Much before Novak Djokovic made Serbia a hotbed of talent, Slobodan Zivojinovic was Belgrade’s cool cat on the tennis scene. There was no Grand Slam glory really, but his cult following in mid-to-late 80s was down to his big serve, bigger power game and the biggest ability to singularly tick off John McEnroe. He took off from where Bjorn Borg left, but Slobodan ‘Bobo’ Zivojinovic did it in his unique snorting style, once famously, while munching on a sandwich.
Seated on an KSLTA easy-couch after a few hits with the young Serbian team on a pre-Davis Cup Wednesday and recalling his playing days on his second India visit since travelling with the Yugoslavian squad which beat the hosts at New Delhi in 1988, Zivojinovic recounted how he got under McEnroe’s skin.
It was the Australian Open of 1985, quarterfinals and McEnroe sensing his opponent was serving big and stroking the ball swimmingly, unleashed a regulation tantrum. “I realised he wanted to slow things down. I moved away, put my feet up and started eating a sandwich. That really pissed him off. I waited for him to finish his ‘performance’. Then he lost 6-0 in the fifth,” he guffaws.
The sharpish baby-face and wiry frame that made him the original big-boom server before Goran Ivanisevic, is now a nicely rotund fleshy mass that smiles sheepishly when dismissing McEnroe’s antics and recalls Yugoslav tennis glory wistfully. Anand Amritraj, who played in the 1988 tie against the former World No 1, greeted Bobo with a good natured tapping-knock on his erstwhile rival’s considerable tummy. “Back after 26 years, it’s good to see Indian hospitality hasn’t changed. I’ll always remember the warmth I received here, despite beating the home team who had been in the previous year’s finals (1987 Davis Cup). The press put out my pictures, and wrote complimenting things – and it was much more than what they wrote about me back home,” says the former World No 19 who made a couple of Grand Slam semi-finals.
A ‘first’ in Olympics
The first time tennis got included in the Olympics in 1988, Bobo Zivojinovic was creating more booming history. “I won the first-ever tennis match of the Olympics, and also the fastest” he says gleefully. This he achieved by blasting off his opponent’s challenge in 60 minutes.
However, Zivojinovic’s peak years were to wind down watching Yugoslav tennis disintegrate, with war and conflict robbing him off Davis Cup glory. “I remember that night in 1991 when war started. Yugoslavian tennis was at the top then, and we were sure to win the Davis Cup that year. War started in summer, and the DC semis were in September. We were supposed to assemble at the venue, when suddenly Ivanisevic and Prpic were not allowed to travel for the tie from Croatia. War destroyed families, and it destroyed our Davis Cup dream,” he rues. Serbia’s embargo meant a tight-knit squad was cruelly split.
“We are still buddies in tennis with Croats. We were suddenly told we were two different people, but we didn’t know who was who, or how there were two religions. Nobody could take those strong bonds away from us,” he stresses roaringly. It is why Marin Cilic’s triumph was as cherished as Djokovic’s many before him.
“Only 13 ountries have won Davis Cup, and Serbia and Croatia are on that list,” he says proudly.
It’s why Serbians take fanatical pride in Djokovic. “He brought Serbian tennis back from the brink. He’s helping build this Serbian team after a very difficult period in our history,” the 51-year-old says.
Bobo Zivojinovic could never achieve the stardom that Djokovic did in Serbia, and not just because his inconsistency meant that despite flashes of brilliance he never won the biggies. “When I told people what I played, they’d mistake it for table-tennis. We had the World Champion in TT that time, so nobody really knew me,” he recalls. Serbia’s 8 million population now celebrates Djokovic as a national hero, and Bobo is glad the country has broken through in his chosen sport.
Bobo remains a popular figure amongst Serbian players as he travels to every Davis Cup tie, the chipped volley still waspishly sharpish defying that formidable girth. Serbia might be in Bangalore without their best player, but they have in their cheering ranks a mascot who doesn’t put too much store on reputations, and once annoyed John McEnroe while chomping on a sandwich.