One of the hottest players on Tour: How Miomir Kecmanovic became the best Serbian tennis player in 2022
Former junior world No 1 Miomir Kecmanović is coming of age at the start of 2022 and next faces a big test against Rafael Nadal in the second round of the Madrid Masters
Last year, Miomir Kecmanovic compiled a 14-26 record. This season, the 22-year-old from Belgrade has already won 22 matches, including two victories over top 10 opponents (Matteo Berrettini and Felix Auger-Aliassime). On Wednesday, he will attempt to score a third as he takes on Spain’s Rafael Nadal in the second round of the Madrid Masters.
Kecmanovic is one of the most consistent players on the ATP Tour at the moment, having reached consecutive quarter-finals at Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, and the quarter-finals in his last six events in 2022.
In Miami, he came closer than anyone to beating the unstoppable Carlos Alcaraz, the Serb producing some of the best tennis seen by anyone on Tour all year.
His run to at least the last eight of the Serbia Open means he’s made five straight quarter-finals and he’s currently ranked a career-high No 32.
The breakthrough begs the question: what has changed in Kecmanovic’s game?
Kecmanovic leaving home at 13
It has been a long journey since Miomir, and his parents, made one of the biggest decisions in his life. It was not an easy one, his mother and father mulled it over for six months, but in the end it was settled: their 13-year-old son, accompanied only by his aunt Tanja, would leave their home in Belgrade and head for Miami and the IMG Academy.
“I have sacrificed much, my teenage years were anything but ordinary, but it was worth it,” he says. He doesn’t regret a thing. After a short adjustment period, he made many friends and benefitted from being surrounded
by some of the best players in the world. He used to practice a lot with former world No 4 Kei Nishikori.
“And we talk a lot. He is a very nice human being, eager to help,“ Kecmanovic said back in 2016.
Lacking consistency in early professional days
Kecmanovic enjoyed great success as a junior – the world No 1 ranking, a US Open finalist, and Orange Bowl and Eddie Herr champion – but the road to success at the professional level, as is often the case, has proven to be a lot more patchy.
He worked with Igor Cetojevic, the doctor who famously diagnosed Novak Djokovic with gluten intolerance, and trained with numerous coaches from the IMG Academy, but eventually settled with Miro Hrvatin, who has mentored him for more than a decade since they met at an U-10 tournament in Pula, Croatia.
David Nalbandian – big name in the box
Following his maiden title in Kitzbuhel in 2020, Kecmanovic was eager to build on his success – in order to maximise his potential, he started to collaborate with former world No 3 David Nalbandian. In tennis, you will often hear that a few points decided the winner, and last season Kecmanovic played (too) many matches in which those points went the way of the opponent.
Additionally, he switched racquets from Babolat to Dunlop, which always needs time to adjust. Kecmanovic’s on-court confidence suffered and he struggled to find good form, but his work ethic and belief in what he was trying to achieve with Nalbandian remained firm.
“Nalbandian asked him to look for angles, to play short cross-court shots, which he himself used to do as a player as well,” coach Petar Popovic told Tennis Majors, “Also, Miomir is playing with more spin, changing the height of the ball, whereas earlier that was not the case.”
I feel that the biggest improvement for Miomir has been his transition from defence to offenceNovak Djokovic on Miomir Kecmanovic
“You have got to hand it to Kecmanovic: 99% of the players would have ended the collaboration after two or three months, considering that the results were disastrous.”
In the past Kecmanovic described himself as stubborn, declaring that it was one of the traits he would like to change. This time, though, it served him well. He stuck with Nalbandian and it eventually paid off.
“I feel that the biggest improvement for Miomir has been his transition from defence to offence,” world No 1 Novak Djokovic told reporters in Belgrade. “Also, his positioning on the court, he is playing more aggressively now. Miomir is strong and he can play well on clay too, as he uses a lot of spin on his forehand. I think he improved his serve as well. He is playing a lot better than what his ranking says”.
Kecmanovic: “Now I feel I have a plan A, B and C”
Kecmanovic was due to play Novak Djokovic in the first round of the Australian Open. After Djokovic’s visa was cancelled, Kecmanovic seized the opportunity – those “few points” started going his way and he beat Salvatore Caruso, Tommy Paul and Lorenzo Sonego before losing to Gael Monfils in the fourth round.
“Last year was extremely rough. It did not go the way we imagined, to put it mildly, but now it is coming together,” Kecmanovic told Serbian journalists in Melbourne. He made his Grand Slam debut in Melbourne in 2019 – he had a lot of chances in the first set before losing to Fernando Verdasco in three sets. Afterwards, Kecmanovic told reporters that winning the first set would not have made any difference, since he was not
physically ready to play four or five tough sets. The situation now, however, is completely different.
My way of thinking on the court is different, mostly thanks to David.Miomir Kecmanovic
“I am physically much better prepared now, I am able to reproduce a high level of tennis more consistently. Also, my way of thinking on the court is different, mostly thanks to David.
“Earlier my game was one-dimensional, but now I feel that I have plan A, B and C.”
For his recent success, Kecmanovic also credits Johan Ortegren, who used to assist Grigor Dimitrov and Monfils. They have been working together since September 2021 – whenever Nalbandian is not around, the Swedish coach is there to help.
“We all are one big team”.
‘I have turned it around mentally’
Along with improved fitness and the willingness to look for angles and construct points with more tactical awareness, Kecmanovic is a different player mentally than he used to be. People who watched him as a junior know that he had a tendency to be down on himself, to throw around negative comments during matches and to complain to his box. Kecmanovic was aware at the time that he needed to break those habits. It took a lot of effort, but he now rarely gives in to negative emotions and has a short memory, which is a requirement for an elite tennis player.
“I am more energetic, showing great desire on the court and I never give up. Although I was not very keen on it at first since I am a bit of an introvert, I realized that working with a psychologist helps me a lot. I have turned it around mentally,” he says. If you need proof, just look at the way he hung tough with Carlos Alcaraz until the very end in Miami, in one of the best matches of the year so far.
With accumulated wins, Kecmanovic has started to swing more freely, is flattening it out with his forehand, and is not afraid to go to the net to finish points off. He still relies heavily on his court coverage and counter attacks, but he is standing closer to the baseline and he is not shy to adopt a more aggressive gamestyle when the situation calls for it.
“I feel that my footwork has improved vastly,” he says. “When it comes to my shots, I do a lot of work with my legs now, I am not trying to execute shots solely relying on my arms any more.”
What’s next for Kecmanovic?
When he was younger, Kecmanovic was not a fan of clay courts, to say the least.
“I might have to like it now,“ he joked with Serbian journalists in 2019 after achieving his first Grand Slam main draw victory at Roland-Garros, over Denis Kudla. Hard courts are still his favourite surface, but Kecmanovic’s sole title so far has come on clay in Kitzbuhel. Encouraged by Nalbandian, he is embracing clay now – he opted to go to South America after Australia, instead of playing indoors in Europe, and he made it to the
quarter-finals in Rio de Janeiro and Santiago
His new-found ability to open up the court will certainly prove essential in the coming clay season, but a lot will also depend on whether Kecmanović is able to move as fluidly on clay as he does on hard courts. His clay season kicked off at the Serbia Open in Belgrade where he reached the quarters and took countryman Djokovic to three sets and the semi-finals in Munich, and Kecmanovic is scheduled to play Madrid, Rome and Roland-Garros.
I have already transitioned from hard to clay this season, so it won’t take much time for me to adjustMiomir Kecmanovic
“I have already transitioned from hard to clay this season, so it won’t take much time for me to adjust,” he predicts. One area of the game he is looking to improve is his serve. The progress is obvious, but he could use a few more free points on his first serve and a bit more variety on his second.
“Yes, there are a million things I can still work on to improve my serve – power, variations, shoulder extensibility etc,“ Kecmanovic says – he is well aware of the areas of his game he needs to work on.
At the moment, Kecmanovic is sitting at a career-high No 32 in the world. Considering the way he has been playing and the fact that he does not defend many points this year, the top 20 looks like a realistic goal – to begin with.