My Tennis Journalism Hobby-Horse

I took advantage of a paragraph break in my post about coverage of the Adria Tour to ride a hobby-horse of mine—briefly, I thought.  But then the aside got long enough to merit space of its own.

Story time: At the 2014 US Open, and as he was being escorted out of the main interview room, I asked Grigor Dimitrov how often he encounters Bulgarian journalists at tour events outside his home country. Answer: never. The same year, a handful of Serbian media provided most, if not all, of the native-language coverage of Marin Čilić’s run to the final because no representative of the Croatian media was credentialed. Either their applications had been rejected by the USTA or, given Čilić had made only one major semifinal to date (at the 2010 Australian Open), Croatian outlets didn’t think it was worth the cost or effort of sending anyone—though I suspect it’d be worth the effort if not for the cost. Imagine: you win your first grand slam title and none of the journalists who’ve followed your career most closely are there to witness or talk to you about it.

A serious shortcoming I see in tennis journalism and the online tennis community’s discourse isn’t that most of it happens in English, though that’s true of the latter.  Rather, it’s that there is not nearly as much cross-cultural collaboration and exchange as this uniquely international sport demands.  Here are the contributing factors that come immediately to mind: three out of four majors take place in the Anglosphere, the transcribed portion of player press conferences are in English, and very little of the tennis writing produced in languages other than English gets translated and circulated widely.  The fact that, sadly, many native English speakers are monolingual means that the work of translation, rewarding though it can be, falls on the rest of the tennis world.  (Let me pause to note that I give myself little, if any, credit for speaking more than one language: it’s pure chance that I was born into a bicultural family and that communicating with my beloved grandmother required at least one of us adapt; further, my adventures with Spanish in high school, Russian in college, and French in grad school taught me that it is very difficult to maintain skills in any language you don’t speak both regularly and outside the classroom.)  Add to the aforementioned factors the economic realities of the global sports market—for tennis, in general, and tennis journalism, in particular—and the problem is exacerbated.  Have I mentioned the travel expenses for attending a single tournament, never mind following the tour’s progress from one continent to another (and sometimes back again) over the course of a season?

As a result of all of the above, both journalists and fans around the world have limited access to much of the coverage of non-Anglophone players—which is, let’s be honest, most of the top ranks. On the ATP side, 79 of the 100 best players—including the entire top 10 and 18 of the top 20—are non-native English speakers; on the WTA, it’s 77 out of the top 100.  Similar percentages aside, these demographics are especially significant on the men’s tour, where the exceptions to the rule in the top 20 are both multilingual children of immigrants (Canada, eh?).  Not only have the Williams sisters been a near-constant presence at the top of the women’s game for over twenty years, the WTA has also had other Anglospheric talent, from Lindsay Davenport at the turn of the century to Ashleigh Barty today, with plenty of others in supporting roles.  A list of recent slam winners includes Sloane Stephens, Bianca Andreescu, and Sofia Kenin; Naomi Osaka, still more comfortable in English than Japanese, is a poster child for tennis multiculturalism.  With the ATP, well, it’s a different story.  Before Andy Murray, who secured the top spot in the final moments of the 2016 season, Lleyton Hewitt in 2001-02 and Andy Roddick in 2003 were the last Anglophone year-end #1s (with an honorary mention going to Andre Agassi, who spent 12 weeks ranked #1 in the fall of 2003).  Arguably, then, international tennis journalism—to the extent that such a thing exists and isn’t merely another way of saying “journalistic dispatches from the Anglosphere”—is lagging over a decade behind the sport.

Consider the most relevant example for my purposes (recall, this is hypothetically, if not technically, an aside): the coverage of one Novak Djoković.  Recently, he sat for a number of interviews to discuss the Adria Tour, the prospect of a 2020 US Open, and other timely topics.  As a reference point, compare the length of these appearances: a podcast with tennis commentators (58 min.) and a late-night tv variety show (47 min.) in Serbian, both recorded before his event kicked off, and conversations in English on Eurosport (5 min.) and Tennis Channel (two parts, 13 min.) once the action was underway.  Like most people, Novak is more comfortable speaking in his mother tongue (and, not incidentally, with people he trusts)—and this is generally reflected in the material he provides his hometown media.

The trouble is, though they might transcribe parts of these interviews for quoting in print, no Balkan sports journalist needs to translate them; in the tennis media world beyond, almost no one can.  So, such efforts are left either to Serbian journalists who take the time to share excerpts with his/her international Twitter following (hey, Saša Ozmo!) or to fans.  With all due respect to the energy dedicated fans from across the globe put into this sort of thing, they’re neither experienced journalists nor trained translators.  (Neither am I, by the way.)  In the case of printed articles, many are reliant upon Google translate—which, as I likely don’t need to tell you, is better with some languages than others.  If you’re not actually fluent in both languages, you can get a lot wrong using this method.

The upshot of all of this is that Anglophone tennis media miss out on some of the most substantive comments made by not just the ATP #1 but, in fact, many players speaking in their native languages.  By way of conclusion, here are two selections from the televised chat with Ivan Ivanović, one summarized and the other translated.

1) Regarding the origins of the Adria Tour: this event grew out of conversations between Djoković and the national tennis federation in early May, when he was still in Spain.  While much of the rest of the world was locked down, Serbia was already starting to open up.  Specifically, Novak saw an opportunity in the relatively low covid-19 numbers back home and was interested in using the courts at his eponymous tennis center to put on spectator-less tournaments for male and female players from the region, so that they could get in some competitive matches and earn a bit of money.  As he was aware from ATP player council conversations and various social-media posts, players outside the top 100 were struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic—with some, he noted, referencing a (British?) WTA player, even putting their racquets down and taking other jobs to survive.  Acknowledging that for him and other top players, this break from the official tour wasn’t a financial blow with any day-to-day impact, he was looking to find ways—beyond the player relief fund—to help.

Starting at the end of May, the TSS organized small tournaments (but not so small that some of them didn’t also have qualifying rounds!) in several Serbian cities, including the capital.  One such tournament, of course, took place in Belgrade in the days leading up to the Adria Tour; 50,000€ of the prize-money pot came from Djoković himself—whether out of his own pocket, through his foundation, or from AT revenues, I’m not entirely sure.  The men’s winner, Damir Džumhur, qualified for the final spot in the weekend spectacle; the women’s draw was won by #260 Dejana Radanović.  Although the idea grew into a plan to replicate this “hybrid” tournament model across the former Yugoslavia, the Adria Tour started with a much more modest—and, I’d argue, more important—goal.  How much coverage did those smaller, starless events get?  You tell me.

2) Djoković notes that when he returned to Belgrade from Spain, it was hard to determine what was going on in terms of public health: “I see many people on the streets—some who, of course, take care, follow [the guidelines], and so on; but on the other hand, there are people who are [acting] completely as if nothing happened.”  Asked about coming into his own as #1, his leadership role within the ATP, and the various financial donations he’s made during the coronavirus pandemic, Novak observed that being a child of the ‘90s in the former Yugoslavia (experiencing war, sanctions, & NATO bombardment) was one of the crucial features of his youth that shaped his personality.  This trauma was one way—one reason—he learned to care for others: “to be aware that I’m not the only person in the world, so that everything isn’t done just for me or in my personal self-interest.”  He added: “When you see poverty, and you yourself are part of it, that sort of experience simply makes you want to look at everything in life from different angles.  That desire to find myself, to help, to be available, to contribute has always propelled me and propels me to this day—especially in circumstances like this, when there is a state of emergency.  Though it may sound a bit ironic, for us Serbs a state of emergency is somehow a normal situation. Unfortunately.  I mean, it’s tough. . . everyone abroad is complaining [about the lockdown, e.g.]; but for us, having lived through the ‘90s, this is normal.  It was always a state of emergency.”