Players from former Yugoslavia exploding in tennis
Posted: Tuesday June 6, 2006 1:39PM; Updated: Thursday June 8, 2006 1:32AM
The French Open has been a coming-out party for 19-year-old Serb Novak Djokovic, who advanced to the quarterfinals.
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PARIS -- The headlines at this year's French Open have been rightfully ruled by Rafael Nadal's clay-court dominance and Roger Federer's attempt to add the final piece to his Grand Slam puzzle. But what deserves mention is the incredible success of two small countries that have become tennis hotbeds and are producing talent at a staggering pace.
Croatia split off from what was formerly Yugoslavia in 1991, and while well-known Goran Ivanisevic put the nation on the tennis map, it now boasts an even more impressive depth of talent with Ivan Ljubicic, Mario Ancic and Ivo Karlovic.
All three of these players have exploded up the rankings in recent years and have dominated the most recent major team-tennis competitions. Croatia won the 2005 Davis Cup, defeating the U.S. along the way, and also recently won the World Team Cup in Düsseldorf, Germany. In that big-money exhibition, played the week before the French, the Croats once again beat the Americans and downed Germany in the finals.
Croatia also has a great young prospect to look forward to: Mario Cilic was the '05 French Open junior champion and made his Davis Cup debut this year while Ancic was injured.
While Croatia has been on the tennis map for a while, Serbia has only recently emerged. This year's French Open has been a coming-out party for 19-year-old Novak Djokovic, whom I tabbed as one of my young players with the talent to break through this year.
Djokovic is an aggressive baseliner who plays with the confidence and maturity of a veteran. Many people inside tennis circles thought he would eventually break through, but the ease with which he has marched through the draw so far has been impressive. With his current ranking of No. 63, Djokovic is going to be firmly entrenched in the top 50 regardless of how he does the rest of the tournament.
And look at how well other Serbs are doing: Boris Pashanski is ranked one spot below Djokovic at No. 64, and Janko Tipsarevic is right outside the top 100 at No. 104. One of the Serbs' most talented players, Ilia Bozoljac, has the game to join his countrymen in the top 100 soon. The Serbs also have a presence in the elite of the doubles rankings: Nenad Zimonjic is ranked No. 11 in the world, has 11 career doubles titles to his credit and has been a Wimbledon doubles finalist.
There are many theories as to why these Eastern European countries are capable of producing so many talented young tennis players, but I believe it's simply the opportunities that professional athletics provide. Throughout Eastern Europe, tennis still ranks as one of the most prominent sports, trailing only soccer in popularity. The financial rewards available in tennis present an undeniable incentive for young athletes to choose it as their vehicle to improving their quality of life.
Fortunately -- or unfortunately -- in the U.S., there are so many other options available that we inevitably lose many of our best young athletes to other sports. In these smaller countries, notoriety becomes an incredible motivator for others to work hard and strive for the benefits that success brings. Ivanisevic's Wimbledon title in 2001 was a huge event in Croatia that was celebrated by the whole country. The impact of his victory will be seen in future generations of players in Croatia.
Maybe after this week, Djokovic will inspire another generation of talented tennis players in his homeland.
Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He's in Paris competing in this year's French Open.