|Jelena Milovanovic's importance to Serbia cannot be overstated. The forward led the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals during their EuroBasket Women 2011 qualifying campaign|
By Paul Nilsen
It's been a long haul on the sidelines for Jelena Milovanovic but the injured Serbian ace is now within touching distance of a return to action as she prepares to complete the final stage of her recovery.
When she went down in the EuroLeague Women enconter of Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje with Cras Basket Taranto way back in January, the original diagnosis was an optimistic assessment of two months kicking her heels in frustration.
Unfortunately, reality then began to bite hard and she has already spent twice that amount of time out of action.
Most worrying of all, she is still not completely guaranteed to find court time this summer with Serbia.
Nevertheless, Milovanovic is remaining positive and believes she can bounce back before the Qualification Round is over.
"My injury situation is getting much better," she said.
"I'm still in Vitoria in Spain at the rehab center because the national team sent me here to help me get better.
"It has been a hard time for me since I didn't know this injury would keep me out for this long.
"However, these four months have went by quickly and so right now when I'm walking and when I'm able to do some things on my own, I'm feeling great.
"There is still a long time ahead for me, but hopefully I'm going to be ready to play for the national team during the last couple of games."
SMILING TO PASS TIME
As with most serious injuries, it hasn't been only the physical side of things she has had to contend with but also the need to remain upbeat and deal with the psychological element.
"When injury occurs, I think all players are hard to be around until we realize that it is all just part of the 'job' we do," explained Milovanovic.
"I'm still trying to smile all the time because that makes the time go faster!
"My team-mates sure know better how I have been dealing with it all."
One of the biggest disappointments was missing out on the EuroLeague Women Final Eight with Sparta&K, who could have done with the extra firepower of the forward.
"Yeah, that was probably the hardest thing during my rehab," agreed Milovanovic.
"I was there every single game supporting my team-mates because at that moment, this was the best and only thing I could have done!"
FOCUS ON SERBIA
Right now her focus remains firmly on Serbia and there is little doubt her country needs her badly.
Milovanovic was their outstanding player during the previous qualification campaign, when the team lost out on a place at EuroBasket Women 2011 in an agonising three-way tie with Israel and Latvia.
|Serbia can at least expect to welcome back Milovanovic towards the end of the Qualification Round, but they're certain they won't be able to count on Sonja Petrovic at any stage this summer|
Learning from that experience could now be vital as the team tries to get one of the two coveted spots up for grabs although it could be difficult with some good opponents and other key players also absent.
Not least her former Sparta&K team-mate Sonja Petrovic who initially injured herself before opting to join coach Pokey Chatman at Chicago Sky in the WNBA rather than fulfill national team duties.
"Unfortunately we won't have Sonja for these games and she one of the main players in our team so it's going to be hard," accepted Milovanovic.
"But, the WNBA will help her improve her game a lot more and of course promote Serbian women's basketball."
Despite the loss of Petrovic, the former EuroLeague Women All Star is far from downbeat and looking at the positives, confident Serbia can punch their ticket whether she makes it or not.
"But, we must concentrate on our own game because that is the most important thing.
"Things have changed for Serbia with a new coach, a new team and some great players," continued the forward.
"Hopefully we are not going to just come close but we are going to make it this time.
"Our team game is the most important and if we do that right, everything will be in our hands!"
BACK TO SOPRON
At club level, things have moved along since the EuroLeague Women Final Eight in Istanbul, with Milovanovic agreeing to a return to UNIQA Euroleasing Sopron, where she led the team in a spectacular run to the Final Four in 2009.
Reflecting on her time in Moscow, she was quick to acknowledge the importance of this period in her development as a player.
"Those two seasons with Sparta&K were great for me and my career," she said.
"I learned a lot with a great coach such as Pokey Chatman and by also playing with great players like Lauren Jackson and Taj McWilliams during the first season and also Candice Dupree this season.
"It was just a great experience for me."