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Krajinovic focuses on getting to next level

BRADENTON — Nick Bollettieri watches Filip Krajinovic race around the court and the legendary tennis coach can almost see the future by recalling the past.

"He runs down the balls and moves extremely well, just like Andre Agassi did," Bollettieri said Sunday, conjuring up memories of one of his most famous students.

The comparisons don't stop there. The backhand and the way Krajinovic steps in and hits the ball early are more reminders of Agassi's amazing abilities.

"He stands close to the baseline and his two-handed backhand is very much like Andre," Bollettieri said.

So is his potential, if you listen to tennis insiders. Brad Gilbert, who for a time coached Agassi on the professional tour, is one of many in the tennis world predicting a bright future for the 16-year-old player who arrived in Bradenton from Serbia to become Bollettieri's latest protégé.

Potential is one of the reasons Krajinovic was quickly snapped up by marketing giant IMG. It is his shot-making ability, charisma and charm that contributes to off-court deals -- including one with Nike -- that makes him one of the richest 16-year-old tennis players on the planet.

Deals or no deals, praise or no praise, Krajinovic's only worry is how to get to the next level.

"The thing about Filip is he just wants to work, work, work on his game," said his agent, Olivier Van Lindonk. "I have never met a kid who is so hungry and focused on becoming the top player in the world, not just somebody ranked 90-something."

To get to the top you have to start near the bottom, so Krajinovic has been toiling at small events in out-of-the-way places. This week he comes back to his adopted home and steps up a level after getting a wild card into this week's $50,000 Hurricane Open at the Racquet Club at El Conquistador.

The strength of this week's event, which gets under way this morning, took a hit when Donald Young and John Isner each declined to play in the tournament. Those defections opened up the draw for others, and Krajinovic is eager to take his next step up the ladder with his first appearance in the main draw of a Challenger event.

"It is big time," said Krajinovic, who easily draws a crowd to the court with his creative shots and boyish good looks. "Right now I am ready."

It's a big opportunity for the player who comes from the same landlocked Central European country as Jovak Djokovic, who won in Rome on Sunday to move close to the No. 2 ranking in the world.

Krajinovic comes into the tournament on somewhat of a roll. A week ago Krajinovic broke new ground in a $10,000 Futures event by winning four matches in qualifying to reach the main draw and then getting to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Greg Jones. The immediate reward for his first wins in the main draw at that level was his first two ATP ranking points.

"I feel much better now to get some points," Krajinovic said. "I was always so nervous playing in the first round to try and just get a (ranking) point. Now I feel really good."

He is quickly learning to handle his nerves. A little more than a month ago Krajinovic got a call to head to Key Biscayne to serve as a practice partner. When he got there he discovered that he would be hitting with Roger Federer on a practice court surrounded by tennis fans. Then Federer suggested that they play a set.

"I said, 'Please, no sets. I am going to lose 6-0,'" Krajinovic said. "I was so nervous. It was tough. The first two balls I hit were out. I was scared. I couldn't play."

Krajinovic quickly recovered, led Federer 4-3 and was serving to go up 5-3. The world's top-ranked player then took his game to another level to win the set but it was a great experience for Krajinovic, who routinely hits with professional players who come to the IMG Academy for practice.

One of those players is Tommy Haas, who has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world and has traveled a similar route that Krajinovic is taking now. Haas was 17 and had no ranking when he got a wild card into a Challenger-sized tournament in his home country of Germany. He made it all the way to the final.

"He is still young and it may take some time for him to make a noise on the tour," Haas said about Krajinovic. "But the way he is playing, if he keeps it up and stays healthy he has all the tools to become a good player.

"The next two years are very important for him."

In Krajinovic's eyes, so are the next few days.   

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