Looking around the landscape of the ATP Tour, the fellow who in many ways has made the most remarkable rise in the rankings among the top 100 this year is the charismatic 18-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. He ended his 2018 campaign as the No. 109 ranked player in the sport but now stands proudly at No. 33. But one place above Auger-Aliassime at No. 32 is none other than Serbia’s enterprising Laslo Djere, a 23-year-old with a good head on his shoulders and a clear sense of who he is and where he could be going. Djere was stationed at No. 94 in the year-end 2018 rankings after finishing the previous year at No. 88. His numerical progress has been virtually on a par with Auger-Aliassime’s.
Djere’s secured his first ATP Tour title over the winter at Rio de Janeiro on the clay in Brazil, toppling world No. 8 Dominic Thiem in the first round, sweeping through the field, and ousting Auger-Aliassime in the title round meeting. The following week, Djere upended Auger-Aliassime again on the dirt in São Paulo, reaching the semifinals there.
As he told me in a telephone interview this past weekend, “I have been around 90 in the world for about one-and-a-half years, so I have finally broken that barrier and that gives me some advantages. I will be seeded in some of the tournaments I play and that gives me confidence. It shows me that I can be good in this game and that all the hard work is paying off. When you get the results that you like, you just feel different.”
After his triumph in Rio, Djere spoke movingly during the presentation ceremony about losing both of his parents and how deeply he valued each of their parental and personal contributions to his life as a tennis player. His mother died in 2012 and his Dad passed away only months ago. When the crowd heard him talk about his appreciation of what they did to shape him, they gave him a prolonged round of applause.
He says now, “My Mom gave me so much love and kindness and my father also did so much for me. He was organizing a lot of things for me besides tennis. I just feel that I have to stay strong and don’t let myself be negative or feel sad for too long or anything like that. I am trying to just keep pushing forward and continue doing what I am doing. I have some relatives who are helping me, and my sister and girlfriend have given me a lot of support. I have a lot of people around me who have meant a lot to me.”
Considering the maturity of Djere’s outlook and his commendable ability to deal with life’s bruising setbacks and keep moving forward, it is unsurprising that he has commenced this year so convincingly. Asked to put his wins over Auger-Aliassime at both Rio and São Paulo in perspective, he says, “Everybody knew even before that he is a great player and a great talent. He is so young and now after we played in Brazil he has been in the semifinals of a Masters 1000 in Miami for the first time. He is the youngest semifinalist ever in that tournament, and that is something really impressive.”
Pausing briefly to collect his thoughts, Djere adds, “When I played him in Rio, that was the final so maybe it helped me that I am a little bit older than he is and a bit more experienced. I have to be honest about: clay courts fit me better. I felt with my game on clay it would give me an advantage. I grew up on clay and everything is more natural for me on that surface. I played much more on clay in my younger years. I am playing with a lot of topspin which is good for clay but I am trying to improve my game on hard courts and I think I am playing better and better on that surface. I am thinking a lot about the game on hard courts and how I should play. Hopefully, one day I will be able to play just as well on hard courts as I do on clay. But right now on hard court, Felix is the favorite to be honest [when I play him]. I am sure we will have many more matches.”
That will inevitably be the case. Be that as it may, Djere is a player who must look to impose his game against a wide range of rivals, not simply Auger-Aliassime or anyone else in particular. His goal is to release top of the line tennis on a consistent basis, week in and week out, right on through the rest of the year. The fact that he went deep into the São Paulo draw was a credit to his high standards.
Explaining why that semifinal showing was so important to him after winning the title the previous week, Djere says, “What separates the best from the others is that they can play week after week on a really high level, showing no signs of fatigue, tiredness or anything like that. It is tough to stay focused in tournaments for a long time, over a period of two to three weeks in a row. But I managed to have a really good performance in São Paulo after winning in Rio. That is something I worked a lot on in the past—to try to play every match the best I can. Sometimes before I would lose first round or first two round, but now I guess I have gone to the level where I can keep competing well in the second or third week after a good tournament.”
And yet, the more a rising player like Djere succeeds, the greater his challenge is to maintain a winning pattern. Djere is now a larger target for those ranked much lower. Today, he took on Lorenzo Sonego in the first round of the Marrakech Grand Prix Hassan II tournament on the clay. Sonego is ranked No. 103 in the world but the Italian knows what he is doing on the dirt. Djere suffered a disappointing 6-3, 6-3 loss on his favorite surface.
Two days ago, Djere acknowledged, “I definitely am [a target] now, more than when i was No. 90 in the world. When I was 90 and playing a top 50 guy or a top 30 player or something like that, I was really motivated. You can’t let yourself have some really long outbursts on the court or be unfocussed because it will be punished. So it will be different for me now that I am ranked higher. But it is a great feeling to be ranked 30-something in the world and in some aspects easier. Now I know which tournaments I will play and I can make my schedule. I don’t need to have two or three options whether I go to a tournament or not. Also, I am going to be seeded in some places but I will still have to work really hard. I understand that now that I am ranked higher everybody will have maybe a more serious approach when they play me, so it is important for me to keep working hard and become better and better.”
One player who wants Djere to stay on the upswing and keep improving is a countryman who just happens to be the best tennis player in the world. Speaking of Novak Djokovic, Djere says, “We have talked sometimes and we also practiced at Indian Wells. He is a great guy and he shows not only us Serbians but everybody how hard work and dedication can pay off. He does it extremely well. He is one of the most professional not only tennis players but athletes, and a great inspiration to all of us. When we were in Indian Wells he said a few things to me about my having a great tournament in Rio and giving a great speech. He said that I should continue that and told me I am on the right way. It was nice to hear that.”
Getting encouragement from Djokovic is the kind of psychological boost that could authentically make a difference to the determined Djere as he pursues his highest objectives. But he knows it is entirely up to him to make the most of his opportunities. Ultimately, he will determine his own destiny.
As Djere says, “I was always a hard worker and I worked on all parts of my game, sometimes concentrating on the serve especially. But because of all the things that happened to me the past weeks, winning Rio and making such a huge jump in the rankings, I know it is really important to not be satisfied in the moment. Appreciate this, but on the other hand don’t celebrate too much. I need to continue the hard work and believe that I belong here where I am. I have to be aware that things can change really fast in tennis, so if I don’t keep up the hard work, then in a few months I might be out of the top 50. You have to give your best every week and that is really difficult to do. I am trying to do that the best I can.”
Concluding his thoughtful remarks as the interview, Djere says, “The goal for me is to be in the top 20 by the end of the year. The clay court season is ahead of us and I am really looking forward to it. I also like playing on the grass and when the hard court season starts in the summer, I will hopefully have a lot of confidence which can make a difference. I think I can achieve top 20 and that would be really nice. I will try as hard as I can.”