27 June, 2019
07 July
5 Sonja Petrovic (SRB)
Long Read
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Petrovic: Doing the Impossible, Love For Taylor and lifetime friendship with Xargay

BELGRADE (Serbia) –You get the sense that Sonja Petrovic doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she contemplates what lies in wait for Serbia at the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2019.

The co-hosts will have to hit the ground running after a difficult draw and there’s no room for error as the centerpiece of their team gets ready to carry a significant chunk of her nation’s hopes on her shoulders.

The 'Group of Death' and doing the impossible 

One of the most talked about topics ahead of the 2019 edition of Final Round, there's o doubt that Petrovic and Serbia have had plenty of time to digest what it means to be drawn with three other nations who could all theoretically push for a podium spot. Facing Belgium, Russia and Belarus as their first hurdles will be a big test and there will be no time to ‘grow’ into this tournament.

It could leave some lesser players feeling glum and certainly gauging the mood of Petrovic as she talks about the scenarios, is tricky. One the one hand, the biting realism of the task is something a veteran star like her is only too willing to confront. But, you also get that sense of excitement about the opportunity to excite the Serbian fans again with yet another near-miracle.

“I’m not making predictions, but it is the 'Group of Death' and when it was drawn, we did ask if it could have been any harder,” she mused.

“But that is the reality. If we want to get to where we want to get and at least qualify for the Olympics, then you have to beat the best. There is no doubt about this - whether it is in the Group phase or the knockout stage.

“It will be harder much sooner than we expected, but I am hoping as long as we get out of the group, anything is possible. It will then be one game (at a time) and you can put everything into it.”

It’s now four years since Petrovic returned to national team action after her lengthy hiatus. She was a driving force behind the fairytale in Budapest, which led to that glorious first ever title and subsequent maiden outing at the Olympic Games in Rio, 12 months later.

“We would love to repeat it of course - no question,” confirmed Petrovic.

“But, I think will be tough as it has been a hard year behind us. (Danielle) Page is out as she retired, Ana (Dabovic) took half of the season off, Jelena (Brooks) just gave birth to her child and then I had a huge problem with my knees.

“It was good that our coach was able to use last summer to give the opportunity to the younger players. You can see some made the most of that and Aleksandra Crvendakic was our Player of the Year. For sure, she is someone we can lean on hugely at this FIBA Women's EuroBasket.

“Also the team is so much changed and where we are in our careers now, compared to 2015. But, we love to think that we do the impossible things. We love to think that if we believe it, then anything is possible,” she smiled.

Fan Power

Home support could be vital and while Petrovic accepts that this can prove to be a burden as well as a boost, it is likely that the Serbian mentality will see her colleagues feeding off the fan-power that awaits.

She insisted: “I am pretty sure our games will be fully supported. Wherever we played previously in Qualifications, the gyms were full and packed. We had great experiences and were lucky that the Federation used our success before to promote us.

“I think it is good that the Group phases are played in smaller cities and I think people will really come out and support us.

“Obviously it can go two ways and put extra pressure on the players or it can be something that can carry us more. Knowing most of my team-mates they love it and playing in front of our fans - they love people cheering and feeling the energy of a full gym.

“I think it might bring a little something extra for what we may be lacking in our roster.”

While Petrovic didn’t quite come out and admit that she may have missed out on some opportunities and memories after not playing on the international stage for many years of her career, she was quick to confess that her recent journey had been enriched by participating again.

“I think the last few years that I have had, has helped me enjoy my career,” she confirmed.

“Playing for the Serbian national team is extra special for us because sport is so huge in our nation. Nobody is celebrated as much as us when you bring back success. You just love it - being able to represent your country and bringing that kind of joy to your nation

“It always helps that we have a special group of people that always has fun,” she continued.

Love and Respect for Taylor and Nakic

Playing a major tournament in her homeland is only likely to further enhance the status of Petrovic as a role model and someone who can inspire younger generations and indeed those who are already in the sport. But who did she look up to when she was first picking up a ball and then starting out in her career?

“When I didn't follow worldwide basketball at first, it was Danira Nakic,” said Petrovic.

“She was a forward and the best Serbian on the Yugoslavia national team before my generation.

“Then, once I got to know who was who in modern basketball, it was Penny Taylor.

“I loved the way that she played. She did everything on the court and carried her team on so many different aspects. She was definitely my favorite and I was lucky to get to play with her at Phoenix.”

Xargay friendship puts things into perspective

Meanwhile follow Petrovic on Instagram and you will notice that she has also has huge admiration for a special friend, in the shape of her Dynamo Kursk teammate and Spain national team star, Marta Xargay. It is something that was not formed recently, but has been a long time in the making.

There is also every chance that their respective paths may meet at this Final Round. Serbia and Spain could clash in pursuit of glory, and if they do, these best friends will both be fighting hard against each other as a potential match-up. Although that will never dilute the friendship they share away from the court.

“You don't want to play against Marta - ever. She is just so tough and I should know, as the coach always puts her to defend me whenever we play Spain,” stated Petrovic.

“The moment I knew she was coming to Kursk, of course I was thrilled. It's not just her as a player that she is amazing. The great part of her is that Marta is mentally so strong and it helps to have a person like that in your corner."

The importance of Xargay is simply that as Petrovic prepares to take Serbia into a monumental battle that is likely to result in tears of joy or despair, it puts absolutely everything into perspective.

“People will always talk about medals and championships, but the best part of basketball is ending up with a friend like that for life,” she adds.