Talking with Newsmen about Novak II

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.

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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.

Briggs: Yeah, inevitably.

AM: In some February interviews, he talked about how he had allowed himself…

Briggs: …to be sucked in.

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.

Recommended Reading:
“Different Strokes” (2015)

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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.

Recommended Reading:
“The Perfect Player” (2007)
“Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer at heart of ‘great’ debate” (2015 US Open)

Views from Elsewhere: Talking with Newsmen about Novak

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.

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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.”

Memory Lane: 2008 US Open

(By his post-match press conference, Novak was already expressing regret.)

“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.”

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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)

Tignor: “Into the Lion’s Den” (2015 US Open)

Lesson 1: Do Your Homework

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.

Players
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.

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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.

ITF
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.

A sample:
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.

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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.)

Headcases & Homework: Reactions to Viktor Troicki

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.

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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.

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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.

1. Do your homework.

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.

3. Practice empathy.

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.

4. Acknowledge ambiguity & complexity.

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.

If you’re someone who has made categorical statements along the lines of “Read and respect the rules and everything is very simple,” “He should have taken the test,” “A player would only refuse to be tested if there was something to hide,” or “No excuses,” this section’s for you.

A Tweet Heard ‘Round the World?

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 hed secured his nations 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 challengebetter 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 than 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, arent part of Tennis Worlds 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 Saturdays 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 dont 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 injurySo, 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.

Q & A: A Few Words on “Vika-Gate”

Some of you know me from Twitter, from the handful of pieces I’ve written for the Tennis Space, or from tournaments where I occasionally impersonate an intrepid girl reporter.  All of these activities are part of my alter-ego as a tennis enthusiast and online enforcer of proper pronunciation of Serbian player’s names.  In my real life, however, I’m an English professor, a person who both interprets words for a living and spends much of my time, in classrooms or office hours, asking and answering questions as well as helping students formulate their own.  So, in what follows, I’m professing even more than usual and emphasizing some aspects of the recent controversy that caught my eye (and ear).

My primary point is pretty straightforward: how one frames & poses a question will shape, if not determine, the kind of answer one gets in return.  Here’s a brief hypothetical example before I get to the real one.  Imagine someone asking, “Was it unfair that Azarenka took such a long medical time-out (MTO)?  Do you think the rules should be better enforced?”  These questions imply a few things: that Vika took a break at her own discretion (whereas, after requesting a trainer visit during the ninety-second changeover, she received a MTO on the advice of medical professionals and by approval of the chair umpire), that it was unreasonably long (when, at approximately eight and a half minutes, its length was within the allowable time), and that her actions bent, if not broke, the rules (which is a descriptive claim or interpretation of what happened, not a fact). 

The average person being asked these questions is unlikely to respond with an analysis of them.  Rather, he or she will probably take them at face value, perhaps even be influenced by their thrust or tone, and answer accordingly.  The discussion has thus been limited in a very specific way.  Perhaps, in this case, it would have been warranted to ask some preliminary questions: “Why was Azarenka’s MTO longer than most?  Did it comply with tournament guidelines?”  The answers to these are less interesting than the discussion the earlier questions are likely to generate: it was indeed a long MTO because she was treated for two separate injuries (though it’s not clear she wanted to be); and yes, according to the ITF Rule Book, a player is allowed a maximum of two consecutive MTOs, with a “reasonable length of time” allotted for evaluation and a three-minute treatment per injury.  Further, the chair umpire, who uses a stopwatch to time everything from the five-minute warm-up and twenty seconds between points to changeovers and MTOs, did not call “time” until after Azarenka had returned from the off-court treatment area.  Conversation stopper?  Maybe notbut at least the conversation has a greater chance of heading in the right direction (assuming, of course, that you take the “right direction” to be toward discovering truth or solving problems, not provoking debate).

My central concern is with the Q&A that immediately followed Azarenka’s semi-final, as I think it shaped much of the reaction to her straight-set victory over underdog Sloane Stephens.  I hope my description of the way such exchanges generally proceed won’t strike anyone as controversial.

On-court interviews are ritual fluff designed to tie a bow on the match that just finished while also setting up the winning player’s upcoming contest.  The inevitable questions—basically, “How’d you do it?” and “What now?”—are tennis’s equivalent of the “previously on” and “stay tuned for scenes from our next episode” that begin & end tv shows.  Given these conventions, one doesn’t expect a question about a MTO in an on-court interview, as they can be sensitive subjects regardless of whether taken by the victor or her opponent.  Thus, at the 2012 US Open, CBS’s Mary Carillo didn’t ask Andy Murray about either the bathroom break he took after the fourth set (and which he later admitted helped him to regroup after dropping a two-set lead) or Novak Djoković’s fifth-set MTO, which some observers considered unsportsmanlike.  The on-court interview is not a press conference: it’s generally a feel-good moment engineered to give the spectators an opportunity to share in the players’ emotions, a sense that they’re getting to know them as people, and the victors one more round of applause after their opponents have left the court.

Keeping these fairly well-established conventions in mind, is it so surprising that Victoria Azarenka misunderstood what was happening in the on-court interview following her match on Thursday?  That the spectators in the stands and the fans at home understood what Sam Smith was asking Vika is, in part, a function of the reality that, while we weren’t with or in her body, we were privy to an awkward ten-minute discussion of it—a wait filled with images of Stephens sitting still in her chair and, for tv viewers, a noisy, one-sided debate about the legitimacy of Azarenka’s actions.  But because Vika didn’t think she’d done anything wrong by, first, asking to see the trainer during a changeover and, second, following the medical staff’s advice to get treatment off court (both of which are within the letter of the law governing such matters) and, further, since she may not have picked up on the vibe in Rod Laver Arena upon her return, she may not have grasped what she was being asked by Smith to explain.  Add to this the fact that English is not the Belarusian player’s first language and. . .  Well, you get the idea.  (Those who think Vika’s English is plenty good may never have heard Djoković, one of most articulate non-native English speakers on tour, say “simple-minded” when he intends “single-minded” or “collaborate” when he means “collapse.”  If you want the low-down on the linguistic ability and verbal tics of the players on tour, look no further than the wonderful women of ASAP Sports who transcribe the press conferences.)

So, what did Sam Smith ask Azarenka?  Not—literally—what most people think she did.  “Victoria, congratulations: you’re back in the final.  But, um, you had a few difficulties out there,” observed Smith.  “Can you tell us why you had to go off and. . . how are you?”  There was a pause in the middle of the sentence that I think it’s apt to call awkward and attribute, at least in part, to Smith’s not being in the habit of asking pointed questions on such occasions.  In fact, putting a victor on the spot might even be considered a breach of on-court-interview etiquette—not that I blame Smith, who likely had little choice in the matter.  Note the words that are missing here: injury, trainer, medical, time-out, leave, court.  Consider, too, other words or phrases that are ambiguous: difficulties, out there, go, off.  (After all, I’m going off at this very moment, aren’t I?  And I’m pretty sure players’ games go off unexpectedly at times—as, alas, do guns.)  Not least, there’s the totally vague final question “How are you?” which could mean just about anything from “How is the part of your body that got treated?” to “How do you feel to be back in the final of the Australian Open?” 

And yet, Smith’s is being represented as a “simple question” about the “supposed injury” by various journalists, with nearly all of those reporting on the incident paraphrasing rather than quoting her directly, thereby not only eliding the ambiguity but also assuming to know what Azarenka heard and understood.  It’s easy enough for us to say that what Smith asked was “Why did you leave the court to get medical treatment after failing to convert match points and when it was your opponent’s turn to serve to stay in the contest?”  But that’s not what she asked.  Nor did she ask the decidedly less long-winded but equally specific question: “Why did you request a trainer at that particular moment in the match?  Couldn’t you have waited a bit?” or even “What injury did you have treated when you left the court?”

If Azarenka had been asked one of the above questions, then I could understand the level of outrage that greeted her reply, which failed to answer the question on everyone but Sam Smith’s lips.  As it is, however, I found the response to her on-court interview not only impatient and ungenerous but even irresponsible.  What Azarenka did when she requested to see the trainer at 5-4 is controversial enough.  Like others, I’m pretty comfortable with the charges of poor timing and questionable sportsmanship against Azarenka and I, too, wondered about the severity of the injury she was suffering (a locked rib, she told the media in the press conference that followed) or the degree to which it, rather than nerves, were the cause of her chest pains and difficulty breathing.  Still, to suggest that she brazenly confessed to gamesmanship on court, that she indicated she had been treated for mentally choking (a “panic attack,” some were calling it), that there are major inconsistencies between her on-court responses and subsequent explanations, or, worse, that she’s a liar and a cheat seems both excessive and inaccurate.  She did something that almost all of us wish she hadn’t (and that many other players arguably wouldn’t)— something that may have compromised her opponent’s opportunity to try to hold serve, stay in the match, and perhaps even take the set.  That’s pretty bad.  Why make it worse by assuming she heard the words we did and by putting other words in her mouth?