The challenge of starting tennis, almost from scratch.
It’s been quite a test for Kosovo to be able to establish and grow the sport, despite the success of many players from the former Yugoslavia. Think Seles, Ivanisevic, Djokovic and Cilic, all Grand Slam winners. (You’d forgotten Cilic for a second, right?)
In the 1990’s, as the nation collapsed into frequently brutal inter-ethnic conflicts, there was little prospect of building courts. Players would perhaps rely on hitting balls back and forth off walls, and the prospect of having an actual racket was something of a novelty.
Building courts, offering coaching and having the simple infrastructure to play tennis was a massive problem. It took the willing, or the stubborn, or perhaps both, to make sure the sport was able to survive and gradually become an entity.
Jeton Hadergjonaj, the Davis Cup captain and Kosovan Tennis Federation Vice President was among those who kept the flame going – and he believes that catching up from such a difficult base is proving hard, believing Kosovo was rarely among priorities even in the old Yugoslav state.
He says: “There was not any investment from the Former Yugoslav Federation. The first court was built 70 years after those in Serbia and Croatia. The first court in Kosovo was in 1985.”
But while Kosovo was battling for recognition as an independent state in sporting and political terms, with Russia and Serbia opposed, he does say that the International Tennis Federation was sympathetic to their issues.
He revealed: “In 2009, even though Kosovo was not a member of the ITF they sent us a coach and we got a licence for the first time, getting us coach education, but it was “half legal.” We were not mentioned by the ITF.”
And the inability to play abroad until recently, along with the war and UN intervention, may have left one set of players behind.
“We are participating in junior tournaments in neighbouring countries, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania, Moldovia and Bosnia and there are competitions three to four times a year in different countries for those up to 8, 9 and 10 years of age. We are very good in those tournaments – some players won.”
But he adds, “With the players like Meldin Mustafi (who won a play off to make the Davis Cup team at the age if 17), who started to play tennis at nine years of age, getting the first experience of international play at 15, and he couldn’t play abroad, it’s a gap. Meldin is now getting the experience he needs to have at 10, 11, 12, years of age.”
But, in the long run, Jeton is hopeful that Kosovo will have a chance to become a player in the world of tennis, with the ITF investing in an education programme that should lead to 20 new coaches.
And he adds that Kosovo’s government, in far from the richest part of Europe, is prepared to invest in sport and those much needed facilities – Kosovo has two indoor courts.
“Our government is doing well to give opportunities to cities to get tennis courts. If a project is submitted our government is prepared to build 500,000 Euros, and new tennis courts, to organise international tournaments. Two cities will have courts built this year and next year they will be ready for international tournaments.
And for once, he is hoping Kosovo’s geography can prove an advantage in bringing vital international competition to home soil.
He says “We are in the middle of Europe and I think we can be a good place for organising international tournaments and we can have players from abroad from Kosovo in tournaments.”
The other question is whether or not relations with Serbia, and Russia, will impinge on sporting competition, as has been seen with Malek Jaziri and the Tunisian Federation’s desire for him not to face Israeli players.
From the Kosovo perspective, signs are mixed judging by one recent case.
“There was one woman from the Serbian minority and our Fed Cup captain asked us to play for Kosovo. She first said she would play. Her family also accepted she would play,
He then claims “Politics and pressure didn’t allow her to play for Kosovo and she said she cannot play even though in the beginning she wanted to.”
The Kosovan team are currently in Fed Cup action in Euro-African Zone III, and have achieved their first singles win through 17-year-old Arlinda Rushiti who previously played under the Swiss flag. None, though, have a world ranking.
Jetan coached in Serbia between 2011-13 in Gracanica, and remains confident that there will be no trouble in having matches between Serbs and Kosovans take place.
He says “It’s happened several times, we’ve played Serbian players in tournaments in Macedonia and Albania. It was not a problem, although we lost because they were better prepared! We still haven’t gone to play in tournaments in Serbia. But in this year or the next year our players will go and play in tournaments there.”
And as many a sports administrator, or Gulf State investor in football knows, sport is a great way for an emergent nation to gain recognition internationally, and among those who are not interested in the minutiae of global politics.
“Sport is the biggest ambassador of the country.” Jetan says.
“If I ask you who is the Prime Minister of Serbia, you don’t know (and I don’t – mea cupla). But you know Novak Djokovic (who he goes on to add has Kosovan cousins)”
“Everything that happened in Kosovo was a little dark, and I hope sport will brighten our name.
He goes on to cite football players of Kosovan origins like Xerdan Shaqiri (ex-Bayern Munich) and Granit Xhaka, who will both be playing for the Swiss National Football Team in the 2016 European championships.
“If you just give us good education and good infrastructure we can get the highest results possible.”
After finally getting international recognition, Kosovo’s tennis players may have that chance.