If you build it, they will come. But will they come for the tennis? This remains a key question facing the organisers of the Serbia Open, wrapping up today in Belgrade. Given the crowds during last weekend’s qualifying rounds and on Tuesday’s holiday, there was room – despite the absence of local hero Novak Djokovic and his Davis Cup teammates – for cautious optimism. But with the Wednesday retirement of Dusan Lajovic, the only Serbian player remaining in the main draw, the answer was looking less hopeful.
The 250-series event is a big deal for both Serbia, which has never hosted an ATP tournament before, and the Djokovic family, who owns it. As Novak’s uncle Goran, who serves as tournament director, proudly noted on Friday, Serbia is now on an elite list of countries to hold such an event, which can “contribute significantly to the positive image of the country.” That there is much at stake here is also made clear by the fliers distributed throughout the grounds encouraging spectators to observe proper behavior during matches – not only to help “maintain high standards” at the organisational level but also to “show that we are a tennis nation.” This week’s tournament, however, indicates that there is still a way to go to prove this point.
First, the bad news. While the popularity of tennis has seen a dramatic increase over the past decade, Serbia does not have a well-developed tennis culture. Traditionally, the public gravitates toward team sports like football, basketball, and volleyball – in which Serbia has had considerable success and spectators are free to support their favorites with little restraint. Serbian fans of tennis fall into three categories, each bigger than the last: life-long followers of the sport, relatively recent converts, and bandwagon fans, who are less tennis enthusiasts than admirers of a few successful players.
For the latter group, Djokovic is not merely the nation’s best athlete – its Michael Jordan, if you will – but also its Brad Pitt and even its Kim Kardashian. That is, they fill the stands to be near the bright light of celebrity as much as, if not more than, to see Nole play. No one is suggesting that Djokovic is just a pretty face or hasn’t earned his renown. But his success inevitably registers in superficial ways: the fame, money, and jet-set lifestyle make him equally a focus of the tabloids as he is a mainstay of the sports pages. And some of Djokovic’s allure has rubbed off on tennis itself, so that regardless of who’s playing, people will come along to the “Novak” Tennis Center to see and be seen. Alas, such patrons are unlikely to make it into the stands unless a familiar face is on court.
Without well-known Serbian players to draw the crowds, the tournament relies on either the curiosity of the general public or the passion of a much smaller group: those who really care about tennis. Unfortunately, given the state of the economy, most people find ticket costs steep; so, if they splurge, it won’t be for more than one session. Perhaps recognizing this, organisers made entry to the site free – not just during the qualifying rounds, but all week. While this means that serious fans can watch matches on the outer courts without tickets, it has left the stadium court mostly empty. Unsurprisingly, the largest audiences all week have not been for the tournament’s top seed, Pablo Andujar, but rather its biggest name: David Nalbandian, who is familiar from both competing in Belgrade for Davis Cup and being a former top-ten player.
On to the good news. One thing can certainly be said for Djokovic Family Sport: they know how – and where – to throw a party. With courts on the banks of the Danube, adjacent to the Belgrade fortress, and just a short walk from the city’s main square, the tournament is ideally situated. Further, evidence of the previous family business can be seen all over their latest enterprise, and devoted fans of the world No 1 won’t be surprised to find that one on-site restaurant features a gluten-free menu.
On a more substantive level, the Serbia Open is also doing well by arguably its most important attendees: players. According to Andujar, it is a well-run event: “I think it’s a very good tournament,” he noted, “even if it’s new and they are [just] starting.” While Andujar admits that he and other players always want “enormous” crowds at their matches, he also acknowledges that the absence of the top Serbs is “good for us, for these kinds of people – players that want to grow and be more famous.”
Others, too, benefit from the presence of such an event: for instance, next-generation Serbian hopefuls, like seventeen-year-old Miki Jankovic, who played his first ATP event this week. Locals who follow the sport closely are also happy to have international talent on display in Belgrade, even if it’s not from the best-known names on tour. Last but not least thrilled by the tournament are practitioners and students of the game, like Hristiyan Kovacevic and his coach, who, though they couldn’t afford stadium seats, came daily to pick up tips from training sessions and observe the match-play of the professionals whose ranks the thirteen-year-old hopes to one day join.
Ultimately, what stands out at the Serbia Open and the center that hosts it is the aspirational quality of the venture. The organisers are committed to making the tournament a success – and not simply in financial terms. Though a cynic might see it as little more than a glorified gift shop, there are numerous indicators that the place serves a greater purpose. Take, for instance, the trophy room, lined with glittering prizes won by Djokovic: perhaps seeing an Olympic medal or a replica Wimbledon trophy will inspire a Serbian child to pick up a racket. And if that isn’t concrete enough, how about this: the centre is set to host several ITF Futures events this summer. Eventually, they will come for the tennis.