This week, I’ve had the great joy of attending the ITF W25 tournament in Prokuplje, Serbia. Far away from the grass courts of Wimbledon, where qualifying was in full swing, young prospects and weathered veterans go toe-to-toe, trying to climb up the WTA rankings. With 60 points and $25,000 at stake, the competition is intense. For some, competing at a tournament of this caliber is an honor. For others, it’s merely a stepping stone. It’s hard to tell which of these women will one day make it on to the WTA Tour, but one thing seems certain. Lola Radivojevic will.
What’s Happening to Women’s Tennis in Serbia?
When you ask someone to name a Serbian tennis player, their mind will immediately go to Novak Djokovic, and rightly so. The 20-time major winner is without a doubt the best player Serbia has ever produced and one of the best ever from any nation. However, his homeland has had no shortage of great women’s players over the years either. Starting with nine-time Grand Slam champion Monica Seles (who won eight of her Major titles playing for Yugoslavia), Serbia developed several top talents.
That trend continued post-independence, with Serbian women’s tennis reaching its peak in 2008. It was then that Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic dueled for the World No. 1 ranking, the latter triumphing that year at Roland Garros. Though this would end up being the only Slam either one of them won, both would remain in the Top 20 for the years to come. They also combined to help their country capture a first Fed Cup crown in 2013.
Ever since Ivanovic’s retirement in 2016, however, the women’s game has hit a dead end in Serbia. Talents have come and gone, hovering in the lower half of the top 100 at best. The national team has taken a hit too. Gone are the title-winning glory days. Since 2018, the BJK Cup squad has played in the third-tier Group I with little success. Until very recently, Serbian women’s tennis had a bleak future in store. That all changed when Lola Radivojevic burst onto the scene.
Who is Lola Radivojevic?
Radivojevic was born in January 2005 in Prokuplje and grew up in nearby Blace, a town of just 5,000 people. It was there that she first picked up a racket, immediately showing great potential. Radivojevic’s roots were enough to set her apart from the rest. The tennis scene in Serbia has long been dominated by big-city natives. Indeed, Djokovic, Ivanovic and Jankovic all hail from Belgrade, the nation’s capital.
Inevitably, Radivojevic’s talent soon had her rubbing shoulders with the very best. She moved to Belgrade herself at the age of 14 to train at the Novak Tennis Centre, Serbia’s premier tennis academy. By 2021, under the watchful eye of coach Veljko Radojcic, she had become the top junior in the country. Everyone seemed to be preparing her for greatness, but she needed results first.
Breakout 2022 Season
After ending her first season as a professional ranked 1318 in the world, Radivojevic was primed for a breakout season. So far, she’s more than delivered. A quarterfinal run in the girls’ singles draw at the Australian Open put her on the global map and earned her a call-up to the national team. Competing against opponents much older and more experienced than her, Radivojevic compiled a 1-2 record in singles, notching a win over Turkey’s Ayla Aksu, ranked 600 spots higher than her in the WTA rankings. She took a set off of World No. 128 Reka Luca-Jani of Hungary, as well as junior World No. 1 Petra Marcinko from Croatia.
Since then, Radivojevic has seen a rise that’s been nothing short of meteoric. Playing in just her second ever W25 in Osijek, Croatia, she reached the quarterfinals as a qualifier, recording five straight wins in the process. Afterwards, she entered a W15 tournament in Heraklion, Greece and stormed to her first career title, having only gained entry to the main draw via her junior ranking. She captured a second straight trophy in Heraklion the following week. Across the two tournaments, Radivojevic dropped a grand total of one set.
Around the World and Back to Prokuplje
Unbelievable form earned Radivojevic a main draw wil dcard for Prokuplje. In an emotional homecoming that drew a record crowd (including plenty of Blace residents) to the Toplicanin Tennis Club, the Serb came from a set down to defeat 3rd seed Ekaterina Kazionova in three sets. It was then that I witnessed her play live for the first time, and what an experience it was. Her movement and court awareness matches that of tennis’ biggest superstars. Her groundstrokes are powerful, and when her serve is on, you better watch out.
Battling through fatigue and apparent nauseousness, Radivojevic showed mental composure the likes of which one would never expect from a teenager. While this is a shared trait between her and her idol Djokovic, they have one crucial difference. Wherras Djokovic either completely internalizes his conflicts, or else starts shouting criticisms at himself in tight moments, Radivojevic is constantly talking to herself. Never raising her voice, but never remaining silent, she mumbles encouraging words to herself. At the conclusion of the first set in the match with Kazionova, which Radivojevic lost, she said out loud, but to no one in particular, “I’m going to give it my all.” And give it her all she did.
Wednesday, 50 minutes of flawless tennis put Radivojevic a set and a break up on Victoria Kan in the round of 16. This was too much for the Russian, who retired despite dealing with no apparent injury. The ability of a 17-year-old to force a former top 150 player into a gutless forfeit is remarkable. That match marked Radivojevic’s 12th consecutive victory.
She eventually succumbed to defeat to Leyre Romero Gormaz in the quarterfinals, battling a leg injury, but Radivojevic will still earn 20 ranking points and rise to World No. 662, nearly 700 spots clear of her 2021 year-end ranking. She possesses a 17-2 record over her last 19 matches.
After her run in Prokuplje, Radivojevic has the ranking to gain direct entry to W25 tournaments more regularly. She won’t have to rely on wild cards or qualifying any longer. This opens the door to a continuation of her rapid rise up the rankings.
The goal for the Blace native should be to start playing WTA tournaments within the next year. To date, Radivojevic has played just two tour-level matches, losing both. One of those, however, was an epic three-setter with former top 10 player Andrea Petkovic. By 2023, Radivojevic will, if all goes according to plan, be gunning for the top 100.
Over the course of tennis history, plenty of 17-year-olds have won Grand Slams and been ranked inside the top 10. It seems foolish to be placing so much expectation on one who is outside the top 500. But Radivojevic has the game and the potential to do great things. Over the last few years, no one has emerged as a valid successor to Ivanovic and Jankovic. Now, Serbian tennis fans have someone to carry on the legacy. They just have to trust the process.
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