Serve and Volley

Balmy Days

Our correspondent offers random observations on Serbia.

By 8.15.13

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The Rogers Cup finals, named after a grand Canadian named Rogers though no one seems to remember his first name, gave me a queasy feeling.

I felt I ought to avert my eyes. The finals involved two of the greatest tennis players of all time crushing their opponents; it was as if the World Series were played between the winningest team in baseball and a team out of the cellar. Why make an issue of this, you might think.

Watching the matches on TV, it should not have been so difficult finding the proper perspective: cup half full and all that, instead of crying mismatch, applaud the two finalists, they did well until this point and, well, here is where the run stops. Moreover, if it really was so embarrassing, no one would know I averted my eyes. But I could not avert my eyes. It is not my job to avert my eyes. I must know with the expertise of my own eyes what happened.

Observe that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, any cop will tell you that. “There were several training exercises at the academy,” Ed McBain writes in one of his 87th Precinct novels -- and apologies if I misidentified the series as the 83rd Precinct novels in another dispatch -- “each designed to illustrate the unreliability of eyewitnesses.” Anyway, the important point is that the semifinals were the tickets, and, in particular the one between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, a kind of repeat of their sensational semi at the Paris Open earlier this year.

Djokovic is the world No. 1, 26 years old, a Serb. His parents are mountain people, ski instructors and guides, resort businessmen in Split, the Aspen of Serbia. Hard work, those professions, and these must be hard-working folks. Novak’s father is a tough and straight-talking guy, he expressed public criticism of Nadal and Federer for being rude to his boy. This may have been tactless, it may even have been without much basis. But we should not scoff.

Although you can understand the old man’s outspoken defense of his own, you have to worry too because in the semi, Rafa whacked a shot right at Novak and boy you should have seen that, it hit him right in the kisser. Some people say it was the chin but I think it was the kisser but what do I know, from TV and all. This goes to show tennis ain’t beanbag, but it ain’t baseball, either. What if Rafa had been a batter and he had been a pitcher. However, they played on. There was not even blood. Still, I noted the public, the folks up there in the bleachers watching, they showed them, on TV, after the whack, laughing. They thought it was funny. They stink.

Still, I worry about what old Srdjan said -- go figure these Balkan names -- and what he might do. You get a clan war between Serb mountaineers and Catalan islanders and who knows where it ends. You read City Primeval, Elmore Leonard, and you will know why I worry. My view is that they should call in Bud Selig, mediation. Bud Selig, Mr. Let’s-all-be-fair. Love that guy. You sure know he never grew up in the slums of Santo Domingo, with his high standards.

The Yugoslav federation was poor when Novak’s parents were young (he was born in 1987), and then it descended into war and barbarism during the 1990s. Mr. Tyrrell visited besieged, war-bombarded Sarajevo during the war. Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Serbian forces besieged it. Mr. Tyrrell made a daring visit, accompanied by the financier Ted Forstmann, who at one time owned a sports management firm, IMG. I myself visited other cities in Yugoslavia during those awful years, grim places where the lights went out on you and you rode in cars filled with hard men carrying sidearms in their suit jackets.

If ever I have a chance, I would like to talk to the Djokovic’s about those years and how they kept the faith in the future, kept their boy focused on his education. Jelena Gencik, a great teacher, spotted him early and taught him tennis. She died earlier this year and Novak may have lost the French Open as a result of the emotional upset, although it should be remembered that even in 2011 when he won three of the four majors that make up the Grand Slam, he lost in Paris. Triumph in Paris always eluded him. It was tougher still this year, but it is always tough to beat Rafa on the Paris clay, at his favorite tournament, the Championats Internationaux. They played five fabulous sets. Then Rafa beat David Ferrer in the final, making it seem almost easy by comparison, and Ferrer is superb.

Djokovic was favored, he is world No. 1 and this is his favorite surface, and he himself said he was playing “close to perfection” when he beat the talented French star Richard Gasquet in the quarters. (Gasquet lost to John Isner in Cincinnati yesterday.)

Nadal went on the offensive immediately; he knows it is the only way he can overcome Djokovic, throw him off balance and keep him there. Djokovic has a remarkable defensive game that catches everything and at the right moment he ruthlessly turns it into offense to take the point. Nadal had to prevent that by never letting up, and he sustained his aggressive play all the way to the end, the tiebreaker in the third set. After this, it was expected that the final against Milos Raonic would be anti-climactic, but not the acute embarrassment that developed almost from the start, as Nadal kept putting the ball beyond his reach.

Raonic’s parents are from Montenegro, which is one of the ex-constituent republics of ex-Yugoslavia, probably the most Serb of the regions outside Serbia proper. However, the Serbian enclaves in Bosnia and Kosovo and Croatia are what made the war so desperate. The Serbs believed, not without reason, that their tribal and clan and family relations in those areas were threatened by the non-Serb neighbors.

Steve Tesich, a gifted, witty screenwriter (Breaking Away, EyewitnessFour Friends) of Serb background who was a college buddy of Mr. Tyrrell and a warm human being, was terribly upset by the tilt in our policy against Serbia. The sense that we were abandoning the Serb people, and with it the moral leadership that was incumbent upon us as the totalitarian regimes collapsed in eastern Europe, ran head-on, of course, into the cruel fact that the regime in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, was run by communist thugs, whom Tesich despised with all his heart and mind.

Maybe we ought to have intervened in the Yugoslav wars,  but it was the kind of situation that rarely produces satisfactory policies. Albert Wohlstetter believed we should place air and land power at strategic points in Bosnia to prevent the Serbs from attacking Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns and force them to understand it was over and time to talk. Maybe; at any rate, even before the air war over Serbia began, Steve Tesich, whose life’s work was a love affair with America’s promise, despaired of our Balkan policies and his heart, literally, broke.

So anyway, Milos Raonic grew up in the peace and quiet of Ontario, which is like Michigan but chillier, and while still in his teens he went on the tour, making a strong case for child labor legislation. Still, without winning any big finals he gets to the quarters or semis; depending on the fallout from the Rogers Cup and the forthcoming Western and Southern Open, he should start the U.S. Open in the last week of the month ranked somewhere between 10 and 15. Although he grew up in Toronto, he officially resides in Monte Carlo, a nominally independent principality on the Côte d’Azur. Monte Carlo possibly has a certain nostalgic affinity with Monte Negro.

Some of Milos’s family are back in Podgorica. Monte Carlo and Montenegro are close -- a quick helicopter or small plane ride away, now possible due to globalization, the European Union, and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Djokovic, too, has a residence in Monte Carlo, as do several other top tennis players. However, Roger Federer lives in Switzerland and Rafa Nadal lives in Spain, on the island of Mallorca. The Mallorcans are not Catalans, but one of Nadal’s uncles played football for Barcelona, one of the two dynastic Spanish football teams, and there is a certain affinity, a certain similarity in the Catalans’ and the Mallorcans’ dedication to hard work, thrift, enterprise. .

The truth is, many people who have a lot of money live in Monte Carlo because it is pleasant and the climate is fine. Taxes are low. Many people, including many tennis playing persons, such as Maria Sharapova, who is from Siberia, and Serena Williams, who is from Michigan and California, live in Florida.

I watched the matches on TV and I was not paying attention other than to note that some of the signs around the stadia seemed to be in what appeared to be 17th century French. But I did not realize they were playing in different cities. Now I am not sure who was playing in Montreal and who in Toronto, but maybe an alert reader will tip me off and we can publish an additional tidbit of valuable consciousness-raising information. But at least we have the information that Miss Williams crushed a Romanian girl, Sorana Cirstea, in a game even more lopsided than Rafa’s drubbing of Milos.

Anyway, the part I liked best was the commercial where you see Andre Agassi, one of the greatest American tennis players of all time and a native of Las Vegas, Nevada, in a classroom with what appear to be first-graders, and he is reading a book with them and their teacher about a little girl who wants to play tennis but the racquet is too heavy and the ball bounces too high. She is a determined little girl, however, and the story ends with her playing on one of these smaller courts that in recent years tennis teachers have developed for kids.

I do not mean to disparage the matches by saying I was more interested in the commercial, which of course was a commercial for tennis education and reading education, in the promotion of both of which Agassi has been extremely generous. Raonic, for his part, has started a foundation for kids who have physical handicaps and need special help getting into sports; it is only a guess, but this may be due to what he knows the kids of ex-Yugoslavia suffered during the civil wars.

You get well over half a million dollars if you win the Rogers Cup, and you earn $300,00 for being the finalist (runner-up), and you only get $150,000 or thereabouts if you get as far as the semis. This means that for all his perfection, Novak Djokovic did not earn as much kale as either Rafa Nadal or Milos Raonic, who won his semi against another Canadian Vasek Pospisil, who is from Vancouver. However, Djokovic has plenty of money from other tournaments. Reportedly, he used some of his money to corner the Balkan goat cheese market. Maybe he wants to start a chain of Balkan type cheese and yogurt restaurants -- it is known that he is keen on efficient gluten-free nutrition and his parents at one time I believe were in the restaurant business. Also Jack Dempsey owned a restaurant in New York City, so it is a time-honored tradition for athletes to go into the food business.

If I see him in Queens, I will ask Srdjan about this. But I am a good eyewitness, and I will stay focused on the action on the courts.

Photo: UPI 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.