by James Buddell|
Having returned from his honeymoon in Dubai, Janko Tipsarevic is looking forward to finishing an injury-plagued year on a high by helping Serbia lift its first Davis Cup trophy with victory over France.
Showcasing a game of subtlety and skill, Janko Tipsarevic has always been a big-match player, a master of decision-making and movement who can play with a great deal of confidence. Yet when he isn’t pitted against an elite player, his mind often wanders and the consistency of his performance varies.
Just like Macbeth, William Shakespeare’s tragic play of a good man tempted by witches — who knows them for what they are, chooses treachery and crime, and is totally aware he is doing evil — Tipsarevic battles emotional extremes on the court and traipses precariously along a tightrope.
“In my case, the emotions are either black or white”
“In my case, the emotions are either black or white,” said Tipsarevic, reclining on a sofa in a Basel hotel lobby. “It is one of the reasons why I have a black tattoo on my arm.
“I generally hate emotion on the court. You have players who drain strength from emotions and take only the positive emotions in their performance to use them to win.
“When I play a middle-ranked player, like myself, in the 30s, 40s or 50s, if I am leading, or if something happens on the court, I find my focus suddenly disappears. I find myself not on the court – I am reading, snowboarding or listening to music, whatever – which is really bad and undisciplined.
“Maybe somewhere in the back of my head, I think I can get away with it if I am not there for two games. But when I play a Top 10 player, even though I have lost most of these matches, just a Top 10 guy being there doesn’t let my mind wander around.”
Tipsarevic, who has an admirable 9-22 record against Top 10 opponents, admits his heaviest losses came in 2008 to Nikolay Davydenko at the Sony Ericsson Open and to David Ferrer at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, but in general “he enjoys competing at big stadiums against the very best.
“I think I go more to the net [against Top 10 players], because I know I am not a big enough hitter to kill them from the baseline. But I know I am quick enough to come to the net and finish off rallies.
“Against the Top 10 players, I think that I have to win; I have to get the point myself. With this thought, it does not allow you to lose focus when you know more or less you have to be the guy that wins the point.”
These aggressive tactics were adopted, to great effect, en route to the UNICEF Open final (l. to Stakhovsky) in June and against Andy Roddick in the US Open second round in August. But ATP World Tour stars aren’t drawn to meet Top 10 players every week.
When Tipsarevic is on song he is very, very difficult to beat, but his “biggest enemy” remains consistency. Over the past 12 months, he has won 21 of 25 matches after he clinched the first set but he is 4-18 overall in matches when he has gotten off to a slow start and lost the first set. Visit The FedEx Reliability Zone
“When my mind is good and I am carried by the crowd, my emotion is really white,” he says. “I have played in Davis Cup ties when the crowd has been shouting and jumping up and down, but I have never stopped and let them sit down.
“I feel I perform at my best level when I am draining my energy from a calm attitude”
“On the other hand, I can stay in a black emotion for a long time. If I mistime a groundstroke, it affects me for the next point. It really does.”
Tipsarevic admits he last experienced such a lapse against Mikhail Kukushkin in his penultimate ATP World Tour tournament of the 2010 season, at the St. Petersburg Open, but realises “unless I change this approach, it proves, with this attitude, I will never be a top player”.
Tipsarevic’s game was memorably described by The Guardian newspaper as, “a fly fisherman on the deck of a deep-sea trawler” when he lost to Andy Roddick at Wimbledon four years ago. He does not possess the power to out-hit the elite so he must use court-craft to foil the current masters of the sport.
“I have to be enough for myself so to ensure that my focus doesn’t start to go elsewhere,” he said. “I know that the actual act of trying not to get frustrated is even worse than to smash a racquet, forget about it and let the negative energy out than to continue on playing.
“I find, on court, I feel I perform at my best level when I am draining my energy from a calm attitude. The positive fist pump is there, but I just try not to expend too much mental energy – whether I am 6-0, 5-0 up or playing against [Rafael] Nadal.
“If I can maintain this middle line of emotions, with minimal changes, this is when my focus does not wander around and I play my best tennis.”
Once upon a time, Tipsarevic was the best of a handful of players. The number one junior in each of his age groups, despite being a year younger than his rivals, he lifted the 2001 Australian Open junior title and made the jump onto the senior circuit with an 8-3 record in junior finals.
With the backing of his mother, Vesna, “who was obsessed by schooling”, and his father, Pavel, a physical education professor, “who allowed me to make my own decisions”, Tipsarevic remained in Serbia, turning down options to train in Miami or Barcelona.
“I don’t know how my life might have turned out if I had left Serbia,” he said. “I broke through in the time of Slobodan Milosevic being in power, during a time of great political upheaval. It was extremely difficult for my family to support a tennis player.
“My father relied on the government. His salary was five Deutsche Marks, which is nothing, enough to buy about seven kilos of carrots. With the country falling apart, my father believed in me and I would not be here and have a good life, if my father told me to give up my dream.”
Tipsarevic always knew the transition from junior to senior tours would be tricky, but he didn’t have anyone to tell him what to expect. “I was the first one, after Slobodan Zivojinovic, who was at his peak 20 to 25 years ago. I didn’t have any guidance or have anyone to tell me that the seniors are sharks, there is greater strength in depth, different styles and more serve and volley players.
“With the country falling apart, my father believed in me”
“I played one or two Satellites and maybe one Futures event. But I stayed too long on the Challenger Tour. You cannot expect everybody to be a Nadal or a [Novak] Djokovic, but the general idea is if you are a good junior to try – and I remember this from Mario Ancic telling me all the time – to get away from the Satellites, Futures and Challengers as soon as you can or otherwise you will stay there.”
Tipsarevic once travelled to tournaments with his younger brother, Veljko, not for technical advice but for companionship. The brothers did well together and other players would often ask him to hire out Veljko, whenever they needed a ranking boost or a good run of results.
“I think for me it could have happened a lot quicker,” believes Tipsarevic, when discussing his early career. “But my advice for any young player is the sooner you realise the clock is ticking and that this career you have is really, really short, the better.”
The Belgrade native, who started playing tennis aged six, has always remained true to his upbringing and in times of need, recalls his father’s golden rule: “If you need to, everything that you earn invest in yourself. Believe in yourself that you can be better than you are.”
Always an anti-entourage player, Tipsarevic now enjoys a good quality of life with his bride of five months, Biljana Sesevic, who travels with him to as many tournaments as she can. “She is the best thing that has happened to me in my life.”
Dirk Hordorff, his coach since August 2009, recalls, “My fondest memory is when I met his family at his Mum’s birthday and to see how much he cared about his family.”
His Serbian teammate, Viktor Troicki, confirms Tipsarevic’s nice guy image. “On the court he is emotional, but he is a great person and very friendly,” said the Kremlin Cup titlist.
Considered for many years the tour’s intellectual, borne out of his mother’s wish for her son to be educated, he is well-known for his reading of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and counting Dali and Caravaggio as his favourite painters.
Yet one day, you sense, Tipsarevic will harness his many talents and move closer to the goals he dreamt about when he was a top-ranked teenager. At 26, time is on his side.
The right-hander takes great encouragement from the fact that Radek Stepanek, Stanislas Wawrinka and Mikhail Youzhny have each spent time in the Top 10 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings, but appreciates he must now knuckle down to work if he is to follow in their footsteps.
“I am a good Davis Cup player, because I do not fight my biggest enemy which is consistency”
“I really do think I can break into the Top 20,” said Tipsarevic. “This year, I didn’t only have to fight with consistency of focus and performance on the court, but also with illness and injuries.
“My first goal for next year is to stay injury and pain-free throughout the season, because every season something happens. I would like to have one season without any breaks, so I can determine my schedule and how I want to play.”
Hordorff is confident his charge can use his abilities in a better way. “I believe he has got more variations in his game and uses his abilities smarter than before.
“Janko already plays at a Top 20 level. This is evidenced in his results against good players. But to raise his ranking to the point that he wants to reach, he needs to be cleverer in matches.
“I don’t like to set goals based on ranking numbers, but I wish for him to use his abilities so after his career ends he can say, ‘I made the best out of it’ and he achieved a good number of his goals. I strongly believe that he should not be happy until he is in the Top 10.”
Tipsarevic, who describes himself as “the worst player in mandatory events this year”, knows that he must go deeper in the big events to rise back up the rankings. “I would really love to go to the net more,” he said. “I am not the type of player who can win a point with a volley, but I want to come more to the net so the opponent doesn’t know what to expect.”
In 2010, Tipsarevic has largely contented himself with playing a part in Serbia’s success in the Davis Cup competition. He has a 25-9 record in singles rubbers. Ten years after making his debut, he is wise enough to realise this week’s final versus France, “is the most important moment of this year, if not, in the case of my career.”
For the past nine days he has trained in Belgrade, “looking at the Davis Cup final as a part of the 2011 season”. Even on his honeymoon in Dubai, he went to the gym. He practised with Troicki in Belgrade as Djokovic and Nenad Zimonjic competed in London at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
Zimonjic, who partnered Daniel Nestor to their second title at the season finale on Sunday, is full of admiration for Tipsarevic. “Janko is a very good Davis Cup player. He has shown in his career that he can play really good matches against the top guys on any given day and in the Davis Cup I think he has shown higher ability than he has done so far in his career on the ATP World Tour.”
Tipsarevic agrees with Zimonjic, stating, “I am a good Davis Cup player, because I do not fight my biggest enemy which is consistency. I still do not have an ATP World Tour title, but in Davis Cup when you play one or two rubbers per tie, consistency is not an issue.
“The beauty about Davis Cup is that you can have good and bad days but another team member can help you win the tie. If you told me when we beat the United States [in March] that we’d reach the Davis Cup final, I would not have believed you.
“Should the nation win the Davis Cup final, it would be an exclamation mark after the sentence: Serbian tennis is great!”
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