhood was different from that of many players who are now my rivals and that’s helped me to maintain a sense of normalcy and humility.  I don’t like to talk about myself.  I think it’s inappropriate—it seems pretentious when people talk about themselves, and I don’t want to make that kind of impression.  I’ve had some negative experiences, such as the [1999 NATO] bombings and economic difficulties, but also nice ones, like growing up in the mountains.  That kind of ordinary existence gave me a strong foundation, so that I can handle my current way of life much better and appreciate it more than I might have, had my early experience been otherwise.  It’s all really satisfying, especially being loved by kids.  Children’s faces wear sincere smiles—they’re unspoiled and have a pure energy and a wonderful way of looking at you.  That’s when you realize you’re doing something that inspires them, and that’s actually the essence: you’re doing something that touches other spheres of life.”

On writing his autobiography:
“I’m not writing regularly, but I am in the habit of keeping a diary—I do it every few days.  I’ve been making such notes for several years: I started when I was a kid, but then there were five or six years during which I didn’t keep a record of things that were happening in everyday life, not just tennis-related activities.  Recently, I started doing it again—I have my wife to thank for that, because she does it regularly.  That’ll be valuable material for my eventual autobiography.  We’ve already talked in specific terms about when and how we’ll do it.  Though it’s not yet the time, it’ll come—we plan to do it, but we’re short on free time.“

“I don’t want it to be the typical ‘successful athlete’ autobiography, where I only talk about my achievements and describe the emotions I experienced on court.  I’d really like it to be more thorough than that and you can expect to read things that the general public doesn’t currently know.  I can’t single out a detail that would be interesting right now, but what gives me the most joy is that through this book I’ll be able to share those segments of my career that enabled me to become successful and develop as a person.  At the same time, I’m also going to write about the difficulties that I encountered along the way, oscillations, moments of crisis. . .  Everyone goes through such things—even though I’ve had great success, that doesn’t mean that I don’t get upset or that there aren’t situations where everything goes wrong.  I want to share honest observations with people, and I hope they’ll understand the book as one person’s life lessons and be able to use something from it in their own lives.  After all, that was the point of writing the book on nutrition: I didn’t intend to impose my views on others, or tell them the one correct way to eat;  on the contrary, what’s good for me isn’t necessarily good for you, too.  That book was my personal experience and explains how my diet affected me, but anyone can find something useful in it.”

On living in the public eye:
“In brief: some things are not for public consumption.  There is a thing called intimacy, but also some things you should just not say out loud.  I’m not a man who keeps a lot of things to himself—I like to express what’s in my heart and on my mind.  I’m very emotional and temperamental, and the people around me know that I try to be sincere, honest, dignified, and to uphold the principles that I believe in.  On the other hand, after so many years of professional tennis and press conferences, I’ve learned that some things you say or do can come back like a boomerang and hit you in the head.

“To be honest, then, I do keep many things to myself—not that I have anything to hide—and anyone who follows sports can recognize that some athletes don’t share as much as they might like to.  We don’t want it that way, but society as it is dictates it.  With all due respect, the media amplifies the negative context of rivalries and outrageous statements only to create an atmosphere of hostility, which is, in my opinion, totally wrong.  That’s why I don’t want to give ‘ammo’ to the media, to allow them to pull comments out of context and thus create the stories they want.  In an ideal world, it’d be best if people said what they think and it got published that way; but the media are capable of twisting words in a way that suits them.

“I read your blog, and you write openly and honestly—it’s clear you have no need for pretense and you describe things the way you experience them.  Even though I’m also trying to be like that, to live and to treat people like that, the situation doesn’t always allow it.  I’m not talking about my PR or reputation here, but about basic interpersonal relations and life values that you either respect or you don’t.  You can’t turn black into white, purple, or grey—it’s just black.  So, sometimes you simply keep things to yourself: you choose not to share if the moment isn’t right. . . . If I have to resist a system that I consider unfair, I’ll do it, but in a wiser, more mature way, without (forgive my crude language) spitting on the tournament, balls, or court in public, because I know it won’t do me any good.”

On dreaming before sleep:
“I rewind the most recent events in my mind, ones that occurred during the day—because of the kind of life I lead and the amount of information that I receive on a daily basis, I tend to forget what happened quickly and move on.  This doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the most emotional and beautiful tennis victories that I’ve experienced and that stand out from the others: Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014, as well as the Davis Cup title in Belgrade.  Of course, I remember that.  As a matter of fact, I watched a replay of winning the Davis Cup yesterday—and, by chance, we’re talking about it now.  While I was watching, I got goosebumps and huge motivation.  Then, I read an interview with Vladimir Grbić, who is a genius, both as a man and as an athlete.  Now, after such a successful and rich career, he focuses his energy on helping disabled athletes.  That deserves every possible praise—there aren’t many people who do that.  He’s a great man who has offered so many useful and beautiful things one can take as advice and inspiration for what to do as an athlete.

“Those two things, for instance, were like wind in my sails—something I constantly seek.  I look for inspiration in others: in the people around me, but also in the likes of Vladimir Grbić and other sportsmen, both Serbian and international.  Actually, I look not only to athletes, but to people from all walks of life who are special and accomplished, both professionally and personally.  Those are the people I love to read about, to hear what they have to say, and to discover their way of thinking.”

On the 2016 Rio Olympics:
“I have a huge desire to succeed there, but I’m not the only one.  All athletes dream their whole lives of participating in the Olympics and winning a medal for their country.  I’m aware of what awaits me there—I hope our entire tennis squad will be present and strong, and that we’ll have as many representatives as possible, as tennis has become such a successful and popular sport for Serbia.  Hopefully, we’ll bring home a medal, since we were unsuccessful in London and that hit me hard; I was very upset about that.  But a new opportunity is coming, and it’s going to be played on hard courts, my favorite surface; so, I’m aiming to improve on my bronze medal from Beijing.  Then again, any medal is a huge step for Serbian sport.”

~ Translated from Serbian by Predrag & Saša Ozmo and edited by Ana Mitrić.

“In my head, everything is fine”: Michaëlla Krajicek

Interview by Fred Buddenberg published in the 18 April 2015 print edition of Dutch daily Trouw (page 24).

“Completely healthy and very happy.”  Michaëlla Krajicek answers a question about how she’s  doing with a big smile.  She knows it has not always been so in her turbulent career.  Now, at age 26, the tennis star has found the peace that she longed for so often on her way to adulthood.

“In my head, everything is fine.”  Krajicek is in Den Bosch, where the Dutch Fed Cup team is competing with Australia for a place in the World Group.  “I’m getting married, I get a lot of support from Richard, and everything with my father is quiet and good.  And that has a positive influence on me.  Also, I’m older now and I look at things differently.”

Since her professional debut in 2003 (!), Krajicek’s career has been erratic, to put it mildly.  Triumphs and tragedies followed in rapid succession, both in sports and on a personal level.  “In life, things sometimes happen on purpose, it seems,” said Krajicek.  “There are maybe one or two things I can blame myself for.”

For example, the choice of Allistair McCaw, the South African conditioning coach with whom she also had a personal relationship.  “That was my own choice, but a very bad one,” says Krajicek about her first ex-boyfriend.  “I was just 19 years old and didn’t really think.  Looking back, I wonder: how stupid can you be?  These are things you need to learn from.  I paid the price.”

That relationship was not good for her tennis and also caused a rift between “Misa” and father Petr, for years his daughter’s coach.  Petr didn’t hide his distaste for McCaw.  After Krajicek’s elimination at Roland Garros in 2008, he called him a “tennis-illiterate.”  It was a difficult time for Krajicek, with one foot on the threshold to adulthood.  “My father was always so close to me, and from one day to the next, he was no longer there.  For example, during training—all of a sudden, everything was different.  He meant well, but it should have gone differently.  It was also my own stubbornness.”   She laughs, “Yes, stubbornness runs in the family.”

“I have had two periods, when I thought: ‘I’m done with it.’  Because of a lack of results.  It wasn’t because I didn’t like tennis.  I was also often asked if I still had goals, why I didn’t retire.  But tennis is my sport and I feel I have achieved a lot.”

With her mind at rest, Krajicek decided to give her singles career another serious chance.  In recent years, she was mainly active as a doubles player, and not without success.  With Czech Barbora Strychova, she is now ranked 15th on the WTA doubles list of 2015.  Yet she also wants to continue on her own, as she thinks she isn’t finished yet.

“I think I still have a lot to prove to myself.  I still believe in it, and my knee is currently quite good.  The ultimate goal is to improve my best ranking, but that is still very far.  I have done a lot to get much fitter: for instance, with my diet and by getting a new fitness coach, James Fitzpatrick.  I’m excited.”

Krajicek has three single titles, reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2007, and had a career-high ranking of 30 in February 2008.  Last week in Dijon, she got back to playing singles again after an long time ranked 441 (!).  “As I don’t like to play on clay, I’ll mostly play doubles until Roland Garros.  After that, I will really focus on singles.”

An important detail in Krajicek’s return is whether the body can last.  Two ankle and three knee surgeries didn’t do her career any good.  “At the end of last year, I was treated with blood plasma,” Krajicek said.  “Your blood goes into a machine and is then transferred to the knee.  It worked perfectly and now my knee feels very good.  I can’t complain—and let’s hope it stays that way.”

“After my last knee surgery in 2012, a doctor said I had a forty percent chance I would again walk without pain.  Sometimes I watch old videos of me exercising in the water.  I just had to stand on that leg and I couldn’t—that’s how bad it was.  Anyone can say anything, but I have shown that I have the willpower.  Even my father, who is always very strict and criticizes everything, is proud that I persist.”

~

Translated by Nicole Lucas.

 

Interview with Umpire James Keothavong

From an interview with chair umpire James Keothavong conducted by B92’s Saša Ozmo during the first round of Davis Cup in Serbia.  Brit Keothavong earned the ITF’s “gold badge” rating in 2010.

On officiating the 2014 Wimbledon final between Djoković and Federer.
“You know what, it was my first Wimbledon men’s singles final.  To be given that assignment is a great honor.  That the All England Club and the Grand Slam committee believe in my performance as a chair umpire—it’s great to have that feeling walking out on that court.  It was  fantastic: a classic five-set match between the two best players in the world, Novak and Roger.  It was about four hours and ended up being one of the greatest finals of all time.  For me to be part of that was a great feeling and an honor.”

On his impressions of Serbia.
“This is probably my fifth time here, all for tennis: Fed Cup and Davis Cup.  It’s great to be back.  The previous ties have been in Belgrade, so this is the first time we’ve actually experienced life outside the capital.  It’s slightly different, slightly smaller, Kraljevo [laughs; the city’s population is 70,000].  But it’s great for the federation to bring the tie here and promote tennis in this part of the country as well.  As you could see, it was a capacity crowd—everybody wanted to see Novak, of course, Viktor, and the Serbian team.  Overall, it was a great atmosphere.”

“Unfortunately, we haven’t had that much time to go on a tour—we’re here for four days and three of those days are for work.  But what we’ve seen so far has been really nice. . . . The people, above all, have been really warm and friendly to us, which makes our job worthwhile.  As you know, we get to see quite a bit of the world, we travel to many different countries, meet lots of different people; so, it’s great to come back to Serbia and have good memories.”

On working with “Hawk-Eye” & the challenge system.
“When it initially came out [in 2006], the chair umpires didn’t know what to expect.  But, over the years, we’ve all found a way of umpiring on a ‘Hawk-Eye’ court.  How I deal with it is that I pretend it’s not there; so, I step in when I have to, I overrule when I have to.  I think that’s the way officiating is going at the moment—all the top chair umpires are doing that.  It’s not just about calling the score or sitting there and not seeing anything.  I think it’s important that we still do our job, and we use ‘Hawk-Eye’ as a tool for officiating.  The players appreciate that and we appreciate it; but, at the same time, we still have to do what we have to do and not just rely on technology.”

“Obviously, when you sit up in that chair and things are going right, it can be the best seat in the house.  But when things start going wrong, it’s a lonely place.  There’s only you sitting up there.  Occasionally, you have players on your back—or, in Fed Cup and Davis Cup situations, captains on your back.  You know, that’s part and parcel of what we do.  If we make a wrong overrule, then we have to deal with it.  We’re human, just like the players—they make mistakes; umpires make mistakes.  But we try to keep those mistakes to a minimum.  The majority of the players now, they don’t really mind when we step in; and if we get it wrong by one or two millimeters, it’s not the end of the world.  I think they prefer us to officiate the match like that than not do anything.  I don’t think there are many mistakes made by the top chair umpires, but it’s a good officiating tool and we’re glad to have it.”

Did he refuse to shake Xavier Malisse’s hand in 2013?
“No, I have to say on record that it’s not true.  It was a misunderstanding.  It was a long match, and I shook the opponent’s hand, Garcia-Lopez, to the right-hand side and I didn’t realize that Xavier had offered his hand. Somebody got hold of it and made it news. . . . Touch wood, there hasn’t been too much controversy [in my matches].

On match fixing
“No, I haven’t had any connection, any communication, or noticed any players doing anything out of the ordinary.  So, I can’t comment on that….  You know more than I do.  To be honest, we have to do what we do—we concentrate on our matches—and whatever happens outside the matches is up to whoever decides [those matters].  But I’ve never been approached and I don’t know of any players who’ve been approached.  I haven’t umpired a match that’s had any sort of suspicion.”

On relations with players
“Let’s face it, we travel with the players week in, week out, and we see them at the tournament hotels.  As I said before, we’re human as well: it’s not us versus them.  But they have their teams, their entourage, and we have our colleagues.  It’s all civil: “Hello, how are you?”  The only thing we don’t do is go out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner with them.  It’s a professional set-up, as you would expect from organizations such as ITF, ATP, WTA.  We do our job, they do their job, and we like to keep it that way….  We don’t have friends or favorites—we treat the players equally.”

On his favorite tour destination
“I love Australia… You know, it’s winter over here in Europe during that time—the end of December, January—and it’s always cold.  Then you go to Australia and it’s right in the middle of their summer-time—it’s just great.  Straight after Christmas for us, we go over there and there’s sunshine, everyone’s happy, everyone’s wearing shorts and t-shirts, you can play tennis outside.  I couldn’t think of anything better.”

On officials’ salaries
“That’s the million-dollar question.  All I can say is that we don’t get paid enough.  You can write that” [laughs].

“Do They Cheer for Novak in Croatia?”

An article by Saša Ozmo, who writes about basketball and tennis for Serbia’s B92.

Athletes are pioneers in the attempt to rebuild bridges that were destroyed during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, as best illustrated by the relationship between Serbian and Croatian tennis players.

However, even though they get along so well, the question is to what extent that’s reflected in the attitude of people in their respective countries.

It’s 2015: twenty years since the end of the war.  So, it’s appropriate to ask where we are now on a scale from “death to the neighbor’s cow” to “anything for a neighbor.”

In the last few months, young Borna Ćorić has emerged as a future star of international tennis.  In Serbia, many find him sympathetic; but, at the same time, the reader response to reports on his matches is often “Nobody’s interested!” and “Why are you writing about a Croatian player?”

And what is the status of Novak Djoković and the rest of the Serbian players in Croatia?

“Novak has many friends in Croatia—he’s friends with our players and he also left a good impression when he played here, as is the case with Viktor Troicki, who has competed in Umag and the Rijeka Challenger.  Each of Novak’s successes is viewed with approval in Croatia—and a lot of people root for him.  I don’t think people here would say something ugly, like “I hope he breaks his leg,” observes Zlatko Horvat, a reporter with Rijeka-based Novi List, adding that Ana Ivanović also has many Croatian supporters.

A regional basketball league has existed for over a decade, incidents of an ethno-nationalist nature are minimal, and water polo and handball have likewise “crossed the border.”  But tennis players are especially significant due to their close relationships and conciliatory statements.

At the Davis Cup tie in Kraljevo, fans didn’t whistle during the Croatian national anthem and Captain Željko Krajan emphasized that the whole team felt at home.  This impression is shared by Croatian journalists.

“Kraljevo has set a good example here—we were pleasantly surprised.  Let’s start to live better, both Croats and Serbs, rather than get caught up with trivialities,” says Horvat.

Although we’re no longer one country, Serbian media always pay closer attention to the achievements of ex-Yugoslav athletes—be it Tina Maze, Marin Čilić, Damir Džumhur, or Janica Kostelić.  There’s still a trace of additional interest, for whatever reason.

“I work at a daily paper that follows tennis, and Djoković gets quite a bit of coverage.  It varies, of course, depending on the importance of the tournament and match, but finals of Grand Slam tournaments are given two pages.  The recent Dubai final report took up a page,” says Ivan Jelkić, who writes for Zagreb’s Sportske Novosti.

Novak Djoković has become a global star and millions of people around the world root for him.  On Twitter alone, four million people “follow” him and at every tournament, autograph-seeking fans besiege him.

Unlike his colleague, though, Jelkić isn’t sure whether people cheer for Novak in Croatia.  But, he points out, they do respect him.

“There are always exceptions who’ll say, ‘He’s not one of us’ and ‘What do we care about him?’; but people who understand and love the sport know what kind of player Novak is and follow his matches, maybe even root for him. ‘Rooting’ is perhaps a bit strong, but they appreciate him, in any case.”

In both Serbia and Croatia, people like to pride themselves in their athletes—we often call them our best ambassadors to the world.  That’s why we could stand to follow their example a bit more in this respect.

It’s not necessary to worship Novak in Zagreb or Čilić in Belgrade; it’s enough not to hate each other.  There is no need—and these days in Kraljevo offer more proof that we are able to function quite normally together.

~

Translated by Ana Mitrić.  Feedback is welcome; please let us know what you think in the comments.

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