How Balkan Players Have Risen To A Place Of Tennis Dominance
PARIS -- Damir Dzumhur was born in May 1992 in Sarajevo, not far from the ice arena that showcased the world's greatest athletes in the 1984 Olympics. A month before Dzumhur's birth, the city had fallen under what would become the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare; days after his birth, the arena was destroyed. The basement was used as a morgue, and the wood benches were turned into coffins.
When the arena was rebuilt after the Bosnian war, it was there that Dzumhur trained.
He became the first man representing Bosnia and Herzegovina to play in the third round of the French Open this fortnight at Roland Garros. But he was just one in an enormous presence of players from the Balkans.
Twenty-eight players from Balkan nations were in the main draw of the French Open, four more than America sent here. There were as many women from those nations as Americans (17) and more men (11-7). And those numbers don't include players who were born in the Balkans but moved elsewhere, such as Andrea Petkovic, who was born in the former Yugoslavia but grew up in Germany.
Four Balkan players made the fourth round -- Serbia's Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic, plus Marin Cilic of Croatia and Andreea Mitu of Romania (a country considered part of the Balkans by most). Ivanovic, who plays Ukrainian Elina Svitolina on Tuesday, and Djokovic are in the quarters. Djokovic is favored to win at Roland Garros, and if he does, that would mean the Balkan men own the (non-calendar) Grand Slam -- Djokovic won the Australian Open and Wimbledon while Cilic won the US Open.
All this from countries with a combined population roughly one-fifth of the United States. And much poorer. And some ravaged by war during the players' childhoods.
The question is why? Given the population and circumstances, why have they achieved such success in what is a very expensive sport? Djokovic joked that it is either the water or the mountains. Ivanovic said that such things go in waves. She's right -- almost everything in sport is cyclical -- but there is more to it than that.
"I think the difference between some of the bigger federations and the difference between our smaller countries, is that we have to earn our way,'' said Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who grew up in Croatia before moving to the United States after turning 16. "We don't get a lot of help, and we have to do it ourselves and we have to really earn our way.
"I have said it before. I think in these big countries like France, England, the USA, Australia -- when they have younger players, they make them into a superstar before they even win a match or two. And I think that's the difference. For us, we really have to earn it. We have to work hard and work our way up.''
Ivanovic, Jankovic and Djokovic lived in Belgrade, which was bombed enough during the war years that the three occasionally were forced to play tennis in abandoned swimming pools. Bombings also had a way of altering practice schedules.
"It was definitely not easy times,'' said Ivanovic, who nonetheless grew up to win the 2008 French Open at age 20. "It was tough trying to also get financial support and trying to compete and trying to actually break out of the country and, take you seriously when you're at a tournament.
"At the end of the day it made me humble and made me appreciate more things that I got later in my career. You know, I really work hard for everything that I achieved, and I'm very proud of that.''
Djokovic and Petkovic say part of the reason for success is genetic, that Serbians are naturally tall and athletic. "I think just the genes are very good for sport in general,'' Djokovic said, citing success in water polo, volleyball and basketball as well.
They also say it is partly mental.
"I think every Balkan player, especially all the Serbian players, when you look at them, you always have the feeling that they want to prove themselves and show the world what they can do coming from a small country,'' said Petkovic, who considers herself German and Serbian because of her parents. "That's just my guess. Not scientifically proven.''
Said Djokovic: "You have these psychological factors that have affected many generations, talking about the tough times in wars and so forth. People also live pretty low standards compared to the Western European countries, and they have to fight for each day. I think that's something that strengthens them mentally. And that's a little factor that a lot of athletes carry inside their heads, and subconsciously they are great fighters and they appreciate everything life gives them.''
That makes sense. Living through tough times can make people tougher, more resilient (though Lucic-Baroni points out there are people with money in the Balkans as well). As one Romanian reporter replied when asked why Balkan players are playing so well: "They're hungry.'' And one reason occasionally cited for American men falling off the top of the rankings the past decade is that life in the United States is too easy, pampered and filled with other athletic alternatives and increasing virtual sports.
That mental toughness brought on by tough times could apply to several other countries in the former Eastern bloc that are producing top players such as the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova.
Plus, the play of a country's stars can inspire more players. "I started playing because of Monica Seles and she obviously came from Serbia,'' Ivanovic said.
Perhaps Dzumhur can do the same for his country. Perhaps.
"I'm afraid for the next generations that are coming,'' he said after losing to his hero, Roger Federer, in the third round here. "They don't have support. It's not going to help. I know. Even when I was the No. 3 junior I didn't have any support from federation, no support from country. This is not going to help anything, I'm sure.
"Every time I make some good result they say it's a historic result and I'm a hero and everything. It's OK. I made good result, but what about the next generation? They need coaches and courts and facilities. They don't have it. Unfortunately the situation of tennis in Bosnia is really bad.''
That hasn't stopped Dzumhur, though. Or the many other Balkan players, who didn't let wars, bombings and tennis courts in swimming pools stop them from becoming champions.