Mihailo Topic, Serbia's youngest talent and a rising star at just eight years old, is sponsored by Novak Djokovic.
It was evening in late August and the red clay courts at the Novak Tennis Center in Belgrade had already been lit. A Head backpack rested on court eleven’s changeover bench with a handwritten message in Cyrillic squeezed on the white-polyester frame:
“For Mihailo, from Novak. I love your big smile. Happy Birthday.”
Eight-year-old Mihailo Topic had just won the first set of a sparring match against a boy at least a head-and-a-half taller than him, two years his senior. The score was 6-1.
He walked towards the bench, and in a routine that mimicked the pros, took a few sips of pale-orange liquid from a non-labeled plastic bottle and then another gulp of water from a larger bottle.
Mihailo, Serbia’s youngest talent, is sponsored by Novak Djokovic. The 12-time Grand Slam champion’s investment into Serbia’s junior tennis comes an ebb in his career and at the waning of his once top ranked compatriots, as the Balkan country grapples to raise more tennis superstars out of a shrinking talent pool.
Outside the same court, over two years ago, Mihailo found a man geared up like a serious tennis player, and asked him in Serbian if they could hit. The man didn’t understand at first, but when Mihailo’s mother, Nina Topic translated, he agreed.
Stocky, round-faced and affable, the player was quick to praise Mihailo’s natural coordination and near flawless technique. Unbeknownst to the youngster though, he was Marian Vajda, Djokovic’s ex-coach of 11 years.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Nina Topic recalls Vajda telling her. “He’s the next champion.”
Djokovic played with Mihailo the following day. The two would see each other several other times before the summer of 2016 when the sponsorship agreement forged.
“Mihailo is about two to three years ahead of his age group,” the head coach of the Serbian Tennis Federation, Dragan Serer says. “Novak was like that too. It’s an indication to us that he could be very good in the future but we really can’t say until he gets older and starts to play tournaments; that’s when we’ll know what he’s really made of.”
Dubbed “little Nole” around the tennis club, Mihailo trains five days per week, for two hours, combining drills and sparring matches. At the advice of Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, he won’t begin to play tournaments until around age 10. Srdjan believes that his son’s own late start to competition gave him time to mature for the ruthless pressure ahead.
Mihailo’s coach Pavle Bulic, a former pro-circuit player, credits his student’s precocious talent to a strong photographic memory.
“He watched me hit backhand slices and then I fed him a few balls to try and he’s already hitting good backhand slices. I’m stunned,” Bulic says. “Mihailo has this ability to learn difficult skills quickly that even our older competitors struggle with for months and years.”
Mihailo’s potential is also boosted by his obsession with tennis. Serer recently observed him glued behind the fence watching Serbia’s rising star Laslo Djere’s entire practice session in a mundane scene that might have quickly bored other children.
“Mihailo could be on the court for 10 hours, in blistering heat or rain, if you’d let him,” his coach says. “There hasn’t been a time when he’s wanted to quit practice. We always have to get him off the court to make sure he doesn’t burn out.”
Blond and brown-eyed with a strong frame, Mihailo is at once an endearing kid with a buck-toothed smile, and a steely professional athlete in a 4’3” version.
“Even when he’s not playing tennis, he’s ‘playing’ tennis,” his mother says. “He’ll take a small suitcase, pack all his stuff and travel from room to room pretending that he’s going to the U.S. Open, to Peking, to Shanghai. Wherever Nole is, that’s where he’s at too. Then, he’ll lift a trophy and take a toy microphone pretending that he’s giving an interview.”
Serbia emerged as an unlikely tennis power within the last 10 years led by a generation who grew up during the Balkan war and the Nato bombings. Yet despite the hype this has ignited in the cash-strapped country of just over 7 million, the number of registered tennis competitors fell from about 5,000 to 2,000 between 2007 to 2017, according to the Serbian Tennis Federation.
Serer believes the problem lies at the grassroots level where fewer kids are signed up at tennis clinics compared to when he first began teaching during the communist-ruled Yugoslavia.
“Ana, Jelena, Novak, Victor, Janko are products of one generation where the mass of kids was much greater than what we have today,” he says, referring to Serbia’s tennis stars born in the ‘80s.
Migration, and shrunken borders have trimmed the population by over half a million but Serer thinks Serbia’s post-war economic strife is the main reason why, “parents are directing their children to less expensive sports.”
Mihailo’s coach, court fees, and tennis equipment that are covered by Djokovic—a sponsorship with an undetermined duration—can cost some families nearly half of Serbia’s average annual income which is €4,800 ($5,600).
Sasa Petrovic, the father of 10-year-old Stefan who plays competitively and trains at the Novak Tennis Center, spends up to €2,000 ($2,350) every year on the sport.
“It’s not cheap for us, but we find a way to make it work,” he says. “Clubs and coaches here understand that and try to help out with reduced fees.”
The Serbian Tennis Federation gives its highest ranked juniors anywhere from €2,000 to €20,000 in financial aid each year. This is usually a group of around 30 players. The money defrays a meager portion of what it can cost top seeds to compete internationally, Serer says. Families and sponsors must offer up the rest.
Adrian Garcia, a former professional player from Chile who worked his way up to world number 103 on a shoestring budget and now coaches at the Novak Tennis Center, says that Serbia’s tennis remains highly competitive, even when its junior talent pool has scaled back.
“It comes with the genetics; many people are big, strong, coordinated,” he says.
Yet what Garcia thinks is missing is the same backbreaking labor he’s used to back home.
“When you’re coming from South America to play tournaments in Europe, you’re staying for like 3-4 months and playing all the tournaments you can,” he says. “The plane ticket is like €1,000 so you can’t go and come back all the time. In Europe, players are more spoiled. They go to like 2 tournaments abroad and they’re already tired and want to go home. I’m trying to bring this hard working mentality to Serbia.”
But Garcia predicts Mihailo will push himself to the limits. “He’s very competitive. He always wants to win. His mind is all about tennis.”
The investment into his son’s tennis future, by one of the most famous athletes in the world, has compelled Nenad Topic, a portly 6’3” mechanical engineer who didn’t play sports himself, to give up his job for Mihailo’s crowded tennis and school schedule.
“Honestly, I never wanted him to enter the tennis world.” he says. “I fear most that he will lose his childhood.”
A few junior tournaments he recently observed in Belgrade left him uneasy about the road ahead. “It’s a tense and superficial environment. Parents are high-strung about their child’s performance. They often argue line calls on behalf of them. Some families don’t talk to each other at all. When you ask them how much their children practice, they tend to understate the hours, and you find out only later from others that they lied.”
Topic would more have preferred that his son chose a team sport such as basketball where results hinge less on individual performance.
“But everyone is telling me that he’s an exceptional talent, and as a parent I don’t think I have the right to stop him,” he says.
Two days after the U.S. Open ended, Mihailo was out on court 11, affectionately known as “little Nole’s” court. Bulic was hand-feeding him backhands from the service line corner.
“I want to see more depth,” he urged. “Step into the ball, take it earlier.”
But Mihailo looked irritated. He had punched a few balls into the net and tightened his eyebrows downwards. A light drizzle quickly turned into heavier drops.
“Keep going,” he told Bulic who hesitated for the nearly full hopper of balls.
Minutes later, a downpour sent Bulic, Mihailo, and his father sprinting into the club house, curtailing practice by an hour.
“He’s not satisfied,” Nenad Topic says. “His face immediately tells me everything.”
By the time Mihailo came out of the locker room outfitted in a dry t-shirt bearing the words “NOLE” on the left breast and Serbia’s flag on the right, the rain had weakened. Puddles had formed on the clay courts.
“Tata,” says Mihailo, looking up at his father. “It’s going to stop raining. Let’s go back out there.”