Rival Cause: Explaining the Adria Tour

Friends, can we talk about causal reasoning—and causation, more generally?

This isn’t what we usually turn to tennis to do, I realize, but some of the arguments circulating in the wake of the Adria Tour, especially after four participants (plus team and family members) tested positive for covid-19 early last week, have hurt my brain.  More than giving me a headache, though, this stuff isn’t good for our understanding of the event and its consequences—or of the figure at the center of the controversy.  Odd a response though this may be, reading some of the initial analysis sent me scrambling for a textbook I used to assign in a course at the University of Richmond.*  After refreshing my memory on the topic of rival causes, a term for “a plausible alternative explanation [for] why a certain outcome occurred,” I decided to identify a couple of patterns I’ve observed in the assessments of what went wrong with the Adria Tour.


Diction like this is a sign that causal thinking is afoot.

causation 1


 

A Tennis Channel segment reacting to the news of Novak Djoković’s covid-19 diagnosis provides us with a convenient starting point for discussion.

During the exchange, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim asked Paul Annacone how he thinks the developments from the truncated Balkan tennis tour will play in the locker-room.  The coach and commentator replied, “I think there’s a lot of [Novak’s] peer group that are scratching their heads.”  “If I were on the [ATP Player] Council,” Annacone added, “I would be asking a lot of difficult questions to understand how he got to where he was.”  Even before the ATP #1 reunites with his colleagues, we’ve had plenty of tennis media attempting to answer these very questions—some, like Annacone, with the benefit of having interviewed the Serbian player recently, and others by putting at least a few puzzle pieces together on their own.

Not only because I could use some exercise after being stuck at home for months, I think it’s worth walking through what we know about the Adria Tour and what we don’t.  Given journalism’s primary function, some combination of these two categories forms the basis of the descriptive claims we see in virtually any media response, whether it’s straightforward reporting, a column offering an interpretation of events, or a debate about how professional tennis should proceed as it returns (spoiler: not like this).  So, let’s start with the basics.  Journalism 101 tells us there are five questions news stories need to answer: who, what, when, where, and why.  With regard to this event, the first four are easy to answer—and they’re not up for much, if any, debate.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things we know about the Adria Tour (“AT”):

  • The traveling tournament was conceived by Novak Djoković and designed to bring tennis to several ex-Yugoslav countries over four weeks. In addition to being the one with the money & influence to make it happen, the host was responsible for inviting the featured players—most notably, the top-20 talent.
  • It occurred during what I’ll call “phase 2” of a global pandemic: i.e., when most countries have lifted restrictions on public movement and activities (to differing degrees & with varying levels of success).
  • The AT ended up taking place over two consecutive June weekends in Serbia and Croatia.
  • It was planned & run by an organizing committee led, at least nominally, by director Djordje Djoković. Each stage of the event had a separate tournament director & sub-committee: for example, Goran Ivanišević was TD and Neven Nakić, VP of the Croatian tennis federation, was the president of the organizing committee for the Croatian stop.
  • Round-robin, short-format matches were broadcast on regional network Sport Klub, as well as internationally on Eurosport, Tennis Channel, and BeIN sports.
  • The Serbian and Croatian tennis federations, who helped organize the first two stages of the AT, also held tournaments for regional players in the weeks leading up to the main events in Belgrade and Zadar, respectively.
  • Subsequent stops were being planned in the two biggest Bosnian cities: Banja Luka & Sarajevo. Particularly after an anticipated third leg in Montenegro had to be scrapped (because the government couldn’t guarantee entry from Serbia in time), organizers scouted other possible locations in the former Yugoslavia.
  • While the marquee players traveled from abroad to participate, most others hail from, and were already in, the region. (Djoković and his family, who had spent several months isolating in Marbella, Spain, arrived in Serbia three weeks before the official tournament start.)
  • In addition to the on-court action, there were press conferences, kids days, concerts, fireworks, & other affiliated group activities, at which neither mask wearing nor social distancing was widely observed.
  • Thus far, some 8 Adria Tour participants (& at least two of their spouses) have tested positive for covid-19.

Turning to “why,” answering questions gets more complicated.  Why did Djoković want to host this tournament?  Why now?  Why in Serbia and the neighboring countries? (The first part is easy, obviously; the second part is more complicated, as this article suggests. I’ll have more to say about Novak’s motivations in a separate post.)  Why did he invite players from Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, and Russia (several of whom had been staying in the US since Indian Wells was canceled in early March &/or made other stops en route to Belgrade), instead of sticking with an all-Serbian or even all-Balkan contingent?  Why did the event have a) live spectators, b) so many of them, &/or c) so close together?  Why, despite having masks (and gloves!) available at entrances, wasn’t more done to encourage or enforce use of them among event staff, volunteers, spectators, or participants?  And the question everyone’s been asking: why all the hugging?!

Cultural interlude…

 

I could go on, but you get the point.  The overarching question that emerges is: why, given what is common knowledge about how the coronavirus spreads, did this event take the particular shape it did—on court, in the stands, across the tournament grounds, and after hours?  For what it’s worth, I don’t think “Because it was allowed by the local authorities” is a sufficient answer.  That the tournament was given a green light by the powers that be is clear—and that Belgrade nightclubs weren’t specially opened for the player party should be evident to anyone looking at photos.  But those facts don’t really help us understand why so many people—and not, by the way, just a dozen or so players—were acting like they’d found a time-traveling portal to the pre-covid era.

Although it’s not an official, alliterative part of journalism’s “5 Ws,” the question “how” is, of course, also relevant.  For instance: how did this happen?  By that, I mean both “What went into planning the Adria Tour?” and “How did an event like this, with few to no precautionary measures in place, occur in June 2020?”  How were all the organizational and logistical tasks divided and decided?  For that matter, how many and which regional tennis figures were on the organizing committee?  With whom from the Serbian and Croatian governments did organizers coordinate?  What shared attitudes or beliefs contributed to thousands of people, seemingly without concern, going along with it all—not once, either, but in ten separate sessions in two different (albeit culturally quite similar) countries?  One of the things a lot of the international coverage has missed, or perhaps ignored, is just how many people were involved in this event.  While it’s understandable that the focus would be on Djoković and his high-profile ATP guests, there were also hundreds of people behind the scenes helping the show go on and a whole crew of regional broadcasters and print journalists on hand to capture the scene, not to mention all the people in the stands, whose main expression of disappointment in all of this was to boo when local sports hero Ivanišević took to the court to announce the Zadar final between Djoković and Rublev had to be called off.  Were people in Serbia and Croatia—whether press or public—also shocked and outraged by what they observed of the Adria Tour?  Are folks in Bosnia breathing a collective sigh of relief that their leg of the event won’t happen?  If not, why not?

Without having access to sources on the ground (or being able to read BCS), it’s tough to answer most of these “how” questions.  In spite of this obstacle, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to explain what happened, often by making descriptive claims based on assumptions and deductions based on limited information.

Sidebar: I’ll take advantage of this moment to ride a hobby-horse of mine.  A serious shortcoming I see in tennis journalism and the online tennis community’s discourse isn’t that most of it happens in English, though that’s true of the latter.  Rather, it’s that there is not nearly as much cross-cultural collaboration and exchange as this uniquely international sport demands.  Read more

On some level, all the questions above are secondary: it’s not hard to imagine readers who’ve gotten this far wondering, “Who cares about this minutiae? The only thing that matters about the Adria Tour is that it was a mistake!”  Well, yes.  That’s certainly true if all we’re interested in doing is making a judgment, which I think virtually everyone has already done (isn’t Twitter grand?).  Me?  I also like to try to understand things—including the reactions to them, by media in particular.  And I get more than a little uncomfortable when I see analysis that seems to skip the asking questions stage (call it “curiosity”) and go directly to reaching conclusions, not least if the outcome suggests logical short-cuts along the way.  By now, you may have gathered that this is not a complaint unique to the treatment of a single event: the general terms I use below can be applied to virtually any piece of writing that makes an argument, from tweet to thesis.

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Without further ado (there’s been plenty of ado already, I know), here are three patterns I’ve observed in coverage of the Adria Tour aftermath: causal oversimplification, post hoc fallacy, and fundamental attribution error.

Since all three have to do with causal reasoning, let’s establish some common ground.  When we think about causation, it takes this basic form: this because that.

To give a generic example: effect B was brought about, at least in part, by cause A.

Broadly speaking, we can say that the Adria Tour (A) caused participants (and perhaps others) to become infected with covid-19 (B).

The main deduction that people have made on the basis of photographic evidence of participant activity at A is that a key factor, C—the lack of precautionary measures like mask wearing and social distancing—caused the spread of the virus within the group. Though this seems like an uncontroversial conclusion to me, it’s also the case that we have very little idea of these individuals’ activities either in the days before June 11 (the first day all the participants were together in Belgrade) or when they were not in front of tv or other kinds of cameras.  With that qualification, let’s move on to examples of where some, perhaps required by the nature of the profession to publish quick takes, got tripped up by gnarly causal reasoning.#

So, what caused factor C?  Almost in unison, the international media answered: Novak Djoković, of course!  From there, we’ve gotten different explanations for how and why Novak ended up where he did on June 23rd: covid-positive, isolating at home in Belgrade, and in the sports section of every major media outlet in the world.  causation 3

Exhibit A comes courtesy of Racquet magazine.

Unlike surreal fanless exhibitions conducted elsewhere on earth, the Adria Tour looked like it was held in the peaceful obliviousness of some other planet. Djokovic maintained that the event fell in line with Serbian guidelines, a claim that has come under fire, and that also makes you wonder bleakly about his sheer force of personality back home.

The “sheer force” of Novak’s personality caused the Serbian health authorities to adjust their guidelines for public gatherings in May and June?  His influence is what led thousands of spectators to decline to wear masks that the tournament itself provided?  Is that what this line is suggesting?  As long as we’re speculating, did the pied piper of Serbia also compel some 25 thousand people to pack Belgrade’s “Marakana” for the soccer grudge match between Partizan and Red Star a few days before the Adria Tour started?  Might there be any other viable explanations for these deeds?  Out of curiosity, what else has Aleksandar Vučić’s government been up to over the past few months—that is, other than granting Djoković last-minute permission to sell more than a thousand tickets to each session of the Belgrade stop?  And let’s not forget about Croatia.  Has the pandemic forced them to abandon all hope for the summer tourist season, which brings in some 20% of the country’s GDP?  (To get a sense of  how things were looking in Zadar in the weeks before the Adria Tour came to town, see the second half of this article.)

causation 4

In lieu of spending more time unpacking this piece, I’ll just leave the above explanations here.

causation 5

Exhibit B is from a Twitter thread by a tennis journalist especially influential on social media.

adria BR reaction

This one-two punch—bad news followed by a tidy explanation for it—implies “after this, therefore because of this.”  Though the causal connection isn’t made explicit, it is nevertheless unmistakable: fringe scientific beliefs resulted in Novak and Jelena’s being at increased risk for catching covid-19.

So there’s no misunderstanding, I’ll say this as clearly as I can: personal opinions are certainly relevant in shaping the behavior of those who have them.  But unless every other person associated with the Adria Tour is also pals with a bearded wellness guru from California, this account only gets us so far.  Also, however “alternative” some of the Djoković views on health, they didn’t stop the pair from urging people in Serbia to stay home during the quarantine so healthcare providers wouldn’t be overburdened with patients or from using their foundation money to purchase ventilators for Serbian hospitals.  These are things they likely wouldn’t do if they don’t think the coronavirus is a serious threat or believe that positive thinking, room-temperature water, and a teaspoon of manuka honey to start the day is enough to ward it off.  Also: crystals.  Don’t forget the crystals.

causation 6

Exhibit C is a column by Jon Wertheim.  Reacting to the announcement of Djoković’s positive covid-19 test, the SI senior writer and Tennis Channel studio analyst crafted a cautionary tale modeled on Greek mythology, in which the ATP #1 serves as a sort of modern-day Icarus.  Unlike the tragic finality of the classics, however, this story remains open-ended: “there are chapters left to be authored,” Wertheim notes before suggesting a few ways Novak might “make amends” for his recent lapses and “win back” whatever—or whomever—he’s lost thus far this season.  Instead of quoting at length, I encourage you to read it, as it’s a much more creative piece of writing than we generally get from tennis journalists.  (You can find the less-creative version of Wertheim’s thoughts on the Adria Tour fallout in his weekly podcast.)

I have no quarrel with the poetic license Wertheim takes and think his narrative gets its message across in an entertaining, self-consciously dramatic manner.  (It’s a tragedy, after all.)  Having said that, the emphasis on the explanatory power of the contents of Novak Djoković’s head strikes me as an example of a what psychologists call fundamental attribution error: a cognitive bias “in which we typically overestimate the importance of personal tendencies relative to situational factors in interpreting the behavior of others. That is, we tend to see the cause of others’ behavior as coming from within (their personal characteristics) rather than from without (situational forces)” (126*).  Abundant in the short tale are terms like “hubris,” “self-belief,” “narcissism,” and “self-importance”—as much the language of personality science (if not psychopathology) as mythology.  Given not only the humanitarian nature of the venture (with the winner’s prize money going to a charity of his choice) but also Djoković’s desire to both provide lower-ranked regional players an opportunity to compete and earn some much-needed cash and bring top-tier tennis to a part of the world that doesn’t normally get it, it’s tough to accept the notion that the event aimed for self-glorification.  Not least, the Balkans is the last place on earth where Novak would need to do anything to be greeted with immense affection, admiration, even gratitude.  There are much easier ways for him to get showered with praise: for instance, he could stand in Trg Republike, Belgrade’s central square.

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A common thread linking these three cases is that the explanations they provide for why the Adria Tour took the form it did and ended, perhaps inevitably, with a health crisis rely almost entirely on surmises about the goings on in the mind of an individual human being.  This would be one thing if Djoković were the king of not just Serbia but the former Yugoslavia, and all subjects faced a choice between doing his bidding and being punished.  (Representatives of four countries were involved in the planning! The prime minister of Croatia attended one of the Zadar sessions—likely coming from Zagreb to do so.)  Closer to reality, I’d have an easier time understanding such causal oversimplification if Novak had simply invited a bunch of top-ranked tennis bros to a holiday weekend in his hometown, with practice matches on his backyard court followed by nights out on the town.  But the Adria Tour isn’t a morality play with a single protagonist, nor did it take place on a billionaire’s private island.  Perhaps it’d be better if it had.

Essentially, all of this boils down to one question: are Djoković’s personal views—about himself, about “science”—the cause or a cause leading to the questionable decisions on display during the Adria Tour?  Granting the latter, which I hope you do, are we quite sure those beliefs were the most significant causal factor in shaping the risky behavior at the event? It’s certainly possible, perhaps even probable, that they played a part—in the players’ off-court activities, particularly.  Still, even there, I suspect it was Novak’s pride not in himself but in his country that was among the strongest influences in his decision to perform as a tour-guide for his guests from abroad.  Despite the circumstances that had brought them there, it seems he wanted to give his rivals, colleagues, and friends a weekend to remember: showing them the sights, making sure they tasted a bit of Balkan hospitality, and, yes, giving them a sense of why Belgrade’s nightlife has the reputation it does.  (My guess: they’ll remember.)

Given that the event itself wasn’t merely a debauched weekend among members of the men’s tennis elite, and that thousands of people attended, staffed, or helped organize the event, we have to consider what other factors may have contributed to the outcomes observed on screens both large and small across the globe.  I’ve hinted at a few possibilities from the spheres of politics and economics above (in links under Exhibit A).  Here are some others that aren’t unique to the Balkans: skepticism about expertise; the politicization of science; a less-than-healthy media ecosystem (including sensationalism, propaganda, and misinformation); lack of trust in leadership; public frustration with, even resentment about, months under lockdown; and lovely spring weather.  Though the increasingly rare opportunity to watch live tennis featuring both local favorites and international stars surely drew the crowd, many other factors likely determined the incautious behavior in the stands and on the grounds in Belgrade and Zadar.  To be fair, tennis journalism isn’t suited to explore all of the potential causes of multifaceted occurrences like this: sports reporters are generally on site or watching from home, not embedded as foreign correspondents.  Normally, we talk about what happens between the lines on court, in the media center, at the gym, and in the board rooms of the ITF, ATP, and WTA. For good measure, we check players’ Twitter and Instagram feeds.  The coronavirus pandemic has not only deprived us all of the sport we love but also given us a whole new set of concerns to ponder—separate from the ways in which it’s turned the rest of our lives upside down.  Still, wouldn’t it be something if we could take a bit of the extra time many of us, unable to pursue our professions or pastimes as before, now have to seek out and consider a few more causes?

 

 

 

Notes

* All textbook citations are from chapter 9 of Browne & Keeley, Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (12th edition).

# I hope it goes without saying that I selected these three examples not out of any personal animus for the authors but because they come from widely-read sources and help make my point.  Although its length suggests otherwise, this is not an exhaustive survey of English-language coverage of the Adria Tour.  A little scary, I know.

My Tennis Journalism Hobby-Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Quick Q&A with Team Serbia Captain Nenad Zimonjić

I spoke to the  Serbian skipper after Tuesday’s practice session at the Caja Mágica.

AM: Watching the team practicing yesterday, the mood seemed like a good combination of light-hearted & having fun with a sense of purpose. What’s your sense of how everybody’s feeling?

NZ: Yeah, of course. The thing is, at the end of the season, you’ve got to motivate the guys. We know each other quite well and we joke around. But when it comes to the practice and playing, it’s very serious, with a lot of attention to details, what we can improve, and fine tuning at the end. I believe that they’re all ready and adjusted to the surface. The atmosphere is really good on the team, which is the most important thing because players need to use all their energy at the end of the year, which is not easy after such a long season. So, I’m happy with our preparation and looking forward to our first match tomorrow.

AM: The singles part of it seems relatively straightforward. I noticed you were practicing in different configurations for the doubles & you were giving targeted advice to the guys, who are less experienced than you are in that regard. So, I’m curious if they’re still “auditioning” for a spot or are you close to a decision?

NZ: It’s a combination of factors: who’s playing well in these conditions, the match-ups, how the players are feeling physically. So, I would say though it’s quite simple for the singles, for the doubles there could be some tactical decisions. We won’t know for sure until the very end because you never know what could happen when the guys wake up tomorrow morning. Hopefully, everything is ok. But in my mind, I have a clear decision.

AM: And you don’t actually have to announce the doubles team until…?

NZ: Only 15 minutes before the match—and the whole team, I have to nominate one hour before; so, at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning.

AM: What are the chances we’re going to see Janko on court this week?

NZ: Not just to give him a chance to play—because he played so much for our country, so many matches. [Note: Tipsarević first played Davis Cup as a 16-year-old in 2000, when Serbia was playing in Group III, and holds the team record for the most singles wins, with 34.] So, if he can help the team, yes; but otherwise, it’s just nice to be together here even though it’s his last tournament.

AM: Given we’re in Madrid, not in Belgrade, do you have much expectation of support coming from Serbia?

NZ: You’re always hoping that you’ll have good support. We don’t know. But Novak has fans all over the world, so hopefully we as a team will get support. We’re playing indoors and it’s quite acoustic in there; so, I hope they’re going to be loud, whatever the numbers are.

First: Dušan Lajović on his Breakthrough Season

By the time I arrived in Miami, Dušan Lajović was already well practiced at waiting. Although he’d lost in the final round of qualifying two days earlier, he was hanging around Crandon Park, next in line to get into the main draw of the Sony Open as a “Lucky Loser.” Spending all day on site, waiting for a message that might not come, Lajović had time to talk at length about recent developments in his life on the ATP tour. (An edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.)

When we met in a small room under the stadium court, Lajović was, at #89, the de facto Serbian men’s number two player due to the absence of both Janko Tipsarević and Viktor Troicki from competition. Just that week, he’d had dinner in a local Chinese restaurant with Troicki, then training in Miami, and posted his Davis Cup teammate’s fortune on Twitter.

Dutzee tweetBut it is Tipsarević whom he credits with being among the biggest influences on his young career: not only does Lajović share Janko’s manager (Dirk Hordorff) and clothing sponsor (Fila) but the older player also serves as a mentor, providing court-side advice and general insight about existence as a professional tennis player. Though Tipsarević was obviously disappointed not to be able to compete in the Davis Cup finals, he is likely proud of the way his protégé has performed, both in his November debut at the Belgrade Arena and during the first months of the new year. It was this stretch of time that “Dutzee” and I discussed in most detail.

*******

AM: This has been a season of “firsts” for you: qualifying for your first main draw of a major, first win at a Slam, first entry in the top 100, first time playing as Serbia’s #1 in Davis Cup, first main draw at a Masters series event, maybe even the first opportunity to travel with a physiotherapist (Stefan Duell, whose services he also shares with Janko). Out of all these firsts, what stands out to you—which achievement means the most?

DL: I would say that qualifying for a Slam was the biggest for me, even though more came after that, since I won a round in the main draw. Last year, I was in the final round of qualifications in Paris [at Roland Garros] and I lost pretty badly. Qualifying in Australia was tough for me because there’s a lot of wind there and I’m not really used to playing in those conditions. But I was mentally strong in the qualies, even though I lost in qualies of the previous tournament (in Chennai) and was a little bit down. So, qualifying at the Australian Open took some of the pressure off; after that, I kind of relaxed and started playing much better. Then, the results kept coming: I also qualified in Rio and won a round, so I feel like I’m ready for the next level.

Lajović at 2013 Roland Garros (photo by Hector for Tennis Alternative).

Roland Garros 2013 (photo by Hector for Tennis Alternative)

AM: When you think about the Australian Open, do you see that as the turning point, after which things changed, or was your success there actually proof that things had already changed?

DL: I think it’s all connected. In Australia, I also had a good draw—a wildcard in the first round [Lucas Pouille]. But that’s a lot of pressure, too, because you have to win that match. If you lose, you’re in a tough situation, even though you qualified, because you lost to a much younger guy who’s up & coming but not that experienced. So, I still needed to win that match. That win also showed me that I’m ready. A year ago, I might have lost it, but now I feel like everything is falling into place.

AM: What was more difficult: the transition from juniors to the pros or the last few years, since you entered the top 200?

DL: In juniors, during the early ITF stage, I actually wasn’t very good—nor did I play many tournaments. So, when I started playing seniors, every point I earned was a really big deal and I’d feel like, “Ok, this is going really well.”

This feeling lasted through his nineteenth birthday. By 2010, however, Lajović was having doubts. Even though he made the finals of one Futures tournament in June and won the title at another in August (results which helped him move up a hundred spots in the ATP rankings to 415), he considered going to the US for college or perhaps even quitting tennis altogether. It was the Davis Cup finals in December of that year which helped change his mind.

DL: I was there with the guys, just to experience the atmosphere and everything. And the next year, I broke into the top 200—from 430 at the beginning of 2011 to 190 by the end of the season. So, this was the biggest jump in my career.

At that point, needing a coach with the flexibility to travel with him more regularly, he split from Nemanja Lalić, who’d been guiding him for nearly seven years. Still, he says, “When I’m home in Belgrade, I always call Nemanja and we practice together. We’re really close. I think this was very important for my career, that he was not just my coach but also my friend.”

AM: So, which was harder: the period from 18 to 21 or between then and now, when you’ve reached the top 100?

DL: I think getting to the top 100 was much harder, because there’s this mental pressure that you want to break in. I was in a position to do so last summer, when I was around #115—I had some chances while playing in two different tournaments. There was a lot of pressure because I was also supposed to be earning points to get direct entrance into the US Open, so I kind of put the burden on my back and it broke. I lost in the second round at two tournaments in which I could have gone much further and slipped in the rankings.

Since that point, I told myself not to think about breaking in to the top 100—just think about becoming a better player. Once you do this, the top 100 will eventually come. When you stop thinking about whether you’re #101 or 90, I think you can improve more easily…. We’re human, so we can’t completely block these kinds of thoughts—they’re always there. But you have to try to keep it in the back of your head and put the priority on your game.

AM: Even before the Australian Open, playing your first live rubber in the Davis Cup final was a sort of “coming out” party. Although people in Serbia knew you, that was when fans and media in the rest of the tennis world were introduced to you. What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed in this new stage of your career?

Lajović vs Stepanek (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

Lajović vs Stepanek (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

DL: I really felt this during Davis Cup finals. Some people would say I was thrown to the sharks, but it was a really great experience. Though I was saying this at the time, I really didn’t know what it would mean to me until more recently. My match with Stepanek is an example: even though I was losing badly, I was still fighting for every point. And this is something important that helped me play well this season—realizing that you have to stay humble until the end of the match. Even if you’re leading in a set by a break, when you get up from the bench [after a changeover], you can’t let yourself relax.

Now, even when I have a break, I run to the baseline to get another one—I think maintaining this high level of energy is one of the things that’s kept me going this season. If your opponent suddenly starts playing better, it’s not necessarily because you did anything wrong; so, you have to stay positive. In a couple of losses I’ve had this year, I think that was a big part of the problem—that I wasn’t pushing it to the limit. But if I can keep the positive energy up, I think it’ll be even better for my season and my career.

AM: You mentioned getting thrown to the sharks in Davis Cup. In terms of sharks, you’ve faced a number of them lately, starting with Tomas Berdych. Watching a match of yours in Brazil, I was thinking that you might need to get a little more mean. You seem like a nice guy and you’re very calm and level-headed on court, so there’s no need to get crazy. But, sometimes, maybe more of a killer instinct would help?

DL: Yeah, that’s true. I would say that killer instinct is coming a bit more this season. It all has to do with personality, I think. Maybe I was a little bit insecure before, but now I try to be more confident and to know what I’m worth. While it’s important not to be arrogant on the court, you have to be a fighter. Fair play is for me the number one thing during the match, but you also need to be a little bit “rude” on the court, if I can say it that way. Maybe that was a piece that I was missing, this shark instinct, and it’s very important. But I feel like it’s coming—that I’m going in the right direction.

AM: Have there been any perks to being in the top 100?

DL: Let’s face it, there aren’t many better jobs in the world than living on the tour. You get to travel a lot—ok, from one side that’s a good thing; from the other, you’re away from home for more than thirty weeks a year. But, I think that tennis players have a pretty nice life once they’re in the top 100 or top 50.

When you’re playing Challengers, you can have tournaments in some pretty small places and you need to change several planes [to get there]. When you play tour events, they’re always in big cities, so you can fly direct or maybe one connection. You also know for sure that you will have a big hotel. I’ve played a Challenger in Uzbekistan, so you can imagine what that’s like—in Qarshi, near the border of Afghanistan. There, the hotel was really bad, and the breakfast… You can never know what kind of food you’re going to get, so you’ve got to be careful.  When you’re at a tour event, food is provided on site or there are good restaurants in the city.

From that side, it’s much better to play these events. And all the best players are here and you have the chance to compete against them, which is what I always dreamed of. So, I would say that as soon as I don’t have to play Challenger events, I will try not to play them, to just keep playing here—even if it means playing a bit more in qualies when I don’t get in [directly]. But now I have a good ranking, so I think this will also help me to gain more experience on the tour.

AM: Other than being able to play more highly-ranked players, and some big names, is there any difference in how people treat you—in the locker room or elsewhere?

DL: Yeah, they’re getting to know me, and everybody says “hi.” Once you get there, eventually everybody will know you. For me, it doesn’t matter if somebody in the top ten knows you and he’s your friend or if somebody’s top 500. If he’s a good person, it’s the same—he’s your friend.

AM: How about in terms of media and fan attention? How much about yourself are you interested in sharing, beyond aspects of your game?

DL: I realize that the better you get, the more people will know you and they’ll want to know more. I think it’s a good thing nowadays, with Twitter and everything. On Twitter, I’m not very active, but I try to keep my fans (as much as I have them) posted about some different things that I like.

“Little fuzzy koala”

“Little fuzzy koala”

Because I don’t think that I would just put, “Yesterday, I lost; tomorrow I play at this time…” I feel like they can find all this kind of information online, and they want to know something that’s behind the curtain, something that they could not see on tv or whatever. I still haven’t had any interviews where I get asked something personal—there are always one or two questions about what I do in my free time or something like this… which you can basically answer automatically. I didn’t have any goofy questions and I haven’t been in the tabloids*; somebody maybe posted my tweets a couple of times in the newspaper, but that’s it. So, I don’t feel any different yet.

[*Strictly speaking, this isn’t accurate.  Tennis players in Serbia are frequent tabloid fodder and Lajović is no exception (here he is looking dapper during a night out with teammate Ilija Bozoljac, for example).  But it’s good to know that Dutzee doesn’t spend his free time Googling himself or reading the gossip pages.]

AM: Speaking of Twitter, you usually keep it pretty light: updates about your matches, some pictures, this and that. But earlier this year, you re-tweeted an article Sergiy Stakhovsky posted—a story about British player calling it quits. Why did it seem worth sharing?

DL: I played once against Jamie Baker. I didn’t know him as a person; I saw him at tournaments, but personally we never connected. He was just there and I didn’t know what was on the other side. So, when I read the article… I don’t want to say some bad words now, but I was like, “Oh my god.” I mean, I thought, “Shit, this is bad,” you know? A tough life. This person was there and I never knew anything about it. Maybe he didn’t share with anybody, or maybe some people knew but they weren’t speaking about it. When you read it from somebody else and see how tough it is, I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’ve been through many things like this”—apart from the injuries he had.

AM: When you described playing Challengers, I thought maybe that’s why the Jamie Baker story struck you. I don’t know if this saying exists in Serbian: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Was it that sort of feeling, that it could be you? We can both point to talented guys in the top two or three hundred—on some level, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be ranked higher; on another level, we could identify the reasons, though it’s not necessarily about quality.

DL: All the guys who are [at the top] are there because they want it more than the other guys—this is my thinking. Even if you do all the things properly, there are probably some things you should do differently to get up there. Maybe you’re practicing, going to sleep, doing everything right, and at some point you’re thinking “Why am I still number 150 and not 80? I’m doing everything that all the guys who are 50 or 80 are.” But maybe you need to change something that you haven’t even thought of to get there.

I also think that your thoughts are very important in terms of going in the right direction. Because even if you do everything right, if you look at this guy and think, “Why is he there and not me?”—you should not pity yourself. It may be going badly now; but at some point, if you’re doing everything right, it will come. And if your maximum is to be at 120, then you’ve got to face it and say, “I gave it everything that I could, I’m 120, and I couldn’t do more.” But if you don’t give your maximum, you don’t know how far you can go. So, if my maximum is 89, ok, it’s 89; but when I finish my career, I will know I gave everything to get there. Right now, I can’t remember the whole article about Jamie. But apart from things you can’t control, like injury or illness, it’s all about yourself—how much you want it and how much you give to get there.

 in Zagreb

Lajović on the stretch (© PBZ Zagreb Indoors)

AM: Isn’t it the case, though, that unless you get to a certain point in the rankings, the financial side of the sport is pretty difficult? Where would you put that cut-off—is it where you are now? For instance, when you won that round at the Australian Open, you got the biggest paycheck of your career. How much does that help?

DL: Well, it also makes a difference in terms of not having to think about the financial situation when you travel. I would say that all the players from Serbia didn’t have a good financial status to compete regularly, in every tournament, or to travel when they were starting. So, some of them were borrowing money, and some found sponsors, but nobody had his own money to do so. This, from one side, was a good thing for us and why, as people always ask us, we’re so hungry to succeed.

But from the other side, when I was playing Futures or Challengers, there were times when I didn’t know if I could go to this or that tournament. I’m lucky to have parents who provided for me, even when they didn’t have anything—they always found a solution. I always knew the pressure, but I knew they did this because they believed in me and wanted to see me do something I like. From this point of view, I could never give up and say, “Ok, it’s hard for you guys and it’s hard for me, so now we’re quitting.” Because I know how much I gave of myself and how much they gave of themselves for me to keep playing tennis.

AM: Did you get much financial support from the Serbian tennis federation?

DL: In the years when I was young, it was difficult. The situation in our country was not good, so [the federation] didn’t have money or a system to help players. Over the years, it’s gotten better—it can always be much better. At the point when it was most important, I would say that I didn’t have the help, the resources I needed. But I wasn’t always the best player in my country, so from that side I can also realize that they didn’t see my potential. When you look at other countries, like Spain, they have like fifty guys that they sponsor. But when you’re from Serbia, you’ve got to do 90% on your own.

AM: Until what stage was your family your main support?

DL: I would say until I was top 200, but maybe even a year ago. But it all depends. I mean, I still live with my parents because I’m barely home—I travel for two months, then go home for five days. If you’re top 200, you can be top 200 [by playing] Challengers and still not earn anything, just be on the edge of covering costs. Or, you can be top 200 with maybe a few ATPs, and then you have more money than a guy who’s the same rank as you.

AM: When you won a match at the Australian Open, other than its relaxing you a bit about finances and making it possible for you to hire Stefan, did you do anything for yourself as a reward or indulgence?

DL: Not really. I mean, I don’t go shopping very often; but when I do, I’m just searching for one thing that I really need. Because I have a phone, I have a car, I have this and that… I don’t need anything special. Maybe at one point, I’ll start buying some crazy things.

AM: I don’t think that’s necessary—I just wondered if you marked the occasion.

DL: No, I didn’t. For me, the best thing is to be with people I love. Then maybe go for a nice dinner—I really enjoy good food. But I was just there with my coach; I don’t think we did anything.

I also feel like this is something I should have done earlier—winning a round [at a major]. That’s why, even though it’s big for me, I want to feel like it’s normal because I really want to do greater things. So, if I buy an expensive watch for myself when I win one round, what will I do if I win a Slam?

Doubles: Serbia vs Switzerland (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

Doubles: Serbia vs Switzerland (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

AM: A question about the first round of Davis Cup: if Zimonjić & Krajinović had won the doubles rubber, you would have had to play Roger Federer instead of Michael Lammer. Would you have liked to play Federer in that situation, or were you happy to get the win?

DL: No, no, I really wanted to… I think this is also a big difference from a couple months ago. When I played in the finals, I wanted to give my best; but, on some level, I think I didn’t play to beat this guy. When I played against Stanislas, I went on the court to really try to beat him, even though he just won the Australian Open.

This is also something that has improved a lot this season: that it doesn’t matter who you play, you’ve got to go on court and expect to win. Otherwise, don’t go on the court. I think that if you have this [attitude] every match, doesn’t matter against which player, then you will keep improving. Maybe I just needed this kind of experience against top-10 players to see that I need to go on court and try to beat these guys as well, not to have [too much] respect for them.

Then again, I had to play the other guy on Sunday—and we didn’t want to lose. Even though we lost [the tie against Switzerland] 3-0, I really wanted to win. [Lammer] also wanted to win and he played well—better than his ranking. So, I was happy to win this match, even though it didn’t mean anything; but it would have been much better to play Federer in a live rubber.

AM: At the beginning, we talked about some of the “firsts” you’ve recently achieved. What’s the next “first”—the next big step you’re going to take?

DL: I wouldn’t mind for it to be an ATP title. Why not? I have Futures titles, Challenger titles, so now I need an ATP title.

*******

Two days after our conversation, Lajović got called in to replace an injured Tommy Haas, who’d received a “bye” into the second round. If his more experienced opponent, Yen-Hsun Lu, felt any relief not to be facing Haas (against whom he has an 0-2 record), that feeling wouldn’t have lasted long: the Serb got an early break and went on to take the first set 6-1. Another break early in the second proved more difficult for Dutzee to hang on to and Lu sent the match into a deciding set by winning the tiebreak.

I suspected I wasn’t the only one on Court 7 wondering whether—or to what extent— Lajović’s chances of a victory diminished when he wasn’t able to wrap up the match in two sets. As if giving voice to my doubt, a Serbian woman in the crowd urged “Dule,” as he is also known, not to rush during his first service game. His bark in reply seemed cause for concern. (As I later learned, however, this invested elder was Dušan’s mother, and his tone with her likely borne more of familiarity than frustration.) A break in the sixth game proved decisive. Despite a wobble of nerves after the umpire called for a replay of what Lajović thought was a winning point, he took the match 6-1, 6-7(3), 6-3.

Lajović serves during his win over Lu.

Lajović serves during his win over Lu.

After he’d had a chance to recover from his three-setter against Lu, Lajović shared some thoughts about his main-draw showing. (You can read his comments in Serbian on B92.)

AM: How does it feel to be a Lucky Loser?

DL: Pretty lucky. I got the chance to play and I used it the best I could. If somebody had asked me five days ago how I’m doing, I had a totally different feeling when I lost. So, now I’m pretty happy and I appreciate that I got in… And that I played a good match last night—it’s a really good thing for me.

AM: Was it all awkward that the guy you were drawn against is someone with whom you share a physio?

DL: Yeah, we did the preseason together a couple of times and we’ve practiced many times. But, when you’re in these tournaments, you can always play against anybody; so, you’re prepared for the possibility. Then again, Stefan couldn’t watch—he was watching from the locker room, actually.

AM: You mean he couldn’t watch in the stands because he can’t cheer?

DL: It’s better if he doesn’t watch on the court—it’s his rule and we respect it. But it was ok, nothing too weird. I’ve played a few times against some people who are friends in my personal life, so it’s kind of something you have to get used to.

Fellow players Filip Krajinović & Kiki Mladenović showed up to support Lajović.

Fellow players Filip Krajinović & Kiki Mladenović showed up to support Lajović.

AM: Even though you didn’t have your coach or physio out there, you did have a nice little cheering section, including your mother. What’s it like when you have friends or family watching?

DL: It’s always good—I love when my family’s there. Whenever they have the chance, they come to watch me and it’s the best support I could have. So, I’m really enjoying the time and that my mother’s here.

AM: The first set went perfectly according to plan, but when the second got more complicated, there was a question about how that might affect you going forward. Were you frustrated after you lost the early break advantage?

DL: I think that the problem was that I was feeling little tired in the second set since I’ve been here all day for the last four days. I had to be here from before the first match until the last match because there was always a chance to get in. This is really tiring when you have to stay all day in the club, plus practice. So, even before the match, I wasn’t really fresh.

After I won this second-set break, I felt so tired all of a sudden. Probably I was a little bit empty, emotionally, from winning the break—and I couldn’t keep up the energy. After I lost the break, I thought, “If we go into a third [set], it will be even harder for me, and I should try to finish in two.” But this wasn’t going. So, when I lost the second set, I said, “Ok, now you know there is only one set left and you’ve got to push as much as you can.” In the end, I did it, though I was maybe even cramping in the third set a little bit.

AM: In terms of the disappointment of losing the second-set tiebreak, and heading into a third set, would you say your concerns were more physical or mental?

DL: Both—equally both. The good thing is that I was serving well in the third set. Because if we had played longer rallies, it would be even harder and I don’t know if the ending would be the same.

AM: I know fitness can be an issue with some of the younger guys—Raonić and Dimitrov, for example—especially at majors, since you aren’t as accustomed to playing longer matches. Is stamina something you’re working on?

DL: Well, I haven’t played many best-of-five; but with those I did, I didn’t have physical problems. I feel I’m pretty fit to compete on this level, though I don’t know how I’d feel when it gets to the point of playing four or five best-of-five matches in a row. But I feel I could handle it physically, because I always do a good, tough preseason in Kenya, where it’s really hot and we practice more than five hours a day. Ok, when you play a match it’s different—you get tired more because emotions are working. But I think I can handle it physically.

AM: Since your coach (Jan Velthuis) isn’t here, what do you do for match preparation?

DL: I speak with my coach over the phone—it’s not a problem. He advises me before the match and gives me tactics. We always talk after every match, so it doesn’t feel like he’s away.

AM: When you’re going into a match like tomorrow’s, do you ever target a very specific thing you’re going to work on, or is it more general?

DL: For me, it’s better when I think more generally. Because I have my own game and I always try to focus on that, and then just do things that I need and which may not be good for my opponent. When I focus on his game, I’m not doing my game as good as I should and everything breaks down.

AM: Looking forward to the match against Dolgopolov, what can you expect?

DL: Expect the unexpected, I would say. He is playing really well the last couple of weeks—doesn’t matter on hard court or on clay. He beat Rafa last week, so he’s in good shape with a lot of confidence. For me, it’ll be a big challenge to play him, first of all. I hope that I can just keep my game on a high level… For sure, I’m going to go out on the court and try to beat him, but this will be tough, especially because he’s playing so well. The only thing for me is to keep my game like I did last night, and in the previous weeks, and to manage to stay focused during the whole match. Then, I think I have a chance.

*******

Post-script: the unexpected took several forms in the third-round match between Dutzee and Dolgopolov. Although there were a number of welcome developments, such as the Serb’s level of play in the first and third sets, the match ended on several less pleasant notes, not least of which was a controversial call in the final set tiebreak.

Lajović handled the set-back in stride and had reason, despite a defeat seemingly snatched from the jaws of victory, to be pleased with his week. The Monday after Miami, he achieved a new career high of #78. We may see more firsts from him when he returns to his favorite surface: European clay.