Despite the title, this isn’t really a post about Srdjan Djoković. Like various others during the second week of the Australian Open, I’m using the father of the top men’s player in the world to get your attention. Unlike many of them, I’m doing so for what I hope is an edifying purpose. Namely, I want to unpack a widely-reported incident that took place outside Rod Laver Arena last month in order to make distinctions between different types of information. In the second part of the post, I’ll offer an interpretation of the varieties of fan sentiment, ethnic pride, nationalist iconography, &/or political ideology that were expressed on the tournament grounds after the quarterfinal match between Novak Djoković and Andrey Rublev.
Though there may have been others who managed to sneak in flags here and there (and we know that security ejected unruly spectators for a variety of reasons throughout the fortnight), it wasn’t until the middle of the second week that there was a news-making incident involving about six men waving Russian (and related) flags and chanting pro-Putin slogans on the steps leading from the two main show-courts into Garden Square.
The timeline: Djoković’s on-court interview ended around 10:00pm; shortly thereafter, Novak fans began to assemble on the steps, as they had after each of his wins. Though at least one of the aforementioned men is visible in the background of my videos and photos of the festivities, it wasn’t until the significantly larger group began to disperse, at approximately 10:30, that these men briefly took center stage.
A few minutes prior to that, some of the men in question had stopped Srdjan Djoković for a picture as he was leaving the fan gathering. As can be seen in the photo below, the main culprit is not only holding a flag emblazoned with Vladimir Putin’s face but also wearing a t-shirt with a “Z” symbol over the Night Wolves logo. (I’ll discuss the significance of these accoutrements in Part 2.)
Within minutes, event security confronted the men and escorted them from the site, where they were questioned by Victoria Police.
For the record: while I spent some time observing the celebration, and walked past Srdjan and his entourage on my way from the media center to the steps, I left the area 5-10 minutes before things got ugly. So, unfortunately, I’m not in a position to say whether people were dispersing organically or began leaving due to these men’s disruptive behavior. (I do know, however, that some fans wishing to say hello to Novak’s father turned away when they saw these men approaching him.)
In the background: An ethnic Russian activist named Semyon Boikov, who also goes by the name “Aussie Cossack,” had encouraged his social-media followers to “retaliate” against Tennis Australia for what he called their “discrimination,” “racism,” and “attack on honor and dignity” in banning various Russian flags. The very day TA announced the ban, Boikov offered a cash reward to anyone who succeeded in displaying a pro-Russian symbol during a televised match and provided a helpful list of all matches featuring Russian players. Subsequently, he congratulated attendees who had managed to evade the ban, before specifically suggesting the Djoković-Rublev quarterfinal as a high-profile opportunity to do so. In all, Boikov—who has some 161,000 YouTube subscribers, solicits volunteers, and raises money off his content—published twenty-two posts and videos about Russian flags at the Australian Open on his channel over a two-week period.
Assessment: Clearly, the Tennis Australia flag policy and the security measures in place to implement it weren’t enough to stop people determined to bring banned items into Melbourne Park. In fairness, though, it’s pretty tough to thoroughly search the bags—and bodies—of each of the tens of thousands of people coming through the gates every day; and AO security had the additional challenge of distinguishing between similar-looking Russian (🇷🇺) and Serbian (🇷🇸) flags. In a few cases, members of the security team were over-zealous with flag-draped fans there to support Djoković; in a handful of other cases, they missed people who, I think it’s safe to say, had ulterior motives for coming to the tournament on the day(s) they did. All things considered, my main criticism of the AO is that their security staff didn’t act sooner to remove these men. But, even so, my criticism is qualified, as there may have been other factors contributing to their decision, such as waiting for police back-up or prioritizing the safety of the larger crowd by delaying action in order to minimize chances of people getting hurt should any violence erupt as they attempted to detain the men.
Afterwards: In the interest of transparency, I’ll confess that I jumped to conclusions when I first saw the headlines about Srdjan Djoković. Anyone who has followed Novak’s career knows that the father has often been a public-relations liability to the son; and I’ve followed it more closely than most—not least, because I speak Serbian. So, I reacted to the photo a colleague sent our Serbian media group chat late Wednesday night by rolling my eyes. The next day, I reacted to the flurry of tweets I saw when I first checked Twitter like a lot of other people did: by making a judgment without clicking the accompanying links and reading the articles, never mind watching the video “evidence” and evaluating its source. And I did this despite having more contextual information at my disposal than most people, not less. So, this whole episode was a salutary reminder for me, too: slow down; take a breath; read the article; check the source; try to keep your confirmation bias at bay; and consider what else you know or where you can look for more information. Also: since no one needs to tweet (ever), there’s no professional obligation or journalistic value in tweeting about an event before you have the facts straight.
In terms of the way this incident was covered in the first 24-36 hours, I’d suggest readers look at when stories were published or broadcast, which outlets published or broadcast them first (and which waited on details), whether they were published online only or also in print (the editorial standards for the latter are generally higher), what sorts of reporting they were based on, and how they were framed. Five things, in particular, stand out to me:
Many stories were published too soon after the incident to allow for much reporting (e.g., verification, interviews, & research) or even fact-checking.
The main character of the stories shifted very quickly from a group of disruptive men tossed from Melbourne Park to Novak’s father.
None of the articles that I read or news segments that I watched quoted eyewitness accounts (by the journalists themselves or spectators who had observed the events in question).
The primary source for most stories, other than a Tennis Australia press release, was a video created by the culprits themselves, which included misleading edits, descriptions, and subtitles provided by the “Aussie Cossack” channel.
As a result, stories presented a mix of accurate information (Srdjan did indeed pose for a picture with two of these men), misinformation (the misquotation and inaccurate translation), and speculation (e.g., attempts to interpret the deeper meaning of Djoković senior’s behavior based on an incomplete &/or inadequate grasp of the facts). On top of that, the stories also—albeit inadvertently—spread disinformation by amplifying a propaganda video made to manipulate viewers and advocate specific ideological and policy positions.
To expand on the disinformation point: even if one didn’t witness the scene that night or have enough information at hand to be able to spot the inaccuracies in the video posted by “Aussie Cossack,” one can make some inferences by viewing it in context. Specifically, who filmed the two parts of the incident: 1) the “photo” of Srdjan with two supposed Novak fans that abruptly (and presumably without explanation to Djoković senior) morphed into a video greeting to Alexander Zaldostanov; and 2) the group unfurling Russian flags and cheering Putin on the steps? Though The Guardian’s Tumaini Carayol happened to catch these guys in the latter act, they certainly weren’t leaving it to chance. Why were their short clips then featured in a longer video (set to patriotic Serbian music!) produced for social-media consumption? What can be gleaned about these fellows from a) what they were wearing, holding, and saying; b) the YouTube channel to which they submitted their cell-phone videos; &/or c) a simple Google search for either Boikov himself or the Night Wolves motorcycle “club”?
Answering only part of the last question: Boikov is someone with a substantial record of both pro-Russian activism in Australia, where he was born, and propagandistic videos and appearances on Russian television. Additionally, Boikov has stated, “We never felt ourselves to be Australian, we were aliens there. I consider myself to be a Russian.” He is not, to put it mildly, a reliable source. In fact, he has made his “Aussie Cossack” group’s motives quite clear in interviews: “We’ll always support the policies of the [Russian] state, we respect very much our Commander-in-Chief, Putin. And we have a unique capacity to support Russia from within a hostile state. Even the FSB or a battalion of the Russian SAS can’t achieve that, because unlike them we are citizens of this state.” Enough said. Why journalists would take what Boikov says on any subject at face value is beyond me.
To make matters worse: while most of Boikov’s videos have below 50 thousand views, the much-embedded, linked, and shared video about the “bold political statement” Srdjan Djoković supposedly made now has 181 thousand views. By every measure imaginable, this was a propaganda win for “Aussie Cossack” and his allies—not because his content is the work of a sophisticated genius but because so few media outlets could resist the lure of a controversy that could be tied to Djoković.
Last January, at the height of the Djoković debacle in Australia, I made the Twitter acquaintance of an American Novak fan named Claire (a.k.a. @luvinthetennis). Almost immediately, I was struck by how substantive and articulate her tweets were, including long threads about how the international media was—and, ideally, should be—covering the story. So, it didn’t come as a complete surprise when I eventually learned that Claire is a writer. (I’ll leave it to her to decide when and how to introduce herself more fully.) Like many fans I’ve met at tournaments, Claire doesn’t fit the stereotype of “Nole Fam” that has developed over the past decade, especially online—and this is one reason why I was interested in her personal path to fandom.
When I found out that, like me, Claire and her husband Pat would be traveling to Melbourne for this year’s Australian Open, I made a point of meeting them. We chatted a few times around the grounds before Claire and I found a shady spot to talk before the men’s singles final. She and Pat had arrived as the gates opened that Sunday to score seats outside Rod Laver Arena, so they could get the full Garden Square experience.
Before focusing on her Novak fandom, I asked Claire about her relationship to tennis in general. She told me she’d started watching the sport as a child, during the later years of the Evert-Navratilova rivalry. “I was the only person in the family who cared about tennis at all,” she noted, “and I remember being extremely young and just staring at the screen and sort of figuring out how scoring works. And, little by little, I just fell in love with what they were doing. I was a big Martina fan.” She kept watching as new players arrived on the scene, eventually becoming an Agassi fan: “that’s when I became a devoted fan and I started really following it. And I loved him. I loved his career: up and down, lots of drama and fun. Then he retired and I actually wasn’t interested in anyone else who was playing. I was also a huge Monica Seles fan, by the way; but then I stopped watching the women play [after] the stabbing.”
As for Djoković, Claire admits she “didn’t even know that Novak existed” until the summer he first ascended to the men’s #1 spot. “I was visiting a friend one day,” she recounted, “and that friend had the US Open on. It was 2011 and I saw Novak playing. I was talking to my friend, with the [tv] sound off, and I kept getting diverted because I loved the tennis. I was saying, ‘His tennis reminds me of Agassi’s tennis’: the precision shots, the baselining, the crisp returns. But he’s such a different player. He has so much passion just rolling off of him—and I love that about him. So, in the end, I started staring at the screen, and my friend and I watched the rest of the match. I know that a fan was born then and I’ve been following him ever since.”
However, like many Americans, it was challenging for Claire to be more than a casual fan due to the fragmented way tennis is broadcast in the US: “I don’t tend to pay for extra channels…. So, I would only see the majors.” Two more recent events contributed to Claire’s becoming a “really huge Novak fan.” First, significant personal losses in 2019; then, the start of the pandemic in 2020. “I was stuck at home, and I had some other big things going on in my life that were difficult and painful to work through. I needed a good distraction,” she said.
In fact, it was Djoković’s default at the 2020 US Open that seems to have transformed her fandom from a pastime into something more like a project. Claire “was shocked at the vitriol he got for” hitting a line judge with an errant ball, “since he obviously did not do it on purpose”; and she felt motivated to try “to figure out why” he was getting such a reaction.
I’ll let Claire take it from here. (What follows is an edited version of our conversation; though I made minor changes for clarity, I mostly cut for length.)
C: The more I looked into it—the more I would dig and watch previous matches, would see some press conferences with him—I started to realize how misrepresented [Novak] has been in the press. And that really annoyed me because the more I watched those pressers, the more I really liked this guy. I was only into his tennis [at first] and I didn’t care that he broke a racquet—I love to see passion on the tennis court. But I actually fell in love with him as a person once I started to dig deep and see who he was.
So, I just got more and more devoted to him, watching all these old matches. It was a great distraction during the pandemic—and I really needed it. Then, I followed his 2021 calendar Grand Slam race. I was so devastated with the loss in the US Open final; but it was a great season and I was excited to start again. And here comes 2022 Australian Open! We all know what happened there…
I was completely devastated by that and I realized I had really connected with him. And, again, a lot of things had been happening in my life: I lost both of my parents, six weeks apart, right before the pandemic; and I couldn’t be with my sister and brother to grieve over that. So, I think what happened to me was that I was using Novak’s tennis to sort of help me through that period of grief, watching all those old matches, watching his career [develop], being so impressed with his commitment to excellence, watching all his old press conferences, finding out what a great guy he is. I just became really attached to him as a person—in a weird way, since I know he’s a person I’ll never meet.
I really appreciate what he did for me. He helped me through the worst time of my life, really, and so I wanted to come here and support him.
AM: Going back to what you said about how, during the pandemic and after the US Open default, you started to dig into old matches and that kind of thing. This may seem like a strange question, but I’m curious how you came to the conclusion that he was being misrepresented. In other words, did you go on Twitter and meet a bunch of Novak fans, for whom that is a big issue? Or is that a conclusion you drew simply on the basis of watching him, reading his press conferences, and then reading the coverage?
C: No, I came to it completely on my own and this is how it happened. When I saw the disqualification, I went on to Twitter. This is how I follow the news—by Twitter—because I follow a lot of journalists who post articles. And I saw that it was trending, so I was looking at what people were saying. I didn’t land on Djoković fans at first. I was just reading these really vitriolic comments that did not match what I had seen [on tv]. You know, disqualification—fair, not fair—people can disagree about that. But it’s clear he didn’t do it on purpose. And I was seeing people say, “Well, of course he did it on purpose; he’s that kind of person.” In effect, they were saying that, and I was just very curious about that, so I started looking into it.
I had heard the commentary on the US Open 2020, [in which] they kept referring to the Adria Tour, and how supposedly badly Novak had behaved during the pandemic. I was curious about that too; so, I went back and read a news article about it, and I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of disappointing.” And then I read another news article and I thought, “Well, wait, those two things don’t really match.” Then, actually, I started digging around and I found the piece that you did on it. And I read the details and realized that it was being misrepresented.
AM: Thank you for being one of the 15 people who’s read my blog.
C: Well, you did such a great job of covering that and you answered all my questions. It was just very clear to me, because the things that I was seeing about the Adria Tour just didn’t really make sense. They kept saying, “He organized this event” and “Novak did this thing.” And I thought, “This was a whole country—a region, actually. One man cannot organize an event [like this on his own]. Obviously, he had to follow rules, he had to be in touch with people who would allow these things. So, what on earth is going on here?” As you pointed out, there was a big soccer event at the same time [etc.]. So, it was just very clear that was being misrepresented.
But the real key part of feeling like he’s been misrepresented through the years is when I went back. I actually followed every Grand Slam victory he’s had: I watched every semifinal I could get in whole and every final, and I watched highlights of other things. I went chronologically because I wanted to understand what had happened.
AM: So, you started roughly in 2007?
C: Yeah, I did.
AM: Okay. Wow.
C: I would listen to the match commentary, then I would go to the presser—almost all this stuff is available online, if you look for it. I would hear the things that the commentators were saying about him—something he had done or said, or they would quote him, “Well, in his press conference, Novak said ‘blah, blah, blah’—and I’d go back and listen. And I was like, “Oh, they took that entirely out of context. Interesting.” And that just kept happening and happening and happening. I mean, commentators that I have no reason to think are intentionally misrepresenting him, but they are taking things out of context and twisting what the meaning is. I’ve actually been very shocked by it. I had no idea.
AM: I happen to know—because I found out a little bit about you before we met in person, now, for the first time—that you studied linguistics [in graduate school]. Do you think there’s any connection between your study of linguistics and how you approached reading and viewing the pressers? Is there any link there?
C: I think there’s one small link there in that I’m very aware of language barriers. So, when I am listening to how Novak answers a question, I feel like I can tell when he didn’t catch all the connotations that were in the question. So, he’s answering it a little bit differently because he heard it differently. I feel like I can tell what he means to be saying, sometimes, when he doesn’t use quite the same word we would use—and maybe, because of the phrasing or the word he uses, it has a negative connotation or a connotation no American or English speaker would put in it. I can kind of tell what he’s going for.
I think that’s true of anyone, if you pay attention, you watch everything in its entirety, and you take someone on good faith. That’s the key—you take someone on good faith. I think anyone can see that. But, yes, I think I do pay even closer attention to that—I’m a writer and I studied linguistics. So, I do pay attention to what’s going on, how people are wording things, why they’re wording them the way they are. And I’m very aware of the language barrier, even though he’s a fluent speaker of English and has a much higher vocabulary level than your average English speaker, frankly. Still, he says things in a different way sometimes—and I’m aware of that.
AM: Obviously, someone reading this won’t necessarily see what you’re wearing. But I can’t help but note that you’ve got on a t-shirt that says, “No, I’m not Serbian, but I’m 100% Novakian.” There’s this myth that the majority of Novak fans around the world are Serbian—and you’re kind of debunking that on your very body. [Note: after posting this, I learned both the identity of the woman who came up with the original shirt idea in 2021 and that still other fans have created variations on the theme. Djoković himself has joked about this media narrative.]
Also, you’re not from Novak’s part of the world—I mean, you’re not from Europe; you’re not from Eastern Europe; you’re not from the former Yugoslavia; you’re not from Serbia. As far as I’m aware, you don’t have any connection to that part of the world. You may not “get” him and get his background in the same way that people who do have that in common with him do. So, I’m curious both what you make of that myth (that all, or the majority, of his fans have ties to Serbia) and what it is about Novak that you connect to, despite the significant age gap as well as cultural differences?
C: The first question, what do I make of the myth? I feel like the people who are shaping the tennis narrative—the primary people in the media who shape the tennis narrative and who have shaped the narrative of the Big 3—I think they find Novak off-putting. I mean, I don’t see any other way to think about that. I’m sure they must admire his tennis and probably some of them admire him and like him; but, overall, they seem to find him off-putting. So, I think that when they see fans waving flags with his face on it—which is inevitably going to be a Serbian flag—they just assume only people who are connected with Serbia can like him, because he’s so unlikable. I really think that this is what they believe: he’s so unlikable that the only fans are people who only care about pretty tennis, first of all, a small segment of people, but the devoted fans must be connected to Serbia in some way. I think that they think that—and I think that they have to be completely wrong about that. I mean, I myself have met people who love him and have no connection to Serbia. I don’t know why it’s so hard for them to believe.
AM: If you had to guess, or if you’ve seen articles or coverage, what are the handful of things that you think they think make him unlikable?
C: I think that they don’t like the way that he responds to difficulty on the court and the way that he manages his matches when he’s fighting various things. Mind you, from what I can tell (because I’ve watched him play Andy Murray quite a bit, because I’ve watched his career), Andy Murray has a very similar way of managing himself on the court. And, yet, it’s okay. So, I think that they don’t like it that he smashes racquets. I think they don’t like it that he screams Serbian curse words. I think they don’t like it when he yells at his box, even though they have no idea what he’s saying to them.
I just think that he gets this over-scrutiny of how he behaves, and people expect him to behave a certain way. And I think he sort of gives off all this passion that Anglo people—so, Americans and UK and Australians—find distasteful. Somehow, Andy Murray is able to do all that, and it doesn’t bother them a bit. So, it may have a certain color to it that’s sort of intangible.
AM: Back to the second part of the original question: why do you connect with Novak?
C: We’re getting into the realm of emotion and intangibles here…. You know, I connect with his authenticity. There’s this sense that there’s a veneer over people who come from a certain class—who are raised a certain way, live a certain way. There’s kind of a veneer there. And those of us who were not don’t have that veneer.
AM: I saw, on your Twitter feed, photos of your passports—is it true that you and your husband did not have passports before you planned this trip?
C: That is true. I mean, we had them once, but they were well expired.
AM: When was the last time you took an overseas trip?
C: I took one single overseas trip before this one when I was 15 years old. That’s the only time I’ve been outside of the country.
AM: So, this is your second trip—in your life—outside of the country…
AM: and you came from Maine to Melbourne…
C: That’s right.
AM: to see Novak Djoković?
C: To see Novak Djoković, yes.
AM: Whom you’ve never seen play live?
C: I’ve never seen him in person—I had never attended a tennis match before in my life.
AM: What was the route that you guys took from where you live in Maine?
C: We drove to the Portland airport and we took a plane from Portland, Maine to Philadelphia; and then we took a plane from Philadelphia to LA and from LA to Melbourne.
AM: And how long did that take?
C: It took us over 24 hours to get here, door to door.
AM: Why did you and your apparently very supportive husband decide to travel in January, when it’s not a natural kind of break? It’s not the holidays; it’s not a normal vacation time. Why did you guys feel it was worth the time and money to do that?
C: Well, I really wanted to see Novak play in person, ever since what happened last year in Australia. I was really afraid that Australia had destroyed his career—very afraid. I still believe that Novak is probably the only tennis player who could endure what he endured and come back from it. And I was really afraid it was all over. So, when Novak wound up getting deported, I just told Pat, “I will see this man play. If he’s going to play again, I will make sure I see him play.”
Even though I won’t meet him or have a chance to talk to him, I can at least be there, put the vibe out there to support him, and thank him in my own personal way for his tennis—and cheer him on whenever he’s playing. I had originally wanted to go to the Serbia Open; and then I couldn’t get my [stuff] together in time to do that…. So, once I couldn’t do that, I thought, “Well, I’ll go to Belgrade next year”—and then I found out that they were not going to play in Belgrade. And so I said, “Ok, I’ve been avoiding the obvious: I need to go to the Australian Open.”
AM: Do you think that if Novak had been allowed into the United States last summer, you would have gone to the US Open instead?
C: Yes. I know I would have gotten to Belgrade as well, so I may have ended up in this situation anyway; but I definitely would have gone to the US Open to support him.
AM: Is there anything else that you feel like it would be important for readers (in Serbia) to know about why you and your husband came—or your experience since you’ve been here?
C: I will only say that I still really want to go to Belgrade—and I plan to go the next time Novak plays in Belgrade. I probably won’t go to Banja Luka, now that we spent all this money on Australia; but I will go next year.
From what I have seen of his [domestic] fans—and I have now interacted with a lot of Serbian fans and a lot of Aussie-Serbian fans—I understand how they made Novak. I feel like there’s a lot of love there and a lot of pride in him; and I would love to be in his home city and be surrounded by that and experience Belgrade and Novak Djoković [together] in a trip. I would love to connect with him, his home, and his people. And, again, I have no idea why. All I know is that I am so thankful for him and his tennis—and, so, I’m very thankful for Serbia for making him.
After he won the title and finished the English portion of his press conference, Djoković spoke at length to the Serbian media. I took the opportunity to tell him about Claire. (Watch our exchange, which was a bit more of a back and forth than I’ve presented in translation below, and you’ll be able to interpret Novak’s facial expressions for yourself.)
AM: I met a woman here, a member of “Nole Fam,” who came to Australia all the way from Maine, on the far east coast of the US. Before this week, she’d never seen a live professional tennis match and hadn’t traveled outside the country in nearly 40 years. She didn’t even have a valid passport. She came to see you. What does hearing things like this mean to you?”
NĐ: I didn’t know that—it’s the first time I’m hearing this story. So, thanks for calling it to my attention; and I’ll look into it because this kind of story truly fulfills me and I’m very grateful. The support I’ve had this year is really something sacrosanct, something beautiful. I mean, I’ve always had support in Australia from lots of people, especially the Serbian community. Of course, I’ve also seen people who came from China and [other parts of] Asia to support me—and I thank them a lot for that. But this year’s support, really, both in the stadium and outside it in the Square, was probably the best, biggest, strongest, loudest ever. I think they also recognized the importance of this moment and this year, considering last year’s events, and that somehow they wanted to be there for me, to give me wings—and that’s exactly what they did. So, from the heart, thank you.
February 2022: It was a real treat for me to have the opportunity to talk about Goran Ivanišević, the state of Yugoslav tennis before the breakup of the country in the early 1990s, and what the big-serving Croat brings to Team Djoković with Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract. Listen here.
January 2022: Thought I made several appearances on BBC Radio during Novak’s Australian saga, they seem not to have permalinks for programs over a month old. So, the only segment I can share from the complicated lead-up to the 2022 Australian Open is this one on Melbourne’s ABC radio: “Decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa sparks anger in Serbia.” Listen here.
May 2021: “All About Djoković.” One of these things is not like the other: Niki Pilić, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanišević, and I were guests for an hour-long BBC 5 Live Sport discussion of the ATP #1.
July 2020: Carl Bialik invited me on to Thirty Love, his short-form podcast, to discuss Novak Djoković and the Adria Tour. Much of our conversation relates to my tennis journalism hobby-horse: shortcomings of the Anglophone-dominated international media in covering players whose native language isn’t English. Listen here.
Friends, can we talk about causal reasoning—and causation, more generally?
This isn’t what we usually turn to tennis to do, I realize, but some of the arguments circulating in the wake of the Adria Tour, especially after four participants (plus team and family members) tested positive for covid-19 early last week, have hurt my brain. More than giving me a headache, though, this stuff isn’t good for our understanding of the event and its consequences—or of the figure at the center of the controversy. Odd a response though this may be, reading some of the initial analysis sent me scrambling for a textbook I used to assign in a course at the University of Richmond.* After refreshing my memory on the topic of rival causes, a term for “a plausible alternative explanation [for] why a certain outcome occurred,” I decided to identify a couple of patterns I’ve observed in the assessments of what went wrong with the Adria Tour.
Diction like this is a sign that causal thinking is afoot.
A Tennis Channel segment reacting to the news of Novak Djoković’s covid-19 diagnosis provides us with a convenient starting point for discussion.
During the exchange, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim asked Paul Annacone how he thinks the developments from the truncated Balkan tennis tour will play in the locker-room. The coach and commentator replied, “I think there’s a lot of [Novak’s] peer group that are scratching their heads.” “If I were on the [ATP Player] Council,” Annacone added, “I would be asking a lot of difficult questions to understand how he got to where he was.” Even before the ATP #1 reunites with his colleagues, we’ve had plenty of tennis media attempting to answer these very questions—some, like Annacone, with the benefit of having interviewed the Serbian player recently, and others by putting at least a few puzzle pieces together on their own.
Not only because I could use some exercise after being stuck at home for months, I think it’s worth walking through what we know about the Adria Tour and what we don’t. Given journalism’s primary function, some combination of these two categories forms the basis of the descriptive claims we see in virtually any media response, whether it’s straightforward reporting, a column offering an interpretation of events, or a debate about how professional tennis should proceed as it returns (spoiler: not like this). So, let’s start with the basics. Journalism 101 tells us there are five questions news stories need to answer: who, what, when, where, and why. With regard to this event, the first four are easy to answer—and they’re not up for much, if any, debate.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things we know about the Adria Tour (“AT”):
The traveling tournament was conceived by Novak Djoković and designed to bring tennis to several ex-Yugoslav countries over four weeks. In addition to being the one with the money & influence to make it happen, the host was responsible for inviting the featured players—most notably, the top-20 talent.
It occurred during what I’ll call “phase 2” of a global pandemic: i.e., when most countries have lifted restrictions on public movement and activities (to differing degrees & with varying levels of success).
The AT ended up taking place over two consecutive June weekends in Serbia and Croatia.
It was planned & run by an organizing committee led, at least nominally, by director Djordje Djoković. Each stage of the event had a separate tournament director & sub-committee: for example, Goran Ivanišević was TD and Neven Nakić, VP of the Croatian tennis federation, was the president of the organizing committee for the Croatian stop.
Round-robin, short-format matches were broadcast on regional network Sport Klub, as well as internationally on Eurosport, Tennis Channel, and beINSports.
The Serbian and Croatian tennis federations, who helped organize the first two stages of the AT, also held tournaments for regional players in the weeks leading up to the main events in Belgrade and Zadar, respectively.
Subsequent stops were being planned in the two biggest Bosnian cities: Banja Luka & Sarajevo. Particularly after an anticipated third leg in Montenegro had to be scrapped (because the government couldn’t guarantee entry from Serbia in time), organizers scouted other possible locations in the former Yugoslavia.
While the marquee players traveled from abroad to participate, most others hail from, and were already in, the region. (Djoković and his family, who had spent several months isolating in Marbella, Spain, arrived in Serbia three weeks before the official tournament start.)
In addition to the on-court action, there were press conferences, kids days, concerts, fireworks, & other affiliated group activities, at which neither mask wearing nor social distancing was widely observed.
Thus far, some 8 Adria Tour participants (& at least two of their spouses) have tested positive for covid-19.
Turning to “why,” answering questions gets more complicated. Why did Djoković want to host this tournament? Why now? Why in Serbia and the neighboring countries? (The first part is easy, obviously; the second part is more complicated, as this article suggests. I’ll have more to say about Novak’s motivations in a separate post.) Why did he invite players from Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, and Russia (several of whom had been staying in the US since Indian Wells was canceled in early March &/or made other stops en route to Belgrade), instead of sticking with an all-Serbian or even all-Balkan contingent? Why did the event have a) live spectators, b) so many of them, &/or c) so close together? Why, despite having masks (and gloves!) available at entrances, wasn’t more done to encourage or enforce use of them among event staff, volunteers, spectators, or participants? And the question everyone’s been asking: why all the hugging?!
I could go on, but you get the point. The overarching question that emerges is: why, given what is common knowledge about how the coronavirus spreads, did this event take the particular shape it did—on court, in the stands, across the tournament grounds, and after hours? For what it’s worth, I don’t think “Because it was allowed by the local authorities” is a sufficient answer. That the tournament was given a green light by the powers that be is clear—and that Belgrade nightclubs weren’t specially opened for the player party should be evident to anyone looking at photos. But those facts don’t really help us understand why so many people—and not, by the way, just a dozen or so players—were acting like they’d found a time-traveling portal to the pre-covid era.
Although it’s not an official, alliterative part of journalism’s “5 Ws,” the question “how” is, of course, also relevant. For instance: how did this happen? By that, I mean both “What went into planning the Adria Tour?” and “How did an event like this, with few to no precautionary measures in place, occur in June 2020?” How were all the organizational and logistical tasks divided and decided? For that matter, how many and which regional tennis figures were on the organizing committee? With whom from the Serbian and Croatian governments did organizers coordinate? What shared attitudes or beliefs contributed to thousands of people, seemingly without concern, going along with it all—not once, either, but in ten separate sessions in two different (albeit culturally quite similar) countries? One of the things a lot of the international coverage has missed, or perhaps ignored, is just how many people were involved in this event. While it’s understandable that the focus would be on Djoković and his high-profile ATP guests, there were also hundreds of people behind the scenes helping the show go on and a whole crew of regional broadcasters and print journalists on hand to capture the scene, not to mention all the people in the stands, whose main expression of disappointment in all of this was to boo when local sports hero Ivanišević took to the court to announce the Zadar final between Djoković and Rublev had to be called off. Were people in Serbia and Croatia—whether press or public—also shocked and outraged by what they observed of the Adria Tour? Are folks in Bosnia breathing a collective sigh of relief that their leg of the event won’t happen? If not, why not?
Without having access to sources on the ground (or being able to read BCS), it’s tough to answer most of these “how” questions. In spite of this obstacle, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to explain what happened, often by making descriptive claims based on assumptions and deductions based on limited information.
Sidebar: I’ll take advantage of this moment to ride a hobby-horse of mine. 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. Read more…
On some level, all the questions above are secondary: it’s not hard to imagine readers who’ve gotten this far wondering, “Who cares about this minutiae? The only thing that matters about the Adria Tour is that it was a mistake!” Well, yes. That’s certainly true if all we’re interested in doing is making a judgment, which I think virtually everyone has already done (isn’t Twitter grand?). Me? I also like to try to understand things—including the reactions to them, by media in particular. And I get more than a little uncomfortable when I see analysis that seems to skip the asking questions stage (call it “curiosity”) and go directly to reaching conclusions, not least if the outcome suggests logical short-cuts along the way. By now, you may have gathered that this is not a complaint unique to the treatment of a single event: the general terms I use below can be applied to virtually any piece of writing that makes an argument, from tweet to thesis.
Without further ado (there’s been plenty of ado already, I know), here are three patterns I’ve observed in coverage of the Adria Tour aftermath: causal oversimplification, post hoc fallacy, and fundamental attribution error.
Since all three have to do with causal reasoning, let’s establish some common ground. When we think about causation, it takes this basic form: this because that.
To give a generic example: effect B was brought about, at least in part, by cause A.
Broadly speaking, we can say that the Adria Tour (A) caused participants (and perhaps others) to become infected with covid-19 (B).
The main deduction that people have made on the basis of photographic evidence of participant activity at A is that a key factor, C—the lack of precautionary measures like mask wearing and social distancing—caused the spread of the virus within the group. Though this seems like an uncontroversial conclusion to me, it’s also the case that we have very little idea of these individuals’ activities either in the days before June 11 (the first day all the participants were together in Belgrade) or when they were not in front of tv or other kinds of cameras. With that qualification, let’s move on to examples of where some, perhaps required by the nature of the profession to publish quick takes, got tripped up by gnarly causal reasoning.#
So, what caused factor C? Almost in unison, the international media answered: Novak Djoković, of course! From there, we’ve gotten different explanations for how and why Novak ended up where he did on June 23rd: covid-positive, isolating at home in Belgrade, and in the sports section of every major media outlet in the world.
Unlike surreal fanless exhibitions conducted elsewhere on earth, the Adria Tour looked like it was held in the peaceful obliviousness of some other planet. Djokovic maintained that the event fell in line with Serbian guidelines, a claim that has come under fire, and that also makes you wonder bleakly about his sheer force of personality back home.
The “sheer force” of Novak’s personality caused the Serbian health authorities to adjust their guidelines for public gatherings in May and June? His influence is what led thousands of spectators to decline to wear masks that the tournament itself provided? Is that what this line is suggesting? As long as we’re speculating, did the pied piper of Serbia also compel some 25 thousand people to pack Belgrade’s “Marakana” for the soccer grudge match between Partizan and Red Star a few days before the Adria Tour started? Might there be any other viable explanations for these deeds? Out of curiosity, what else has AleksandarVučić’s government been up to over the past few months—that is, other than granting Djoković last-minute permission to sell more than a thousand tickets to each session of the Belgrade stop? And let’s not forget about Croatia. Has the pandemic forced them to abandon all hope for the summer tourist season, which brings in some 20% of the country’s GDP? (To get a sense of how things were looking in Zadar in the weeks before the Adria Tour came to town, see the second half of this article.)
In lieu of spending more time unpacking this piece, I’ll just leave the above explanations here.
Exhibit B is from a Twitter thread by a tennis journalist especially influential on social media.
This one-two punch—bad news followed by a tidy explanation for it—implies “after this, therefore because of this.” Though the causal connection isn’t made explicit, it is nevertheless unmistakable: fringe scientific beliefs resulted in Novak and Jelena’s being at increased risk for catching covid-19.
So there’s no misunderstanding, I’ll say this as clearly as I can: personal opinions are certainly relevant in shaping the behavior of those who have them. But unless every other person associated with the Adria Tour is also pals with a bearded wellness guru from California, this account only gets us so far. Also, however “alternative” some of the Djoković views on health, they didn’t stop the pair from urging people in Serbia to stay home during the quarantine so healthcare providers wouldn’t be overburdened with patients or from using their foundation money to purchase ventilators for Serbian hospitals. These are things they likely wouldn’t do if they don’t think the coronavirus is a serious threat or believe that positive thinking, room-temperature water, and a teaspoon of manuka honey to start the day is enough to ward it off. Also: crystals. Don’t forget the crystals.
Exhibit C is a column by Jon Wertheim. Reacting to the announcement of Djoković’s positive covid-19 test, the SI senior writer and Tennis Channel studio analyst crafted a cautionary tale modeled on Greek mythology, in which the ATP #1 serves as a sort of modern-day Icarus. Unlike the tragic finality of the classics, however, this story remains open-ended: “there are chapters left to be authored,” Wertheim notes before suggesting a few ways Novak might “make amends” for his recent lapses and “win back” whatever—or whomever—he’s lost thus far this season. Instead of quoting at length, I encourage you to read it, as it’s a much more creative piece of writing than we generally get from tennis journalists. (You can find the less-creative version of Wertheim’s thoughts on the Adria Tour fallout in his weekly podcast.)
I have no quarrel with the poetic license Wertheim takes and think his narrative gets its message across in an entertaining, self-consciously dramatic manner. (It’s a tragedy, after all.) Having said that, the emphasis on the explanatory power of the contents of Novak Djoković’s head strikes me as an example of a what psychologists call fundamental attribution error: a cognitive bias “in which we typically overestimate the importance of personal tendencies relative to situational factors in interpreting the behavior of others. That is, we tend to see the cause of others’ behavior as coming from within (their personal characteristics) rather than from without (situational forces)” (126*). Abundant in the short tale are terms like “hubris,” “self-belief,” “narcissism,” and “self-importance”—as much the language of personality science (if not psychopathology) as mythology. Given not only the humanitarian nature of the venture (with the winner’s prize money going to a charity of his choice) but also Djoković’s desire to both provide lower-ranked regional players an opportunity to compete and earn some much-needed cash and bring top-tier tennis to a part of the world that doesn’t normally get it, it’s tough to accept the notion that the event aimed for self-glorification. Not least, the Balkans is the last place on earth where Novak would need to do anything to be greeted with immense affection, admiration, even gratitude. There are much easier ways for him to get showered with praise: for instance, he could stand in Trg Republike, Belgrade’s central square.
A common thread linking these three cases is that the explanations they provide for why the Adria Tour took the form it did and ended, perhaps inevitably, with a health crisis rely almost entirely on surmises about the goings on in the mind of an individual human being. This would be one thing if Djoković were the king of not just Serbia but the former Yugoslavia, and all subjects faced a choice between doing his bidding and being punished. (Representatives of four countries were involved in the planning! The prime minister of Croatia attended one of the Zadar sessions—likely coming from Zagreb to do so.) Closer to reality, I’d have an easier time understanding such causal oversimplification if Novak had simply invited a bunch of top-ranked tennis bros to a holiday weekend in his hometown, with practice matches on his backyard court followed by nights out on the town. But the Adria Tour isn’t a morality play with a single protagonist, nor did it take place on a billionaire’s private island. Perhaps it’d be better if it had.
Essentially, all of this boils down to one question: are Djoković’s personal views—about himself, about “science”—the cause or a cause leading to the questionable decisions on display during the Adria Tour? Granting the latter, which I hope you do, are we quite sure those beliefs were the most significant causal factor in shaping the risky behavior at the event? It’s certainly possible, perhaps even probable, that they played a part—in the players’ off-court activities, particularly. Still, even there, I suspect it was Novak’s pride not in himself but in his country that was among the strongest influences in his decision to perform as a tour-guide for his guests from abroad. Despite the circumstances that had brought them there, it seems he wanted to give his rivals, colleagues, and friends a weekend to remember: showing them the sights, making sure they tasted a bit of Balkan hospitality, and, yes, giving them a sense of why Belgrade’s nightlife has the reputation it does. (My guess: they’ll remember.)
Given that the event itself wasn’t merely a debauched weekend among members of the men’s tennis elite, and that thousands of people attended, staffed, or helped organize the event, we have to consider what other factors may have contributed to the outcomes observed on screens both large and small across the globe. I’ve hinted at a few possibilities from the spheres of politics and economics above (in links under Exhibit A). Here are some others that aren’t unique to the Balkans: skepticism about expertise; the politicization of science; a less-than-healthy media ecosystem (including sensationalism, propaganda, and misinformation); lack of trust in leadership; public frustration with, even resentment about, months under lockdown; and lovely spring weather. Though the increasingly rare opportunity to watch live tennis featuring both local favorites and international stars surely drew the crowd, many other factors likely determined the incautious behavior in the stands and on the grounds in Belgrade and Zadar. To be fair, tennis journalism isn’t suited to explore all of the potential causes of multifaceted occurrences like this: sports reporters are generally on site or watching from home, not embedded as foreign correspondents. Normally, we talk about what happens between the lines on court, in the media center, at the gym, and in the board rooms of the ITF, ATP, and WTA. For good measure, we check players’ Twitter and Instagram feeds. The coronavirus pandemic has not only deprived us all of the sport we love but also given us a whole new set of concerns to ponder—separate from the ways in which it’s turned the rest of our lives upside down. Still, wouldn’t it be something if we could take a bit of the extra time many of us, unable to pursue our professions or pastimes as before, now have to seek out and consider a few more causes?
# I hope it goes without saying that I selected these three examples not out of any personal animus for the authors but because they come from widely-read sources and help make my point. Although its length suggests otherwise, this is not an exhaustive survey of English-language coverage of the Adria Tour. A little scary, I know.
After the ITF announced plans to overhaul the 118-year-old Davis Cup tournament with the help of a $3 billion infusion from Kosmos investment group, Tennis Channel chose the question “Has the ITF gone too far?” for its weekly “Tough Call” debate. To me, this
isn’t a close call: the ITF’s proposed changes would fundamentally alter the nature of the Davis Cup, with national-team competition virtually the only feature remaining. Home and away ties, the life-blood of the event, are gone. The competition is squeezed into a single week; ties (of which there would be 25, up from 15) are reduced from five rubbers to three, matches from best-of-five sets to three; and fans won’t be able to plan ahead to support their team’s efforts in the all-important final weekend (as they have ample time to do with the current format), since the contestants won’t be known until Thursday or Friday. A final in a neutral venue, which was part of last year’s failed bid, doesn’t sound so bad now that we’re facing the prospect of neutral fans—that is, those who bought tickets without having any idea which teams would make the final. The ITF itself isn’t referring to mere “improvements” (which is what their strategic plan, ITF2024, identifies as a priority) but to the “transformation” of Davis Cup, going so far as to say that they’re creating a new event—albeit one with a derivative name: the “season-ending World Cup of Tennis Finals.”
This leads me to two, over-arching questions. 1) Does professional tennis really need a “major new” annual tournament? (Never mind, for the time being, subordinate questions about the proposal’s specifics: e.g., is late November the best time in the tennis calendar to stage such a competition?) 2) What gap in men’s tennis does this proposal fill—or, more to the point, what problems about Davis Cup as-is does it aim to solve?
Here’s what I know to be true: players in the World Group (though what percentage, I’m not sure anyone can say) have complained about the Davis Cup schedule. Some focus on its proximity to the majors, noting that it’s difficult—particularly for those who regularly make deep runs—to turn around and hop on a plane to another time zone, often playing on a different surface from both the previous and the subsequent tournament. Some think four weeks a year is too big a commitment or suggest the event take place biennially, not to conflict with the Olympic games. Some would likely welcome a reduction from best-of-five sets to three, to make the ties less (potentially) grueling and decrease risk of injury. Many, no doubt, wish ATP points were still on offer and certainly wouldn’t look askance at more prize money.
What’s confusing to me: why the ITF took player complaints about the schedule and frequency of Davis Cup ties and decided to address them with this set of format changes. Were European players and fans—that is, those who’ve largely comprised finals participants for well over a decade—clamoring to fly to Singapore a month after the end of the ATP’s Asian swing?
We keep hearing the Davis Cup is “dying” and that such comprehensive changes are inevitable, even necessary. (“It’s either this or get rid of it,” says Mardy Fish.) Is it really in a terminal state? When and how was its condition diagnosed? The absence of top players from the field is the most frequently-cited reason, followed by the competition’s diminished “relevance.” Things sure sound dire. But rarely is concrete evidence of the competition’s demise on offer, even in texts of longer than 280 characters. For example, though the New York Times noted this week that the competition is “losing traction globally,” nowhere did the article provide a specific example of what this loss entails or how it registers in various parts of the tennis world. Yes, it’s said that this slow, painful death has resulted in fading prestige: winning the trophy doesn’t mean as much as it once did. But how are such things as meaning measured?
In some cases, contributing factors are pretty easy to quantify and confirm or dispute. For instance, the oft-repeated claim that the “top players” don’t participate is overstated. Again, Fish: “What stars? No one played anymore[,] dude”—an especially odd observation from an American given that the best U.S. players, like John Isner, consistently commit to the national team, and the Bryan brothers recently retired from Davis-Cup duty after 14 straight years of service and a 25-5 doubles record. (See here and here for more numbers that rather undermine such statements.) Not only have all of the most-decorated players of this generation won the Davis Cup—Spain, with and without Nadal, four times since 2004—but most other eligible top-50 ranked players also take part annually.
only 3 fully fit top 50 players decided not to play Davis Cup this weekend: one is 36yo, another is 34yo and the other has had a bad relationship with his federation for years pic.twitter.com/U2YqOVWo0X
In 2017, 15 top-20 players competed; in 2016, it was 16 of the top 20 and 24 of the top 30. Prior to a few years ago, the ITF didn’t even publish such statistics in their yearly roundup—perhaps because they didn’t feel the pressure to combat this common, but misleading, line.
Being the skeptical sort, I’d like to see more proof of the Davis Cup’s ill health. So, I’ve got questions, ones that I challenge the tennis fans and journalists among my readers to answer. As you’ll no doubt note, all of the below pertain to the World Group—rather unfortunately, the only part of the Davis Cup that gets much attention (about which, more later).
A. Is the Davis Cup losing money annually? If so, since when and how much? When did it make more? What is the competition’s annual revenue and how is it distributed among national tennis federations? How much (more) does the ITF need to make—from the World Group contests, in particular—in order to fund its development programs at current and/or desirable levels?
B. Have Davis Cup ticket sales, especially for the final, been decreasing over the years? This seems unlikely, given that five of the six biggest single-day crowds have been recorded in the last 14 years, but I suppose anything is possible.
Was there a time when considerably more than half a million spectators (which seems to be the standard of late) attended Davis Cup ties over the course of a season? If so, when was the sales peak and is the decline since then steep or significant? Some point to the 2014 final, in which a Federer-led Switzerland beat a charismatic and deep French team in front of 27,448 fans at the stadium in Lille, as if it were some sort of anomaly. But the fact is that over 530,000 spectators attended the Davis Cup in 2017 and the final Sunday crowd—there to cheer on as Belgium’s David Goffin unexpectedly beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille secured the championship for France by defeating Steve “The Shark” Darcis—was some 26,000 strong. (With the exception of Tsonga, I’d respectfully suggest, none of those four players is a particularly big draw outside their home country.) The numbers in other recent years don’t look terribly different: in 2016, sell-out crowds (including an enthusiastic Diego Maradona) watched Croatia and Argentina go the distance in Zagreb’s 16,000-seat arena; and even in 2013, when a depleted Serbian team hosted the Czech Republic, 46,000 fans attended the season finale in Belgrade.
C. Has the number of people watching Davis Cup on tv (or via streaming services) dwindled over the decades? Have fewer networks been carrying the event live? Are the tv contracts worth less now than they were at some point in the past? Is the Davis Cup broadcast in fewer countries than it was 10, 20, or 40 years ago? How does coverage and viewership for the tournament final compare to that for an ATP Masters 1000 series event (not, mind you, a “combined” event like Indian Wells), the World Tour Finals, or the Olympic men’s singles final?
D. Are regional or global sponsors hard to come by? Overall, are sponsorships lucrative, adequate, stable, or shrinking? Here’s a year-end note from 2015.
E. Has there been a decrease in website visits and fan social-media engagement over the past decade or two? From where I’m sitting, the 2017 numbers looks pretty good; admittedly, though, I’m no expert on such matters and have no real point of reference.
By what means, other than those I’ve identified above, do or did the ITF and tennis pundits gauge world-wide interest, particularly before the internet era?
F. Are fewer articles being written about Davis Cup—first, in host and guest nation publications; and second, in global sports outlets? Are significantly fewer foreign print media attending than they did in the past (and is this number out of step with developments at other tennis tournaments)? If an editor doesn’t send his/her tennis reporter to cover Davis Cup, how do we know that’s a reflection on reader interest rather than on the current state of journalism in general and tennis media in particular?
If we’re lucky, someone more technologically adept than I will explore Google trends or a similar site and report back. (Former Yugoslavia, represent!)
G. More generally, when we hear that this competition is less meaningful, prestigious, or valuable than it used to be, on what are such assessments based? Not everything can be quantified, I realize, but surely those who’ve reached this conclusion can better substantiate it—at least, if they hope to persuade others who don’t already agree.
When the Davis Cup of today is found lacking, to what is it being compared: its own (apparently glorious) past, grand slam tournaments (which are, it’s worth underscoring, dual-gender events), finals in other sports, and/or competitions that currently exist only on paper? Are these comparisons reasonable? How much of what we imagine the Davis Cup could or should be is filtered through nostalgia or a result of wishful thinking?
For instance, is it useful to model an annual national-team tennis tournament on the World Cup, which takes place every four years and involves a lengthy continental qualification process? Does it make sense to suggest Davis Cup should be more akin to a year-old exhibition like the Laver Cup or even a longstanding competition such as Ryder Cup, both of which take place in a long weekend and involve only two teams (and, thus, no preliminary rounds)?
Is it even fair to compare the current iteration to the Davis Cup’s past, when the entire tennis—not to mention global sports—landscape looked dramatically different and its seasonal calendar was much less full? After all, during the first seventy years of the competition, fewer than fifty nations participated and the trophy was monopolized by the four slam nations. (Belgium, by the way, was the first other country to make the Davis Cup final: they got crushed by the Brits, 5-0, in 1904. Japan, in 1921, was the next—and they didn’t fare any better against the Americans; it would be almost 40 more years for another outsider, Italy, to be subject to a similar defeat at the hands of the Aussies.)Of course it’s not going to mean the same thing now, with 125 countries competing, as it did in an era when the professional tour was just getting started—and especially in the decades immediately before that, when the event was essentially an extended grudge match between the U.S. and Australia. But just because the place of the Davis Cup in men’s tennis has changed, so it means something different from what it did in the days of Roy Emerson and John Newcombe, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, that doesn’t necessarily make it less meaningful. Though the British public may not have been quite as thrilled by the 2015 Davis Cup win as they were when Andy Murray ended the 77-year British men’s singles title drought at Wimbledon two years prior, for example, not even playing on the clay in Ghent seems to have dampened Team GB’s enthusiasm for the occasion.
As is likely obvious by now, I love the Davis Cup. Still, despite its being one of my favorite sporting events of the year, I certainly agree it can be improved. I also believe it’s really important to identify—and understand the precise nature of—the problem before considering potential solutions. Because even though I think reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated, it’s clear Davis Cup does have a problem. Or the ITF does, anyway.
For the second installment, I spoke to two sports journalists who present quite a contrast: one American, one Brit; one 40-year veteran of tennis writing, one who got his start covering tennis just as Djoković made his push to the very top of the ATP rankings; one who now writes mostly for online sports publications, one who works for a daily newspaper. The interviews with Peter Bodo and Simon Briggs were conducted primarily with a Serbian audience in mind and published by B92. Read my earlier exchanges with Brian Phillips and Steve Tignor here.
Simon Briggs became The Telegraph’s tennis correspondent in 2011 after writing about England’s national sport, cricket, for fifteen years. He played both sports in his youth, but opted for cricket “properly”—on a competitive level—and tennis only “socially,” as the two sports’ seasons overlap. Briggs began dabbling in tennis journalism while in Australia covering the start of the cricket season, being asked to send reports home when Andy Murray did especially well down under (the Scot made his first of four Aussie Open finals to date in 2010). This spring, Briggs got to meet with Djoković one on one for a Telegraph magazine cover story, an interview during which he got to know the “real Novak.”
AM: During Wimbledon, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas quoted a British journalist saying, “I’m not a tennis correspondent; I’m an Andy Murray correspondent.” I’m curious if you think that accurately describes your job?
Briggs: I have said that in the past… Yeah, that’s because of the lack of depth that we’ve had. So, when we have the Konta story or something, it’s a nice break from covering Andy. He keeps us going as journalists, because if there wasn’t Andy—I don’t know how many of us there are, maybe 10-12, in that alley—we certainly wouldn’t exist in the numbers that we do. There wouldn’t be anything else to write about.
AM: Since tennis has such a long history in Britain, why don’t the big British newspapers cover the sport as whole?
Briggs: I think it’s unfair to say we don’t—it’s a slight exaggeration. The tabloids do sometimes withdraw from events when Andy goes out, so that is proper “Andy Murray correspondent,” whereas The Telegraph, The Times, and The Guardian never do that because they take the other guys seriously. But, if Andy’s playing on a given day, then he’s the story. Unless one of the “Big Three” goes out—and he has a routine victory—that’s the only situation in which he wouldn’t be the story.
AM: To what degree do you think the focus on Murray shapes, for instance, coverage of Djoković?
Briggs: Yes, a little bit. But I think people just don’t “get” Novak the way they got Roger and Rafa. I wrote in that Telegraph magazine story that he’s in a unique position in the history of the sport to have become the guy who inherits the mantle of “top man” from two such charismatic players—they’re both phenomenons whose game style and physical appearance and marketing created a perfect storm. They’re just absolute freak events, those two. So, I think it’s tough for him to come behind them.
There’s a big problem with his game style, for one thing, in a sport which is very aesthetic. His game style isn’t pretty. He’s not a “looker” as a player; he’s a player you admire, for sure. Anyone who doesn’t admire him is not a true tennis fan—you can’t not admire and respect that guy. But it’s very tough for him in that sense.
Then, in the UK, the viewing figures (that Sky Sports record for their matches), which is the best indication, put him at fourth out of the Big Four by quite a long way. So, even though he’s been the best player in the world since I started doing this, he still isn’t anywhere near the others in terms of popularity.
AM: I’ve seen Federer referred to as an “honorary Brit.” Do you think that’s mostly because of his success at Wimbledon or also because the way he carries himself—with gentlemanly restraint, and so on—is sympathetic to the British public?
Briggs: I wouldn’t have thought that the Roger-Rafa split is so different in Britain compared to everywhere else, but maybe the Wimbledon factor means that it is. But when you’re a nation of introverts, you sometimes admire people who are out there with their emotions because that’s what most introverts really want to express.
AM: With reference to Novak’s unique position historically, do you think a player with a different style or personality might have been received more warmly by fans or media? Or would anyone face similar challenges?
Briggs: Any player who doesn’t have an absolute lorry-load of charisma. Let’s say that Kyrgios had come up behind Roger and Rafa and been the third wheel, then he would be huge because he’s just got that marketability, the “X factor” which those two have. Andy’s got a bit more weirdness about him that doesn’t apply to Novak. His game style’s quirkier and he’s more unhinged—more likely to melt down. Whereas with Novak, his very grindingness may make people take him for granted a little bit.
AM: What do you think of the Murray-Djoković rivalry? It’s been fairly lopsided recently— until Andy’s win in Montreal, Novak had won eight matches in a row.
Briggs: I think we always painted it, maybe unfairly, as an “even-Steven” business until the moment when Andy went into his back-surgery recession (after September 2013). Maybe I’m biased… In 2011, he got stuffed by Novak in Australia—that was the moment we thought, “Oooh, crickey! There seems to be a gap emerging.” Before that, it hadn’t been that big. I mean, Novak had won his first major and Andy hadn’t, right? But we all said, “Well, Andy’s always had to play Roger [in finals] and Novak got to play Tsonga.” So, there was a little bit of a sense that we could make excuses for him on that front. After that, Novak didn’t win any more majors; though he won Davis Cup, that’s not a massive deal in the UK when we’re not involved.
I think Andy always felt he had Novak’s number in juniors—he was generally ahead of him, wasn’t he, when they were growing up. So, 2011 was a bit of a shock. Then, through the Lendl years, you felt that Andy had pulled it back, beating him in two finals (even though he still lost to him in Australia).
AM: But then it was another two years…
Briggs: Yes, it was after the Wimbledon final in 2013 that it completely switched into annihilation. So, it may be British bias, but our coverage always painted them as rivals on a pretty equal level with the exception of that one big blowout in Australia. That probably was the result that drove Andy, in the long run, to get Lendl into his camp and led to a couple of years of great tennis.
AM: This year, they played the Australian Open final and French Open semi-final. Then, in the lead-up to Wimbledon, I remember seeing Andy described in the British press as the biggest threat to Novak’s title defense. There was a lot of attention at the time to Novak’s medical time-outs, courtside coaching, the ball-kid incident. What do you think of that? Is some of that the tabloid influence?
Briggs: That was the Daily Mail that really took him on about the ball-girl. I think that is maybe influenced by the Murray-Djoković rivalry and by the aftermath of the play-acting row in Australia.
AM: Do you think there was “play-acting” or did that get blown out of proportion?
Briggs: In a way, we didn’t have to make that decision, because Andy said it… I was quite careful in the immediate report—there may have been one sentence trying to explain what was going on overall, but I tried to put as much of it as possible in Andy’s words and not editorialize because it’s so difficult to know what’s going on in players’ bodies. But, sure, I think the British media would have taken Andy’s side on that.
AM: But even Andy later said that it had been blown out of proportion and that he had no issue with Novak.
AM: Well, not necessarily to be sucked in but to lose focus—because to say “sucked in” suggests that Novak was doing something deliberate, which I don’t think is a fact. In any case, Andy seemed to back away from that position pretty significantly.
Briggs: I think our view is that there had been some gamesmanship going on, but that Andy was as culpable for not handling it. The key quote in that whole interview after the final was something like: “I’ve experienced it before, but maybe not in the final of a Grand Slam.” You could see that what he was thinking was, “I can’t believe he’s doing this to me in a Grand Slam.” My strong interpretation of that was that he was talking about behavior—because we all know that juniors, in particular, do a lot of limping around…
We disagreed on this matter of interpretation, so perhaps it’s best to leave readers with the transcript of Murray’s comments so they can read between the lines on their own.
AM: What I found odd about some of the British coverage of the match is that it gave the impression Murray was leading, when in reality the match was tied at a set-all and Murray had a single break and hold in the third before Novak came back. Do you think there’s some wishful thinking there?
Briggs: Some thought the distraction had lost him the match, whereas I didn’t think he would have won anyway. We all know how hard it is to put Novak away. There’s also just looking for a bit of drama.
AM: But not everybody wrote it up that way, which makes me wonder: how much of that drama-seeking is because they’re writing for a British audience?
Briggs: What you’ve got to remember is that tennis is a sport that is slightly odd and unique—a sport without boundaries. It sees itself as a land in which fans follow heroes who aren’t necessarily from their country. It’s not tribal in the same way as football or other team sports. So, we maybe bring a bit more of that nationalism to our coverage, possibly because we’re competing for readers with the Premier League. Whereas the Americans take an Olympian perspective, viewing the sport from a distance, we may focus more on the “blood and guts,” since tennis—lacking the physical contact of football—can seem antiseptic otherwise.
Peter Bodo has been writing about tennis for nearly forty years, beginning as a newspaper reporter during the “tennis boom” of the 1970s. He is the author of numerous books on the sport, including A Champion’s Mind, which he co-authored with Pete Sampras, and his latest, about Arthur Ashe’s historic 1975 Wimbledon win. Additionally, he’s an outdoor enthusiast who has written about hunting and fishing in both fictional and non-fictional formats. Many readers will be familiar with his writing for Tennis Magazine and its associated website, where he worked for over two decades. Currently, his columns are featured on ESPN.
AM: Do you remember when Novak first appeared on your radar?
Bodo: I remember the early controversies—the breathing issue, I think, at the French Open. But I wasn’t there that year (2005), so I really zoned in on him the year I wrote a story called “The Perfect Player.” This was at Indian Wells early on (2007) and it raises the question of the theoretically perfect player. I sat down and interviewed him for that piece. It’s kind of funny: to this day, if I write something where I criticize Djoković or not even criticize him but praise his opponent, Serbs will come out of the woodwork and attack me. Some will remind me, “You once wrote a piece…”
AM: So, your early impression was that he was a complete player?
Bodo: He was on his way. I loved the fact that he was so clean and how much rotation he had. I loved how flat his back-take was—stuff like that. He was just very economical and I thought he had all the upside in the world.
AM: What about his personality? In 2007, when he first made the final at the US Open, he was getting a lot of press for the “Djoker” side of him, the showman.
Bodo: Like most of the Eastern Europeans, he tried too hard. I’m from there, too, so I know. [Bodo’s parents were ethnic Hungarians who emigrated from Austria to the US in 1953, when he was four years old.] They try too hard, they get shat on, and they never get the respect they either deserve or feel they deserve. There’s a fair amount of snobbery toward them. They try to impress the West and are looked down upon by the West and dominated by the East (Russia). That whole region is caught in that crunch.
Of course, I’m speaking in broad generalities, but you often see the symptoms of this kind of thing. They really try to impress, they work extra hard, they try to show how smart they are: “We’re not just peasants from the middle of Europe. We can do this.”
So, you know, there was a touch of that with Novak—there still is. I always get a kick out of the way he talks like a bureaucrat—he kind of gives speeches.
AM: I noticed that his press conference answers have been getting longer and longer.
Bodo: Yes. He never says, “I don’t think that’s true, period.” There’s always a preface to his answers, a middle part, and a conclusion. On the whole, though, I think he’s been a real asset. He really wants to do the right thing. He wants to be a good citizen, a good representative of his country, and a force for good in the sport and the world.
AM: Looking back to somebody like Lendl, it seems to me that he was not only from Eastern Europe but also a particular kind of player and personality. That lent itself, in a way, to certain stereotypes. I’ve seen a number of comparisons between the two, especially regarding fans’ response to them. But I’m not sure I buy it—for one thing, because I’m skeptical of using “machine” metaphors to describe Novak.
Bodo: Right. They’re different. Lendl came from a very different and harsher situation. When Lendl got off the plane here and saw the headline “John Lennon was shot,” he asked, “Who is John Lennon?” Novak went to Germany when he was fairly young and was exposed to Western culture. He grew up in a whole different time. Their personalities are different, too. I got to know Lendl pretty well over the years. He’s got a good sense of humor, and I quite like him, but he’s a cold guy. If you were drowning, I’m not sure Lendl’s the guy you’d want passing by in a boat.
AM: You probably remember the Roddick incident from 2008. To what extent do you think something like that changes how people feel about a player or how a player acts in public? Do you attribute how much more circumspect he is now to maturity or something more strategic?
Bodo: I think it’s all of the above. He was a young guy who had a sobering experience. I’m not sure what he took away from it, but he probably got back to the locker-room and said, “I don’t want to get in these situations.” I don’t think it mattered one bit to people. It didn’t matter to me. Even somebody who booed him at that moment, I don’t think they came back the following year and thought, “There’s that Djoković who did this last year and I booed him.”
AM: Do you think it’s inevitable that any player coming after Federer and Nadal would find media and fans slow to warm to him or could you imagine his being welcomed with open arms?
Bodo: Well, there’s not that much room at the top, for one thing. So, I think it would have taken an exceptional amount of a) charisma, b) results, and c) marketability—a last name like Federer, Nadal, Johnson, or Roddick would have helped, too. It would have taken a perfect storm of user-friendly features to make that happen, which weren’t necessarily there.
AM: When you talk about marketability, you mean mainly in the West?
Bodo: Yes, of course.
AM: So, the fact that Serbia’s a tiny market is relevant. Do you think its recent history matters as much to Novak’s reception?
Bodo: Nobody here knows Serbia’s history, trust me. (Laughing.) No, I don’t think it’s that he’s from Serbia—it’s because he’s from “Where the **** is that?” That’s what it is for these people. Nobody knows.
He’s exotic. His name’s hard to pronounce, he’s got the funny hair—all that stuff sort of plays into it, even his accent, though that’s changed a lot. It never gets to the level of, you know, “He’s from that place that did this or has this history.”
AM: You don’t think there’s an anti-Serb bias to it?
Bodo: No. It’s definitely not anti-Serb—it’s anti-otherness. Anyone who believes that must think all these people read about the UN and Serbia and what NATO did. No: 99.2% of Americans have no idea about that stuff.
AM: Especially after he won Wimbledon for the third time this summer, reaching nine major titles, there seemed to be a critical mass of articles saying Novak should be more appreciated. Have you seen any shifts in terms of the coverage he’s gotten over the years?
Bodo: Yes, he’s won people over. You know, I’m tempted to say it shows how fickle the media is, but that would take credit away from what he’s done, which is significant. And I don’t think it’s been calculated—I don’t think he’s this skeevy guy who decided that it’s going to serve his best interests to be nice all of a sudden. I think he’s just a guy who’s gone through a very appealing and heart-warming evolution into who he is today, which is a wonderful citizen of the world and tennis ambassador. He’s matured beautifully.
Still, I love the fact that he’s retained a lot of his original passion and he still cares about his country—he’s not one of these guys who doesn’t want to have anything to do with his roots. Some players in the past have wanted to escape all that—and they had good reason to in the past, given what they left behind.
It’s really a testament to what he’s done. He earned a renewed respect—he transformed the opinion people had of him through hard work and attitude and actions and success.
AM: How much do you think the coverage of Novak depends on the nationality of the writer or, more to the point, who he’s playing—say, the Brits and Murray? Even if you don’t read around, you must notice the kinds of questions Novak gets from them in press?
Bodo: I don’t read a lot; I do notice their questions. They’re fixated on Murray, just as the French are fixated on the Frenchmen. I think most of them are pretty fair, but they know where their business is. You don’t get as many of the antagonisms that you once did—there used to be that against German players. I remember (British writer) Rex Bellamy’s line about Becker, “It’s curious the Germans would take such a deep interest in a Centre Court that not so many decades ago they had chosen to bomb”—stuff like that. I guess he was trying to be clever, but it was definitely a dig. You don’t see too much of that any more. I think they’re generally pretty fair, but they’re looking out for their own guys and whatever rooting interest they have tends to be for their own people.
AM: They seem to play up the rivalry which, until Murray beat Djoković in Montreal, was pretty lopsided of late.
Bodo: None of that is, I don’t think, negative toward Djoković—they’re all just trying to whip up some kind of storyline and interest. We talked about this the other day: he knows that type of game is played.
AM: He even used the word “storyline” in responding to you, which I thought was interesting. Djoković has been asked, Becker’s been asked these kinds of questions: “Do you feel you get enough respect or appreciation?”
Bodo: See, that’s a storyline in and of itself now. That’s the next one. Sometimes it really helps to try to quantify these things. You know what? He’s appreciated in direct proportion to how much he’s won. He’s number three on the list—you can’t get around that—and he gets number-three appreciation. That’s pretty self-evident, I think.
People are awed by Federer—they’re “ga-ga” over him. He’s unique that way. Even Nadal doesn’t get that. Now that he’s down, you see that he never had the same aura. It’s not like they’ve abandoned him, but it’s awfully quiet out there in Nadal-land.
AM: It sounds to me that your perspective on Novak has been pretty consistent—is that the way you see it? Has there been a major turning point in your thinking about him?
Bodo: No, I don’t think there has. I’m kind of proud of the fact that I’ve always been accused by one camp or the other of being the other guy’s guy. You pick me up on Monday, and I’ve got a man-crush on Federer because I wrote that his hair was “lustrous” in a final. Then, you pick me up on Wednesday, and I’m ga-ga for Nadal; then, on Friday, I’m suddenly on the Djoković band-wagon and isn’t that unfair! I don’t like to shift intentionally, I try to catch myself and not to get too sucked into any of the narratives, and I like to look through different eyes sometimes. Frankly, if I look at my own work over time… I’ve taken my shots at all of them.
AM: Is there anything you find particularly interesting or challenging in writing about Novak?
Bodo: Frustrating? No, nothing actually. I love the stories about him when he was a little kid. I like this idea, this picture of him diligently packing his bag and waiting with his lunch—how earnest and sincere he must have been. I really, really like that.
You know, this isn’t just a Novak thing, but I regret in a way that the game has gone so far… When I started out, you really got to know these guys. They only occasionally became bosom buddies, but you could get fairly close to them if you covered them a lot. Not any more. So, I don’t really know these guys in the same way. I had one-on-one interviews with almost all of them when they were young, but not lengthy ones since then. And if I went now and made an effort, I could get an interview with this new kid coming up, Borna Ćorić. At the front end of my career, I would have known them much better as people.
During the US Open, I had conversations with a number of tennis writers about Novak Djoković and coverage of him in anglophone media. For this first installment, I spoke to two Americans who aren’t, strictly speaking, sports “reporters.” While Tignor travels to tournaments much more often than does Phillips, you won’t find either of them asking questions from the front row of press conferences or posting updates on the tennis controversy du jour. Both tend to focus on one match at a time and their articles are generally stylish essays with an emphasis on analysis, not news. Our exchanges were originally published in Serbian by B92. To follow: my discussions with ESPN’s Peter Bodo and The Telegraph’s Simon Briggs.
Brian Phillips has been writing for pop culture website Grantland since its 2011 inception. After college, he got his start as an Assistant Literary Editor at The New Republic—and his work is still as likely to be a book review as a sports story. Most recently, the literary and sports worlds collided for Phillips in a piece about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s detective fiction. Asked if he considers himself a journalist, he responded “definitely not… I’m not sure exactly where the line falls, but I feel too devoted to subjectivity” for that label to fit. As for what drew him to tennis, Phillips recalls it was heartbreak: “my high-school girlfriend broke up with me in January 1996, and since I couldn’t sleep for a couple of weeks, I stayed up watching Monica Seles win the Australian Open. After that, I was hooked.”
Stephen Tignor is the author of High Strung, a history of men’s tennis in the “golden age” of the 1970s and ‘80s. He has worked for Tennis Magazine for almost twenty years and written a regular column on their website for a decade. He played tennis competitively as a child as well as for his alma mater, Swarthmore College. After that, he moved to New York and tried his hand at music journalism, becoming a bigger fan of the sport when he wasn’t playing as often. “But writing about tennis became a natural fit,” he says, “because I knew how to play the game.”
AM: What were your early impressions of Djoković?
Phillips: “My first impression of him was very much filtered through the ‘Djoker’ persona—I particularly remember his impersonations of other players and thinking that here was a brilliant tennis talent with a perhaps debilitating need to be liked.”
Tignor: “My first Djoković sighting is very vivid in my mind, because it was a real discovery, with no warning. At the US Open in 2005, a fellow writer and I went out to a side court to see Gael Monfils, an up-and-comer at the time. Then both of us found ourselves watching the guy across the net instead… I remember seeing Djoković hit a series of forehands that looked like Top 5 material.
Then, in the fifth set, he began to hyperventilate after a long point. He walked over to the sideline and sat down. That was it; no word to the chair umpire. Finally, after what seemed like 10 minutes, a trainer came out, and Novak eventually got up, came back, and won the match. I was left with a very favorable impression of him as a player, but I didn’t like the way he handled the ‘timeout’ situation… By the time my friend and I got back to the press room, though, there was already a buzz about him.”
“That’s the way it continued for me. I loved to watch Djoković play, and was excited that a another full-blown Hall-of-Famer was suddenly in our midst. I wrote a short profile on him for Tennis Magazine that I titled “The Player’s Player”; there was a purity to his game that I liked, and which I felt was especially evident to anyone who played tennis. But I still didn’t like how he pulled the plug in matches when things weren’t going his way: the French Open in 2006 against Nadal, Wimbledon in 2007 against Nadal. Djoković retired in part, I thought, because he couldn’t face defeat. For the most part, though, I was a fan.”
AM: How, to your eyes, has Novak changed since then?
Phillips: “I think his consciousness of the crowd has remained a vulnerable point for him through the years—I am thinking of his 2013 US Open match against Wawrinka, when at one key moment he parodied Stan’s arms-raised ‘applaud-me’ gesture. But one of the ways in which he has changed over the years is that he’s developed a fascinating ability to compartmentalize what could be seen as weaknesses; he hasn’t exorcised his uncertainties, but he has figured out how to keep them to one side of his tennis. You could call that ‘maturity.’ He certainly seems to have grown and changed more—and to have become more comfortably an adult—than many tennis players do during their careers.”
Tignor: “I think that right away Djoković wanted to be something more than just a tennis player. He also wanted to take his place with Federer and Nadal, who were the kings of the tour at the time. Those were the days when Novak said he was going to be the next No. 1, as if it were only a matter of time. And he did shoot right up behind Federer and Nadal; Rafa said he knew from the start that Djoković was going to challenge him very quickly. But he couldn’t pass them. It was during that period of stagnation that he lashed out at Roddick, and took a contrite beating from Federer two days later.”
“But I think that changed when he helped win the Davis Cup, and then really did pass Rafa and Roger in 2011. He didn’t need to prove himself as a personality anymore, and I think he has taken the ‘job’ of being No. 1 and presenting himself as a representative of the sport and his country seriously, and done it well.”
AM: Would almost any player rising to the top right after Federer and Nadal face resistance from both fans and media?
Phillips: “Yes, I think it’s inevitable. But it’s also easy to imagine cases where the resistance would be less than the resistance to Djoković; an American player would have had an easier time winning American fans, for example. I think there’s also a psychological dimension to the resistance to Djoković. I always think of a line from a poem by James Merrill when I think of him: ‘What least thing our self-love longs for most / others instinctively withhold.’ I think he wants the kind of love that Federer and Nadal receive, and the crowd in New York or London senses that desire and turns ever so slightly away. In a strange way, he might be more popular if he held the crowd in more contempt.”
Tignor: “Yes, I think it is inevitable. Federer and Nadal aren’t just one-of-a-kind tennis players, they’re one-of-a-kind sportsmen. Federer is the most popular player since Bjorn Borg retired 35 years ago, and Nadal has brought an electricity to the sport that didn’t exist before him. Just as important, they became linked in the public eye, first through the 2008 Wimbledon final, and then the 2009 Australian Open final. The most famous image of them isn’t of a handshake at the net; it’s the shot of Nadal with his arm over Federer’s shoulder during the trophy ceremony in Melbourne in ‘09. Between them, they also embody so many opposing traits—elegance vs. passion, effortlessness vs. effort-fulness, lordliness vs. stoicism—that it’s hard to know how any other player could find something to represent to fans. They’re the Beatles of the Golden Era, the originals.
The tennis writer Joel Drucker wrote something similar about the ‘70s generation. Borg was the Beatles and McEnroe was the Stones; that made Ivan Lendl, the man who vanquished them, Led Zeppelin—brutal, awe-inspiring at times, and hard to love. Djoković is nothing like Lendl in many ways: he doesn’t rule by intimidation, he doesn’t play a brutal style of tennis, and he does go out of his way to connect with fans and entertain them. But he’s portrayed at times in a somewhat similar light—he’s ‘efficient’ instead of ‘elegant,’ ‘clinical’ rather than ‘artistic.’ It’s like he’s taken the fun out of the sport. It’s interesting that Djoković and Lendl are two of the only Eastern European men to reach No. 1. I do think it’s a barrier for U.S. fans.
But I also think Djoković is winning people over, first and foremost with his sustained excellence. These days I hear from more people who call themselves Djoković fans than I once did; his name is universally known now, which isn’t easy for a tennis player in the States. But I do think he could have made life easier for himself along the way. There were the early retirements; there were the shirt-ripping celebrations; there was his bellicose father; there was the brazen challenge to the beloved Federer. Fairly or not, I don’t think any of those things endeared him to people in the US, and it’s obviously hard to shake a first impression.”
AM: How much does Novak’s being from Serbia impact the Western response to him?
Phillips: “As the only male world #1 from a country that’s been bombed by NATO, Djoković may simply seem complicated to fans in Western Europe and the US, in a way that a player from somewhere else might not. My sense is that most fans don’t think consciously—or much—about that complicatedness. He simply offers a kind of felt, unexamined friction that doesn’t point to hostility or malice, necessarily, but just to a difference that no one is coming to tennis to deal with.”
Tignor: “I do think there’s a barrier with Eastern Europeans among US tennis fans, but I think Djoković has made strides in crossing it. In my mind, being No. 1 in an international sport kind of raises him above other divisions.
From my own experience of Americans and our collective lack of interest in, and knowledge of, the world outside our borders, I don’t feel like there’s a widespread recognition of Serbia, for example, as the home of war criminals. I think people here have trouble telling, or remembering, which country did what in the Balkan Wars. I followed the wars in the papers at the time and had a hard time keeping track even then. I also never associated, in any way, the Serbian tennis players of the last decade with the country’s leaders or its past—it never entered my mind. I could be wrong, but I think this is true for the majority of tennis fans here.”
AM: Has English-language coverage of Djoković shifted over the years?
Tignor: “The coverage has changed as he has changed. You read and hear little about his parents now. Physically, he’s now considered invulnerable rather than vulnerable. As a figure in the sport, he’s no longer an apprentice to Federer and Nadal. I think the coverage of his childhood in Serbia has brought some depth to his image. And I think there was sympathy for him after the French Open this year. There’s also no longer a sense that, when he beats Federer, that some cosmic injustice has been done, the way there was when Rafa first started to beat Roger. For the most part, I think the tennis public has the utmost respect for Djoković. If Federer loses to him now, I feel like the reaction from Roger and his fans will be, ‘Well, at least he lost to the best.’
The one negative I’ve seen since Djoković’s rise to the top is that there are attempts to undermine his credibility. Some say he’s faking his injuries, he’s over-dramatic on court, he takes suspicious bathroom breaks, he’s getting an unfair edge somehow. Or, like Lendl, he’s making tennis robotic. It’s all nonsense, and I don’t think the general tennis public in this country thinks of him that way. I think the sense is that, right now, like it or not, he’s just better than everyone else.”
AM: How has your view of Novak changed since he became the top men’s player in 2011?
Phillips: “That’s hard to answer, because I really only started covering Djoković when he was in the middle of conquering the world. My early Djoković pieces are mostly about being worried about him—worried that his psyche might be too normal or too fragile to stand up to the insane demands of elite tennis. That fear turned out to be spectacularly unfounded, but the basic tension it enclosed—the tension between the dominant, consistent, tennis star and the vulnerable human being—is still the lens through which I tend to view him. It’s a much more interesting tension in his case, I think, than in the case of Federer or Nadal.”
Tignor: “My own perspective has only changed only a little. I was always sympathetic to him, but I’ve grown to like and respect him more as he’s matured. His game is still great to watch, he’s a good loser, and he’s a good sport about his duties off the court. From what I see of him, I think he has remarkable patience with people, and does his best to handle every public encounter the right way. I’ll never forget him losing the French Open final this year and still walking over to talk to John McEnroe for NBC TV about it.”
AM: What do you enjoy or find challenging in writing about Novak?
Phillips: “I love writing about Djoković because he’s both one of the most complicated and one of the most talented figures in sports—he’s an extraordinary character, which is exactly what I’m drawn to as a writer. Players who offer easy answers are boring!
Any hugely popular athlete whom you write about for a reasonably large audience will have fans who feel you weren’t adulatory enough, and I certainly hear from angry Djoković fans who aren’t comfortable seeing him treated ironically or with much nuance. I mostly don’t find that kind of criticism very compelling and I mostly tune it out. Although my pieces on him are not hagiographic, they are sympathetic in the sense of earnestly trying to understand Djoković. Ultimately, I’m trying to share my own perspective, not write the piece that every Serbian will love or every American will love or every Djoković fan will love.”
Tignor: “As a player, I find Djoković’s ability to overcome his own anxieties and frustrations interesting. Unlike Federer and Nadal, he can pull the ripcord mentally when things aren’t going his way. But he’s one of the few players who can then gather himself, settle down, and win anyway (Serena is another). He’s as elastic mentally as he is physically, and that’s not something that was always true. I see a lot of my own on-court anxieties in him, so I feel like I have an idea of how hard it is to do what he does. For a guy who is supposed to be a machine, he’s very human. His screams and fist-pumps may not make him beloved by tennis fans, but I like that he’s himself out there. He wants to be loved, yes, but he can’t help acting the way he acts even if it doesn’t get him that love.
Off court, I’ve found his maturation process interesting, especially his ability to be such a professional and carry a lot of responsibility on his back. I also like his sense of humor—it’s broad, rather than cutting. And it’s great that tennis has a No. 1 male player who can dance.
Putting myself in his skin is a challenge. As an American, I sense the difference in the Serbian mentality, history, and way of life. I’m not so well-versed in that history that I feel like I know where he’s coming from, culturally, all the time. But reading about his life has been a good window into Serbia for me.”
AM: Any lasting impressions of Novak from the US Open?
Tignor: “The thing that struck me about him in the Open final is how bouncy and quick and spry he was. I’ve never seen Federer look slow, but Djoković came close to making him look that way. He’s really in his prime physically.
Unfortunately, it’s a trait that translates better live than it does on TV. You can obviously be impressed by his speed and athleticism on TV, but it’s not quite the same as seeing Federer’s shot-making and flair with a racquet. Live, up close, when you see and hear him move, Djoković is an equally exciting athlete.”
Recommended Reading Phillips: “The Problem with Novak Djokovic” (2011) “describes what I see as his genuineness in terms of the perils presented to it by major sports stardom. All things considered, I’d say he’s done amazingly well at dealing with the issues I described back then.”
“Tomorrow in the Valley of Ashes” (2015 US Open)
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.—Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”
Different tennis constituencies—including players, the ITF, and sports journalists—have work to do in order to avoid or better respond to similar situations in the future. Many discussions of the case have focused on Troicki’s seeming naiveté or ignorance of the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme, suggesting the problem could have been avoided if only he’d known and followed “the rules”—that is, had he not sought an exemption from them in the first place. This “lesson” identifies and discusses a number of other things that the case reveals need, at minimum, review.
The 2013 anti-doping cases, as well as responses to them, have revealed that some—perhaps many—players don’t know as much as they should about a key aspect of their professional lives. (We assume they know the rules of the game itself, but not even that is always so, as USA Today’s Doug Robson discovered last year at Indian Wells.) A few players’ public statements on the issue, including Troicki’s, also raised eyebrows— whether with confusion, concern, surprise, or disapproval. While top players, especially, have certain media obligations during tournaments, no player is required to answer any specific question from a journalist. Particularly if asked about a controversial subject, responding with some version of “No comment” is always an option. Players choosing to speak on the topic du jour—be it time limits between serves, equal prize money, or anti-doping policy and procedure—would do themselves a favor to know whereof they speak.
● When in doubt about tennis basics, players—as well as fans, media, & officials—can always consult the ITF’s various rule-books.
● Regarding the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP), this “wallet card” outlining the essentials is a must-have for both players and their team members (ahem, Jack Reader). New in 2014: a “wallet card” for mobile phones.
● That players need to understand the TADP requirements, familiarize themselves with standard procedures, and know which substances are prohibited—as well as, more broadly, what constitutes a rule violation—seems like a no-brainer. At the same time, I think it’s a bit much to expect players to have read the entire TADP document or to know the sanctions for rule violations they have no intention of committing. (I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you how much speeding tickets cost in my city, though I exceed the limit knowingly and on the regular.)
● As important as players’ TADP responsibilities are their rights. Note that there are a number of valid reasons for a player to delay reporting to—or temporarily leave—the Doping Control Station (DCS).
● Significantly, the ITF’s sheet on players’ rights & responsibilities is missing one key point listed on WADA’s Doping Control Form: “If you are an athlete with a disability, [you have the right to] request modifications to the sample collection procedure” (4; I discuss why this might be so in section 4).
Viktor Troicki, were he more familiar with his rights or had he consulted his wallet card (what are the chances that players bring their wallets to the DCS after a match?), may have been able to remind the DCO of the following: “Provided that [players] are chaperoned, [they] may delay reporting to and/or leave the DCS for one of the following activities: …obtaining medical treatment… [and] other exceptional circumstances, which must be approved by the DCO.” Even if Troicki wasn’t aware of this right, the DCO—noting “he did not look well; he looked tired and weak,” having been informed of his needle phobia, and hearing his concerns about giving blood in this condition—certainly could have sought assistance herself or recommended he seek medical attention from another doctor (11I).
In fact, the CAS addressed this possibility both directly and indirectly. First, they included the following detail, missing from the IADT report, in their overview of the case’s “factual background”: the DCO’s supervisor, when informed by e-mail of what had happened with Troicki that afternoon, responded by asking, “Did you call for the ATP doctor on site?” (3.21). Comparing the CAS decision with sections 18-19 & 21 of the IADT document, it becomes clear that the latter presents the matter as if the player’s actions, not the DCO’s, were in question. After hearing from her supervisor, the DCO made several inquires about whether Troicki had subsequently gone to see a doctor, and even suggested to the ATP supervisor that it “was not good for him” that he hadn’t. (There’s no indication where that idea originated, but one effect of it in the IADT text is to imply that neither player nor coach took Troicki’s condition seriously. There are certainly other ways of interpreting the flurry of activity on the DCO’s part, as well as the fact that Troicki wasn’t the one who took the initiative to follow up with officials the next morning.) Second, they note that they would expect a DCO to “have been provided with the telephone numbers of relevant tournament personnel she could have contacted to assist her in such a situation” (9.28.1). Unfortunately, she wasn’t; nor did her office have internet access. Third, their conclusion observes that the panel “finds surprising that there is no provision in the [TADP] requiring a DCO to call for the attendance of an ATP representative (for example an ATP doctor) in any case where an athlete refuses or fails to submit a sample collection, for medical or other reasons, or to remind the athlete about his or her rights and duties under the Programme” (10.2). Not incidentally, while both the IADT and CAS decisions make numerous references to requirements and responsibilities, this sentence contains the only mention of a player’s rights in either document.
The CAS analysis confirms that the DCO didn’t clearly articulate the possible—indeed, likely, if not certain—consequences of failing to submit a sample to Troicki or his coach (see sections 9.9-14 and 9.28). What the the arbitration panel didn’t do, in my view, is press further regarding other ways the DCO and Troicki could have resolved their impasse. Specifically, they didn’t seem to challenge a rather beside-the-point comment from the DCO: that “the DCO and his or her assistant cannot leave the DCS” (9.28.1). As the TADP materials establish, the player may temporarily leave the DCS, as long as he/she is chaperoned. As it happens, Roger Federer provided an example of such “exceptional circumstances” in London: once, after being selected to provide a urine sample, he couldn’t “go to the toilet.” “It’s happened to me one time,” he shared; “Then the [chaperone] has to stay with you all night. It just becomes really complicated.” (Maybe it’s me, but that sounds more awkward than complicated. Was Mirka there, too?) In the case at hand, the player or his coach could have gone to fetch an ATP doctor—whether to provide treatment or to assist with the drawing of blood. And had Troicki been accompanied by a chaperone over night, his blood test the next morning may have meant much more than it did. So, while it may be true that the DCO didn’t have the authority to tell Troicki if his medical condition was a “compelling justification” for skipping a blood test altogether, it’s not the case that players aren’t ever allowed to delay giving samples. Unless I’m misinterpreting the TADP, that is, both Troicki and the DCO had other—likely mutually agreeable—options that fell within the rules.
As for players speaking to media on anti-doping issues, I was impressed by the measured comments in press from most who were asked about the subject. (Reactions from the week after the two ATP suspensions were announced are here.) However, when addressing the Troicki case, specifically, I think a few players erred in saying too much on the basis of too little knowledge. For instance, Federer’s comments in Shanghai and London suggest he wasn’t following the case very closely (which is, of course, his prerogative). His general responses wouldn’t be a problem in the least if those quoting them noted that they were just that—general responses. Granted, it doesn’t make for great copy to quote the GOAT saying, “Uhm, look, I don’t know the conversation, the situation, exactly what happened” or “Honestly, I don’t talk a whole lot with other players about it.” But it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge that he is speaking largely from personal experience, so that statements like “I believe whatever [the CAS] decided on” should be taken with a grain of salt, since they’re not coming from someone who has spent much (if any) time looking over their decision.
On the other end of the spectrum from the diplomatic Swiss is Djoković, who was arguably following the Troicki case too closely and not closely enough at the same time. What I mean is that Novak, while proving to be a loyal friend and passionate advocate of players’ rights, did not always establish himself a master of objectivity or reading comprehension. This last may be a bit unfair, as I doubt Djoković had time to read a 31-page document (in its entirety or closely) before making his “statement” following a match with Federer the day of the CAS decision. But, in both London and Beijing a month earlier, Novak made what I think are ill-advised, even irresponsible, comments about the DCO in Troicki’s case, saying “she was lying a lot” and accusing her of “negligence and… unprofessionalism.” Though I appreciate that he was speaking from the heart, and believe he had plenty of worthwhile criticisms of both the procedure in this case and larger issues of tennis politics, his legitimate points were somewhat overshadowed by the less accurate, more sensational (and thus headline-grabbing) ones.
As Troicki’s case makes abundantly clear, the ITF—and, specifically, the IDTM firm to whom they’ve outsourced their drug-testing efforts—needs to improve sample-collecting protocols to decrease the possibility that their staff are muddying, rather than clarifying, the waters. Comparing the IADT and CAS decisions, it’s tough not to be struck by the different pictures they paint. Little of this helps the ITF’s credibility with regard to anti-doping efforts.
● The CAS panel’s analysis (especially sections 9.7-14 and 9.27-28) and conclusion merit review by everyone involved in the TADP.
● ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti is certainly right to encourage interested parties to read the CAS decision, and probably isn’t wrong that some “critics of Viktor Troicki’s doping suspension have misunderstood” aspects of it. At the same time, I doubt it’s true that all disagreement with the decision is due to “a problem of words”—for instance, a failure to grasp the difference between “no fault” and “no significant fault.” Ricci Bitti might earn some credit with players by indicating a willingness to listen to critics’ legitimate concerns about how this case was handled by both the IDTM representative and the IADT, in particular.
● The ITF has already indicated procedures are “likely to be changed in 2014 to say that, where a player refuses or fails to provide a sample (as Mr. Troicki did), the doping control officer should try to offer the player an opportunity to speak to the event supervisor or referee to confirm the player’s responsibilities under the program.” Hopefully, this change will also mention that players should be given a chance to speak to a doctor or other advocate—not merely rule-enforcers—before or during DCS visits.
● From manager Stuart Miller on down, those involved in any aspect of the TADP might review players’ rights under the program (elaborated upon in Appendix 4 of the TADP).
● The ITF leadership could also stand to reflect a bit more on the fact that the stated purpose of the TADP is not only “to maintain the integrity of tennis” but also “to protect the health and rights of tennis players participating in Covered Events” (1.1).
In reading over the relevant documents, I didn’t find a lot of evidence to support the idea that the DCO in this case did much to “to protect the health and rights” of a player who was physically ill, experiencing anxiety about his needle procedure, and looking to avoid a full-blown panic attack and/or fainting episode when he entered the DCS. On the one hand, I don’t blame her: regardless of whether the Blood Collection Officer holds a medical degree, it’s not actually the DCO’s job to treat patients. Instead, as their titles— emphasizing “control” and “collection”—indicate, they are officers of the “law” that is the TADP: specifically, the World Anti-Doping Code (see 1.2, 1.7). Further, if this DCO was less than adept in handling a needle-phobe, she is hardly unique in this and likely didn’t get much help from the player, as I’ll discuss in the next section. On the other hand, while they are not technically doctors caring for patients but officers implementing (and, to some degree, enforcing) the “law” upon its “subjects,” BCOs are still operating in the guise of health-care professionals. The procedure they are responsible for isn’t an administrative transaction (like filling in a form) but one involving fairly intimate contact with real—and sometimes vulnerable—human bodies. So, in cases like this, as the CAS suggested, it’s reasonable to expect the DCO to seek assistance from another doctor on site or at least advise the player to get medical attention elsewhere since he/she is not in a position to provide it. Neither of these things happened in Monte Carlo last April.
Nor did I find evidence in the IADT or CAS decisions to indicate that they gave much thought to the matter of Troicki’s “health and rights.” Although both groups accepted his needle phobia diagnosis as a fact, it was barely discussed in their decisions. They did acknowledge Viktor’s “stress” as a mitigating factor when it came to determining his penalty (46I). But they didn’t, in my view, take it sufficiently seriously when addressing whether he had a “compelling justification” for committing the rule violation in the first place or in considering how the ITF, going forward, might adjust their procedures to accommodate needle-phobic players—specifically, with reference to the part of the TADP that addresses, in a limited way, “modifications for athletes with disabilities” (Appendix 4, section 5.4.1 and Annex B). That Troicki’s preexisting medical condition played a significant role in the interaction between him and the DCO would be self-evident to anyone who understands what needle phobia entails. But maybe that’s precisely the problem: it’s not obvious that the anti-doping authorities involved—from the DCO on up to the two doctors who sat on the IAD tribunal—had the requisite knowledge.
Nevertheless, the IADT felt free to repeatedly opine on Troicki’s “state of mind” (50I). Most notably, they judged his credibility as a witness, assessed how “reasonable” he was on the day in question (39, 44I), and concluded that “Mr Troicki acted in the way that he did in consequence of the stress that he was under—in this case, as a result of a combination of his physical condition and his panic at the prospect of giving blood” (46I). Call me crazy, but it would be my preference that those using “a little psychoanalysis”—as Tignor describes the Tribunal’s process in deciding to accept the DCO’s account of events over Troicki’s—be trained in the field and experienced with the medical condition in question. (The IADT members in this case are specialists in sports medicine, physiotherapy, and anti-doping; as far as I’m aware, no psychologist provided testimony.)
Tennis Experts Many of those addressing anti-doping policy and procedure need to take greater care with such work, starting with reading the IADT or CAS rulings before commenting on specific cases. While I’m using “experts” to refer to journalists above all, I also have in mind tv commentators, bloggers, and those with expert or informational power, if not formal positions, in the tennis world. (Among the second group, for example, I include the anonymous blogger who runs the THASP site and Richard Ings, the former umpire who headed the ATP’s anti-doping program a decade ago, whose Twitter feed focuses on “drugs in sport”). The expert’s professional position—and social media platform—brings with it some responsibilities. Since informing readers is first among them, it seems worth double-checking to see that one has gotten the facts right, quoted sources accurately, provided relevant context, and not left out any important details.
For what it’s worth, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to wade through lengthy documents about the Troicki case. After all, not every tennis writer relishes close-reading texts or has a law degree (though at least three North Americans—Courtney Nguyen, Kamakshi Tandon, and Jon Wertheim—do). But if one is going to discuss it in print, can’t we agree there’s a minimum amount of preparation one should do? After all, an opinion unsupported by a decent grasp of the issues is next to worthless to tennis fans, who can access the reports themselves.
Before proceeding, let me be clear that I don’t think any journalist discussing the case deliberately or maliciously distorted it to favor either Troicki’s or the ITF’s claims. Repeatedly, though, writers got aspects of the case wrong—or not quite right.
1. A BBC article on the case claimed that “two independent panels have concluded that [the DCO] did inform the Serb of the consequences of leaving the anti-doping room without first providing a blood sample.” This is simply not so. The IADT accepted the ITF’s argument that the DCO hadn’t given Troicki “unequivocal assurance, without any qualification” that “he definitely would not be sanctioned if he did not give blood on that occasion” (39, 44I; my emphasis). Further, the CAS agreed with them that the DCO a) told Troicki that she did not have the authority to determine if his reason for delaying the blood test was valid, and b) eventually got him to sign the BCF acknowledging awareness that his behavior “may be treated as an anti-doping rule violation” (12I, my emphasis; the corresponding phrases in 9.29C note that he “could” or “might face sanctions”). However, they were quite critical of a number of things the DCO “did and did not do,” going so far as to say that she’d “failed to heed [IDTM] recommendations” that might have prevented Troicki from exiting the DCS believing there would be no problem (9.11, 9.13C). Notably, there was no evidence that the DCO told Troicki that the standard penalty for breaking the rule in question is a two-year suspension. Had she done so, there would have been no need for this information to be conveyed in a footnote of the IADT ruling (40I) and, needless to say, no reason for the CAS to make the recommendations they did (10.2-3C).
2. Predictably, Serbian media were most interested in Troicki’s version of events and the reactions of their other top players. Unfortunately, there was widespread failure to note that short of the CAS overturning the IADT decision, the one-year mandatory minimum ban was the best possible outcome for Troicki. Nor did local journalists correct Djoković’s assertion that his teammate’s not being allowed to enter Belgrade Arena during the final stages of Davis Cup was “not a normal situation.” Who knows if ITF spokesman Nick Imison’s idea of circulating hard-copy excerpts of the relevant policy for suspended players resulted in more accurate coverage of the matter; after all, a headline quoting Novak—“Troicki’s not a terrorist or murderer”—draws more eyeballs.
3. In various English-language outlets, including Sports Illustrated, Troicki’s reasons for seeking to avoid or delay having blood drawn were understated, with writers saying Troicki didn’t “give a sample because he said he felt unwell,” “was ill on the day,” or was “too sick.” (In fairness, both Nguyen and Wertheim had mentioned Troicki’s fear of needles in earlier posts on the topic, although only the former used the clinical term “phobia.”) Still other articles, while raising plenty of good points about the case, didn’t mention Troicki’s mental &/or physical condition—only that he did “not want to take a [blood] test.” Such oversights seem telling, even if it’s not obvious what they’re saying.
4. Unsurprisingly, then, top players also described aspects of the case in incomplete, if not entirely inaccurate, ways. For example, Federer: “I do believe that when you are requested for a sample, you have to give the sample. It doesn’t matter how bad you feel. I’m sorry.” As I’ll elaborate in the next section, “feeling bad” doesn’t adequately capture what’s involved during a needle-phobic episode; nor does it address the other factors contributing to the misunderstanding between Troicki and the DCO.
At the risk of alienating my friends at Tennis magazine, I’ll single out their colleague Pete Bodo for not doing his homework before weighing in on the matter. Focusing on three sentences of his “Three Controversies” post should be enough to make my point. Bodo offers: “Personally, I have some trouble buying the idea that a strapping, 6’3” professional athlete in the full bloom of health is so squeamish that he can’t give blood.” I’ll get to the most problematic parts of this comment in the next section. Suffice it to say here that anyone checking Troicki’s ATP profile will learn he’s 6’4”; further, witnesses to the day in question attested to his lack of a rosy glow (including the DCO, who had nothing to gain by doing so). It may seem petty or pedantic to call attention to minor errors like this, but my motivation is a serious one. If readers can’t count on writers to get basic, easily verifiable facts right, how can we trust them on more complicated matters of interpretation or argument?
“What happened to Troicki was a manifestation of the drug-testing protocol working exactly as it should,” Bodo continues. Other than Stuart Miller and other ITF executives looking to save face in the wake of a major controversy, how many people familiar with the case would endorse this claim? Bodo is, of course, welcome to disagree with Djoković—and to agree with the CAS and virtually everyone in the anglophone media—about whether Troicki had a “compelling justification” for failing to give blood when selected. But even those who take no issue with the ultimate outcome of the investigation and appeal are likely aware of the problems with the ITF’s testing procedure illuminated by Troicki’s case. Can’t or don’t want to read the full CAS report before pressing “publish”? That’s ok. You could skip ahead to its conclusion and peruse two paragraphs to discover this statement is off-base. If you have a bit more time on your hands (say, enough to read five pages), you could look over the measured criticisms of the process in section 9, too. For that matter, you could read Steve Tignor’s analysis of the decision, posted the day before his colleague’s piece.
According to Bodo, the ITF’s testing protocols operate by way of the “same rules for all, zero tolerance for cheats or excuse making.” This statement is fine—in the abstract. But how well does it apply to Troicki’s case, in particular? Not even the ITF tried to prove that the Serbian player was a “cheat.” Those who read the CAS analysis know the panel agreed with the IADT’s finding that “there is no suggestion that this failure or refusal [to give blood] was in fact prompted by the player’s desire to evade the detection of a banned substance in his system” (9.28.4). Was Troicki “making excuses” on that April day or engaged in “outright lying” subsequently? Interestingly enough, all four aspects of his argument for “compelling justification” (a pre-existing needle phobia, physical illness, a panicked state of mind, and the DCO’s lack of clarity) were either accepted as fact or granted considerable weight by the CAS. They’re the reasons, after all, that his appeal was partially upheld. Lastly, is it even a good idea for the system to treat a player with a needle phobia the same way that it treats a player without one—that is, to fail to acknowledge or accommodate a disability? The criticisms Djoković and others have made is not of a rule, per se, but of how it was and should be implemented in practice. In sum, Bodo’s presentation of the case leaves a lot to be desired and leads us to lesson 2: feel free to admit when there’s something you don’t know. (Return to the discussion overview here.)
Preface: I posted parts of this introduction in December, then decided to hold off on the rest until the completion of Troicki’s ban. Now that he’s returned to action, the time seems right to reflect on what we did and didn’t learn from his case.
In a review of the 2013 tennis season, Steve Tignor called doping suspensions the “controversy of the year.” Here, I’ll focus on reactions to the case that generated the most debate, aiming to develop a point Tignor makes at the outset of his column: “the game’s testing system remains a learning process for all concerned.” Perhaps unlike him, I consider those concerned to include not only players and doping authorities but the tennis media and fans as well. Because I’m not writing for a tennis publication, I’ve also got more latitude in drawing four general lessons from Troicki’s case and connecting them to issues in the wider world. So, expect fewer citations of anti-doping policy from me and more references to psychology, philosophy, and even literature (does Peanuts count as “literature”?).
As will become increasingly clear, I’m interested in one dimension of the Troicki story above all others: the mental-health angle (an imperfect phrase I’ll parse in lesson 2). Why this is so has partly to do with the extent to which it seems to have been neglected in most discussions of the case, and partly to do with how important the matter of mental health is—not simply in this specific instance, or sports more generally, but in life.
After this introduction, I’m not going to rehearse familiar details of the case, as they are available for all to read and have been dissected elsewhere. Instead, I want to stake out a position from the start: I believe this incident, including how it was resolved, raises more questions than many others writing about it (not least, those publishing 140 characters at a time) seem to. Further, I don’t think it makes sense to separate the issue of whether Troicki submitted the required blood sample that spring day in Monte Carlo from that of why he did or didn’t do so—something we can’t address without exploring his needle phobia in greater depth. Troicki’s failure to fulfill his professional responsibilities has gotten plenty of attention. What has generated less discussion than I think they deserve are his rights—how he should, ideally, have been treated as both a professional tennis player and a human being.
Analyses of the case, including the ITF’s Independent Anti-Doping Tribunal (IADT) and Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) appeal decisions, tend to rest on three questions. The first is about as straightforward as they come: “Did Viktor Troicki give a blood sample immediately after he was notified that he’d been selected for testing?” Since Troicki himself doesn’t dispute that the answer to this is “No,” most concluded that he had clearly broken an anti-doping rule and moved on to the second question, one of judgment rather than fact: “What is the appropriate sanction for this violation?” Not even Troicki’s staunchest public defender, Novak Djoković, argued that his compatriot bears no responsibility for what transpired in Monte Carlo: “as a tennis pro, our job is to play, of course, tennis and respect all the rules and know all the rules of our sport…. I’m not saying that it’s completely not his fault,” the Serb acknowledged during the World Tour Finals in November. But because he nevertheless regards the outcome of the appeal as a “total injustice,” we can assume Djoković disagrees with the CAS on the stickiest point: “Did Troicki have a compelling justification for failing to provide a blood sample?”
Like many others viewing the case, the then-ATP #2 zeroed in on the “he said, she said” conflict between the player and the Doping Control Officer (DCO) as central to the case. (Though one is tempted to refer to them as “patient” and “doctor,” this is would be a mistake, for reasons I’ll elaborate in lesson 1.) Did the DCO tell the player that “it will not be a problem” and it “should be all right” if he didn’t give a blood sample that day, as Troicki claims (16c, 3.13.1*)? Whereas the IADT found the DCO’s account much more credible than Troicki’s (and thus concluded the DCO had not offered “an unequivocal assurance” [39I]), Djoković, unsurprisingly, believed the word of his friend of nearly twenty years. Though they still assigned the player a degree of fault, the CAS panel scrutinized the DCO’s role in the interaction more closely, calling it “a misunderstanding,” enumerating a number of the DCO’s “acts and omissions” that contributed to it, and reducing Troicki’s suspension to the ITF-mandated minimum of one year (9.9, 9.14). As Tignor has observed, “Djokovic may not agree with the CAS’s decision, but the CAS agrees with him,” offering both criticisms of the procedure and suggestions for how it might be improved. Given that the CAS determined Troicki bore “no significant fault or negligence” with regard to the rule violation, it’s entirely possible they would have reduced his penalty still further had that been an option. (*Parenthetical citations refer to paragraph numbers in the two rulings, abbreviated I for IADT and C for CAS.)
I take a different position from both Djoković and the CAS, though I similarly focus on the interaction between player and DCO, as well as between the DCO and others, including her supervisor at IDTM, to whom she reported immediately after the initial encounter. (Those familiar with the case will recall that player & officer met again the next day, at the latter’s initiative; see 21-24I and 3.22-25C for details). Troicki’s team argued that the case against him should be dismissed due to four intertwined factors: not that “the facts of his illness at the time, his phobia of needles and his panic at the likely physical consequences for him of giving blood would of themselves amount to ‘compelling justification’” for not providing a sample that day but, rather, that these three things “in conjunction with” the DCO’s assurances do (38I). Based on my research, I believe their interaction was likely complicated by additional factors not discussed in the IADT report and mainly alluded to by the CAS: namely, that Troicki was not aware of his rights—particularly, but not only, as a player with a disability—and that the DCO was both unaware of (or ignored) other options available to her and ill-equipped by her training to handle someone experiencing a phobic reaction to the prospect of a needle procedure. Ultimately, both of the latter, if accurate, are failings that must be addressed at the administrative level by the ITF.
Because I was not in the room last April and, more importantly, am not an expert on needle phobia, some of my claims are necessarily speculative. (Call those “thought experiments,” if you wish.) The evidence I invoke to support my points, I hasten to add, is not. My view, developed at what is almost certainly too great a length for most readers, is that Troicki’s was a mismanaged disability case, in addition to—or perhaps more so than—a case of a Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP) violation. In other words, I believe the above-mentioned circumstances amounted to compelling justification for Troicki’s breaking the rule in question. In the best-case scenario, of course, that would have been avoided altogether through a joint effort by both player and DCO, in consultation with other officials on site and in line with established policy. However, I don’t believe that Troicki’s condition at the time or lack of awareness of his rights is a justification for representatives of the ITF not to respect them, either during or after the fact. It’s obviously too late now for the CAS to reconsider the case or for Troicki to get a year of his professional life back. But given that similarly challenging situations may arise, with Viktor or another needle-phobic player, both the ITF and those governed by their rules need to be better prepared. In order for that to happen, policy and procedure related to the taking of blood samples require updating, and affected players and staff need educating. Such things, in short, will require advocacy and follow-through on someone’s part. While, to my knowledge, no one with power to effect change is actively discussing these issues or pursuing them through concrete steps, I hope to be corrected.
From Umag, where Troicki first learned of the ITF’s decision to suspend him, to Washington, where other ATP players responded to the news, from Belgrade to Beijing and London to Lausanne, this case made for much controversy. On Twitter, in online comment sections, and in press conferences—not least, of Serbian Davis Cup team members—there was often more heat than light. The source of this heat ranges. Look and you will find strong emotions, misinformation, ignorance, hyperbole, conspiracy theories, and (what is to me) unwarranted certainty. Also significant are a number of oversights, oversimplifications, and silences, the reasons for which may be more difficult to pinpoint.
In case anyone reading needs this reminder: learning is a lifelong process. Here are highlights from the lessons I’m taking away. For further discussion &/or more sources, please click on the individual section numbers.
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,/ And drinking largely sobers us again.
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)
Different tennis constituencies—including players, the ITF, and sports journalists—have work to do in order to avoid or better respond to similar situations in the future. Many discussions of the case have focused on Troicki’s seeming naiveté or ignorance of the TADP, suggesting the problem never would have arisen if only he’d known and followed “the rules”—that is, had he not sought a partial exemption from them in the first place. This section identifies and discusses a number of other things that the case and subsequent coverage reveal need, at minimum, review.
Troicki’s resistance to having his blood drawn at the requested time was greeted with surprise and incredulity in both media and player circles. A typical response, for instance, was to point out that “the rule is there for a reason and is pretty simple.” The thing is, there’s not much evidence to support the claim, made by too many to name, that Troicki disregarded or didn’t understand the rules. He reported to the Doping Control Station directly after his match, gave the required urine sample, and then asked to be excused from giving blood; he also delayed signing the requisite form until after he’d had a discussion with the DCO. Say what you will about those last two steps and their implications (and I’ll say lots more about the former), the fact is that neither of them is against the rules and actually show an awareness of them. Nevertheless, people discussing the case and Troicki’s reaction to the penalty implied that he “arbitrarily” broke the rules by “skipping” a test, as if he rather capriciously failed to show up altogether, and was then confused about why he got in trouble.
One of the most frequently misrepresented aspects of the case is the suggestion that Troicki asked to and “claims he was told by the ITF official that he could take the test the next day.” In fact, Troicki did not ask to take the blood test the next day. What he was after was not a 24-hour delay but a pass, essentially, until the next time he was randomly selected for testing. Per the IADT report, “he asked if there was any chance that he did not have to give blood on that occasion” (15b). In Troicki’s own words, from the explanatory note he appended to the required form: “I always did blood tests before, and I [will] do them in the future, but today I was not [able to] provide [a] blood sample” (15e; my emphasis). That he ended up giving blood the next day is almost entirely a result of the fact that the DCO herself initiated contact with him. She went looking for him, enlisted the ATP supervisor’s help in finding him (recall that, as he had lost the day before, Troicki was officially out of the tournament), and told Viktor “there could be a problem” (see sections 21-24I). Upon hearing that, as if for the first time, the player then asked, “Does it make any sense to do the blood test today, since I am feeling better today?” If the DCO were entirely confident about how she’d handled the previous day’s encounter, would she have gone in search of him and would he have had the opportunity to ask this question? We’ll never know. But the fact is that she certainly didn’t need to talk to him or take his blood the next day. Nor was that procedure something Troicki, who left the DCS the day before thinking he’d gotten out of the blood test altogether, is likely to have requested if left to his own devices. Why this is so will be discussed in the next section.
2. Feel free to admit when there’s something you don’t know.
Socrates: “Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate, it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.” —Plato, Apology
Rest assured: recognizing the existence of uncertainty or confessing to lack knowledge on a given subject doesn’t make one’s position any weaker. One could do worse, after all, than take the lead from Socrates, who posited that awareness of one’s ignorance is a step along the path of learning.
Unfortunately, saying “I don’t know” doesn’t bring many readers to one’s website, newspaper column, or talk-show (for you youngsters, a “podcast”). Journalists, bloggers, tweeters, and other sports commentators make a name for themselves and develop a following by having opinions and being able to come up with them as quickly as the news cycle (or tennis calendar) demands. This is obviously not the place to diagnose the current condition of sports journalism. Rather, I want to point out that the need to say something—fast and frequently—can yield less than well-supported views and positions, which are often not adjusted, even if or when new information is acquired.
In terms of the Troicki case, needle phobia is the topic most commenters would have done well to acknowledge an insufficient grasp of—both in general and in terms of how it may have affected the events of that specific day. Many addressing the controversy simply ignored this aspect of the incident (which is certainly one, if not the best, way of dealing with the unfamiliar). But some writers took the opposite approach: not proceeding as if it didn’t exist or wasn’t worth discussing but acting all-too-certain about its relevance. As I’ve noted above, I think Troicki’s needle phobia is central to understanding the case; hence, it’s the focus of this “lesson.”
I’d already written this section when I ran across a recent piece that’s an example of the type of thing that set me off on a weeks-long research binge last November. As a result of that reading, I can state with confidence that Troicki’s needle phobia is a corroborated matter of fact. It’s a preexisting medical condition with both psychological and physiological symptoms—not a claim, not a suggestion, not a figment of his imagination, and not an “excuse” Viktor came up with one day because he was selected to submit a blood sample. It was accepted as such by both the IADT and the CAS on the basis of, among other “clear and convincing evidence,” the testimony of one of the French Tennis Federation’s chief medical officers, Dr. Bernard Montalvan (9I). In spite of this, numerous journalists felt free to dismiss it as a significant factor in the case—in the process, casting doubt not only on Troicki’s word (plus that of his coach, trainer, father, Davis Cup teammates, and friends/colleagues since childhood like Andrea Petković) but also, if indirectly, on that of the medical experts who submitted statements supporting it.
While this may seem, to some, an overly strong reaction to the skepticism, my view is that any journalist who suggests this part of “Troicki’s story was not corrobarated [sic] by the authorities” is open to numerous charges, including poor reading comprehension skills, sloppiness, laziness, irresponsibility, &/or bias. Frankly, unless you’re an experienced phlebotomist, psychologist, or someone familiar with current thinking on blood-injection-injury phobias, I don’t want to hear your musings on whether “having a little blood drawn was. . . going to harm Troicki if he was feeling a little under-the-weather.” In fact, I think it’d be best if no one heard such ill-informed speculations. I do my best in this section to help readers become more informed about the condition and consider the ways in which it may have influenced matters for both Troicki and the DCO that day.
As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.
—Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
None of us—not members of the two tribunals, the tennis media, other players, or the author and readers of this piece—witnessed what happened in the Monte Carlo tournament DCS that day. Though we may have read Troicki’s brief version of events in the case documents or a handful of interviews, what we haven’t heard in vivid detail is what it feels like for him to go through a phobic episode. I suspect there are good reasons for this. For example, while the word “phobia” appears three times in the IADT (B9, D38, E46) and once in the CAS decision (3.8), Troicki himself doesn’t use that word in any of his quoted statements. This linguistic choice, which likely reflects “a tendency to downplay the fear and the significance it had in [his life],” aligns with what researchers have observed: “The very nature of the fear means it is not generally thought or talked about” (54, ii). Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate because it means we’re missing a key part of the story. But even in the absence of first-hand experience, observation, or abstract knowledge of something (what some might call “book learnin’”), we can still use our imaginations.
This section focuses on the difficulty of talking about mental-health issues in public—and thus, of combating both ignorance and stigma. These difficulties may very well be why we haven’t seen much discussion of Troicki’s condition in media reports on his case. However, recognizing that something’s unfamiliar or difficult isn’t a reason to avoid it. On the contrary, it’s a reason to pursue it by whatever means we have at our disposal. My effort is ongoing: I’ve reached out to the player’s representatives and hope to interview him once he’s settled back into the routine of week-in, week-out life on tour. But there’s no guarantee he’ll be willing to delve into the topic that I think most needs his insight. After this “lesson,” I hope more people will understand why Viktor might be reluctant to do so on the record.
It’s worth emphasizing from the outset that practicing empathy in this case doesn’t necessitate changing your position on whether the CAS decision was correct or Troicki’s suspension just. What I’m most trying to encourage readers to do, going forward, is imagine what needle-phobes (in general) and needle-phobic players (in particular) experience every time they’re faced with a blood-drawing procedure.
Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing. —Jean-Martin Charcot
The Judge does not make the law. It is people that make the law. Therefore if a law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the law, that is justice, even if it is not just. —Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
This section is dedicated to two groups, in particular: those, like Andy Murray, who seem to believe that following the rules is the (only or best) solution to the problems Troicki’s case presented; and those who haven’t to this point understood why some think the outcome of the CAS decision was unjust.
Last night’s Twitter speculation about the nature of Novak Djoković’s ankle injury, full of needless anxiety about the condition of the world’s top male tennis player, holds two tennis-media lessons for me.
First, in an ideal world, journalists should feel a similar responsibility on Twitter as they do on their official media outlet websites. In other words, if you wouldn’t print it, why tweet it? I realize that many sports reporters’, writers’, and pundits’ Twitter accounts are as much personal as professional. It’s an informal medium by design. Hence, no one is surprised or bothered by getting tweets containing photos of Brad Gilbert’s dog, Neil Harman’s musical selections, or Martina Navratilova’s political musings throughout the season (let’s leave Boris Becker out of this, shall we?). Nevertheless, these public figures have as many followers as they do on the basis of their professional expertise, activities, and positions—and particularly due to their access to key sources of information. If your Twitter bio states your affiliation with a media outlet, chances are people follow you as a professional, not as an interesting person (though you may well be both). So, it stands to reason that you should keep your journalistic function and the standards of the profession in mind when on Twitter—as well as how quickly a tweet can circulate around the world. Such is, after all, the nature of a social media network. Twitter may seem like an unreal, impermanent sphere, but what happens in this space can have real and lasting effects.
Second, all media access is not identical. Although all press credentials are created equal, every individual with a badge on a lanyard is not the same—which is a good thing and fundamental to the meaning of the phrase “freedom of the press.” The press is not only free in terms of being at liberty to say what it wants without fear of reprisal from government or other powerful forces but also in the sense of being open to a variety of people and perspectives. Each member of the media brings his or her own unique background, knowledge, interests, investments (not necessarily biases), skills, m.o., contacts, relationships, and values to the occasion. Specifically, as the RTS interview with Djoković after he’d secured his nation’s spot in the Davis Cup semifinals illustrates, media from a player’s home country are often able to get more—or different—information from their primary sources. This ability, related to the comfort of both native tongue and personal familiarity, is but one reason why it’s important to have media diversity. Sometimes, though, it’s not enough to open one’s doors (or, technically, one’s online credentials application form). In order to have media diversity, we—both the public and the institutions of the media—must actually pursue and cultivate it.
But how? As individuals with technologically-enabled access to the world, we can search out new sources of information easily. This is one of the life-changing consequences of the internet: a kid with a computer in Kazakhstan may find relevant information about a given topic before a top ESPN analyst. Anyone can post on Twitter; anyone can upload his or her video to YouTube; anyone can start a blog (even people, like me, who aren’t entirely sure they want to!). The professional media, however, is only as diverse as the people in charge—editors, producers, publishers, advertisers, and investors—are committed to making it. And commitment, ultimately, means money, even more than it does values or mental and physical effort.
As I hope will be clear, I’m speaking of only one type of diversity now: cultural. Leaving the selection of not-so-easily-accessible Boise aside, the central media problem in the case of this Davis Cup tie wasn’t, ultimately, that the USTA may have mishandled one credential application. It’s that Serbian media are not in an economic position to send their journalists to events abroad— which is to say, virtually all of them. As a result, while they do send television crews to major tournaments (in fact, their TV coverage of tennis is much better than in the US because all of it is on network TV &/or a sports cable channel that practically everyone has, unlike Tennis Channel here), Serbian newspapers, websites, and radio are not able to send their sports reporters. Thus, it falls on bloggers (often paying their own way) or members of the Yugo-diaspora living in the tournament locale to provide eyewitness coverage. This is not, as you might imagine, an ideal situation; but given economic realities, it’s not obvious what can be done to improve it.
A related problem is that Serbian media are largely reliant on the foreign press coverage of tennis tournaments. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t for the immense success of Serbian players in recent years. So we must, in a way, be grateful to be facing this challenge—better this than to have no players in the top ten or twenty, right? Still, much of what passes for sports journalism in Serbia is copy & paste—or, rather, copy, translate, then paste—from English-language websites. Among other things, what this situation means is that questions Serbian media might have raised, had they been at the event, don’t get asked—or, almost as significant, they don’t get asked in front of the assembled group and widely circulated thereafter. The resulting press-conference transcript is the poorer, I think, for their absence (though it is often quite rich, both because Linda and Julie of ASAP are great at their jobs and because the largely English-speaking tennis media are very good at theirs). Not incidentally, some of the best press conferences are those at smaller events or those in which the media are faced with something or someone new: the intimacy or novelty of such occasions brings a welcome disruption to the perfunctory aspects of the Q&A sessions with the usual suspects.
A corollary of the above-mentioned absence was in evidence last night. Because the only Serbian media at many events are the TV production crews, who generally occupy a different space at tournaments from members of the print media, there isn’t a lot of commingling or networking between Serbian and non-Serbian press. Even when there are a few Serbs in the main press room, they tend to stick together or, if the only one of their kind, keep to themselves. They’re not part of the fairly exclusive fraternity of traveling tennis media and many, even most, aren’t part of Tennis World’s Twitter conversation. Further, unlike Spanish or French, German or Italian, which some Anglophones speak, BCS (the somewhat confusing acronym for the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language) tends not to be understood by anyone who isn’t either a former Yugoslav or a professional who works in the region. And don’t get me started on Justin Gimelstob’s pronunciation of Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjić: I watched Saturday’s thrilling doubles match from the ITF stream and kept the volume low.
Put these different factors together and the result can look like last night: an English-speaking member of the media apparently misunderstands an exchange in Serbian (or perhaps overhears people talking in tentative English) and decides, for reasons I don’t claim to understand, to tweet about it. Because the tweet was prefaced with the words “JUST IN,” as well as sent hours after the conclusion of both match play and the subsequent press conferences, readers had every reason to believe it contained new information about the severity of Djoković’s injury. So, others re-tweet it. Still others add their own interpretive layers and emotional responses. Questions from the US to Serbia, from South Africa to the Philippines are asked and not answered because—guess what?—no one actually knows anything yet.
Add water and stir: we’ve got an instant controversy.