Mecir had a Czech father and Slovak mother, was raised in Slovakia, this at the time of the break up of the nation was interesting in itself.
When a New Border Splits a Tennis Team
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: THURSDAY, JANUARY 28, 1993
MELBOURNE: Like many former Czechoslovaks, Miloslav Mecir is part of a family tree with varied branches. His mother is a Slovak, his father a Czech. And although he lives in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, and comments on tennis for Slovak television, his wife is a Czech.
"For me," he said sadly, "the border is something I don't like."
The border was created at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1 when Slovakia officially became independent of its more populous and cosmopolitan neighbor.
In the world of sport, the effect of the division is already in evidence at the Australian Open. For the last three decades, Czechoslovakia held a firm place among the world's leading tennis nations as its state-controlled system produced a succession of sensational players, beginning with Jan Kodes in the 1960s and continuing with Martina Navratilova, Ivan Lendl, Hana Mandlikova, Mecir and, most recently, Jana Novotna and Petr Korda.
Navratilova and Lendl fled the communist regime and later became American citizens, but Novotna and Korda have continued to represent their homeland. Now, they find themselves in Melbourne with a new affiliation: the Czech Republic.
"Of course, it's a bit different," said Korda, the No. 7 seed, who reached the quarterfinals here. "But you know, it's very hard to realize this thing has happened because I have a lot of friends in Slovakia, and I don't want to change personally. I don't want to say we are from different countries and now we have to hate each other. All I know is that the politicians choose this way, and I have to follow. I am just a tennis player."
The Czechs and the Slovaks are, of course, merely the latest additions to Europe's expanding list of nationalities. Between the demise of the Soviet Union and war in the Balkans, the tennis honor roll has undergone several revisions. Goran Ivanisevic, formerly of Yugoslavia, began declaring his allegiance to Croatia in 1991. Natalia Zvereva, formerly of the Soviet Union, is now representing her native Belarus. And the list goes on.
"I don't look at this like Goran Ivanisevic, who is really proud to play for Croatia," said Novotna, the ninth-ranked woman in the world. "It makes sense that he feels like that because of the problems there. But in our country, everything went a smooth and easy way. So I will just take it as it is.
"What I don't understand is that in one part of the world, people are trying to make a united Europe, and in the other part, nations are breaking into small countries. What kind of Europe is this? Who knows who is Slovakian or Slovenian? Who knows Czech Republic or Czechland or whatever we call ourselves?"
The Czech half of the country was always the stronger in tennis terms. Of Czechoslovakia's myriad stars, only Mecir could be considered a Slovak. A finalist at the U.S. Open in 1986 and the Olympic gold medalist in 1988, he prematurely ended his career because of a chronic back problem.
"I was always playing for Czechoslovakia, not Slovakia, and I wish I could still be playing for Czechoslovakia these days," he said. "It was a good country. Until three months before the split, I still couldn't believe it could happen. But at the end, nothing could stop it, even though I don't think most of the people wanted it in their heart."
With the division, the once-powerful Czechoslovakian Tennis Federation has ceased to exist. Henceforth, each nation has its own governing body for the sport, although the two countries will field combined squads for one more year in the Davis Cup and the Federation Cup.
The Davis Cup team will be exclusively Czech, because Slovakia's best male player is Karol Kucera, ranked No. 208. But the Federation Cup team should include Radka Zrubokova, a Slovak ranked 30th in the world. Slovakia also has another female player in the top 100: Karina Habsudova.
"The tennis development in Slovakia is still very good," said Andrej Bucko, a tennis writer who is covering the Australian Open for the Bratislava daily Pravda. "We have some girls and boys who are highly ranked in juniors. One of our big problems is courts. We don't have so much as the Czechs, and we don't have a big stadium for tennis. We will have to play Davis Cup in 1994 in a hockey rink because we can't build a new one in just a year."
The lack of good facilities could lead to a talent drain. Ludmila Richterova, a 16-year-old Slovak ranked eighth in the world, has asked for Czech nationality.
"Her coach lives in Prague, and the conditions for training are better there," Bucko said. "We can have some problems in Slovakia with organizing tennis things. We are not very skilled with management and sponsorships because our tennis administrators are not so experienced on the international level. They also don't speak English so well."
The administrators are perhaps more fluent in English at the reorganized Czech Tennis Federation in Prague, but according to Korda, the system is suffering.
"I think this change is going to hit hard on both sides," Korda said. "The big problem on our side is that everybody who knows how to handle a racket is teaching in Germany and making money for living. We don't have any coaches in my country, and between 16 and 20 years old, we don't have so many young players. It's getting a little better with the young ones at 10, 12 and 14 because they can get sponsors. Money talks, you know."
And it is this attitude that reflects a change even more profound than the new border between the Czechs and the Slovaks. When Korda and Novotna were growing up, tennis was controlled by the state. Since the Velvet Revolutionin 1989, tennis is ruled - like nearly everything else - by the market.
"When we were young, the idea was to play for trophies, to be somebody like Lendl or Navratilova or Mandlikova," Novotna said. "That idea isn't there anymore. Now, the youngsters are starting to play because they see the potential of money. It will be more and more like that, I think.
"In our time our parents would do anything so we could travel, so we could go out and maybe learn something from the West and be a little bit different. Now, the parents pay for the coaching, they pay for the practice time, and soon they're saying, 'That's enough. Send some money home.' I personally am very happy for what happened in 1989, but it's not always pretty, capitalism."
Nor is it always easy to change old habits overnight. Bucko, a supporter of Slovakia's independence, has been waging a personal crusade against political incorrectness since his arrival in Australia.
"Look at this," he says, unfolding an article from The Canberra Times. "They write that Australia will recognize 'the two independent Czech republics.' There is only one Czech Republic. People outside, the people in America or Australia, they don't really understand."
That may be true, but even Bucko has some catching up to do. His Pravda business card still reads: Bratislava, Czechoslovakia.