Islamabad (Sports Desk):-The semi-final between Serbia and Croatia will be the latest instalment of an old rivalry, even if the players are all friends. It will also pit the world No.1 singles player against the world No.1 doubles team. Whenever Croatia faces Serbia, it’s about more than just tennis.
“There is a big rivalry obviously being neighbouring countries, and there is always an extra pressure, an extra motivation, extra expectations I think for both nations to really win against each other”, says Novak Djokovic. “It’s not just semi-finals, it’s Croatia against Serbia, which has extra meaning for us.”
Friday’s last-four clash in Madrid will be just the third time Croatia and Serbia have faced off in Davis Cup since they became independent nations following the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Both of the previous meetings have gone Serbia’s way. The first came in Split in 2010 when Serbia won 4-1 in the quarter-finals en route to winning the competition. Then, like now, Djokovic was Serbia’s leading man, winning both of his singles matches against Ivan Ljubicic and Marin Cilic in straight sets.
“I remember it really well and I even have a few photos from that tie”, Cilic recalls. “I couldn’t believe how young we were. It was incredible to play in Croatia, really loud fans, special atmosphere. In the end Novak played incredible over the weekend. With that victory of them in the Davis Cup, Novak got an incredible boost for the 2011 season. So Davis Cup again showed a lot of great emotions and positivity. Those experiences are incredible for everyone’s career.”
“It’s not just semi-finals, it’s Croatia against Serbia, which has extra meaning for us" (Novak Djokovic)
In 2015, Serbia beat Croatia again, although this time it was a 5-0 thrashing in Kraljevo. Viktor Troicki, who won both of his singles matches in that whitewash six years ago, now hopes to inspire Serbia as captain.
“It's a completely new role for me. First year as a Davis Cup captain, being on the team for so many years as a player, I have experienced everything, but this is a whole different level, being in the court and supporting the players. Nice memories against them [Croatia]. Of course we are going to go for a win. Hopefully the streak will continue.”
While the national rivalry is impossible to ignore, it’s not something that leads to friction between the players. If anything, the opposite is true, with the country’s ties bringing them all closer.
“We get along extremely well”, Cilic says about the two teams. “During the season we’re practising all the time, hanging out together. With Novak I’ve been great friends since childhood. Krajinovic has been working with my fitness coach for a while. Borna [Gojo] was practising in Belgrade. So there is great connection with their team.”
Djokovic believes the tie, while competitive, will be an opportunity to showcase the camaraderie between the sides.
“I think regardless of what happens on the court, what is really nice in the sense of [a] really positive message out there is the respect and the friendship with these guys that we have on and off the court. These are great guys.”
Speaking after midnight following Serbia's comeback against Kazakhstan, Djokovic added: “It’s been a long day. When you're not on the court, you're also emotionally involved in every match. You're cheering, you're supporting. It's very different from any individual tournament. So it's always great to have a day rest where you can recalibrate, recuperate all the necessary energy for not just your match but other matches, as well, and giving support, being there for your teammates.”
“Borna and Nino back in Italy played amazing”, says Cilic. “They played above their usual match level and we hope those experiences are going to boost them for a great 2022 season. We know they can play a high level and they really fed off the team atmosphere and the captain and played amazing tennis.”
Whatever happens, with Serbia looking to reach its third Davis Cup final and Croatia its fourth, both nations continue to punch above their weight in tennis, and Cilic is well aware that this is a tremendous opportunity.
“Considering we are coming from such small countries and making such a great impact in tennis, it’s incredible. It’s so great for our nations to be in this position. Whoever wins is going to be in the final of Davis Cup and that’s an incredible achievement for both countries.”