Game, Serbs and Match

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty

Novak Djokovic competes in the U.S. Open

The Montreal tournament wasn't a Grand Slam event, but, in those early August games, the young Serbian player had done one of the toughest things in pro tennis today: he had consecutively defeated three of the world's best players: Andy Roddick of the U.S., Rafael Nadal of Spain and, most astonishingly, Roger Federer of Switzerland. But as the announcer at the Roger's Cup declared Novak Djokovic the champion, he introduced the young man as a native of Croatia, Serbia's less than friendly neighbor. That's like saying a Pakistani is an Indian or an Irishman an Englishman. Serbs all over the world bristled.

Not just because of hurt pride but because the Serbs, a people used to war and not known for sentiment, have fallen hard for the surprising generation of tennis phenoms that have emerged from their midst. Serbian women are taking their division by sheer talent — and, okay, by looks too. Pony-tailed Ana Ivanovic, 19, came from nowhere to make the final of the French Open earlier this year, with a website that has registered more hits than that of the previous tennis bombshell, Maria Sharapova of Russia. Jelena Jankovic, 22, is headed for a quarterfinals match with Venus Williams on Wednesday night at the U.S. Open in New York. Meanwhile, Djokovic, the third seed at the Open, just behind Federer and Nadal and ahead of Roddick, made it into the quarterfinals on Tuesday night after a hard-fought four setter against the Argentine Juan Monaco. In a country where football and basketball have long held pride of place, hundreds of thousands tuned into late-night state-run Channel One to watch Ana's progress, only to see her lose to Venus in the fourth round at the U.S. Open.

However, with three players ranked in the world's top ten, and two others not too far behind, most Serbs figure that winning a Grand Slam event like the U.S. Open is bound to happen sooner or later. For now they are just enjoying the ride. "Ana is great! Novak is great! Jelena is great!" Ivana, a Serbian blogger, wrote to the New York Observer website earlier this week. "I am proud to be Serbian!!!" Not since a host of Russian women burst onto the scene several years ago has one nation contributed so much in such a short time to the caliber of the game.

The young Serbs represent a surprising flowering of talent for a tiny country of 10 million. In comparison, the U.S., with 30 times the population, also has three players in the top ten. Serbia, moreover, has no national tennis center and few indoor courts. Ivanovic fell in love with the game at age 5 after watching Serbian-American Monica Seles play on TV, but she and Jankovic both had to practice in an abandoned indoor swimming pool in downtown Belgrade for lack of other facilities. Both were also kids when U.S. planes bombed their hometown in the campaign to drive Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo back in 1999. At her parent's request, Ivanovic practised in the early morning to avoid the bombing runs. Jankovic was playing junior tournaments in Europe at the time and had to take a seven-hour train ride to Budapest and make her way past suspicious immigration officers looking askance at her Yugoslav passport even to play. When the bombing started, 12-year-old Djokovic was sent to a Munich tennis academy. But he started tennis much earlier, at the age of 4, and his first mentor and coach, Jelena Gencic, was one of the top woman players in the former Yugoslavia and a key adviser to Monica Seles and to the Croatian star Goran Ivanisevic.

Ivanovic and Jankovic eventually left Serbia to train elsewhere as well: Ivanovic to Switzerland and Jankovic to Florida. But they are still national heroes, greeted by tens of thousands on the streets of Belgrade after their successful run in the French Open earlier this summer. Their faces are featured on the biggest advertising billboards in the Serbian capital pitching everything from jewelry to shoes.

That makes Janko Tipsarevic, another leading young Serb player, proud in a vinegary sort of way. "All that we have in tennis came from mud, from nothing," Tipsarevic told reporters earlier this year about his compatriots achievements. Tipsarevic, an iconoclast with rings in his eyebrows and a quote from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot tattooed, in Japanese, on his forearm, is the most talkative of the new crop. "Nobody in our country invested one dollar into any one of our players," he said. His tongue-in-cheek explanation for why so many Serbs are suddenly playing at the top of the circuit? "Depleted uranium," a reference to munitions dropped on Serbia and blamed since then for all manner of ailments. Radmilo Armenulic, a long-time coach of the Yugoslav tennis team (until 1990) told TIME that the players' performance has been "amazing," although he admits that it has yet to have a major effect on the promotion of tennis in Serbia.

Many Serbs hope that their young players' popularity will rub off on Serbia itself. During and after the NATO bombing that ended the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, Serbs became stock villains in Western media: the terrorists plotting mayhem in the first year of the HBO series 24 were Serbs. Now, opines "serbiangirl" in a blog, Ana, Novak and Jelena can show "that the Serbian people are not just terorists [sic] and criminals, we are nice, talented and good people!!!" Just don't call them Croats. With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade