DOHA—While Novak Djokovic is busy in Australia, a 20-year-old is carrying the Serbian flag in Doha. In his debut, Miomir Kecmanovic eased into the quarterfinals on Wednesday with a 7-6 (9), 6-1 over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Tsonga was the No. 3 seed, entering the tournament ranked No. 30, but was hindered by what appeared to be a left hip/lower back injury. Kecmanovic defied the odds in the first set by overcoming a 5-3 tiebreak deficit and saving three set points.
“I tried to stay calm, especially in the tiebreak. Thankfully it paid off,” the world No. 62 said. “I’m happy that I was able to stay composed and to be in the moment.”
The victory marks Kecmanovic’s third Top-30 win. This time last year, he was still seeking his first ATP win, and now he has 23, as well as a bright-eyed outlook of life on tour and a healthy aptitude for the words “cool" and "exciting".
"I’m really excited to be here and hopefully I can keep going," Kecmanovic said. "Everything is so exciting, to interact with your fans, to play on big courts, to be on TV every time, it’s definitely a really good feeling.”
During his breakthrough last year, Kecmanovic reached the quarterfinals of Indian Wells as a lucky loser, made his first ATP final in Antalya and appeared in the fourth round of Cincinnati, which is where he upset a world No. 6-ranked Alexander Zverev and a world No. 21-ranked Felix Auger-Aliassime.
The youngster is the last Serbian standing in Doha after two seeds—Filip Krajinovic and Laslo Djere—lost earlier in the day. Though there’s a long way to go, he’s attempting to imitate his idol Djokovic by taking the title (Djokovic won the Qatar Open in 2016 and 2017).
"We practice in Dubai now in the off-season," Kecmanovic said of Djokovic. "He's definitely a big inspiration back home for everybody. So it's really cool to have somebody like him that you can call your friend and that you're able to talk to him and that he can tell you his advice and his experiences.”
How has a country with just 7 million managed to churn out so much talent? Of course, much credit goes to Djokovic for establishing Serbia as a tennis force. He was part of a surge along with former world No. 1’s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. But there could be a second wave.
“I guess the water, I have no idea,” Kecmanovic said when asked what makes Serbian players so good. “I think we just have that different mentality because we come from a small country [with] not very good conditions for practice and everything. I think that kind of makes us mentally stronger I guess, and kind of helps us to maybe want it more. Just to be hungry all the time.”
There’s a word that can explain what it is that can make a Serbian so strong, “inat.” Originally a Turkish word that means “persistence,” Serbians have turned it into something more: a defiant spirit. One definition describes it as “an attitude of proud defiance, stubbornness and self-preservation—sometimes to the detriment of everyone else or even oneself.”
Basically, it’s the mentality of still doing something when you’re told you can’t. While often used in relation to Serbia’s turbulent history, it can also be applied more modernly. Chasing the dream of a professional athlete is going to be met with resistance. Having “inat” would explain, at least a little bit, why that dream will be pursued against all odds.
At just 20, Kecmanovic’s dream seems to be turning into a reality as he gets his 2020 jump-started in Doha. He will face Marton Fucsovics for a spot in the semifinals.