Serbia's Nina Stojanovic does not need to look far for inspiration. Whether it's current ATP World No.1 Novak Djokovic or former WTA No.1s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, the 24-year-old is eager to build on the legacy of her idols.
Currently ranked No.95, Stojanovic has started the 2021 season playing some of her best tennis. After successfully qualifying for her first main-draw appearance at the Miami Open, Stojanovic is into the third round after saving match points to defeat No.28 Yulia Putintseva. By ranking, the win was her best in more than four years, having previously defeated No.28 Timea Babos at 2017 Shenzhen. She has also notched victories over No.67 Sorana Cirstea and No.81 Irina-Camelia Begu this season.
Stojanovic began the year with a strong doubles result as well, teaming with Darija Jurak to make the semifinals of the Australian Open.
WTA Insider caught up with Stojanovic after her first-round win over Heather Watson to discuss the method behind her improvements, her tough climb to become her country's top-ranked player, and the shining legacy and future of Serbian tennis.
WTA Insider: You've been showing a very strong level in 2021. What do you attribute that to?
Stojanovic: I think that all these good results this year is because I was really hungry to play tournaments. For the first time in my life, I did an off-season for more than four weeks.
I did around six to eight weeks because of the Covid in the world. My reaction to that was not, "Oh my God, I will have to practice six weeks without competing." Actually, that was a huge challenge for me because I wanted to see what can I make of my body and how will my body respond afterwards at the tournaments.
So when I finished preparing for Australia, I think I started the year with a great mindset and with a huge wish to play each match. I'm not getting tired, even if physically I am tired. Of course, maybe today, because I played two or three days in a row against good players and the courts are pretty slow for my game. There are a lot of rallies and you need to be ready physically.
But mentally, I think I'm holding up really well. And I think that's the key to my good results from the beginning of the year.
WTA Insider: Did you change anything in your pre-season or did you just do more?
Stojanovic: I did more. I definitely pushed myself over the limits. I didn't play safe.
I went over my limits mentally as well, because it's not easy to do practice every day, seeing the same people for six, seven weeks. But my mentality was great and I was looking forward to each practice. I think that is giving me these results.
I'm really happy and I'm hungry. I'm hungry for the next tournament, even if I didn't finish this one. So I think I'm in a really good way.
WTA Insider: Has anything surprised you about your level this year?
Stojanovic: No. Deep inside me, I think I can do even better and I always push myself to do more. Even if my coaches and my family tell me that I did a great job, even if I lose the match and I played well, I still see a space to improve. I still believe that I deserve more.
But I just think that my time is going to come and I just need to keep on working and the results will come as this is happening now. It is the first time here and the first win here in Miami, but I feel like it is expected, you know? I'm not surprised.
I'm just grateful that the thing that I have inside me is actually true. All those thoughts that I have that I belong here, I'm just proving to myself that that is the way and that I do really belong here. So I'm just trying to push myself forward. I believed there would be a moment when I will show my tennis on the court and that's it.
WTA Insider: Where does this belief come from for you?
Stojanovic: I'm aware of the shots that I have. A lot of people told me that I am talented. But in the past, there were people who didn't believe as much, so that gave me even more strength.
I still think that I need to work even more physically and mentally to maintain it on this level. So that is my next step and next goal. Yes, I'm doing well now, but if I want to compare myself to some players that are longer than me here on this level, I need to improve my physical condition to maintain stability in the legs on the court during the long matches and a few matches in a row.
I think that also these matches that I've played will help me to move forward and to stay in shape because as much as you play, as long as you play, you're getting into shape and your mind gets fitter.
It's totally different when you practice and when you're on the court because you have a lot of nerves, a lot of chances where you need to step in and show how brave you are, show your courage. I'm always finding some goals in the match, something that will pull me forward to prove to myself if I can be brave in some moment or just to go for it, if I can stay positive if I'm losing. I think each match helps to improve that.
WTA Insider: What drew you to start playing tennis and what about the sport keeps you going?
Stojanovic: I started playing because of my older brother. I started playing tennis when I was 6, but I don't remember I was holding the racket. My parents told me that I always wanted to interrupt the practice with my brother and I always wanted to go on the court. So over time, they saw that I like it, but my parents never pushed me to tennis and they always said it's my choice.
I just cannot describe a feeling that I have whenever I enter the court. It's just some kind of addiction and my escape from the world, from negativity. It's the passion. I'm doing something that I love and I'm really thankful that my family was and it is still with me through all my career.
Tennis keeps giving me challenges. For me, every day is a new challenge, even if the day is the same, even if I have to practice every day the same thing, I don't get bored. It just gives me a chance to see each practice from a different perspective.
I always try to see and learn new things. So that is what is pushing me forward always. And of course, whenever you feel the win when you win a match, that is pushing you forward, the curiosity of what is coming next.
WTA Insider: Tennis seems to attract perfectionists. How do you handle the negative side of that?
Stojanovic: I know how to handle my negative thoughts. Of course there are moments when you cannot control your thoughts.
When you're not playing good and you win a match, but you're not playing the way you want, I am happy, but I always have something negative to say about it. And then coach said, you need to believe that with this, what you have today, it's enough. It doesn't need to be perfect. So those sentences really help me and they are correct.
How many matches am I going to play perfectly during the year? So I'm really aware of that, but on the other side, in practice, I always try to go for more.
WTA Insider: You grew up during a time when Serbian tennis surged, with Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic leading the way. How much did that impact you?
Stojanovic: I played for the national team of Serbia when I was 14 and all of those athletes from Serbia, they were an inspiration to me.
I remember watching Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic playing Fed Cup in Serbia. That was one point in my life that gave me a push to want more. My wish was to be on that court one day, to play in front of my team, in front of my people, in front of my family, to be seen on the television, to be successful. So they were definitely my role models and that definitely helped me and kept me going.
I'm just grateful that I had someone that I can look up to, like those two players. There was also Bojana Jovanovski. They definitely kept me going, I think. I was always admiring them since I was young and they were an inspiration for me.
I will never forget the matches they played at Fed Cup. I want to be the best one in Serbia. I want to be there.
WTA Insider: What have been the biggest challenges for you in getting to where you are now?
Stojanovic: Since I started playing tennis, all I had next to me was my family. I didn't have any sponsors. That is the hardest and the toughest part of my tennis career. I didn't have anyone to push me financially and I had to earn everything by myself. Even until now, I didn't have any sponsors, except, of course, for the racquets from Wilson and now Lotto for clothing.
I never had anyone to finance my tournaments. So it was really hard to choose what to play. There were players around my age, they were playing a lot of different tournaments. They had more chances to win the points to be better in the ranking. I think that I was always going the hardest way.
But I appreciate that really, really much and I'm thankful for my family that was there all the time with me. If they were not the ones who were going to push me, I wouldn't be here where I am today.
So there were tough times. It's tough when you see that someone is going the same way as you are, but a lot easier. For example, they're getting a wildcard into the main draws. Even now, they're from different countries that are more developed than Serbia. Serbia is a little country, but it has a great heart for sport. We have a lot of great sportsmen, but it's really hard when you come from a little country to get support even from the country. I had to do everything alone.
But I think this has a special taste, these victories and the place where I am now, because of that. Because there was nobody to help me and I know that I earned it by myself.
WTA Insider: So what kept you going?
Stojanovic: I'm just trying to go to make it one sentence, but it's impossible (laughs). There are a lot of things that kept me going.
I just fell in love with the game and I wanted to see how far I can get. I wanted to see what is the best version of myself that I can make, on my own, and over time if I am successful, with more people around me.
That is something that's kept me going, to be the best version of myself, to be here and now present in the moment, and to see how far I can go. And of course at the end to prove and say thank my parents for pushing me all my career.
WTA Insider: With you and Olga Danilovic starting to play well together, do you think we'll see a resurgence in Serbian tennis on the WTA Tour?
Stojanovic: Definitely. Definitely. I'm really happy about it and I'm happy that Olga is there. I'm happy that we have also a few Serbians that are really good. There's also Aleksandra Krunic. She was Top 70 a few years ago.
But I think that everybody has to work on their own and everybody has their own problems and their own focus, their own goals.
I think that Serbia has a future in tennis definitely and that can only make me smile and make me happy that I will have someone next to me and by my side, playing the teams. It just gives me happiness, you know?
I always wish all the best for our players. I'm really happy whenever we are together because I feel powerful. I like to show the world that there's more of us.
Quick Hits with Nina Stojanovic:
WTA Insider: On Friday night are you more likely to be in or out?
WTA Insider: What's your ideal Friday night?
Stojanovic: Out to dinner with my closest friends.
WTA Insider: What's your favorite meal from home?
Stojanovic: Moussaka. It's Greek, but my mom makes the best moussaka in the world.
WTA Insider: What do you do to take your mind off tennis?
Stojanovic: I listen to music. I meditate. I read psychology and romance books.
I also love rollerblading. I like to change up the path, but I love rollerblading by the river in Belgrade.
WTA Insider: Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?
Stojanovic: Movie. My favorite movie is Ocean's Eleven.
WTA Insider: What kind of music do you like?
Stojanovic: I like to listen to pop and deep house. But my favorite group is Red Hot Chili Peppers.
WTA Insider: What would you be doing if you weren't a professional tennis player?
Stojanovic: Rhythmic gymnastics, definitely. It was always going to be sports. I'm very hyperactive and I could not imagine sitting in one place.