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Dejan Udovicic is on a mission to make the U.S. a water polo power

Dejan Udovicic gives directions during an exhibition match against Australia in May. The former Serbian national water polo coach took charge of the U.S. team in 2013. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

When Dejan Udovicic was 26 years old and playing water polo in his native Belgrade, his longtime and highly respected coach, Nikola Stamenic, came up to him with a suggestion. I think you can one day be a coach. Would you think about that?

After 10 days of considering it, Udovicic told Stamenic that yes, he definitely was interested in coaching. Stamenic said good, and a few days later he began to go over some elements of water polo with him. Udovicic interrupted by saying it wasn't necessary to go into such particulars because he already knew them quite well. Which upset Stamenic.

"He said to me, 'You don't know anything! You are ZERO! You don't know ANYTHING!' " Udovicic recalls. "The guy who had been teaching me for the last 15 years, who taught me everything I knew, is telling me I don't know anything about water polo. ... Before he was telling me I would be good, and now he is telling me that I don't know anything."

Udovicic went away upset, sad, confused, ashamed and frustrated. And, as it turned out, driven.

As critical as that comment from Stamenic was, Udovicic says, "It is the greatest sentence someone said to me in my whole coaching career. From that moment I started to become a coach. I did everything. I started from zero. I did my homework from the beginning. Some coaches skip some parts. I did my homework. Step by step I became a coach. ...

"In that moment, I was lucky. And at some point in your life and some time in sport, you need to feel lucky."

Udovicic, 46, made his way up the coaching ranks, working at many levels, helping his players get "lucky" and eventually becoming head coach of the Serbian national team in 2006. As a coach, he won European and world championships and bronze medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. In 2013, Udovicic left Serbia for another coaching challenge -- perhaps his biggest yet.

He is now the head coach of the U.S. men's water polo team. Though the U.S. women won gold in 2012 (and also medaled at the three previous Games), the U.S. men have never won an Olympic championship in water polo (they won in 1904 when it was just a demonstration sport). Udovicic promises he will end that drought and also make water polo far bigger in the States.

"I'm pleased that we have so much room to improve. And I think that we can, not just to improve, but we can also give something new to water polo," Udovicic says. "We are trying. It still is not visible and may not be visible one year from now. But step by step we are building something huge."

Vlade Divac, the former NBA All-Star and current general manager of the Sacramento Kings, is the president of the Olympic Committee of Serbia and knows Udovicic well. He likes the coach's chances of turning the U.S. into a contender.

"Knowing that they have probably the best infrastructure in terms of facilities and pools, I think definitely the USA could be a superpower," Divac says.

Treading water in the U.S.

Water polo is enormously popular in Serbia, as well as Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, Italy and other countries in that region of Europe. Serbia and Hungary (which has won nine Olympic gold medals) even have national water polo days. But water polo definitely is not a sport followed by many people in the United States. Or ever watched at all, if it is even on TV for that matter.

"In the United States," says U.S. national team player Alex Roelse, "football has its own day of the week. We're not going to get TV time if football or basketball is playing; if anything like that is playing, we're out. That's bad, but once you're over there in Europe, you go into a stadium and it will be packed. You've got people going crazy. TV, media and all these fans, admiring their greatest stars.

"And they're not football players, they're not basketball players. They're water polo players."

The biggest water polo match in the United States might be the annual NCAA championship, which drew just over 1,200 fans last year. "It wasn't even mentioned on TV," Roelse says. "Whereas in Eastern Europe, you get 18,000 people in the stadium."

Water polo is a fun sport to watch, filled with exciting, constant action and superb athletes. It's kind of like LeBron James, Steph Curry and others playing hoops, only instead of dribbling and shooting on a hardcourt, they are in a swimming pool battling against the likes of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and some other very athletic and fierce opponents.

"Imagine a defensive lineman that can swim at speed in the water and has skills in wrestling," U.S. player Josh Samuels says. "That's what we're dealing with."

So why don't more Americans watch it?

"I think it's hard to follow. You never know what is a foul and what isn't," Divac says. "When you know people and engage with that sport, you realize how difficult it is. It's a very difficult sport to play. If you don't do things the right way, you're going to drown. There are no shortcuts."

(Divac was exaggerating about the drowning part, which was not an issue for him when he sometimes played water polo; he says he was tall enough that he could occasionally stand on the bottom of the pool.)

"It's a chess match in the water -- a chess match and a cage match all at once," Samuels says. "My theory on why it's hard for people to get involved is if you are watching a basketball game or a football game and the refs are blowing whistles or throwing a flag all the time, people get a little annoyed at the stoppage. 'Why am I hearing so many whistles? Why are they calling so many fouls?' Water polo is governed by whistles. There are whistles and whistles, and people don't understand what the whistles mean. And we're still playing. People get confused.

"So the rules to outsiders are a little confusing, but once you get to know the game, you love it."

Udovicic has always loved the sport -- "Water polo is my life," he says -- beginning when his father took him and his twin brother, Darko, to a pool when they were 7 years old. The sport was huge in the Balkans then and is huge there now. Udovicic wants to make it popular in America -- or at least significantly more popular than it is now. Winning a gold medal would help a bit, but he also would like to see the sport played more outside the amateur ranks.

A U.S. semipro water polo league started in 2015 with teams playing a series of four weekend tournaments, mostly in California, where the sport is by far the strongest (every player on the 2016 team has attended or will attend a California university). When it might become a fully professional league is entirely up in the air, but Udovicic says he would like to help it grow so American players have more opportunities to play in the States after their college careers end.

"I don't want to see U.S. players going to Europe to play professionally instead of staying here and playing professionally," Udovicic says. "We have good pools. We have good communities. We have everything we need. We don't need to be like the NBA, like Major League Baseball. We need to look at ourselves and, step by step, my idea is to establish some semi-professional leagues that play from March to the middle of July [so] that we have clubs and people who would be enjoying good water polo."

A different style of water polo

Udovicic was good enough at water polo that he started playing professionally when he was just 15 years old. He competed for Belgrade's Partizan team -- Divac played for the Partizan basketball squad -- which would occasionally scrimmage against a crosstown rival at the "11 April" sports club. Due to bombings in Belgrade late in the Balkan wars, the club's pool was abandoned as a water polo venue.

"There were conflicts all around," Udovicic says. "Filling and heating the pool was expensive. And what they told me is they found some problems under the bottom of the pool. They could not repair that, and they needed a lot of money. So they shut down the pool and took water out. And after few months someone came and said, 'OK, water polo and the swimmers cannot use this. So let's put the tennis players inside.' That was good."

It was very good. Tennis stars Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Novak Djokovic trained there. And perhaps an athlete who once played water polo there can create yet another champion. Udovicic definitely won't be satisfied if he doesn't.

Not surprisingly for a top player and coach, Udovicic has always been very competitive. When he was younger, he and Darko would play one-on-one basketball, and occasionally the sessions would have be to cut short when the two fought. Samuels says that he has been told that if Udovicic lost a game, he would get so upset he would lock himself in his room.

"During the game I don't recognize you," Udovicic says of playing against his brother or friends. "You do not exist for me."

Udovicic is the fourth U.S. coach in the past five Olympics, including Ratko Rudic, who also was from the former Yugoslavia (Croatia). Udovicic replaced Terry Schroeder, who coached the 2008 team that won silver in Beijing and the 2012 squad in London. Udovicic has been teaching the current team the European style of water polo, which differs from the American style.

"The [previous] team had been together for a long time and they were a little older players, so Terry was all tactics," Samuels says. "For us, we're working on a lot of individual skills."

When Udovicic took over the U.S. team, he says he was instructed to not tell the athletes they needed to "change" because some people can respond poorly to that word. Instead, he needed to explain differences and teach them step by step. He says learning to do so made him a better coach.

"He built the Serbian team through the early stages, and that team he coached is now the best team in the world," Roelse says. "He wants to establish the same idea here. He's going to be working with us and wants us to be up there in the next few years. He wants to make sure this young team can carry on so we can be going for the next eight years."

U.S. water polo captain Tony Azevedo, who was born in Brazil, is competing in his fifth Olympics. His father, Ricardo, is a former coach of the U.S. men's national team and is currently head coach for China. Despite that rich background in the sport, Tony Azevedo says Udovicic is the coach who really opened his eyes to water polo.

"Imagine a defensive lineman that can swim at speed in the water and has skills in wrestling. That's what we're dealing with." U.S. water polo player Josh Samuels

"For the most part when you get a great coach under you, you understand you have to work hard but pretty much understand where he's going," Azevedo says. "Dejan is totally new. He's so intelligent about the game of water polo."

Apparently, his level of knowledge is not zero.

Building around youth

There was some controversy in Serbia when Udovicic left to coach the U.S, but he says he didn't let it bother him. After all, Herb Brooks did not get much grief when he chose to coach the French hockey team in the 1998 Olympics after having helped America to perhaps its greatest international victory in sports with the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid.

"I don't think I'll have any problems ever, because everybody knows me," Udovicic says. "When I was in Serbia I gave 120 percent, and here I'm doing the same. And the people respect this and they are pleased."

The U.S. men may not be the favorites in Rio, but they have been making progress. They won gold in the Pan-Am Games last year. They won the FINA World League Intercontinental Tournament this spring, and in June they finished second in the FINA World League Super Final, losing to Serbia.

With a veteran-laden squad, the U.S. team reached the quarterfinals at the 2012 Olympics before losing 8-2 to Croatia, the eventual gold medalist. While there are four Olympic vets on the 2016 team, the squad is much younger than it was in London. The 13-man Rio roster includes two teenagers, Thomas Dunstan and Ben Hallock, and only four players older than the 25-year-old Samuels.

"They're young," Udovicic says. "You've got Ben Hallock. He is 18, but he is the future. Bret Bonanni broke Tony Azevedo's record at Stanford for scoring most goals. He was nominated to the top three players in world. He was born in 1994. I am very pleased. ...

"We are not at all behind Europeans in potential in young categories. We just need to be smart and to organize ourselves to give our players top competition."

One advantage the European players have is experience. Udovicic estimates Europeans play twice as many quality games a year as Americans. "That's huge," he says.

To help combat that, he has made sure the U.S. team has played the top European teams as much as possible, such as Serbia, which it hosted in four-game series in 2014 and 2015. The U.S. also takes longer international tours.

This is all part of Udovicic's plan to grow the team and the sport. With the core of young players, he is looking to the future.

"What I like in this team is they are fully focused," Udovicic says. "They are becoming united because they come from Stanford and Cal, UCLA, USC. Now they need to feel that they're defending something great, something good.

"I'm spreading the virus, the winning virus inside of the team."

The U.S. got off to a slow start in Rio, losing its first two games in the preliminary round before notching a 6-3 win over France on Wednesday. If they do not reach Udovicic's expectations this year, perhaps this growing team can do so in Tokyo.

"I am guaranteeing it," Udovicic says. "Gold medal in 2020."