Just when I think my travels are taking me to interesting, far-away places, my friend Lindsay Berra is assigned a tennis story. This past week, she took her second trip in four months to Serbia, this time to report a story on Novak Djokovic. Since it may be a long time before any of us visit Serbia’s capital city, Lindsay shares her experiences …
WEIRD, SERBIAN POLKA DANCERS … (Are there any other kind?)
JANKOVIC, IVANOVIC, DJOKOVIC AND TIPSAREVIC …
… Every time I go overseas to see a sporting event, I’m reminded there exists a whole other level of lunacy. This time, I was in Belgrade, Serbia, to see an exhibition tennis event featuring world No. 3 Novak Djokovic, No. 52 Janko Tipsarevic, No. 3 Jelena Jankovic and No. 4 Ana Ivanovic, Serbs all.
I was welcomed to my hotel room with an uplifting report on CNN about a plain-clothes police officer who was assaulted and beaten with burning flares and ripped seats after Red Star, one of Belgrade’s football clubs, tied a game last Sunday. Really, it makes those unruly Jets fans outside Gate D seem like cuddly teddy bears. So fans of the English club Bolton, who were coming in to play Red Star themselves on Thursday, were worried. And rightfully so; at Red Star games, fans of opposing clubs are forced to sit in the same section, which is separated from Red Star fans by rows of empty seats lined with police officers on all sides. Still, though the violence is completely insane and totally unnecessary, it does serve to show just how seriously they take their sports in Serbia.
So, it wasn’t that much of a surprise that these four tennis players, who have now achieved rock-star star status in their home country as a result of their success on the ATP and WTA Tours, were able to sell out the 20,000 seat Belgrade Arena for Friday night’s event. What was surprising, though, was the actual line-up at this event. Junior tennis matches began at 5 p.m., but tennis actually made up very little of the show.
There were comedians. There were dancers clad in shiny blue spandex, then in black dresses, then in white tutus. There was a Serbian boy-band and a female pop singer and a male crooner who was definitely channeling Bono. There were video tributes on the jumbotron to each of the players, set to American music—Novak’s was to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. Then, there was a mixed-doubles match that pitted Djokovic and Jankovic against Ivanovic and Tipsarevic in which not a single shot was serious. Jankovic sat down on court while Djokovic served to Ivanovic. Djokovic did his impressions of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. Tipsarevic handed his racket off to a ball-boy and took the kid’s place, kneeling next to the net. They played just 45 minutes, then fans were allowed to flood the court and Jankovic and Djokovic ended up on stage singing with the band. In the end, Djokovic was shirtless and those of us unfamiliar with this European variety-show type of sporting event were left wondering if Bob Barker was on his way out astride Mr. Ed.
Still, the fans loved it. The sheer joy on the faces of all 20,000 fans in that arena made you forget for a minute that this country was at war just a decade ago. And the building was packed to the bitter end—hich is way more than you can say about a Jets game!