Janko Tipsarevic: Belgrade isn't the most beautiful city, but people take away the best memories from it
I grew up in a modest family in the neighborhood called “Fontana” or “Student town”, an area which could be called the “ghetto of New Belgrade”. When I was growing up there it wasn’t the best of neighborhoods. There was a lot of drug trafficking and all the problems that come with it. What saved my brother and I from falling into that life was sports. I feel that he and I were raised very well, but when you spend every day of your childhood in the ghetto, gambling houses and on the strip, the environment will begin to pull you in. However I had “11. April”, my tennis club “As” and my love for tennis and I managed to break away from all of that. This is how Janko Tipsarevic – tennis player, fighter and true Belgrade urban hero – begins his story.
So, you’ve chosen well when it comes to the people in your environment.
When you spend a lot of time on the tennis court, you end up telling and listening to many tennis tales. There is no warping of reality. In this specific situation the proverb “You are who you are by virtue of the company you keep” proved correct. If your main conversation topics are about Agassi’s backhand or what happened in a tournament somewhere, then your reality and your thoughts will revolve constantly around tennis. Throw in genuine love towards the sport and the elation of success at a young age and your reality will become tennis, rather than the ghetto. If you were there, the stories you’d hear would be completely different from the stories you’ll hear in the company of tennis players.
How big of an impact did the fact that your father is a football coach and a P.E. professor have on your choice to train sports?
My parents tell me that I was a hyperactive toddler, always running around the house and breaking everything. I couldn’t stay in one place. My dad was a skier and soccer coach in “Radnicki”, so he signed me up for two sports: soccer and tennis. I still remember the day I started school. My dad picked me up in his lap and said “Son, now that you’re starting school you can’t train both sports anymore. Choose which one you like better.” I chose tennis. I don’t know why.
Tennis is a sport which requires a lot of sacrifice, both from the athletes themselves as well as their families. Many tennis players often say that they have two families – their biological family and their tennis family. Do you feel the same way?
To a degree, because I’ve had very few different trainers. From the age of 13 to 21 I was trained by Roman Savockin. By the time I was 23 I had changed two coaches and since then I’ve been working with Dirk Hordorff. If we look at it that way, I’ve only had four conditioning trainers, maybe four tennis trainers and three physical therapists. I like to have a personal relationship with everyone involved, rather than just “Pay me every month and I’ll treat or train you” and nothing more. I believe that this is how most tennis players feel – they like to have a personal relationship with their teams. Still, I can’t really generalize because tennis is an individual sport and sometimes you have to cut ties with someone if things are not working out, even if your private relationship with them is great.
You grew up in the 90s Belgrade. How do you remember our capitol from that time?
I don’t have bad memories of it. In that period it was my parents’ generation who suffered the most because those were their golden years. I was a kid who was outside all day, playing tennis and kicking the ball around. The only thing I remember lacking was enough money to eat at McDonalds. The rest of my childhood...I mean, what does a kid really need at six, seven or twelve years old? Even in that period my dad protected me because he was the one who took out the visas for all the tournaments I went to. Back then I didn’t really care what was I wearing and I didn’t feel the dark side of the nineties. The murders, sanctioning and everything else going on. I only remember the endless procedures for obtaining visas getting on my nerves, the lines in front of the embassies... Honestly, though, I don’t remember it as a bad period because I was a kid.
What do you think of Belgrade today?
My wife tells me that I am not seeing Belgrade’s true colors because, as a tennis player, I travel 30 – 35 weeks. When I do come back, I always try to surround myself with positive people. I don’t like to be around people who complain a lot and always talk about how terrible everything is. I just don’t like listening to that. To this day all my friends are athletes. My reality in Belgrade isn’t what Belgrade truly is. On the one hand, I understand that people are struggling. My father, as a P.E. teacher is earning around 400EUR. With him I discuss the life in Belgrade and families where at least two people have to work. Among others, some of my friends are also in that situation. Still, the thing I like is that more and more foreigners come to Belgrade. I see that in the clubs and restaurants I visit. I think a lot of foreigners visit us because our people are very good hosts and they like making their guests happy. I am aware that there’s also a financial element to it because people can have a great time here at much better prices than in other places. Still, I don’t have a real, solid idea on what it’s like to live in Belgrade. I think Belgrade is phenomenal because I have my life in order exactly the way I like it. One day when I’m no longer able to play tennis, I will surely be living where I am now, I’ll be on the court with younger generations, trainers... I live near the academy in New Belgrade and I think my life will be very good when that day comes. Still, I do understand and I’ve observed that generally speaking life in Belgrade isn’t easy.
Do you have a ritual when you return to Belgrade? What’s the first thing you do when you come back to our country?
When I was younger my wife travelled with me much more often because we didn’t have a child yet and she didn’t have her business. Back then I would unpack as soon as I got home and then I’d head straight to a club or meet with my friends. Returning to Belgrade after a successful tour was the best feeling ever – everything would be amazing for the first few days. Not even because of the constant praise and everyone patting my shoulder, but because I had the confidence from the court and I transferred that into other aspects of my life and instantly made everything fantastic and great. When you have to keep working, you really can draw a lot of positive energy and motivation from that feeling. Now the situation is a bit reversed. Since our little girl Emily doesn’t travel with us that much, literally everything we do revolves around her. She and I always miss each other so much. Sometimes my heart hurts when I see how much she misses me. There were times when I can’t even go to the bathroom because she keeps sticking to me and won’t let me leave. I often feel bad for that and that’s why the first few days when I come back are always strictly reserved for her. Only afterwards do I go see the rest of my family, go clubbing or see my friends.
I know that there isn’t usually time to go sightseeing when you’re in a tournament, but seeing how your career has been long, you’ve probably gotten to know some locations by now. Is there anything you feel Belgrade has which other big cities around the world don’t?
It’s pretty hard for me to be objective when it comes to Belgrade. I’d like to stress once again that our hospitality is great and that our establishments really know how to make a guest feel special. An example off the top of my head is that our bartenders will often give a guest one or two free drinks which is something you won’t see in most other places around the world. Our people are always thinking about how they can show their guests the best time and make them want to come back. This part of the hospitality scene can be linked to that saying “Belgrade has a soul”. I’ve got friends who work in hospitality and I know that their first impulse is to make their guests feel great. I know from personal experience that this is not the case everywhere in the world.
Maybe this is one of the reasons why we are where we are and those who prioritize profit are somewhere else. Things are different here. People are different. Like I said, I can’t be objective because everyone is always kind to me, people sympathize because of my surgeries and everyone is supportive. If we were realistic – Belgrade isn’t much different than the other large cities in the region. When I talk to other players on tour and we mention Belgrade, they’re always saying that they had a great time. On the other hand, I’ve never heard someone say, for example, “It was great in Budapest”. It feels like everyone takes home nice memories from Belgrade and not only in terms of partying.
What is your favorite part of the city?
I am very fond of hotel “Jugoslavija”. I spent a lot of time there when I was little when we went biking or rollerblading in the quay. When Victor (Troicki auth. note) was having his child christened, we went out to lunch on one of the rafts. I remember having butterflies in my stomach because I was back in the neighborhood where I grew up. I even donated money to set up one of those open-sky exercising areas. On the other hand, every time I have to cross Brankov or Gazela bridge I make a cut. Not good.
Recently you also started a tennis academy. It consists of two clubs, both in New Belgrade. One of them is in Block 21 near “Sest kaplara” and the other one next to the sports center “11. April”. We don’t often see tennis players who still have active careers participating in the work of a tennis academy as much as you do.
I grew up in New Belgrade and I trained at “As” tennis club here in “11. April”. Sead Dervisevic and my father founded that club together. When people ask me why I did it, I give them the same answer as when they ask me why I get tattoos. It’s because I like getting tattoos and putting meaningful images on my body. Likewise, I didn’t start the tennis academy to feel important but because I love tennis.
You usually say that it started out as a small tennis club, but is there also a plan for the future there in addition to your love for tennis?
At some point last year, in-between these six surgeries, we decided to transfer to the academy work system. This was the guiding idea and we organized it very successfully, to the point where there is now a waiting list of kids wanting to enlist because we don’t want to promise anything we can’t fulfill. Working with kids – and by that I mean players aged between 10 to 22-23 years includes both junior and professional tennis. This is why I started the tennis club, because I see myself in that profession even after I stop working in professional tennis. I don’t see myself working on a construction site or opening cafes, restaurants and so on. I know I’m going to sound arrogant saying this, but I really believe that I can do a good job and that someday, with the help of my managing agency, tennis academy and my eventual job as a coach, a player might catch my interest and we can really make something great happen. I am completely mentally prepared for that part of my life. I think it’s very important that a man knows what he wants and when to make a change. All too often I’ve seen stories in the media where professional athletes suffer a breakdown when they stop actively playing their sport and they’re not ready for a life after their career. They just weren’t ready to replace the constant adrenaline surge with something else and this lead to trouble marriages, poor business investments...
You are an athlete who really enjoys organizing promotional activities with children. You said once that it’s the type of work that helps you relax. How much is this related to your wish to prepare for a new life and a new career after your tennis career?
Sometimes I focus too much on the people around me, giving them advice and spending a lot of energy on them instead of spending it on myself. On a certain level I believe that in order to be a truly successful athlete you have to be extremely egocentric. You have to be selfish and to possess this bad quality – if you can call it that – of putting yourself and your sport first and everything else second. This even extends to your family in some small part. This is something you can see in ATP tours over and over – the guys who were having kids also had their careers suffer in some small way until they learned to handle this part of their lives. Tennis players’ wives usually know what they are getting into and know that even a life partner doesn’t come first, tennis comes first. We live for tennis and tennis comes first. When a child comes into the picture the priority shifts – something more important and bigger than tennis is suddenly there. This psychological change that happens in players didn’t affect me as much because at the time of Emily’s birth I was in-between surgeries, but it is a very tough change to adapt to. Suddenly stretching properly and doing everything right doesn’t seem as important. Something else is more important and bigger.
Like changing the baby’s diaper for example, which every parent will confirm?
Well, there is that too. Of course nobody is forcing you to change her diaper, but you want to. You also want other things – to go out or do something else not related to tennis. The guilt that comes up inside you if you are a true champion just won’t let you. You have to say “I have to do this first and then we can have fun”. This is something totally different. It’s not an obligation, it’s not something your wife is making you do – it’s something you want to do.
Some split your career into four parts: your junior days, the period up to 2010, the period after and the current period. How do you see your career?
I’ve never seen it that way, but I actually completely agree. As a junior I was very free-spirited and I had very liberal parents who didn’t hold me back. Roman Savockin played a monumental part there, but on the other hand I wasn’t the type to let anyone give me a hard time and then just come back the next day and keep working. On the other hand I maybe liked life outside the court a bit more than I should have.
The period of transiting into professional sports didn’t go quite the way we expected. I was the first junior of the world when I was a year younger than all my competition, I had some seriously good results for that age and I won a Grand Slam. The transition was slow because suddenly you aren’t playing your peers anymore, but adult players. Suddenly it’s not enough to just train until you drop and you can’t exactly go out gallivanting around town. You have to sort out your life, which I did gradually. I was in the top 50 for four or five years, but there was no significant change. Then, after winning the Davis cup I remember seeing some data that shocked me. My stats in the top 10 at one point was 50-50. I was only winning every other match against the top 10 players. However, I didn’t have enough courage, I was too cowardly to face myself in the mirror and admit the problem, which was myself and my lack of courage. I was the problem because I didn’t want to give my 100% to tennis. I looked up to Novak Djokovic a lot and it really helped me understand what it’s like to be someone who went to the extreme, who put tennis in the absolute first spot in life. On the other hand, I learned to persevere.
My relationship towards tennis changed overnight and then there was only tennis, tennis and tennis. I was completely enthralled. In the first six month nothing significant had happened. I even lost the first three matches in the year with four or five match balls in all three matches which was a big psychological blow for me. The most important thing for me was solid and dedicated work in the court. Now that I am a bit older and wiser I see some of the mistakes I used to make. The hardest challenge for talented juniors is that moment when you cross into professional tennis from your junior competition. You’ve built up this immense ego and then suddenly you realize you’re a complete nobody. To be out there in the court up against a professional, to give your absolute best and only score two games. And this happens again tomorrow and the next day... I never had that attitude and always tried to play it cool. I had this fabricated little alibi: I could’ve done better if I had stretched better, if I did this or that...
It was a very difficult transition for me. I was doing my best, but the year went on and I lost matches, even to players I shouldn’t have lost to. This happened in the tennis world so many times before. You are talking to an atheist. I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in the Church, I don’t believe in organized religion, but in my head there is a belief that if you truly want something and dedicate yourself to it, it is only a matter of time when you will succeed. Take two examples: the first is how Andy Murray became number one. This is something Dusan Lajovic told me: Novak completely dominated the finals of Roland Garros. Murray had lost on Sunday and was playing Queens on Tuesday. The final match was in Queens against Raonic – a match that lasted very long because of rain interruptions. It was dark when they finished the match. On Monday, Duci came to Wimbledon early and got a training slot at 8AM. He came to the gym at 7:30 to warm up before training and found Murray there who was already soaked in sweat. I told my wife who, as a layperson, said “This guy decided to be number one” that I am sure that if he lost to Novak in London, it would’ve happened next year for sure. When I decided to become better and join the Top 20, things sort of unraveled for me in the second half of that year. For example, instead of playing Nadal, he would either lose or get hurt and I ended up playing somebody else. In the next tournament Berdych threw the match in the first call. This was the same thing that’s happening with Filip Krajinovic now, but it’s happening because he is putting tennis first. Now, this is might sound a bit silly to some, but the universe will help you when you are determined, though you have to endure. You have to endure and wait for your chance. In the year when I ended up in the top 10 for the first time I had actually won against fewer top 10 players than back when I was not doing as well. Berdych threw in the towel and I won against Nole in the Masters which he barely managed to finish. Still, if you fully decide to apply yourself completely, things will begin to unravel – sooner or later.
I feel really bad that all those injuries had to happen right when I – at the risk of sounding like a Belgrade scoundrel – ‘cracked the code’. I realized what I had to do in order to be the best. I’m not saying that I would’ve been third or fifth in the Australian Open where I hurt myself instead of being the eight, but I had figured out what I needed to do in order to be the best Janko. By the end of the year I might’ve dropped down to be 25th, but thanks to where I was mentally back then I guarantee I would’ve been at least in the 12th spot. That’s what I still regret.
That year, 2010, was a sort of a turning point for all your careers. Did winning the Davis cup that year open your eyes in some way and acted as a waypoint in your career?
I feel that the Davis cup that year was really a big motivation for me to enter the preparation for next year all fired up. Even before it happened I had decided to put tennis first, but I feel things would’ve been different for all of us if we had lost to the Czechs in the semifinals, or if Victor had lost the final match. In that case, instead of having a five or six day vacation with the best feeling in the world, you would go with your head hung low. We entered the next preparations with maximum motivation because everything was fantastic. The year was finished in the best possible way - as Davis cup champions. After that, people could harass you, whip you, send you out in 50 degrees weather - you wouldn’t care because everything is perfect. The Davis cup is tricky business, especially the final match. Goffin is still saying to this day that the Davis cup finals against the French was the most important match for him that year. I believe this is true because he had never won it before. You saw Cilic. The man lost a practically won match to Del Potro and proceeded not to win any matches for three or four months. This can leave a big mark on a man. If he’d won the Davis cup, I’m sure he would’ve gone to the Australian Open with wings.
Your best result to date is holding the 8th place on the ATP list in 2012. However, soon after the injuries came and with them the constant struggle to climb back to the top. Just when you reach the 50-60th spots you would get injured again.
This is where I blame myself, which is something I started doing when the injuries began. When you’re in pain and you’re taking injections and you have to be on painkillers, you are not thinking straight. I kept looking who was ahead of me. The year when I got hurt the first time had a great start for me. I had won Chennai and played the fourth round in Australia, despite the unfavorable draw. I remember I played a night match against Lleyton Hewitt in my first round in the central field and had good draws after. When I got injured and was on medication and everything hurt, my thinking changed. It wasn’t important to me where Ferrer was, but where Conga and anyone else who was behind me were, and how soon they would steal my ranking. When those who were below 9th place lost matches, I was relieved and thinking “okay, I can be eight for a week longer”. I wasn’t thinking realistically because I was thinking “Well great, since Conga lost now I can take cortisol” so I could keep training. This is where I blame myself because I didn’t step on the brakes and say “Ok, this is bad, now there will be six months of rest”. I was fired up and I wanted to keep my ranking, keep bringing in money, keep the guarantees – all of those things pulled me in the wrong direction. I don’t even blame Dirk because when he asked me if I could do it, I’d say everything was okay because I was used to being in pain when playing. Even now, when my rehabilitation is in process I am afraid of myself the most because I have moved my pain threshold so much after six surgeries that when I had leg surgery and the surgeon looked at my hamstrings, he asked me how I could even play with that injury. I told him I was used to it because I’d take one, two, three, four painkiller pills and then go out into the court. Now, when doctors tell me to work until I feel my pain limit I’m afraid to do anything by myself and push it too far.
What is the prognosis for your post-operation recovery? You last had hamstring surgeries on both of your legs at the same time.
The idea for that surgery came about almost by accident. The doctor who saved my knee when I got injured because we had no idea what had happened with the string and the radiologists weren’t sure, showed the images to his friend who works for the Barcelona football club and he immediately told him what the problem was because the same thing had happened to Ousmane Dembele a week earlier. He had the identical surgery. It’s been five weeks now and the surgery was no joke. In order for players to withstand an injury, they usually take a 500mg ibuprofen. I took four just to somehow survive the match against Kokkinakis in the US Open (1st round – auth. note). I had a problem and afterwards apologized to Rainer Schuettler who was working with me at the time. Sometimes I won’t feel up to training at all. One or two days sometimes, but never for longer periods. I thought it would just go away. It turned out that the string on my right leg which connects the hamstring muscle to my veneer bone had broken into two. And on my left leg that muscle, which is held by three strings, was barely hanging on one. I am aware that not much will change because I am getting up in years for a tennis player. Still, it’s a new year and I played it safe and still managed to get from the 150th place into top 50 in less than three months. This is how you build confidence for ATP tournaments.
It’s the same thing that Filip did right. He wouldn’t have played the Paris finals if he hadn’t won four challengers before that. His percentage of saved break balls thanks to those challengers up until the Paris finals was around 80-40% which reflected his confidence. You can only save break balls if you have confidence. If not, you’re looking at a double serve, your arm will be stiff, your legs freeze over, there’s nothing. I feel bad because, when I came back from China and the problems began, I had very good draws but I just couldn’t make them. My doctor feels that recovery will last for three months and I hope he’s right. I still don’t know what exactly will happen, but if you look at Federer who’s still winning Grand Slams at 36, I feel I can still be in the Top 50 at 33, 34. I really can. Just as long as I’m not in pain. I couldn’t do anything for the first ten days because I was in so much pain. I don’t mind suffering hardships because I was used to it. What really destroys me emotionally are my own expectations, because I’d start off doing something, determined to make it happen and then... it’s like someone told you “You just sit there. You can’t do it, just sit right there.” It kills me, and it hurts more every time it happens. It drains me psychologically too much. The physical part is not an issue, they can cut me up all over and I’ll keep standing. Over the period of three and a half years I’ve had six major surgeries. I haven’t played at all because it all began when I was 29. I played for maybe a year, most of which I was completely distraught.
What are your three favorite matches? Are they the fifth semi-final match in the Davis cup against the Czechs in 2010, the 3rd round match in the Australian Open against Federer in 2008 and when you won the Kremlin cup in Moscow?
I am not fond of the match in Moscow because I won against Victor in the finals. I don’t like playing against our players. The thing I noticed, which is why I am emotional outside of court, I like to get pumped when I’m playing. Even the psychotherapist I went to also connected my positive energy with the first pumping. When I play against people I know, it’s not something I like doing because it feels kind of miserable even though I know what has to be done. I couldn’t agree more regarding the first two matches. I regret not beating Federer because I’d like to be able to say that at some point I have beaten all the Top 10 players. He was very dominant, but I think that match could’ve been won by Novak back then. A year before that, I think in Dubai, Novak had lost to him and I remember him saying back then “I know exactly what I did wrong, I’ll get him next time”. I think he did win against him that year in Montreal. I feel that someone would’ve beaten him sooner or later. I remember him killing it in that match by serving 39 aces. When we played from the baseline I had the lead in points, but 39 aces...that’s a set and a half! For the third favorite match I think I’d choose the title in Kuala Lumpur. Up until then I had lost five final matches. I’d just get to the finals and then play badly. Instead of being offensive, I’d play it carefully, trying to exploit the other players’ mistakes. I tripped on the grass and hurt my leg. I was in the lead with Baghdatis, set and double break, but I somehow came back and won the tournament. That, for example, would be my third favorite match. Also for example, I didn’t feel bad for losing that match to Federer because I played it with courage, the way you’re supposed to. Nothing hurts me more than when I’m playing carefully and lose. The match ball with Berdych in London, I attack and miss the volley just by a little. It hurts, but you know you played it right. You remember the matches that you could’ve won but didn’t much more. If I tried to remember matches where I made comebacks and won, I wouldn’t remember anything, but almost every match in which I had the match balls and lost hurts a lot. When he retired, Wayne Ferreira said that every tennis player who is retiring feels that he should’ve trained more, or served more or won this or that match. Psychologically speaking this is a normal reaction, but nobody thinks to say “if I hadn’t bled in training I wouldn’t have gotten where I did”. You should also be grateful to yourself for doing all the good things you did.
At one point of your career there was a running joke among tennis fans that your matches should be only watched from the 4th set on. Many even called you the king of five set matches.
This was one of the problems reflected in my victories against Top 10 players. That is to say, in my relationship towards every opponent. Up until that year 2010 my attitude was: “put me in the central court, turn on the lights, everyone’s watching and I’m playing against the best”. I know that if I don’t play my best, there’s nothing for me on that court. So, I played well and I won tight matches. But then you put me in, say, court 22, I lose interest, don’t do my best and then try to act tough about it. I mainly played well in tight situations because the ambiance around me created tension and stress and I’d engage all my senses because I knew that this is it and there’s no other way but up. I was known to lead 4:1 and then I’d lose focus. I’d think “OK, now he’ll lose”. After 2010 when it’s break it’s 6:2 until the end because I don’t let up. This is why I’d play until the 5th set so often because I’d have to save the game when I was losing because I knew there was nowhere to go.
Back in their day, Niki Pilic and Sven Groeneveld used to say that the most dangerous result in the set is to be in the lead in the middle of the set 3:1 or 4:1.
When the set starts and you make your first break, you know you’re doing well but there’s still more game to go. When it’s close to the end, you focus harder but the 4:1 score is where the great players like Nole don’t give any leeway. If he can get to 6:1 he will win the match 6:1 in a minute and a half. They don’t let you breathe. The top tennis players of the world feel that they need to win every point. Nadal in the final Masters plays practically on one leg, loses a double break and knows that he will cancel the tournament because of his injury after the match and makes a break at 4:2 and fist-pumps. This is the attitude that the best players have. I don’t think it’s true what Monica Seles used to say that they don’t keep track of the score while playing. You go out into the field and win every point. How many times have we seen Federer make a break even though he was losing 40 – nill.
What is your plan for recovery, preparations and next season. You have the so-called ‘protected rank’ due to your latest surgery, don’t you?
First I’ll be taking a family vacation in the Bahamas because I’ll be playing an exhibition there organized by Richard Branson. This used to be in the Necker island, but since it’s been devastated by a hurricane it’s now in the Bahamas. I’ll come back to Belgrade for a day and then travel to Barcelona to work with the Barcelona soccer club physical therapist on my leg recovery. I’m working with him because what had happened to me is essentially a soccer-player’s injury. After the three weeks of rehabilitation I’ll return to Belgrade and begin preparations which will last around two months, after which I should come back to the court in the first week of March. I still haven’t put together a tournament list because I don’t know how it will go. This is the main idea because my ranking will be protected up until March and in the following year, covering nine tournaments with the 60-something spot, which is three Grand Slams in the main draw. So, around nine main tournaments, five-six challengers, several qualifications and that’s around 20 tournaments because I don’t think I’ll be able to play any more than that between March and November. My schedule other than maybe five qualifications for some tournaments or any wild-cards if I get them because the tournaments have been kind to me so far won’t change much.