The European-African Davis Cup Zone III is not always the area where a lifetime’s hopes are reached.
The 2016 round robin was held in Estonia, at the Tare Tennis Centre in the capital, Tallinn.
But one team really were thrilled to just to be there to take on Liechtenstein, Greece and the hosts.
That was Kosovo.
One of the component elements of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo declared independence in 2008 after the inter-ethnic conflict of 1998-99 that was ultimately ended by NATO intervention.
Since then, international recognition for Kosovo has been a challenge.
Serbia has acknowledged the existence of Kosovan political institutions, but is not willing to see Kosovo as an independent state. Russia has taken a similar view, and other countries, including Spain, have not given full recognition – arguably an indication of internal as well as external politics.
But Kosovo has now been accepted as a country in it’s own right by more than 100 states and the International Tennis Federation granted full membership in September 2015, setting up their Davis Cup debut this year.
So perhaps it’s no surprise an often low key event was savoured by the players and captain Jeton Hadergjonaj, who told Foot Soldiers of Tennis “We thought we were still dreaming.”
That right to play Davis Cup had taken a while to get, but Hadergjonaj, also a vice-president of the Kosovan Federation, says putting together a team was a challenge.
“There are only two indoor courts in Kosovo, so we decided to get some help from Kosovan players who live abroad. A lot of people escaped from the war and went to live in other parts of Europe. We called two or three of them but only one decided to play for Kosovo.”
That was 33-year-old Hyda Banjska, who lives in Germany. The other team members were two domestic champions, Gurash Hasani and Granit Bajraliu, plus a teenager, 17-year-old Meldin Mustafi, who won a play-off to complete the side.
The Kosovans, without an ATP ranking point between them, found the level of competition an inevitable challenge.
They lost all nine rubbers in matches with hosts Estonia, Greece, and perhaps frustratingly, Liechstenstein, but that was secondary to the experience.
Captain Hadergjonaj was a happy man nonetheless, although he did admit the occasion got to his team a little.
“We were very excited and we could win a match, but due to a lack of experience of players couldn’t finish it, but even the fact we lost all three ties, the ties went well. We won a few games with Estonia, and they had four ATP players in the team and we had a player leading 5-2 and we couldn’t finish the set.”
“Everybody wants to win but we were very proud and we had a lot of emotion to be in the same place as 15 other countries with players like Marcos Baghdatis and Jurgen Zopp (the former top 100 player from Estonia). We were happy to see our flag there with the other flags.
17-year-old Mustafi featured in two of the doubles rubbers, and was clearly inspired by just being around a whole new level of opponent.
He said: “I played with all my heart for Kosovo. It was good training, a new experience. I learn from Marcos and Jurgen Zopp. I watched their forehand and backhand – and oh it was good.” I see how to play in Davis Cup and we’ve changed training with my coach now.”
His focus us more on serve and the return, and his challenge is now to head overseas and get on the ATP computer.
Mustafi’s presence was also important in another way. Kosovo’s population is around 90% of Albanian ethnicity. Mustafi, though, is of Bosnian extraction, and it was pleasing for captain and player that the team showed that level of integration.
Mustafi said: “I don’t have problems being accepted. I live in Kosovo, I speak Albanian and English and fitted in without problems.”
With the thrill of making their debut over, the next challenge is for the Kosovans to put together a team to deliver a first set, rubber and ultimately match win when they gather for Euro-African Zone competition in 2017.
At the moment a simple lack of indoor courts is a hindrance to preparation.
Captain Jeton Hadergjonaj is confident that that will, slowly, get better.
“In the future with coach education and increasing the number of indoor courts, and with some players who come from abroad, Kosovo will have a solid team.”
Though he did add. “Thanks to global warming we can play in the winter sometimes…”
In the second part of our Kosovo Tennis Feature, we’ll look at the challenge of building those facilities, earning a place on the international stage and how geo-politics does (or doesn’t) affect the next generation of players.
Thanks to Davis Cup captain Jeton Hadergjonaj and Meldin Mustafi for giving up their team to speak to us and to the Kosovan Tennis Federation for the use of their photos.