By Gorazd Jukovic in Maribor
The sounds of one of Slovenia's most famous Oompah bands fills the arena in Maribor each time Slovenia wins a set, or a rubber, against Germany in this Fed Cup first round tie. So as Slovenia faced Germany, the home of Oompah, this weekend there was bound to be confusion about who was celebrating for anyone unfamiliar with this Slovenian sports rite.
As at almost every international sporting event in Slovenia, the Avsenik Ensemble’s polka Na Golici (English-speaking fans of Oompah will know it by the name of Trumpet Echoes) is the preferred musical accompaniment to home celebrations at the Lukna Arena that is hosting the Fed Cup in Slovenia. The catchy upbeat tune works like a charm in getting the crowd to its feet.
The only problem during the Germany v Slovenia tie was that the song could just as well have been a cue for the German fans to jump to their feet. After all, the genre performed by the Avseniki Ensemble is synonymous with celebrations and partying (think Oktoberfest) in Germany.
A good excuse for any German caught cheering for the wrong team this weekend would have been that Slavko Avsenik, the founder of the Avsenik Ensemble, which also features his brother Vilko, is just as famous in Germany as he is in Slovenia. Indeed, the Avsenik Ensemble’s star was launched when it signed its first record deal with a German label back in 1960.
With the help of that deal the band quickly gained European recognition and only a year later appeared before a crowd of 80,000 in Berlin. Its popularity continued to rise in the following years and by the 1970s its name had spread across the Atlantic, with the band making several tours of the US and Canada.
In over 50 years of performing, the Avsenik brothers produced almost 1,000 songs and sold well over 30 million records. Moreover, Na Golici became one of the most played instrumental songs in the world – thanks in part to its constant play time in sports arenas across Slovenia.
Krunic wins hearts of fans
By Zoran Milosavljevic in Novi Sad
If her Fed Cup debut against Canada is anything to go by, 17-year old Aleksandra Krunic is set to become a new crowd favourite in Serbia.
Although she lost her first-ever match in the competition to Rebecca Marino, the frail-looking Krunic won the hearts of the home fans in Novi Sad’s SPENS Arena with a brave performance which almost produced an amazing comeback.
Trailing 5-0 in the third set, when most players would have just gone through the motions, Krunic refused to lie down and barely 20 minutes later she was level at 5-5 and had a break point. With the home fans on their feet and roaring her on, she appeared overawed by the possibility to complete what would have been a stunning win on her debut.
“I was in the reverse position once, when I led 5-0 in the third set and allowed my rival to come back but went on to win the match,” Krunic told reporters in what must have been the biggest press conference of her young career.
“I just stopped playing at the beginning the third set against Marino and when I had nothing to lose, I was back to my best and it’s painful to come so close to turning the match around and not do it.”
“It’s definitely been a learning experience and I will take a lot of positives from this match into my career,” she added with a wry smile, having broken into tears on the court after the bigger and stronger Marino rediscovered her composure in a dramatic finale of their two-hour battle.
On Sunday, Krunic left behind the disappointment of missing the chance to cause an upset and produced a truly stunning doubles performance, as she and Bojana Jovanovski won a guilt-edged encounter against Sharon Fichman and Marie-Eve Pelletier 76(5) 64 to send Serbia through to the World Group play-offs.
Hitting one winner after another under the greatest possible pressure, Krunic drew a standing ovation from the home fans and draped herself in a Serbian flag at the end of a rip-roaring encounter.
“I was really determined to make amends for losing my Saturday singles and I must also thank Bojana for playing her heart out after winning Sunday’s reverse singles,” Krunic told a news conference at the end of a pulsating weekend.
Henin shows for honour
By Barry Millns in Antwerp
Justine Henin, recently forced back into retirement because of an elbow injury, returned to the court prior to the second day's action in Antwerp's Sports Palace. Ten years after Henin, Kim Clijsters, Els Callens and Laurence Courtois beat Russia 2-1 in Madrid to claim Belgium's first Fed Cup title, the quartet and their captain Ivo Van Aken were presented with replica Fed Cup trophies which they had not received until now.
Given a rapturous reception by the 12,000 fans packed into the arena, Henin said, "I'm very glad to be here, but it's very difficult because I would prefer to be wearing the red and black (team) outfit... Thank you for all your support. I will never forget the one big adventure I had in tennis. It's full of nice memories and it's a nice symbol that I receive the Fed Cup trophy at this time. Thank you for all your confidence in me and your love."
Aussie Jarka still in the picture
By Adam Lincoln in Bratislava
The Sibamac Arena at Slovakia’s National Tennis Centre is a well put together venue, with all sorts of amenities for players and fans alike. The indoor stadium is attached to a small shopping mall that boasts a restaurant, café and beauty salon, as well as the expected sporting equipment shops and gym. There’s even a hotel attached to the complex, for fans that like to stay close to the action.
Amongst it all is an impressive trophy cabinet that pays tribute to the achievements of Slovakia’s male and female tennis heroes. As a backdrop to the silverware there are life-size images of the players who’ve represented the country… including a certain ‘Jarmila Gajdosova’, who was born right here in Bratislava and played under the flag in 2003.
These days, of course, Gajdosova is Jarmila Groth. And this weekend, she made her Fed Cup debut for Australia, having become a citizen of that country in November 2009. It was quite a debut, too. In the opening singles rubber against Italy, she scored a career-best win over world No.4 Francesca Schiavone.
Groth fell in love with Australia when she first went there as a teenager, and later fell in love with the man who would become her husband: fellow tennis player Sam Groth. Since becoming an Aussie, her game’s blossomed, too.
Now 23, she won her first WTA title at Guangzhou last year, and the second at Hobart last month. This week she’s actually ranked one place above Daniela Hantuchova, at No. 31, and just one below Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova.
But the Slovak fans don’t seem to hold her transfer of loyalties against the ex-patriot.
“Of course, it would be nice if she was playing for Slovakia, especially now she is doing so well,” said Robert Kubinak, who drove two hours from the town of Banska Stiavnica, where Groth has roots, to see the Slovaks play Czech Republic. “But it’s great that things are working out for her. If she is happy and having good results, that’s the main thing.
“Maybe if she stayed here, she would not be having so much success,” Kubinak added. “I heard that she speaks English with an Australian accent now, so she must fit in.”
Indeed, she does.
By Craig Gabriel in Hobart
Australian tennis is working to turn its fortunes around and one of the ways that is happening is by targeting the really young kids in a program called ‘Hot Shots.’
Children aged 5-to-12 and wearing t-shirts that read “Searching for Talent” are put through the program. Markings are put on the court to reduce its size in addition to mini-sized nets also being put up. The kids used two-coloured softer balls and seem to have a great time showing their skills with topspin returns, not to mention the great opportunity to run around.
During the Fed Cup first round tie between Australia and Italy in Hobart there was a demonstration of the ‘Hot Shots’ program as the kids were put through their paces on the very court used for the matches.
The most fun they had was when they were allowed to hit the balls into the stands ... just like the big names do at the end of a match.
Slovenia: Pocket-sized country of sporting overachievers
By Gorazd Jukovic in Maribor
Over the years of covering sports one thing that has never ceased to amaze me is how Slovenia, a country of just two-million people, can be ranked in the top of the world in such a diverse range of sports.
To put things in perspective, let me point out that Slovenia's population is equal to about one-sixth of the greater London area. What it lacks in sheer numbers, it seems to make up with determination. Making Slovenia's sporting achievements so much more impressive is that it comes in such a wide range of sports.
Let me illustrate: the current Fed Cup tie between Slovenia and Germany is taking place at the Lukna Arena in Maribor, right next to the stadium where Slovenia booked its ticket to the 2010 World Cup a little less than a year ago with a win over the mighty Russia. While just missing out on advancing to the knock-out stages of the World Cup, Slovenia's football team is currently ranked 15th in the world.
If you travel 100 metres north of the arena, you are able to catch the sight of the ski slopes of the Pohorje hills basking in the sun, an unmistakable reminder of Slovenia’s status of a nation of skiers. Last year, Tina Maze brought home two silver medals from the Vancouver Winter Games.
Then there is the Slovenian national basketball team, which a few months ago made it to the quarterfinals of the World Championships; the national ice hockey team, which will be playing the World Division I Ice Hockey Championships in April; a host of individual sports where Slovenia regularly wins medals at major championships, including swimming and athletics; all this is to name but a few.
Returning to tennis, it was only seven years ago when Slovenian tennis seemed to have reached a peak as its women’s team reached No. 9 in Fed Cup rankings and qualified for the World Group. To top it off, it was drawn against USA to play Venus Williams & Co. in the first round at home. Life was sweet for Slovenian tennis fans, despite a loss in that match.
Clouds would soon appear, however, as the “four-leafed clover” of Tina Pisnik, Katarina Srebotnik, Maja Matevzic and Tina Krizan was broken up by career-ending injuries to Pisnik and Matevzic at the height of their careers.
In spite of this set-back, which might have meant years and even decades in the tennis wilderness for many countries, let alone those of Slovenia’s size, only seven years later Slovenia is back in World Group II with a new-look team led by 20-year-old Polona Hercog. And no matter what the outcome against Germany in Maribor this weekend, it is safe to say that the future of tennis – and sports in general – in Slovenia is bright.