Behold the surging Serbs

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A country like the United States has not produced a quality crop of young tennis talent over the last couple of years, but a country like Serbia, specifically Serbia, currently has its share of up- and-comers on the respective circuits, as evidenced by a trio of top-15 performers.

On the men's side, 19-year-old Novak Djokovic is already up to No. 14 in the ATP rankings, and, by all accounts, this kid is heading into the top 10 sooner rather than later.

The teen slugger is off to a fast 8-1 start this year, including a season- opening title in Adelaide last month. His only defeat so far this year came at the hands of the incomparable Roger Federer in the fourth round at the Australian Open, where Federer went on to capture his 10th Grand Slam title.

The 6-foot-2 Belgrade native Djokovic, who turned pro in 2003, broke through with his first career titles last year, with the big victories coming in Amersfoort (The Netherlands) and Metz (France). He also posted a runner-up finish in Umag (Croatia) in 2006.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic is arguably the most talented teenager on the ATP.
Djokovic compiled a lengthy list of quality wins last season, including ones over his fellow promising youngsters Richard Gasquet and Andy Murray, as well as top-notch veterans like Sebastien Grosjean, former world No. 1 Carlos Moya, Guillermo Coria, Nicolas Massu, Tommy Robredo, 2007 Aussie Open runner-up Fernando Gonzalez, Tommy Haas and Tim Henman.


On the monetary front, Djokovic's career prize money eclipsed the $1 million mark last month.

Expect Djokovic, who prefers hardcourts but considers himself an all-surface player, to make some more noise at the French Open this spring. He reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year, only to lose to current two-time defending champion Rafael Nadal.

Among the ladies, Serbia accounts for two of the top-14 players on the planet -- in No. 10 Jelena Jankovic and No. 14 Ana Ivanovic.

The 21-year-old Belgrade native Jankovic, who will turn 22 on February 28, is just startin' to come into her own. She's off to a great start this year, which got underway with a bang via a title in Auckland. And the week after her success in Auckland, Jankovic reached a second straight finale, in Sydney, before losing to former world No. 1 Belgian Kim Clijsters. The title in Auckland was nice, really nice for sure, but it was Jankovic's performance in Sydney that got everyone's attention. On her way to that final, the rising star took out the likes of former world No. 1 Swiss Martina Hingis, former world No. 1 Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo and current top-10 star Nicole Vaidisova of the Czech Republic.

Jelena Jankovic
Jelena Jankovic has already appeared in two finals this season, going 1-1.
At the Aussie Open, Jankovic made it into the round of 16, but gave way to eventual champion and former No. 1 Serena Williams in straight sets, and last week in Tokyo, she was ousted by her countrywoman Ivanovic in three sets in the quarterfinals at the Pan Pacific Open.

Jankovic now looks like a surefire contender at the majors, with her best result thus far coming in the form of a semifinal appearance at last year's U.S. Open. She enjoyed a gradual progression at the Grand Slams last year, reaching the second round in Melbourne, the third round at Roland Garros, the fourth round at Wimbledon and the semis in New York. Can a major final be that far off?

All this positive activity is certainly a far cry from the start to her 2006 campaign, one in which she opened at 1-10, including setbacks in 10 straight outings.


Jankovic eventually got hot in Rome, where she reached the quarters, and wound up reaching at least the QFs in 11 of her final 18 tournaments in '06, including big match wins over such stars as Venus Williams, Ivanovic, Serena Williams, Vaidisova and Russian stalwarts Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova.

Ana Ivanovic
Ana Ivanovic was the runner-up to Martina Hingis in Tokyo.
Way to go-vic!

The Bradenton, Florida resident Jankovic owns a pair of titles on the WTA circuit and has competed in seven career finals (2-5) thus far.

An even-younger Ivanovic is also starting to blossom, with her most recent outing resulting in a championship match appearance last week in Tokyo. Unfortunately, she succumbed to the aforementioned Hingis in straight sets in that lucrative encounter.

The 19-year-old Ivanovic, who, like Djokovic and Jankovic, also hails from the Serbian capital of Belgrade, defeated the likes of Jankovic and reigning world No. 1 superstar Maria Sharapova (semis) en route to the Tokyo finale.

Last year, Ivanovic posted quite a few wins of the notable variety, including ones against Mauresmo, Patty Schnyder, Dinara Safina, Jankovic and Hingis.

And by the way, the 6-foot Ivanovic, who resides in the aforementioned Federer's Swiss hometown of Basel, leads her all-time series with the 5-foot-9 Jankovic, 2-1.

Ivanovic is also 2-1 in three career finals and, like Jankovic, has already gone over the $1 million mark in prize dough.

In short, the small Balkan nation of Serbia appears to have the potential to become a real tennis power in the near future. The original tennis sensation from that neck of the woods was, of course, the great nine-time Grand Slam champion Monica Seles.

FYI, Serbia was part of the former Serbia and Montenegro, which was once part of the former Yugoslavia. If I'm wrong on this, I'm sure someone will let me know.

And speaking of Serbs, where have you gone Jelena Dokic?

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Scott Riley
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