Read & Watch: Serbian Teen Claims 53-Shot Rally In Top 200 Debut
Serbian tennis has long been lead by a player you’ve probably heard of, but its future is in the hands of one you might not have.
Whenever former World No. 1 Novak Djokovic decides to hang up his racquet, he’ll be happy to know that Miomir Kecmanovic, playing in just his second year on the professional circuit, appears to have things covered for his native Serbia. At just 18 years of age, Kecmanovic made his debut in the Top 200 of the ATP Rankings this week and is the youngest from his country to reach that career milestone since Djokovic first broke through in November of 2004. Now, into the semi-finals of this week's ATP Challenger Tour event in San Francisco, there is no looking back for the teenager.
"It feels great. It's an amazing accomplishment and not many people my age have done it,” said Kecmanovic, who is projected to rise to at least No. 178 on Monday. “I'm happy that in such a short amount of time I've been able to go from juniors and make the transition. I hope I can continue playing well and moving up.”
A former junior No. 1, Kecmanovic has already experienced a taste of life at the pinnacle of the game, having practised with Djokovic on multiple occasions. He also enjoyed a two-week stay at the Nitto ATP Finals in November, serving as a practice partner for the stars competing in London.
"It's always good to have someone like [Djokovic] to look up to. He's been such a great ambassador for the sport in Serbia It's a shame that he's now struggling with the elbow injury, but I'm sure he'll come back,” said Kecmanovic, who cites his legendary compatriot as not only an inspiration but also a mentor.
“He's given me a ton of advice and we've talked a bit. We've hung out and practiced too. It's cool to have someone like him looking out for you. It's amazing to see the intensity he practices with every single day. Maximum effort. It made me think that if I want to get there, I have to start working hard like that."
Hard work in the off-season is already paying dividends for Kecmanovic in 2018. Having recently reached back-to-back quarter-finals at the ATP Challenger Tour events in Newport Beach and Dallas, the Serbian is into the semis of the Kunal Patel San Francisco Open this week, defeating fellow #NextGenATP Michael Mmoh in a high-quality three-set match this Friday.
"We've worked to be a aggressive with my serve and my groundstrokes and come forward more; quite a bit on my net game,” said Kecmanovic of his pre-season training with coach Miro Hrvatin, with whom he has been working for a year and a half. “We've done a good job together and it's starting to show on the court. Making that transition from juniors to pros wasn't easy.
“It's really different, both mentally and physically,” he added. “The matches are much longer, you don't get easy points and have to stay focused the entire time. It started off a little tough for me, but I adapted well, playing a few good shots in a row and not just one."
Kecmanovic became the youngest Serbian to lift a trophy on the Challenger circuit since his fellow countryman Djokovic in 2005, when he claimed the title in Suzhou, China in the fall of last season. He did not drop a set all week. The 18-year-old has some big shoes to fill, but they’re starting to fit quite nicely.
"My first week in China, in Ningbo, I lost 7-6 in the third in the first round. But I stayed there, practiced and worked hard to get ready for Suzhou. I didn't expect much of myself there and I just relaxed. No pressure. I said to myself 'who cares what you do'. It started well with the first couple matches and as I played on it got better and better."
Additionally, Kecmanovic has joined fellow #NextGenATP Felix Auger-Aliassime as the youngest players in the Top 200. The duo faced off in the final of the 2016 US Open boys’ singles tournament, with the Canadian emerging victorious. The Belgrade native would end that season with the top junior ranking and climbed nearly 600 places in the ATP Rankings the following season, as his pro career kicked off with a bang.
"It has come pretty quickly,” he admitted. “It's true that last year was my first as a professional and I won my first Challenger title in October. I'm happy that I managed to do it so quickly. There are many players who are developing and moving forward fast."
Kecmanovic is hoping that his second trophy will come just as quickly as the first. One of four unseeded players in the San Francisco semis, he faces Jason Jung in Saturday's nightcap. A $100,000 indoor hard-court event, the tournament is in its second year on the ATP Challenger Tour.