Out Of The Shadows
by James Buddell|
At the four-star IN Hotel, barely 800 metres from the 17,000-seater Belgrade Arena, Viktor Troicki listened to music in his deluxe suite and contemplated the biggest match of his life. He was very nervous. “Sometimes I do feel nervous, but that is during the match,” Troicki remembers. “Never beforehand. This situation was different.”
His morning practice on the high-bouncing indoor court had not gone well. Eighteen hours earlier, in tandem with Nenad Zimonjic, he had had his serve broken three times by Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra to lose the doubles rubber. It had been a humbling experience.
“I knew it was up to me to bring Serbia the Davis Cup title”
It remains uncertain whether Serbia’s captain Bogdan Obradovic knew that there had only been five nations in history that had overturned a 1-2 Davis Cup final deficit. But early on Sunday morning, Obradovic took a bold executive decision to play the 24 year old instead of Janko Tipsarevic in the fifth rubber. “The decision was taken in the morning before Novak’s match, Janko and I talked about it,” explained Troicki, in the players' lounge at the Foro Italico in Rome. “He felt that I was the better option. We had an intense chat. We both weren’t 100 per cent sure what the best decision was.”
Tipsarevic, the hero of Serbia’s semi-final defeat of the Czech Republic, felt under-cooked. He had recently returned from honeymoon and had suffered a 6-1, 7-6(4), 6-0 loss to Monfils in Friday’s opening rubber. “I knew it was the right thing to do, because Viktor was playing well at the time and had all the weapons to beat Llodra,” said Tipsarevic. “Ultimately, it was a team decision and it proved to be the right one.”
“On the morning of the last day we knew, by watching the French practice, Mika’s game style and how to play him tactically,” said Troicki’s coach, Jan de Witt, who was involved all week. “We – that includes me – had made some mistakes in the mental part, handling the pressure, on the Saturday. But we tried to learn from that and he was able to play a complete match with 100 per cent focus. To be able to do that, Janko helped him a lot before the match. Janko trusted Viktor 100 per cent to be our man!"
As Djokovic was starting to impose his game on Monfils, back at the hotel Troicki admitted, “I had returned to the hotel immediately after the decision was taken that I would play. I tried not to think about anything. I tried not to think about who was going to be on the other side of the net. I didn’t watch much of Novak’s match. That is how I prepared.”
Only 60 minutes before his date with destiny did Troicki return to Serbia’s small white-washed locker room. Kit bags littered the floor and a stringing machine lay untouched in one corner. Tipsarevic, Zimonjic and what seemed like all of Serbia were courtside. Six crates of lager lay unopened in anticipation of a celebration. De Witt recalls, “He was still nervous, but for me that’s okay. It’s part of the great champions to handle that pressure and be focused when a match starts.”
Troicki, who held a 3-23 record against Top 10 opponents, remembers, “I was the most nervous on Novak’s match point. When I saw it, I experienced the greatest amount of tension. For a few seconds, I didn’t know what to think. Then, suddenly, I knew it was up to me to bring Serbia the Davis Cup title.
“Janko trusted Viktor 100 per cent to be our man”
“Playing for yourself and for your country is a totally different feeling, a totally different atmosphere. I like playing for Serbia; it always gives me a lot of motivation. Sometimes you don’t play your best as you can feel the pressure, but you always give more for your country than perhaps you do as an individual.”
With the backing of his teammates, bad memories of his four-set loss to Radek Stepanek in the semi-finals soon evaporated and Troicki rose to the challenge.
“When I started well, my nerves settled down,” he said. “That relaxed me much more. Luckily for me, it was great how I finished the match. The courts suited my game. We had had quite a discussion after beating the Czech Republic. We had wanted a surface with a higher bounce, but it didn’t work out. So after that match, we put pressure to have a court that really suited us. It really suited me. I played great on it and with the support of the home crowd it turned out perfectly.”
Troicki had been breathtaking. The vast majority of his 58 winners in the match had been a splendid barrage of passing shots, most notably off his two-handed backhand.
Two hours after Troicki struck one final, outstanding backhand crosscourt winner past a net-rushing Llodra on match point for a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 victory, the tennis court was being dismantled in preparation for the arrival of Sergej Ćetković, a Montenegrin pop singer, who had an upcoming concert. Outside Djokovic, Troicki and Tipsarevic could be found dancing on the roof of an official courtesy car. Hats covered their hairless heads. The razors had long since done their work.
The Davis Cup title success had been a victory for a team united by friendship. “Even when there were tough times or good times, it gave us an advantage over some other teams, that we get along,” explained Zimonjic. Adds Troicki, “We are great friends. We always keep in touch, cheer for one another and try to support one another. That is a great thing, to have the support of your compatriots, your friends on tour.”
The triumph was also the validation Troicki needed for years of hard work.
“The first time I saw him, he didn’t put a ball in the court”
Like so many of Serbia’s current players, Troicki had sought (and been forced to seek) safer and sunnier climates to fuel his passion for tennis as a teenager. In 1999, he left behind his father, Aleksandar, in Belgrade. NATO’s bombing of Serbia meant his family splintered. Accompanied by his mother, Mila, the 13 year old travelled to Boca Raton, Florida, where for three years he received daily education as a budding professional tennis player.
“It was tough times, very hard,” remembers Troicki. “I learned difficult types of practising and it was quite different to how it was at home. It helped me a lot in my career, while I was there. When I started playing junior tournaments that is when I started to dream of reaching a professional level. I don’t remember the exact point, but I was kind of hoping for a long time.
“After juniors, I was thinking of turning professional or going to a U.S. college. I didn’t have any sponsors, but luckily I chose the right thing to turn pro. Since then, I trusted myself that one day I could be a top professional player. Jan has helped my game a lot.”
Troicki first turned up on the doorstep of de Witt in 2005 on the recommendation of his fitness coach and physio Milos Jelisavcic, who at the time worked at the BreakPoint academy in Halle. “The first time I saw him against Alexander Waske, he didn’t put a ball in the court,” said de Witt, smiling. “As a person I liked him from the start. In the beginning I couldn’t see if Viktor could make the Top 20, but his rise has been as a result of work over the years and then also growing confidence.”
Explaining why he left Serbia for Germany, Troicki said, “I needed something more professional than what I had in Serbia. It was tough to practise, to get courts. Tennis was not so popular. It was tough for everything. I got an offer from Jan to come to try out in Halle. When I arrived everything was in place. It was very organised and professional. That is what I needed.
“With the help of Jan, that is why I have made it so far. We have worked together every day. I try to give my maximum and he does as well. That is the key to my success.”
Troicki’s rise into the Top 20 of the South African Airways 2011 ATP Rankings, can be charted back to the US Open last year. He hit 23 aces past his childhood friend, Djokovic in a 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 first-round loss in three hours and 40 minutes. If that loss was disappointing, his 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(7) semi-final defeat to Rafael Nadal in October at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships in Tokyo, where he held two match points, confirmed he was ready for a breakthrough sooner rather than later.
“I trusted myself that one day I could be a top professional player”
It happened two weeks later at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. Troicki beat Dmitry Tursunov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Horacio Zeballos, Pablo Cuevas and Marcos Baghdatis to lift his first ATP World Tour trophy. “After losing two previous finals, I was a little more focused and had greater experience coming into the Moscow match,” remembers Troicki.
“Luckily I made it happen and won my first title. It was a big relief for me and hopefully I won’t stop there. It wasn’t easy playing against Marcos, and I knew I had to play my best. I tried to stay calm right through the match and kept focused and aggressive on the big points. Luckily it worked out.
“It definitely helped me a lot. I waited for my first title for a long time. It helped me a lot to win. My dream came true to win an ATP World Tour title and it motivated me a lot to go even further. Since then I have striven to go further.”
Years ago, Tipsarevic could not have predicted a Top 20 future for his friend. “Honestly, I did not think so,” he said. “But with hard work and dedication he made it.” Zimonjic cites “self-belief” as a factor for Troicki’s rise. “I think the Davis Cup is just part of the confidence he got. But I do believe it is all the hard work he put in over the years. I think it is also self-belief.
“After the US Open, where he had his chances against Novak, he was disappointed. He played really well the rest of the season, winning his first doubles and singles titles. Obviously his biggest achievement was winning the fifth rubber in the Davis Cup final for the title. That’s what gave him a lot of confidence and he has played high quality tennis since then.”
Having started his fourth straight year ranked in the Top 100, Troicki is ready to set his goals high. “I would like to be Top 10. Right now I am No. 16 and I have a lot of work to do to get there.”
De Witt, who also coaches Christopher Kas and Jarkko Nieminen, believes, “What he did in the Davis Cup was super. Being there, for the first time in his life, at 24, pretty young, makes me very positive for his future, concerning big matches in big tournaments.”
Zimonjic has no doubt. “I think he is a very solid player. He still has room to improve and at World No. 16 he has a great future ahead of him.”
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