In a sport fuelled by individual feats of brilliance, Serbia illustrated on Sunday that the Davis Cup still holds a cherished place in tennis’s rich folklore.
When Viktor Troicki hit a backhand winner past France’s Michael Llodra to clinch Serbia’s first title in the 110-year-old competition, the eruption of joy that followed it threatened to take the roof off the Belgrade Arena.
The proud nation has blessed the sport with the likes of Novak Djokovic and former top-ranked women Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic in recent years, but until Sunday only basketball and soccer victories would spark such wild celebrations.
That world number three Novak Djokovic, who won both his singles rubbers in the 3-2 victory, rated the triumph as the best moment of a career that has already brought one Grand Slam title, spoke volumes about the health of the competition.
“We should not forget the Davis Cup is not a requirement, it’s a free choice to participate,” ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti said. “It’s totally different from all the other tournaments. We are very happy with the final and it shows that the Davis Cup is strong.”
Djokovic always plays with his passion for his homeland stamped on his sleeve and the 23-year-old was his country’s talisman for three intense days on the banks of the River Danube, which provided a fitting end to competition.
Not only did he play stunning tennis when it most mattered to claw back 0-1 and 1-2 deficits against the competition’s aristocrats, he fuelled the partisan home support that ultimately overwhelmed the French players.
While some of the world’s top players, Roger Federer included, have not always shown total commitment to the Davis Cup, Djokovic has made it his priority to turn Serbia into one of the competition’s big guns.
With plans for a new national tennis centre unveiled during the final, tennis in Serbia is booming.
The defeat of France at the end of only its third year competing in the elite World Group could act as a catalyst for a new generation of Serbian champions from the sprawling tower blocks and 1950s apartments that dominate the city.
Troicki, who lives very much in the shadow of the likes of Djokovic and Jankovic, could have been forgiven for hogging the spotlight after winning the most important match of his career.
Instead, the 24-year-old displayed just what makes the Davis Cup so special to athletes normally flying solo.
“I’m not a hero,” he told reporters. “We all did it. Janko [Tipsarevic] in the semis.
“Novak hasn’t lost a match this year in Davis Cup in singles. I thank him and Janko and Ziki [Nenad Zimonjic] and also coach Niki [Pilic] and captain Bogdan Obradovic.
“Without them, we couldn’t do it. After the last point, it was just unreal. Probably tomorrow or in the next few days I will start feeling the emotions of winning the Davis Cup.”
With individual ego such a fragile entity in top-level sport, it was heartening to watch Tipsarevic lead Serbia’s manic celebrations despite his defeat in Friday’s singles and subsequent relegation to the role of cheerleader.
Tipsarevic armed himself with a set of hair clippers as Serbia’s triumphant team made good on a promise after their semi-final victory over the Czech Republic to shave their heads should they topple the French.
Later, the hairless wonders stood on tables in the media room and bellowed out a popular Serbian folk song as journalists applauded. It was not the kind of behaviour people are used to from tennis players, or journalists for that matter, but, then again, the Davis Cup is a bit different.
“You know, this is the finals of the Davis Cup,” Djokovic said. “Nothing gives you more energy than this.” — Reuters