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Davis Cup: Serbia's journey from war-torn nation to tennis superpower

By Helen Chandler, CNN
  • The final of the 2010 Davis Cup takes place in Belgrade from 3-5 December
  • Serbia and France will meet in the competition for the first time
  • France have won the event nine times most recently in 2001
  • Serbia will be playing in the final for the first time but have the advantage of playing on their home court

(CNN) -- Serbian tennis has come a long way since some of its top players had to train in empty swimming pools to escape the conflict and bombings on the streets of the country's capital Belgrade.

World number three and 2008 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, and former female world number ones Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic all grew up at the height of the country's troubles, but their success at the top of the game has firmly put Serbia on the map as a tennis superpower.

And now, as Belgrade plays host to the final of the Davis Cup competition, with Serbia facing nine-time champions of the international men's team event, France, the country's transformation from war-torn nation to tennis-playing giant is almost complete.

"We all know that the Davis Cup is a very special competition and playing in the Davis Cup final is the biggest success that my country ever had," Serbian world number three Novak Djokovic said at a press conference at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, which CNN attended.

Belgrade-born Djokovic, grand slam doubles champion Nenad Zimonjic, 30th-ranked Viktor Troicki and world number 49 Janko Tipsarevic make up the team that will hope to secure sporting success for their country in front of a packed crowd at the city's indoor tennis center.

The Davis Cup is a very special competition and playing in the final is the biggest success that my country ever had
--Novak Djokovic

The story of Djokovic and his compatriots has inspired many people in the former Yugoslavian state to take up tennis and the sport is now one of the best-loved in the nation.

"They are massive massive stars in Serbia, they are gods," Dejan Calovski from the Serbian section of the BBC World Service told CNN.

"They are viewed as heroes as they are giving the country an identity and something to be proud of. Their stories are quite inspirational and the tennis schools are filled with young girls and boys who want to play like them."

For the men's players reaching the Davis Cup final is seen as culmination of the country's success in the sport and with the added bonus of being able to contest the tie on home-soil, they are much the favorites to become the most recent tennis heroes in their country.

"On paper Serbia is definitely the huge favorite," Calovski added. "They are very much looking forward to playing on their home court and that should not factor any pressure-- it will only be an advantage for them."

The prospect of playing their 16th Davis Cup final against some of the world's top players in front of a partisan Serbian crowd is something that France have acknowledged is a tough task -- but not an impossible one.

"I think that Serbia are the favorites -- they are at home," Remi Bourrieres from Tennis Magazine France told CNN. "They have Novak Djokovic who is unbeatable at home and is playing very well. So they are favorites but only small favorites I think."

We have a lot of great players in France but have not been able to win a grand slam so we have to hope for victory in the Davis Cup to make up for it.
--Remi Bourrieres, Tennis Magazine France
  • Davis Cup
  • Novak Djokovic
  • Serbia
  • France
  • Belgrade

With 10 players in the top 100, France captain Guy Forget had plenty of talent to choose from when it came to picking his squad, although the team will be without former Australian Open finalist and world number 13 Jo-Wilfred Tsonga.

French number one and world number 12 Gael Monfils will be joined in the team by Michael Llodra, Gilles Simon and doubles specialist Arnaud Clement.

France will become the third most successful Davis Cup country of all-time (behind Australia and the U.S.) should the quartet win a tenth title.

But unlike Serbia who have a recent major winner in Djokovic, France is without a men's champion since Yannick Noah won at Roland Garros in 1983, and recapturing the the Davis Cup is certainly seen as a way to atone for a lack of success in a sport that remains hugely popular in the country.

"We have a lot of great players in France but have not been able to win a grand slam. We love tennis so we have to hope for victory in the Davis Cup to make up for it," Bourrieres added.

Whether France can add another title to its collection or Serbia can claim their first remains to be seen. But one thing is certain -- both sets of players will be fighting hard to win the Davis Cup despite having already competed in an 11-month long season.

And playing at home, the Serbians will be relishing the tie event more as they look to seal their place in Davis Cup history.

"It is maybe a unique opportunity for all of us," Djokovic said. "So we have to find this little piece of energy that is left and give everything on the court."

"It is a unique opportunity to have the Davis Cup final played at home -- you will never have this opportunity again. We all are looking forward to that.