Tennis, Serbian Style
The rise of a tennis star and his Burque superfan
By Toby Smith
Kostich is Serbian-American. His father, Nikola Kostich, also an attorney, emigrated from Serbia in 1958. Neither father nor son has forgotten his roots. Each follows closely what is happening in the war-torn nation, once part of what was Yugoslavia.
For Aleks Kostich, 38, the biggest war this week is taking place on the red-dirt courts at the French Open tennis championships. The No. 2 seed there in men’s singles is Novak Djokovic, a tall 24-year-old built like an arrow. Just about everyone with even the slightest interest in tennis knows Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But over the last six months, Djokovic has grabbed and kept the spotlight.
Sports Illustrated anointed him “the most dominant athlete in the world right now.”
That Novak Djokovic is a Serb makes Aleks Kostich one happy fellow.
With victories in the first two rounds at the French Open, Djokovic had won 41 matches in a row since Jan. 1. The record in modern tennis is 46 straight victories, set by Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas, in 1977. If you go back to December and count Davis Cup play, Djokovic has won 43 consecutive matches. Along the way, he has whipped the daunting Nadal four times in a row and the esteemed Federer the last three times they have met.
Want more? Djokovic has lost only nine sets since November.
His next match happens Friday, June 3, in the semifinals in Paris, where he’ll play Federer.
“It wouldn’t break my heart if Djokovic lost,” says Kostich, “because I know the streak will have to end at some point. But to be honest, I’ll be surprised.”
While the Bombs Dropped ...
Serbia, about the size of Virginia, is a landlocked republic of 7 million people. Until the past few years, Serbia’s major sports were soccer, basketball and water polo. Tennis is popular there, but only lately has the country turned out so many good male and female players. Nenad Zimonjic has won seven Grand Slam doubles titles and earned a No. 1 ranking in men’s doubles. Both Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic have been ranked No. 1 in women’s singles.
Meanwhile the United States, with more than 300 million people, does not have a female singles player ranked in the top 10 in the world. The last time an American man won a Grand Slam tournament was 2003.
Kostich grew up “a McEnroe nut” in a suburb of Milwaukee. He was, he says, a “scrappy baseliner” who played junior tournaments. During summer vacations he often visited Serbia, where his father still has relatives. He even played tennis there once, at a small club in Belgrade, the capital city.
“Serbia is special for me,” Kostich says. “It’s my dad’s native country, but in my travels there, I grew to love the place and the people. It brings me a sense of enormous pride. I really have come to appreciate my Serbian heritage.”
On occasion he grills little ground-beef-and-garlic sausages known in Serbia as cevapcici. And of course he follows Serbia’s sports fortunes. The country has also produced Nemanja Vidic, a fine defender for England’s acclaimed Manchester United soccer team. Not surprisingly, Kostich is a big Man U rooter.
In high school, Kostich grew interested in running. He was recruited to compete at middle distances for the University of New Mexico. He did that for two years until he became disillusioned with UNM’s track program, which in the 1990s was less than mediocre.
In time Kostich got married, went to law school back in Wisconsin, practiced law there for a spell, returned to Albuquerque, started a family and played tennis recreationally.
Meanwhile Serbia and a portion of the Balkans were going through upheaval. At the end of World War II, Yugoslavia’s iron-fisted dictator, Josip Tito, worked to unify the surrounding countries. Forty-odd years later, that plan crumbled. Bloody border disputes reigned as a civil war erupted. Serbia’s new leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was accused of ethnic cleansing and assorted war crimes. He died in prison in 2006 while awaiting trial.
Coincidentally, Ratko Mladic, a former Bosnian Serb general accused of masterminding the massacre of Srebrenica in 1995, was captured on Thursday, May 26, near Belgrade. Mladic, in hiding for 15 years, was considered one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives. Serbia’s failure to find him reportedly was the key stumbling block for that nation’s entrance into the European Union.
Everyone suffered in the civil war—Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Herzegovina and Kosovo. Things got so bad that in 1999 NATO forces dropped cluster bombs on Serbia and the area around it to quell the unrest. The bombings went on for 78 days.
Kostich, who was then living in Milwaukee, joined other members of the Serbian diaspora to publicly protest the bombings. “I felt the bombing was illegal.”
The idea of trying to practice a sport when explosions are happening all around you seems unimaginable. Yet that’s what Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, Nemanja Vidic and others in Serbia did.
“People’s lives were wrecked,” says Kostich. “Their minds were scarred. Those experiences, I think, made Serbians like Djokovic who they are. It was a very tough time back there, economically and every other way. The adversity Serbians faced gave people a great resolve and made them tougher.”
Kostich first became aware of Djokovic in 2006. “People were talking about him a lot. He was an up-and-coming player.” The following year Djokovic reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and the finals at the U.S. Open. Along the way, he developed a reputation as a not-terribly-likable clown. “Djoker,” some called him, for his snarky, on-court imitations of Nadal and Maria Sharapova. In matches he came off more annoying than inspiring: Before serving, he bounces a tennis ball a dozen times or more. Inconsistency marked his play, leaving Nadal and Federer alone at the top. Djokovic appeared to be an afterthought. A good enough player, but certainly not a great one.
Even after Djokovic won the Australian Open in 2008, it was hard to talk of him in the same breath as Nadal and Federer. Yes, Djokovic hit the ball with tremendous pace. But his game was uneven, injuries plagued him and, too often, he was out of shape.
Kostich remained a fan. He admired Djokovic for his charity work and for his deep religious beliefs.
In late 2008, Kostich and his architect wife, Lisa Logan, subscribed to the Tennis Channel. It stays on, they admit, pretty much all day and night when they are at home. By 2010, Djokovic began to make his mark. Overnight, it seemed, his serve improved immensely. So did his service return. After long rallies, he no longer looked pooped.
His run actually started with the Davis Cup, when Serbia faced the United States in a first-round tie in March 2010. Going in, the U.S. had won the Davis Cup 32 times. Serbia had never come close to winning it. America, backed by the well-heeled United States Tennis Association, boasts numerous first-class training centers. Some tennis courts in Serbia remain badly pocked from the bombings a decade before.
The United States lost the tie, 3-2. Djokovic’s singles win clinched the victory.
Serbia went on to play France in the final of the Davis Cup in early December. France, with a glorious tennis past, had captured the Davis Cup nine times. The year before France had been runner-up. Paris is home to the storied Roland Garros, where the French Open takes place.
Though the final would take place in Belgrade, few gave little Serbia a chance.
To win the Davis Cup for any nation is second only to winning the World Cup in soccer. It happens typically to large countries with expansive athletics facilities.
Kostich was checking coverage on the Tennis Channel, which was broadcasting the Davis Cup final, when he received a telephone call from Wisconsin. His father had been hospitalized with congestive heart failure. Serious surgery lay ahead. Aleks rushed home.
“He was barely conscious; it was real touch and go. I kept him updated, though.”
On Sunday morning, Dec. 5, at his parents’ home in Milwaukee, Kostich turned on his computer. He soon saw that Serbia, led by Novak Djokovic, had done the impossible. It had knocked off France to win the Davis Cup.
“I think I raised my arm and shouted,” Kostich remembers.
He brought the outcome to the hospital. “I can’t say it speeded my dad’s recovery,” he says, “but it didn’t hurt. For Serbians, the news from back there was for many years just plain bad.”
After double bypass surgery and a valve replacement, Nikola Kostich is back at work.
In Serbia, the celebrating went on for weeks. Parties rocked Belgrade nightclubs. Endless parades marched by. The country issued a postage stamp featuring a photo of Serbia’s victorious Davis Cup squad. Prominent on the stamp is Novak Djokovic, swinging a racket. Seven months later, as the wins pile up, Djokovic is still swinging a racket.
And Aleksandar Kostich is smiling.
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