MADRID, November 22, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
At age 35, Janko Tipsarevic is a part of the same Big Three generation as his longtime friend Novak Djokovic. Although he’s three years older than his more famous Serbian Davis Cup teammate, Tipsarevic’s career has been dotted by many injuries – left foot, right knee, both hamstrings – that in recent years has sidelined the Belgrade native for lengthy periods of time and required seven surgeries. His world ranking plummeted to No. 221 from a career high of No. 8 in 2012 due to his inactivity, which necessitated him to rely upon using a protected ranking to gain many main draw entries in his final year on the tour. However, his career has also included a few major moments of glory: from top junior in the world in 2001 to breaking into the Top 10 to being a part of Serbia’s only Davis Cup title in 2010.
Tipsarevic’s pro career is coming to an end this weekend at the Davis Cup by Rakuten Madrid Finals and there’s no other place he would rather be than in Madrid, Spain, being part of a Serbian team that so far has reached the quarterfinal round after winning their group. After all, the colorful Tipsarevic, who is known for his strong personality – a taste for body tattoos, including one on his left arm with the inscription “Beauty will save the world” from Dostoyevsky, and at times dyed hair – is just as much a part of Serbia’s tennis success story as Djokovic. And, he’s never been afraid to speak his mind. Thank goodness, Tipsarevic has never been afraid to speak his mind.
During a mid-week press conference that followed Serbia’s 3-0 group-play win over Japan, in which Tipsarevic celebrated on court by giving a bear hug to teammate Viktor Troicki after their doubles triumph against an overmatched Japanese pair, he pointed to that same teammate and explained how Troicki’s decisive win over France’s Michael Llodra provided him with his biggest thrill as a professional nine years ago as Serbia was crowned Davis Cup champion.
“I know it sounds silly because I wasn’t involved in the actual match,” recalled Tipsarevic. “But I remember this was my highlight of my career, as I see it, even though Davis Cup is a team competition, and Novak was winning a lot of the matches in that year. I felt that we won it as a team together.”
Tipsarevic played his first Davis Cup Final when he was 15. So, he’s had 20 years of representing Serbia, going back to the days of the former Yugoslavia. “And I’m always saying, I don’t consider myself that I was playing so many years because I’m a big patriot,” he said. “I don’t feel I love Serbia more than anybody else in the team or any other normal Serbian person.
“The main reason why I play for so many years is because I love being with the guys here. And you see this over the course of teams which are staying together constantly.”
This year’s Serbian Davis Cup team, in addition to Tipsarevic, Djokovic and Troicki, includes Dusan Lajovic and Filip Krajinovic. The captain is Nenad Zimonjic, who was an integral part of the 2010 Serbian Davis Cup champion team.
“I hope I’m not only speaking in my name, I’m speaking for the rest of the team,” said Tipsarevic. “These are our favorite weeks of the year. Because when you are normally alone in a tournament, you are with your team, you are dealing with your issues, your stuff. But in a team environment, we all play really, really well, including myself.”
Tipsarevic, who first played Davis Cup back in 2000, has compiled the most singles wins in Serbian Davis Cup history with 34, one more than Djokovic.
“So, the main reason why I was playing for so many years is not because I particularly love Serbia more than anybody else,” said Tipsarevic. “I am playing for so many years because I’m enjoying these weeks, being with these guys, which I consider my personal best friends off the court.”
Jokingly, Tipsarevic asked if he could leave the interview room when Troicki who was a guest at his wedding, was asked to honestly share his earliest memories of his teammate. “Shall I be honest?” Troicki asked. “Please, please,” replied Tipsarevic.
“Okay. Janko, first of all, he’s two years older than me and he was always the best in our country as a junior, even in the age above him. So he was like …”
Zimonjic interjected, “The god.”
“The god,” said Troicki. “I never got a chance to play with him before I was 18. … So, basically, he was like a hero there. Honestly, an idol, we were all looking up to him, he was the No. 1 junior in the world.
“He was dying his hair all the colors you could imagine. (Laughing.) I don’t want to mention what – he had some flecks in the back of his head. I won’t mention them.
“I think it was, yeah, first time I really spent time around him, I think it was those junior tournaments in Florida, Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl. … He was good.
“And then – our relationship got a bit better and after we started playing similar tournaments after I got on the tour, he became literally like my brother, my best friend. We see each other, basically when we’re back home, we see each other every day.
“And yeah, for me, it’s also very emotional to see him. I mean, I know it’s his last competition, official competition, but I really cannot – my feeling, I cannot accept it. It’s like, we spend so much time together on and off the court traveling together you know.
“I really feel like he’s a brother. And as he said, we have a really – the whole team has a strong bond together. We spend so many unbelievable moments together, and I will cherish that for the rest of my life.”
Near the end of the interview, Tipsarevic was asked what he thought tennis has taught him, and also if he had to change one thing in his career, what would it be? Never one to sum up his thoughts in just a few words, Tipsarevic spoke in paragraph-length sentences. He said:
“I think it’s incredibly ungrateful for me to say that this sport is tough. Because if you would speak to every single athlete, whether this is chess, golf, volleyball, soccer, basketball, they would point out that their particular sport is incredibly tough, incredibly hard.
“But the only thing that I really genuinely feel is that this sport, because it’s an individual sport and you’re alone, a lot of the time you’re alone, you’re traveling around the world. And you start from – most of us start from very humble beginnings.
“And then, the way the system is made that nothing – financial recognition, points – is guaranteed. For everything that you achieve you have to grind and dig and fight. The one thing that I see is that this sport really makes you (expletive) tough. I don’t know a champion or a good player in this sport that has achieved greatness that is not tough, not only on the tennis court, but as a person outside of the tennis court.
“Now, I can vouch for Novak because I know him close and personally. But I feel because the sport is made in such a way is that by default it has to make you tough, not only on the court when you’re facing a breakpoint on 4-all, but also later on.
“How do you translate the toughness which you achieved 10, 12, 15, 16, 17 years on tour later on in being a parent, being a son, being business owner or whatever?
“If I would have a time machine to go back, and you’re asking me what I would change, Nenad (Zimonjic) pointed it out a bit, he said it joking-wise, but it actually is true: I would change my arrogant and pretentious behavior from the moment that I was the No. 1 junior in the world until I started playing my best on the senior tour.
“The reason for this was because, as Viktor pointed out, I was No. 1 under 12, later on in Europe and in the world No. 1 under 14, 16, and 18, and I felt invincible because I was playin with boys.
“Now, all of a sudden, when you’re playing on the ATP Tour, starting with satellites at that point and Futures, Challengers, you have to face and play against men. When you play against men you need to lose. But then you lose, you get better, you learn and you start playing better eventually. But I wasn’t taking losing very good. I was a coward very deep inside because I didn’t have the champion’s mentality that I was willing to give everything I have and lose 6-1, 6-0, go back on the practice court tomorrow, again, and do the same thing over and over again. Because this is essentially how you become a winner.”
Tipsarevic finished his ATP Tour career last month in Stockholm, compiling a 288-257 win-loss record. He won four titles and amassed more than $8.6 million prize money in singles and doubles combined.
“From a famous Hollywood movie, ‘It is not how hard you can hit, it’s about how many times you can get up when somebody hits you.’ I realized that in the later stages of my career, somewhere around – I was still okay because I had a very good working ethic and I was practicing four, five, six hours every day. But when I was able to unlock my full potential, this happened in the later stages of my professional career once I got married, settled down, and started to look tennis as a part of my life a bit more seriously.”
Now, as Tipsarevic enters the final weekend of his final event before his retirement, surrounded by teammates and friends, he confided, “The emotions are still not here yet. I’m still thinking there’s a long way to go before I start feeling the emotions that this is my last competition. We have a strong team with a good captain. So, I really hope there are many more matches to come before I finally say goodbye.”