In the lead up to the busiest part of the tennis season, I had the pleasure of joining BBC radio host Steve Crossman and tennis correspondent Russell Fuller on a 5 Live Sports special program discussing what makes the ATP #1 tick.
On the center court in Belgrade today, one of Serbia’s top juniors made his ATP debut. Marko Topo, 17, faced Argentina’s Federico Coria, who was promoted into the main draw after Pablo Andujar withdrew with an injury. Topo was impressive in the first set, which he won 6-4, going toe to toe with the ATP’s #94 player as if this level of competition were something he’s used to. Mid-way through the second set, however, the young Serb over-exerted himself—opting for a tweener at the end of a 25-shot rally (which Coria smashed back to win the point)—and seemed to hit a wall. He lost a bit of confidence after that, his head and his level dropping. Coria took advantage: winning the second set 6-2, then blanking the youngster in the third, 6-0. Despite the lopsided final set, it was a solid effort for Topo’s opening-day performance on the main stage. Watching on from the balcony of the Novak Tennis Center was none other than Djoković himself, whom I later asked for his impressions.
AM: I’m curious to get your scouting report on young Marko Topo. And more than what his potential is as a player, I’m wondering if you could reflect a little bit on what it might have meant to you to have a tournament like this at home when you were his age, and what kind of opportunity you think these juniors are getting by having an ATP tournament in Belgrade?
NĐ: It was tough luck [for him] to get injured. He was coming into the tournament with a slight back pain and it got worse today as the match went on; but he showed the fighting spirit, and I’m proud of him. I just saw him as he walked out of the court and congratulated him for not giving up and staying there and, you know, showing a good attitude on the court. I think that’s very important for a young player on the big stage like this to have a great opportunity to play with the best tennis players in the world. Coria, I think, is top hundred, a clay-court specialist. He was never going to hand Marko the match—he had to earn it. So, I thought he played very well for a set and a half. Then after, it just became more physical, where Coria was just more comfortable. But I think, overall, Marko showed a lot of positive things in his game, his behavior, and fighting spirit.
He really appreciated the opportunity to have a wildcard and play the main draw, and I’m very, very pleased with him. So, you know, not many negative things I can say. Actually, on the contrary, I’m really pleased with the way he’s playing, the way he has been improving. He’s been training here at our center with our coaches for a while now, moving between Serbia and Germany, where he grew up. So, we are very happy to have him around and I think he’s got great potential to become a successful tennis player professionally.
Now, there are many factors in play and elements that have to come together so that his formula of success is accomplished, but he’s got the means and we’ll do everything we can to support him, as much as we will do with Hamad [Medjedović, who] is playing tomorrow. Obviously, they are the same age, they know each other, and they’re both top-20 juniors in the world.* Both of these guys, I think, they can help each other actually; hopefully, they can spend more time training and traveling together. As I remember, back in the day, with Viktor Troicki—even though Viktor is a year older than me, I spent a lot of time with him on and off the court and we grew up together, played a lot of matches for our teams here in Serbia and individually. In individual tournaments, we faced each other quite often, but also we shared the room when we were traveling and I think if you have someone to really motivate you and pull you along, it makes your path and your journey much easier, and just more exciting. So I think these two guys, they seems to be in a really good relationship and I would want to see them spend more time together traveling and training.”
*Medjedović is currently ranked #22 by the ITF, with a juniors career-high of #9; Topo is #33 with a career-high ten spots above that.
Moving on to the man—or, rather, boy—of the hour, I wanted to get an introduction to Marko Topo. What I learned from our conversation is that Topo is the child of immigrants. He was born in Munich to Serbs who left Croatia in the 1990s due to the conflict there. Like many in the former Yugoslavia, he’s an ethnic mix: “a bit of everything,” as he said. He started playing tennis when he was six years old: that is, in 2009. Although he’s a dual citizen of Germany and Serbia, he opted to play for the country where his family’s roots are: “I moved here when I was 12, and. . . I got so many choices to play [with] the wildcards and they’re giving me so much. So, I’m just feeling more Serbian and I just feel at home here.”
Topo told the Argentine reporters present (virtually) that, “It was an amazing feeling to play here—to play with the top guys, to play with Federico. For the first set, I had the control. I played good: I served well; I pushed him back [from the baseline]. I was leading the game and [stepping into] the court. And then in the second set, I just felt a little bit of losing energy. My head started to think also about my back—I had a little bit of pain. So, I started to think too much, maybe. And that’s it. My level dropped [and] he raised his level. He played solid to the end and he won it.”
Informed that Djoković had said “very nice things” about him in his own press conference, Topo lit up. He then described what it means to him to have Novak as a mentor: “to be almost a friend with Nole, to practice with him is an amazing thing. . . For me, he is the greatest of all time. He’s my idol. I can’t say anything [else] about it. I mean, he’s the biggest in our sport. It makes me proud to hear good stuff about me from him. . . . I’m still young—I’m 17—and to be part of this academy and to be part of Nole, to have the chance to speak to him is just amazing and I’m very grateful to be here. And I’m grateful to have this chance to play, to get the wildcard.”
The rest of our exchange, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
AM: “When you picked up a tennis racquet, if my math is correct, Novak was already number three in the world (which is a little bit of a crazy perspective for those of us who are older!). Basically, your whole life, Novak has been at the top. So, I would imagine that even before you met him, he was probably your idol?”
MT: “Yeah, that’s true. I mean, when I started to play, the best guy of our country was Novak. He did so much for our sport. He’s just, for me, the greatest, like I said. It’s amazing that he is already 12 years at the top—I don’t know how he can manage it, but he’s just unbelievable.
AM: “Novak said that you’re training there. Does that mean you have your own personal coach or are you working with somebody from his center?”
MT: “I moved here two weeks ago. I’m just new here. So, yeah, we have to solve that problem. I’m training at the moment with Boris [Bošnjaković]. I was at Djukić Academy before, [where] I trained with Petar. So, we have to manage how to get a coach for me—maybe from another country, so I’m looking forward to that.”
AM: “I’m assuming you’re going to play all the big junior events for the rest of the year. And then, are you thinking of going pro immediately after you turn 18 or are you going to go to college? What are your plans?”
MT: “Now, the next tournament for me is Roland Garros, the junior one. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to play the big tournaments, junior Grand Slams. I will combine that with some Futures and Challengers, wherever I can get the chance to get a wildcard or just to get in. So, I will mix it up with some pro tournaments and some juniors. Then after my junior career, so next year, I’m looking forward to immediately go to the pros. Hopefully, everything will go as fast as possible, to get up there maybe where Nole is now. . . . That’s my plans.
AM: “Your plan is to go all the way to number one?”
MT: “I mean, I think it’s the dream of every tennis player—some reach it, some not. [But] everyone is fighting for that.”
AM: “Could you give us a little bit of a self-assessment in terms of what you think your strengths are as a player and what areas of your game you still need to improve?”
MT: “I’m a young player, so I have to improve a lot. I have many strengths and many, I would call them, problems in my game because I’m young—I mean, it’s normal. I have to improve. I think my game is based on an attacking game. I’m trying to play aggressive, maybe a bit different than Nole. But, yeah. My forehand—I like my forehand. I’m serving also well. Today I was not serving that good, but normally I’m serving well. And I have to improve on my fitness a little bit. That’s it overall.”
When Topo contrasted his with his idol’s game, he laughed a bit, as if to acknowledge his own audacity. It struck me as a potentially revealing moment—of what, precisely, we’ll have to wait and see.
Taro Daniel made an unexpected run to the semifinals at the Serbia Open as a “lucky loser,” pushing eventual champion Matteo Berrettini to a third set before succumbing to the big-hitting Italian.
But perhaps this run wasn’t as surprising as it looks on paper, where the 28-year-old Daniel beat three higher-ranked players, two of whom (Sousa and Delbonis) have titles on clay. Daniel himself is no slouch on the surface: his family moved to Spain when he was 14 years old and that’s where he won his first three professional titles at ITF Futures events in 2012. Flash forward a few years and Daniel also won his first two Challenger titles on clay—albeit in Italy and Germany, not Spain—and qualified for the main draw at Roland Garros. In May 2018, he won an ATP title on clay in Istanbul, beating then-#102 Matteo Berrettini in the first round.
I caught up with Daniel—virtually, of course—after his last match in Belgrade to find out how the Japanese player felt about his two weeks in Serbia’s capital, where he also competed in a Challenger tournament at the Novak Tennis Center.
“It’s a great feeling, to be honest, even though I lost. I was, energy-wise and physically, pretty drained today. But even then I found probably some of the best tennis I ever played for a little period at the end of the second set there. And, you know, I’ve been working really hard off the court with my coach. Also, I had my mental coach and my trainer with me; so, [it was] a very intense couple weeks here. But some stuff is paying off on court. So, I’m really happy with that and I can see the potential I can have in possibly improving a lot more.”
Since I’d noticed that Daniel had quite a few people cheering from his box during the semifinal, I wondered how things were going with coach Sven Groeneveld and the rest of his team.
“Yeah, it was just a coincidence that this time I had such a big team, because usually, especially with COVID, I’ve only been traveling with my coach. But it just happened that the mental coach was able to come this week and also my trainer. I wanted him to come at the beginning of the clay season to [help] adapt to the movements on clay, so it just happened to be.”
Regarding his mental coach, Jackie Reardon, Daniel said they’d been working together since shortly after the tennis tour resumed last August.
“You know, I’ve kind of struggled the last couple of years with enjoying the tour. I’ve worked so hard—and that’s kind of been my default setting, too. So, I’ve always kind of felt that if I suffer, then I should get a reward. That worked really well until I got to this level: I mean, [top] 100 in the world or 80 in the world, 110. But then I felt like something’s missing in order for me to take the next step. I think, obviously, there’s some stuff in the game of tennis; but then I think I’m playing well enough to be able to be [ranked] 50 or 60, as long as I have the right mind-set. I need to start believing in myself more and being happier with what I’m doing with tennis and bringing more joy into the game. But those things need to be trained, you know. And that’s actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I need to get into really, really uncomfortable situations to bring that out. So, it’s been a really intense but amazing process.”
At risk of faulty post-hoc reasoning, I’d suggest that process has already paid off, even before last week’s success in Belgrade, as Daniel won a Challenger title in Hamburg last October.
I also asked Daniel about his prospects for Tokyo, as well as his thoughts about the Olympic Games going forward while the pandemic is ongoing. Recent polls show that a majority of the country isn’t enthusiastic about the Olympics taking place. For one thing, Japan is hardly leading the pack with regard to vaccinating its population.
And, just last week, the government announced a state of emergency in an attempt to get case numbers under control in its biggest cities which, according to the Associated Press, are “home to about a quarter of Japan’s population of 126 million.” In mid-May, after the state of emergency has been lifted, IOC President Thomas Bach will visit Japan to get a progress report on preparations.
Currently, Daniel is ranked #112: fifth among Japanese ATP players, just behind Yasutaka Uchiyama (#108) and Yuichi Sugita (#109). With only 56 players gaining direct entry, and the rankings cutoff set for June 14 to include results from the postponed French Open, the competition is stiff. Daniel said that while he’d like to play in Tokyo, it isn’t his top priority for the year.
“We’re so close now with the two guys in front of me, we’re kind of in a really tight race. I’m obviously trying to make the Olympic cuts and I know that the [limit is] like four per county; so, it’s pretty important to try and make it. But, at the same time, it’s not my main focus. My main focus is to really keep investing in my mental strength and my tennis, and then… I’ll just let things be. But, obviously, that’s one of my goals, to make it there.”
“And then, with all the uncertainties with the Olympics, it’s so difficult to say. Because even if I’m from there and I know people that are working directly for the Olympics, they know exactly the same amount that I do, almost. I feel like everybody is really lost. And that’s the message that’s kind of being transmitted to the public, as well, [which] I think is normal because it’s such a complicated situation. And I think it’s also normal that the people are pretty afraid to have such a big event, you know, because can you really concentrate on the quality of the sport being played while there are so many concerns around all the other stuff? [But] I think once it happens, it’ll be okay. You know, I’m sure the Japanese are really good at organizing; so, when the athletes are in the village, it won’t be like a super-spreader thing in there. I mean, I don’t know what kind of protocols they’ll have for the public—for spectators. So, we’ll see. I don’t know anything, really, if it will go ahead or not, but I hope it will.”
When I asked whether he, like his coach, took the opportunity presented by the local surplus to get vaccinated in Serbia, Daniel reminded me that he’ll be playing the qualifying rounds for Roland Garros the week of the second Belgrade event. So, unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for him to return for a second shot.
Turning to Groeneveld, the high-profile coach had positive reviews for the Serbian Open, which has been granted a second life after an initial run from 2009-2012. Though he and Reardon had already shared some of their impressions of the organization on Twitter, the Dutchman also followed up with me by text after the tournament: “The facility, staff, and all of the services—for food transport laundry stringing and hotel—were run perfectly. We never had to wait for anything, as if they have been running this event for years and years.”
Despite the nine-year break between ATP tournaments in Belgrade, members of the Djoković family have had more recent practice in event management: Novak’s uncle Goran is the director at the Sofia Open in neighboring Bulgaria and his youngest brother Djordje was in charge of last summer’s well-intentioned but ill-fated Adria Tour. One of the ways in which the Serbia Open echoed its controversial predecessor was in having a lower-tier competition the week prior to the main event, with three-quarters of the participants in the former, like Daniel, playing in the qualification rounds of the latter.
Groeneveld was particularly grateful for the tournament’s efforts in facilitating vaccination for competitors and team members. “The vaccination was organized by the ATP tour manager, Denis Živković, who was collaborating with the local officials. We went to a facility where the vaccine was administered and all of the people there knew we were invited and took care of us, making sure we kept our distance during the procedure. Official tournament transport was taking us back and forth. Very smooth!” Serbia, unlike most countries in continental Europe, has a vaccine surplus—hence, the government’s willingness to provide shots for foreign guests. (As I discussed in a recent Twitter thread, there’s also a problem with vaccine hesitancy in the country; but the reality is that Serbia has about twice as many vaccines as needed for its population of roughly 7 million.)
Groeneveld confirmed, “I will be heading back to Belgrade around 21-22 of May to get my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, which is during the start of the ATP event.” The Belgrade Open, a one-time special proposed to fill the calendar gap resulting from pushing back Roland Garros, runs May 22-29.
As for his Japanese charge, Groeneveld observed, “Taro really took advantage of his ‘lucky loser’ spot and showed he is making progress in all areas. Nine matches in two weeks is great prep for the remainder of the clay court season.”
Yesterday, the Serbian tennis federation (Teniski Savez Srbije, or TSS) announced the selection of Viktor Troicki to be the national team’s new Davis Cup captain. This decision came as a surprise to most tennis observers in Serbia, as well as to the captain of the last four years, Nenad Zimonjić. In their press release, the TSS said that the federation’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to appoint Troicki to a four-year term based on a proposal from a commission for the selection of the Davis Cup captain. (Thought the Board members are listed on the TSS website, and include one familiar name in Goran Djoković, Novak’s uncle, it isn’t clear who sits on the relevant commission.) They briefly thanked Zimonjić for his service before turning to a review of Troicki’s career highlights, starting with his heroics in the 2010 Davis Cup final against France and skipping his year-long suspension for breach of the ITF’s anti-doping rules.
In a lengthy statement posted on Twitter, Zimonjić expressed his dismay not only at the TSS decision itself but also at the process that led to it. According to Zimonjić, the players knew both that he wanted to stay on in his role and that the deadline for applicants for the captain position was October 24. At that time, he was informed by the TSS that he was the only candidate who met the criteria. Then, a week later, he received a phone call from Troicki himself telling him that other players had met in Paris, presumably during the Masters tournament there, and expressed a wish for him to be their new captain. On November 3, Zimonjić learned that the players had submitted a special request to the TSS and that the Board of Directors agreed to extend the application deadline by more than a month, giving Troicki time to collect his thoughts and put them on paper.
When Troicki contacted Zimonjić with the update some six weeks ago, he didn’t offer any “concrete reasons” why the players wanted a change. Nor, apparently, has anyone else, at least so far. Zimonjić claims that at no point this year—one that started with Serbia lifting the inaugural ATP Cup in Sydney—did players raise concerns, express dissatisfaction with his leadership, or indicate a desire to replace him. He continues: “Throughout the years, I tried to help all our players and be a support to them at all times, not only during Davis Cup competition but in every situation (I had excellent communication with all of them, supported them, followed their development, and was there for them with help).” Zimonjić further notes that he played alongside “4-5 different generations of players, starting from the very bottom level of Davis Cup competition [after then-Yugoslavia was relegated from the World Group due to sanctions] and going all the way to the title of world champions in 2010,” enumerating the various roles he has performed over his two and a half decades on the Serbian team: “singles player, doubles player, playing captain (in 2003-04), mentor, and. . . an older brother (as someone 8-15 years older than other members of the team, that’s how I behaved).” Zimonjić, who received the ITF’s Award of Excellence when Serbia made their second Davis Cup final in 2013, holds team records for doubles wins (30-19), overall wins (43-31, beating out Djoković & Tipsarević, who are tied at 34), and ties played (55).
In an interview published today in Sportski Žurnal (but conducted before Zimonjić posted his comments on social media), Troicki acknowledged that he didn’t expect this responsibility now, before the end of his playing career, and that he had “very mixed feelings” when he first got the news. However, while he was initially surprised by the development, the new role represents a dream come true for the 34-year-old and he feels “honored to have been selected”: when the players choose you, he explained, “that’s not something you refuse.” As for the reasons prompting this decision, Troicki didn’t offer much detail: “We’re all grateful to Zimonjic, who was an excellent captain.” “There were no disagreements, simply a need to refresh and change” after many years, he added, pointing to recent overhauls to leadership on other Serbian national teams, like football (soccer), as if to say that change is everywhere.
As for Zimonjić, he declined to speak to Vojin Veličković when the long-time Serbian tennis writer contacted him on Thursday night. It seems the TSS hadn’t bothered to inform him of their decision, leaving it to the journalist—who, like other beat reporters, had received an email from them some six hours earlier—to convey the bad news. Later, Veličković reflected on this lapse in collegiality: “Who would be a better captain is a professional question, and the federation has the right to its assessment; but whether one should inform someone about the outcome of his application and tell him that he’s no longer a part of a competition to which he’s dedicated a quarter-century of his life is a human one.” Although Zimonjić hasn’t officially retired, it’s tough to read yesterday’s comments as anything but an end to a significant chapter, if not a farewell.
Our excellent results were also the consequence of excellent teamwork. The team members and the national team’s results were always my top priority. I tried to convey that to all the players as well: what it means to be a national team member, to represent your team and country, and to contribute as an individual to a greater goal.
My desire was always to represent Serbia in the best possible way and in the best light, to give our nation reasons to be proud and happy, to all rejoice together and celebrate our shared historical successes!
To all players, I wish good luck and great success in the future, both in individual and in team competition.
Big greetings to all sports lovers and our loyal fans, our people who have rooted for us all these years at competitions in Serbia and around the world, with whom we managed to celebrate great successes and share many beautiful moments, for which I’m especially glad.
With wishes for many more reasons for celebration in the future: let’s go, Serbia!
Particularly given that Serbia hosts no ATP tour events, who knows when the veteran doubles specialist, who as of his last interview was still attempting to make a comeback from bilateral hip replacement surgery, will next appear before a home crowd. What comes across in his typed statement is a mix of pride, principle, bemusement, and sadness. “For me,” Zimonjić writes, “it was always a great honor, privilege, and responsibility to represent my country and my people, and to contribute as a member of the national team.” After listing his best results at team events, including four appearances at the Olympics, he observes, “I’m very proud of all these accomplishments, as well as of the fact that the players chose me to be the captain for both Davis Cup and the ATP Cup. In that regard, I was sure that my expertise, experience, knowledge—and therefore my function as team captain—wouldn’t be in question.” Like the now-former captain, readers of the public comments from Serbian tennis insiders are left without answers to the key questions: namely, why replace Zimonjić now? Perhaps above all, why—after all his contributions to the sport and given the apparent closeness among members of the team—do it in this way?
Friends, can we talk about causal reasoning—and causation, more generally?
This isn’t what we usually turn to tennis to do, I realize, but some of the arguments circulating in the wake of the Adria Tour, especially after four participants (plus team and family members) tested positive for covid-19 early last week, have hurt my brain. More than giving me a headache, though, this stuff isn’t good for our understanding of the event and its consequences—or of the figure at the center of the controversy. Odd a response though this may be, reading some of the initial analysis sent me scrambling for a textbook I used to assign in a course at the University of Richmond.* After refreshing my memory on the topic of rival causes, a term for “a plausible alternative explanation [for] why a certain outcome occurred,” I decided to identify a couple of patterns I’ve observed in the assessments of what went wrong with the Adria Tour.
Diction like this is a sign that causal thinking is afoot.
A Tennis Channel segment reacting to the news of Novak Djoković’s covid-19 diagnosis provides us with a convenient starting point for discussion.
During the exchange, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim asked Paul Annacone how he thinks the developments from the truncated Balkan tennis tour will play in the locker-room. The coach and commentator replied, “I think there’s a lot of [Novak’s] peer group that are scratching their heads.” “If I were on the [ATP Player] Council,” Annacone added, “I would be asking a lot of difficult questions to understand how he got to where he was.” Even before the ATP #1 reunites with his colleagues, we’ve had plenty of tennis media attempting to answer these very questions—some, like Annacone, with the benefit of having interviewed the Serbian player recently, and others by putting at least a few puzzle pieces together on their own.
Not only because I could use some exercise after being stuck at home for months, I think it’s worth walking through what we know about the Adria Tour and what we don’t. Given journalism’s primary function, some combination of these two categories forms the basis of the descriptive claims we see in virtually any media response, whether it’s straightforward reporting, a column offering an interpretation of events, or a debate about how professional tennis should proceed as it returns (spoiler: not like this). So, let’s start with the basics. Journalism 101 tells us there are five questions news stories need to answer: who, what, when, where, and why. With regard to this event, the first four are easy to answer—and they’re not up for much, if any, debate.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things we know about the Adria Tour (“AT”):
- The traveling tournament was conceived by Novak Djoković and designed to bring tennis to several ex-Yugoslav countries over four weeks. In addition to being the one with the money & influence to make it happen, the host was responsible for inviting the featured players—most notably, the top-20 talent.
- It occurred during what I’ll call “phase 2” of a global pandemic: i.e., when most countries have lifted restrictions on public movement and activities (to differing degrees & with varying levels of success).
- The AT ended up taking place over two consecutive June weekends in Serbia and Croatia.
- It was planned & run by an organizing committee led, at least nominally, by director Djordje Djoković. Each stage of the event had a separate tournament director & sub-committee: for example, Goran Ivanišević was TD and Neven Nakić, VP of the Croatian tennis federation, was the president of the organizing committee for the Croatian stop.
- Round-robin, short-format matches were broadcast on regional network Sport Klub, as well as internationally on Eurosport, Tennis Channel, and 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?!
I could go on, but you get the point. The overarching question that emerges is: why, given what is common knowledge about how the coronavirus spreads, did this event take the particular shape it did—on court, in the stands, across the tournament grounds, and after hours? For what it’s worth, I don’t think “Because it was allowed by the local authorities” is a sufficient answer. That the tournament was given a green light by the powers that be is clear—and that Belgrade nightclubs weren’t specially opened for the player party should be evident to anyone looking at photos. But those facts don’t really help us understand why so many people—and not, by the way, just a dozen or so players—were acting like they’d found a time-traveling portal to the pre-covid era.
Although it’s not an official, alliterative part of journalism’s “5 Ws,” the question “how” is, of course, also relevant. For instance: how did this happen? By that, I mean both “What went into planning the Adria Tour?” and “How did an event like this, with few to no precautionary measures in place, occur in June 2020?” How were all the organizational and logistical tasks divided and decided? For that matter, how many and which regional tennis figures were on the organizing committee? With whom from the Serbian and Croatian governments did organizers coordinate? What shared attitudes or beliefs contributed to thousands of people, seemingly without concern, going along with it all—not once, either, but in ten separate sessions in two different (albeit culturally quite similar) countries? One of the things a lot of the international coverage has missed, or perhaps ignored, is just how many people were involved in this event. While it’s understandable that the focus would be on Djoković and his high-profile ATP guests, there were also hundreds of people behind the scenes helping the show go on and a whole crew of regional broadcasters and print journalists on hand to capture the scene, not to mention all the people in the stands, whose main expression of disappointment in all of this was to boo when local sports hero Ivanišević took to the court to announce the Zadar final between Djoković and Rublev had to be called off. Were people in Serbia and Croatia—whether press or public—also shocked and outraged by what they observed of the Adria Tour? Are folks in Bosnia breathing a collective sigh of relief that their leg of the event won’t happen? If not, why not?
Without having access to sources on the ground (or being able to read BCS), it’s tough to answer most of these “how” questions. In spite of this obstacle, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to explain what happened, often by making descriptive claims based on assumptions and deductions based on limited information.
Sidebar: I’ll take advantage of this moment to ride a hobby-horse of mine. A serious shortcoming I see in tennis journalism and the online tennis community’s discourse isn’t that most of it happens in English, though that’s true of the latter. Rather, it’s that there is not nearly as much cross-cultural collaboration and exchange as this uniquely international sport demands. Read more…
On some level, all the questions above are secondary: it’s not hard to imagine readers who’ve gotten this far wondering, “Who cares about this minutiae? The only thing that matters about the Adria Tour is that it was a mistake!” Well, yes. That’s certainly true if all we’re interested in doing is making a judgment, which I think virtually everyone has already done (isn’t Twitter grand?). Me? I also like to try to understand things—including the reactions to them, by media in particular. And I get more than a little uncomfortable when I see analysis that seems to skip the asking questions stage (call it “curiosity”) and go directly to reaching conclusions, not least if the outcome suggests logical short-cuts along the way. By now, you may have gathered that this is not a complaint unique to the treatment of a single event: the general terms I use below can be applied to virtually any piece of writing that makes an argument, from tweet to thesis.
Without further ado (there’s been plenty of ado already, I know), here are three patterns I’ve observed in coverage of the Adria Tour aftermath: causal oversimplification, post hoc fallacy, and fundamental attribution error.
Since all three have to do with causal reasoning, let’s establish some common ground. When we think about causation, it takes this basic form: this because that.
To give a generic example: effect B was brought about, at least in part, by cause A.
Broadly speaking, we can say that the Adria Tour (A) caused participants (and perhaps others) to become infected with covid-19 (B).
The main deduction that people have made on the basis of photographic evidence of participant activity at A is that a key factor, C—the lack of precautionary measures like mask wearing and social distancing—caused the spread of the virus within the group. Though this seems like an uncontroversial conclusion to me, it’s also the case that we have very little idea of these individuals’ activities either in the days before June 11 (the first day all the participants were together in Belgrade) or when they were not in front of tv or other kinds of cameras. With that qualification, let’s move on to examples of where some, perhaps required by the nature of the profession to publish quick takes, got tripped up by gnarly causal reasoning.#
So, what caused factor C? Almost in unison, the international media answered: Novak Djoković, of course! From there, we’ve gotten different explanations for how and why Novak ended up where he did on June 23rd: covid-positive, isolating at home in Belgrade, and in the sports section of every major media outlet in the world.
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.)
In lieu of spending more time unpacking this piece, I’ll just leave the above explanations here.
Exhibit B is from a Twitter thread by a tennis journalist especially influential on social media.
This one-two punch—bad news followed by a tidy explanation for it—implies “after this, therefore because of this.” Though the causal connection isn’t made explicit, it is nevertheless unmistakable: fringe scientific beliefs resulted in Novak and Jelena’s being at increased risk for catching covid-19.
So there’s no misunderstanding, I’ll say this as clearly as I can: personal opinions are certainly relevant in shaping the behavior of those who have them. But unless every other person associated with the Adria Tour is also pals with a bearded wellness guru from California, this account only gets us so far. Also, however “alternative” some of the Djoković views on health, they didn’t stop the pair from urging people in Serbia to stay home during the quarantine so healthcare providers wouldn’t be overburdened with patients or from using their foundation money to purchase ventilators for Serbian hospitals. These are things they likely wouldn’t do if they don’t think the coronavirus is a serious threat or believe that positive thinking, room-temperature water, and a teaspoon of manuka honey to start the day is enough to ward it off. Also: crystals. Don’t forget the crystals.
Exhibit C is a column by Jon Wertheim. Reacting to the announcement of Djoković’s positive covid-19 test, the SI senior writer and Tennis Channel studio analyst crafted a cautionary tale modeled on Greek mythology, in which the ATP #1 serves as a sort of modern-day Icarus. Unlike the tragic finality of the classics, however, this story remains open-ended: “there are chapters left to be authored,” Wertheim notes before suggesting a few ways Novak might “make amends” for his recent lapses and “win back” whatever—or whomever—he’s lost thus far this season. Instead of quoting at length, I encourage you to read it, as it’s a much more creative piece of writing than we generally get from tennis journalists. (You can find the less-creative version of Wertheim’s thoughts on the Adria Tour fallout in his weekly podcast.)
I have no quarrel with the poetic license Wertheim takes and think his narrative gets its message across in an entertaining, self-consciously dramatic manner. (It’s a tragedy, after all.) Having said that, the emphasis on the explanatory power of the contents of Novak Djoković’s head strikes me as an example of a what psychologists call fundamental attribution error: a cognitive bias “in which we typically overestimate the importance of personal tendencies relative to situational factors in interpreting the behavior of others. That is, we tend to see the cause of others’ behavior as coming from within (their personal characteristics) rather than from without (situational forces)” (126*). Abundant in the short tale are terms like “hubris,” “self-belief,” “narcissism,” and “self-importance”—as much the language of personality science (if not psychopathology) as mythology. Given not only the humanitarian nature of the venture (with the winner’s prize money going to a charity of his choice) but also Djoković’s desire to both provide lower-ranked regional players an opportunity to compete and earn some much-needed cash and bring top-tier tennis to a part of the world that doesn’t normally get it, it’s tough to accept the notion that the event aimed for self-glorification. Not least, the Balkans is the last place on earth where Novak would need to do anything to be greeted with immense affection, admiration, even gratitude. There are much easier ways for him to get showered with praise: for instance, he could stand in Trg Republike, Belgrade’s central square.
A common thread linking these three cases is that the explanations they provide for why the Adria Tour took the form it did and ended, perhaps inevitably, with a health crisis rely almost entirely on surmises about the goings on in the mind of an individual human being. This would be one thing if Djoković were the king of not just Serbia but the former Yugoslavia, and all subjects faced a choice between doing his bidding and being punished. (Representatives of four countries were involved in the planning! The prime minister of Croatia attended one of the Zadar sessions—likely coming from Zagreb to do so.) Closer to reality, I’d have an easier time understanding such causal oversimplification if Novak had simply invited a bunch of top-ranked tennis bros to a holiday weekend in his hometown, with practice matches on his backyard court followed by nights out on the town. But the Adria Tour isn’t a morality play with a single protagonist, nor did it take place on a billionaire’s private island. Perhaps it’d be better if it had.
Essentially, all of this boils down to one question: are Djoković’s personal views—about himself, about “science”—the cause or a cause leading to the questionable decisions on display during the Adria Tour? Granting the latter, which I hope you do, are we quite sure those beliefs were the most significant causal factor in shaping the risky behavior at the event? It’s certainly possible, perhaps even probable, that they played a part—in the players’ off-court activities, particularly. Still, even there, I suspect it was Novak’s pride not in himself but in his country that was among the strongest influences in his decision to perform as a tour-guide for his guests from abroad. Despite the circumstances that had brought them there, it seems he wanted to give his rivals, colleagues, and friends a weekend to remember: showing them the sights, making sure they tasted a bit of Balkan hospitality, and, yes, giving them a sense of why Belgrade’s nightlife has the reputation it does. (My guess: they’ll remember.)
Given that the event itself wasn’t merely a debauched weekend among members of the men’s tennis elite, and that thousands of people attended, staffed, or helped organize the event, we have to consider what other factors may have contributed to the outcomes observed on screens both large and small across the globe. I’ve hinted at a few possibilities from the spheres of politics and economics above (in links under Exhibit A). Here are some others that aren’t unique to the Balkans: skepticism about expertise; the politicization of science; a less-than-healthy media ecosystem (including sensationalism, propaganda, and misinformation); lack of trust in leadership; public frustration with, even resentment about, months under lockdown; and lovely spring weather. Though the increasingly rare opportunity to watch live tennis featuring both local favorites and international stars surely drew the crowd, many other factors likely determined the incautious behavior in the stands and on the grounds in Belgrade and Zadar. To be fair, tennis journalism isn’t suited to explore all of the potential causes of multifaceted occurrences like this: sports reporters are generally on site or watching from home, not embedded as foreign correspondents. Normally, we talk about what happens between the lines on court, in the media center, at the gym, and in the board rooms of the ITF, ATP, and WTA. For good measure, we check players’ Twitter and Instagram feeds. The coronavirus pandemic has not only deprived us all of the sport we love but also given us a whole new set of concerns to ponder—separate from the ways in which it’s turned the rest of our lives upside down. Still, wouldn’t it be something if we could take a bit of the extra time many of us, unable to pursue our professions or pastimes as before, now have to seek out and consider a few more causes?
* 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.
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.”
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.
After the ITF announced plans to overhaul the 118-year-old Davis Cup tournament with the help of a $3 billion infusion from Kosmos investment group, Tennis Channel chose the question “Has the ITF gone too far?” for its weekly “Tough Call” debate. To me, this
isn’t a close call: the ITF’s proposed changes would fundamentally alter the nature of the Davis Cup, with national-team competition virtually the only feature remaining. Home and away ties, the life-blood of the event, are gone. The competition is squeezed into a single week; ties (of which there would be 25, up from 15) are reduced from five rubbers to three, matches from best-of-five sets to three; and fans won’t be able to plan ahead to support their team’s efforts in the all-important final weekend (as they have ample time to do with the current format), since the contestants won’t be known until Thursday or Friday. A final in a neutral venue, which was part of last year’s failed bid, doesn’t sound so bad now that we’re facing the prospect of neutral fans—that is, those who bought tickets without having any idea which teams would make the final. The ITF itself isn’t referring to mere “improvements” (which is what their strategic plan, ITF2024, identifies as a priority) but to the “transformation” of Davis Cup, going so far as to say that they’re creating a new event—albeit one with a derivative name: the “season-ending World Cup of Tennis Finals.”
This leads me to two, over-arching questions. 1) Does professional tennis really need a “major new” annual tournament? (Never mind, for the time being, subordinate questions about the proposal’s specifics: e.g., is late November the best time in the tennis calendar to stage such a competition?) 2) What gap in men’s tennis does this proposal fill—or, more to the point, what problems about Davis Cup as-is does it aim to solve?
Here’s what I know to be true: players in the World Group (though what percentage, I’m not sure anyone can say) have complained about the Davis Cup schedule. Some focus on its proximity to the majors, noting that it’s difficult—particularly for those who regularly make deep runs—to turn around and hop on a plane to another time zone, often playing on a different surface from both the previous and the subsequent tournament. Some think four weeks a year is too big a commitment or suggest the event take place biennially, not to conflict with the Olympic games. Some would likely welcome a reduction from best-of-five sets to three, to make the ties less (potentially) grueling and decrease risk of injury. Many, no doubt, wish ATP points were still on offer and certainly wouldn’t look askance at more prize money.
What’s confusing to me: why the ITF took player complaints about the schedule and frequency of Davis Cup ties and decided to address them with this set of format changes. Were European players and fans—that is, those who’ve largely comprised finals participants for well over a decade—clamoring to fly to Singapore a month after the end of the ATP’s Asian swing?
We keep hearing the Davis Cup is “dying” and that such comprehensive changes are inevitable, even necessary. (“It’s either this or get rid of it,” says Mardy Fish.) Is it really in a terminal state? When and how was its condition diagnosed? The absence of top players from the field is the most frequently-cited reason, followed by the competition’s diminished “relevance.” Things sure sound dire. But rarely is concrete evidence of the competition’s demise on offer, even in texts of longer than 280 characters. For example, though the New York Times noted this week that the competition is “losing traction globally,” nowhere did the article provide a specific example of what this loss entails or how it registers in various parts of the tennis world. Yes, it’s said that this slow, painful death has resulted in fading prestige: winning the trophy doesn’t mean as much as it once did. But how are such things as meaning measured?
In some cases, contributing factors are pretty easy to quantify and confirm or dispute. For instance, the oft-repeated claim that the “top players” don’t participate is overstated. Again, Fish: “What stars? No one played anymore[,] dude”—an especially odd observation from an American given that the best U.S. players, like John Isner, consistently commit to the national team, and the Bryan brothers recently retired from Davis-Cup duty after 14 straight years of service and a 25-5 doubles record. (See here and here for more numbers that rather undermine such statements.) Not only have all of the most-decorated players of this generation won the Davis Cup—Spain, with and without Nadal, four times since 2004—but most other eligible top-50 ranked players also take part annually.
In 2017, 15 top-20 players competed; in 2016, it was 16 of the top 20 and 24 of the top 30. Prior to a few years ago, the ITF didn’t even publish such statistics in their yearly roundup—perhaps because they didn’t feel the pressure to combat this common, but misleading, line.
Being the skeptical sort, I’d like to see more proof of the Davis Cup’s ill health. So, I’ve got questions, ones that I challenge the tennis fans and journalists among my readers to answer. As you’ll no doubt note, all of the below pertain to the World Group—rather unfortunately, the only part of the Davis Cup that gets much attention (about which, more later).
A. Is the Davis Cup losing money annually? If so, since when and how much? When did it make more? What is the competition’s annual revenue and how is it distributed among national tennis federations? How much (more) does the ITF need to make—from the World Group contests, in particular—in order to fund its development programs at current and/or desirable levels?
B. Have Davis Cup ticket sales, especially for the final, been decreasing over the years? This seems unlikely, given that five of the six biggest single-day crowds have been recorded in the last 14 years, but I suppose anything is possible.
Was there a time when considerably more than half a million spectators (which seems to be the standard of late) attended Davis Cup ties over the course of a season? If so, when was the sales peak and is the decline since then steep or significant? Some point to the 2014 final, in which a Federer-led Switzerland beat a charismatic and deep French team in front of 27,448 fans at the stadium in Lille, as if it were some sort of anomaly. But the fact is that over 530,000 spectators attended the Davis Cup in 2017 and the final Sunday crowd—there to cheer on as Belgium’s David Goffin unexpectedly beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille secured the championship for France by defeating Steve “The Shark” Darcis—was some 26,000 strong. (With the exception of Tsonga, I’d respectfully suggest, none of those four players is a particularly big draw outside their home country.) The numbers in other recent years don’t look terribly different: in 2016, sell-out crowds (including an enthusiastic Diego Maradona) watched Croatia and Argentina go the distance in Zagreb’s 16,000-seat arena; and even in 2013, when a depleted Serbian team hosted the Czech Republic, 46,000 fans attended the season finale in Belgrade.
C. Has the number of people watching Davis Cup on tv (or via streaming services) dwindled over the decades? Have fewer networks been carrying the event live? Are the tv contracts worth less now than they were at some point in the past? Is the Davis Cup broadcast in fewer countries than it was 10, 20, or 40 years ago? How does coverage and viewership for the tournament final compare to that for an ATP Masters 1000 series event (not, mind you, a “combined” event like Indian Wells), the World Tour Finals, or the Olympic men’s singles final?
I’ll just leave this here, as they say.
D. Are regional or global sponsors hard to come by? Overall, are sponsorships lucrative, adequate, stable, or shrinking? Here’s a year-end note from 2015.
E. Has there been a decrease in website visits and fan social-media engagement over the past decade or two? From where I’m sitting, the 2017 numbers looks pretty good; admittedly, though, I’m no expert on such matters and have no real point of reference.
By what means, other than those I’ve identified above, do or did the ITF and tennis pundits gauge world-wide interest, particularly before the internet era?
F. Are fewer articles being written about Davis Cup—first, in host and guest nation publications; and second, in global sports outlets? Are significantly fewer foreign print media attending than they did in the past (and is this number out of step with developments at other tennis tournaments)? If an editor doesn’t send his/her tennis reporter to cover Davis Cup, how do we know that’s a reflection on reader interest rather than on the current state of journalism in general and tennis media in particular?
If we’re lucky, someone more technologically adept than I will explore Google trends or a similar site and report back. (Former Yugoslavia, represent!)
G. More generally, when we hear that this competition is less meaningful, prestigious, or valuable than it used to be, on what are such assessments based? Not everything can be quantified, I realize, but surely those who’ve reached this conclusion can better substantiate it—at least, if they hope to persuade others who don’t already agree.
When the Davis Cup of today is found lacking, to what is it being compared: its own (apparently glorious) past, grand slam tournaments (which are, it’s worth underscoring, dual-gender events), finals in other sports, and/or competitions that currently exist only on paper? Are these comparisons reasonable? How much of what we imagine the Davis Cup could or should be is filtered through nostalgia or a result of wishful thinking?
For instance, is it useful to model an annual national-team tennis tournament on the World Cup, which takes place every four years and involves a lengthy continental qualification process? Does it make sense to suggest Davis Cup should be more akin to a year-old exhibition like the Laver Cup or even a longstanding competition such as Ryder Cup, both of which take place in a long weekend and involve only two teams (and, thus, no preliminary rounds)?
Is it even fair to compare the current iteration to the Davis Cup’s past, when the entire tennis—not to mention global sports—landscape looked dramatically different and its seasonal calendar was much less full? After all, during the first seventy years of the competition, fewer than fifty nations participated and the trophy was monopolized by the four slam nations. (Belgium, by the way, was the first other country to make the Davis Cup final: they got crushed by the Brits, 5-0, in 1904. Japan, in 1921, was the next—and they didn’t fare any better against the Americans; it would be almost 40 more years for another outsider, Italy, to be subject to a similar defeat at the hands of the Aussies.)Of course it’s not going to mean the same thing now, with 125 countries competing, as it did in an era when the professional tour was just getting started—and especially in the decades immediately before that, when the event was essentially an extended grudge match between the U.S. and Australia. But just because the place of the Davis Cup in men’s tennis has changed, so it means something different from what it did in the days of Roy Emerson and John Newcombe, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, that doesn’t necessarily make it less meaningful. Though the British public may not have been quite as thrilled by the 2015 Davis Cup win as they were when Andy Murray ended the 77-year British men’s singles title drought at Wimbledon two years prior, for example, not even playing on the clay in Ghent seems to have dampened Team GB’s enthusiasm for the occasion.
As is likely obvious by now, I love the Davis Cup. Still, despite its being one of my favorite sporting events of the year, I certainly agree it can be improved. I also believe it’s really important to identify—and understand the precise nature of—the problem before considering potential solutions. Because even though I think reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated, it’s clear Davis Cup does have a problem. Or the ITF does, anyway.
This piece was published on the (now-defunct) Tennis Space in May 2013. I was inspired to re-post it this week by a scene at the ATP tournament in Vienna, where Viktor Troicki had another of his infamous meltdowns.
After what he perceived to be a bad call to put him down a break-point in the first, Troicki made his displeasure known to the lines-person, Chair Umpire Timo Janzen, and his more experienced colleague Cédric Mourier, who was watching from the sidelines. Upon losing the set, 6-4, Troicki had a further outburst—unlike the first, however, these complaints were both mostly directed toward a sympathetic member of his team and in Serbian. As he walked to his chair, Troicki was followed by a line judge, who seems to have reported that the Serb’s yelling included some choice curses; only then does the umpire call him for a code violation. Given how this incident was resolved, have matters improved over the past three years?
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In Madrid this week, there was a tense exchange between Novak Djoković and a crowd that was not simply lively or partisan toward his opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, but at times almost inexplicably hostile to the Serb. After saving a match point and winning the second-set tiebreaker, the men’s No. 1 defiantly shouted a vulgar phrase in his native tongue. While it stands to reason that few in the Caja Mágica understood what he was saying, Djoković’s outburst—or, more specifically, the lack of response to it from Chair Umpire Carlos Bernardes—nevertheless reignited an ongoing tennis debate. In an international sport with a global television audience, is it fair for only those players speaking English (or, in rare cases, the language of the umpire) to get penalized for violations of the “audible obscenity” rule?
1. Players on both tours agree to abide by a code of conduct geared toward encouraging professional behavior and promoting the integrity and positive image of tennis. In fact, the code is in effect throughout the tournament grounds, though fans generally hear about it only when it’s been breached during a match. The audible obscenity rule, which can include point penalties as well as fines of up to $5,000 per violation (up to $20,000 at Slams), differs from rules about the game itself as it concerns consideration for those within earshot of the court. As the rule is general, merely stating that a player can be called for a violation if he or she uses “words commonly known and understood to be profane and uttered clearly and loudly enough to be heard,” it makes sense that it should apply equally to all players. Or, if that seems unrealistic, perhaps the powers that be will consider abandoning the rule altogether rather than maintaining a double standard.
2. While audible obscenities are hardly a plague on the sport, it’d be a good idea for WTA, ATP, and ITF administrators to put their heads together and decide if they’re committed to the rule, what principles are behind it (for instance, is it intended to safeguard only the sensibilities of on-site spectators or those of all viewers?), and how to more fairly implement it. With the number of languages spoken by players, however, this may be easier said than done. We witnessed just how complicated—albeit entertaining—it can be earlier this year in Miami, when Chair Umpire Marija Čičak assessed a code violation to Svetlana Kuznetsova after she shouted a word that sounded like profanity in the player’s native Russian but turned out to be the Spanish word for “court.” Still, given that umpires call the score and request fans to be “Quiet, please” in various languages, I see no reason why they can’t be asked to master a short list of choice words in the three most common linguistic clusters on tour: Romanic, Germanic, and Slavic. (Readers who think this would be an onerous task for tournament officials are welcome to suggest alternatives.) If such a change encourages more players to learn Chinese, so be it.
3. The above example aside, determining whether a player has used an obscenity is relatively straightforward. Umpires, then, have only two judgment calls to make before enforcing the rule. Was the profanity sufficiently loud so that others, including ball-kids, will have heard it? Was there anything “flagrant” or “egregious” about the utterance that would warrant the player’s being assessed with a major offense of “aggravated behavior”? Unless the act falls under separate rules for verbal abuse or unsportsmanlike conduct, the direction in which a player is cursing—at him- or herself or in the general direction of the stands—doesn’t matter. As likely goes without saying, players are expected to comport themselves professionally, however frustrated they may be or poorly a crowd behaves.
4. Having said that, the umpire can and should warn a crowd if it gets out of hand. (For the record, I think cheering for faults and whistling or booing a player’s winners is a pretty low standard of behavior.) Everyone, especially players, likes an active and engaged audience. But since tennis has a longstanding tradition of silence, excepting “oohs” and “aahs,” during points, there’s good reason for officials to intervene before the atmosphere gets too rowdy. Even in Davis and Fed Cup, there are limits. While all players must learn to deal with adverse conditions, no player should have to put up with deliberate distractions or disrespect from spectators. To disrespect players is, after all, to disrespect the game.
5. Call it wishful thinking, but I think that if the rule were more fairly applied, we’d see two positive developments. First, non-Anglophone players would likely clean up their on-court exclamations. Second, fans might be less inclined to make moral judgments in response to players’ colorful verbiage. What sounds unusual or awfully vulgar to me may be common or fairly benign in another language, even another dialect. Almost without exception, players curse—they’re human, like the rest of us. And, in the immortal words of Andy Murray, they do so while “trying their tits off.” By all means, apply the rule to all players; then, let’s cut them some slack. Sound fair?
At the World Tour Finals in London, I had a chance to ask Novak Djoković for his thoughts on what Viktor Troicki has achieved this season. “Well,” started the ATP #1, “I think he managed something that not many have in the history of tennis: to return, practically from nothing, to where he belongs—in the world’s top 25.” Showing that he’d been following his teammate’s results closely, he added: Viktor “had a bit of difficulty in the last few months lining up successes and maintaining the continuity that he had in the first 5-6 months of the year. But, all things considered and taking into account where he was 15 months ago and where he is now, I think he really should be acknowledged and congratulated, because psychologically that is extremely difficult and a big challenge and he managed to overcome it. So, as his friend, I am extremely pleased that he succeeded in doing it.”
What does Troicki think of his own accomplishments? Earlier this year, I sat down with the Serbian player and his Australian coach for two wide-ranging conversations about their first year back on tour after a year-long suspension. With both Troicki and Reader, we talked a lot about the past: that fateful day in Monte Carlo and its aftermath. Even though it’s been two years since the CAS tribunal decided his case, the emotions of both men are still strong. (Those needing a refresher on Troicki’s case, which led to his being sanctioned for violating the ITF’s anti-doping rules, can read this overview from 2013.) Here, though, we’ll focus mostly on the positives: Viktor’s comeback and what he’s learned about himself and the man who travels with him for much of the year. Read my exchange with Jack Reader here; the Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.
AM: The week you returned, you were ranked 847 in the world and now you’re in the top 25. But those are merely numbers. What are you most proud of in terms of the last year?
VT: Well, it was hard. Before starting, it was hard mentally—not knowing what was going to happen. There was a lot of pressure, from everyone, and I wasn’t sure myself how it was going to be, whether I was going to return at all. Who knows, if I’d lost the first five matches, how I would have felt or whether I’d play again?
Even though a lot of people were doubting if I’d ever come back, I’m a very stubborn person—you know, Serbian inat. So, I wanted to prove, first of all to myself but also to others, that I could do it and that I could be even better. Of course, if I get into position to say out loud to the whole organization of the ITF that they were wrong in trying to end my career…
AM: But you know it wasn’t personal, right? I don’t mean for you—simply that the ITF would have gone after anyone in that position.
VT: Afterwards, I felt it was. Everything they said in public, they made it personal.
AM: Well, they have to maintain their position.
VT: Sure, sure. But, afterwards, whatever I felt before from the ITF, it’s not the same. For example, I asked for a wildcard for the US Open last year—just for qualies—and there was no response. I didn’t expect to get the wildcard, but it’s proof that they don’t care about me.
AM: To return to the good stuff, what else are you feeling after this year? Although you may not be at your career-high ranking now (he spent three weeks at #12 in 2011), have there been other high points?
VT: Definitely, winning the Sydney title was huge to start the year. I’ve had some good results, on grass especially. But I had a lot of good matches, good wins, and feel my game is improving, which is the most pleasing thing to see. I don’t want to stop here.
Altogether, I’m still hungry for more results and for being better than I am. It’s nice to see where I am after just one year, but I still want to improve. That’s my goal and that’s why I’m working hard.
I have to say, though, that sometimes I’m disappointed that I’m not getting much credit. You know, when a player comes back from an injury or a long break, they write about it and it’s a big thing: “He came back; he made it!” A lot of players use their protected ranking; they get wildcards. It hurt me that I didn’t have any of those. It doesn’t even matter about last year—just for being where I am, right now… It seems like [the media] are almost forbidden to say anything about me because of what happened.
AM: From my perspective, it may be that doping is such a serious issue in sports that there’s a risk in criticizing the ITF and WADA or even appearing sympathetic toward a player like you, returning from suspension. Certainly, it’s been suggested that I’m naive for believing your version of events or that I don’t understand the bigger issues at stake. Sports journalists may be afraid to do or say anything that could make them look “soft” on doping.
What about sponsors? I know Babolat stuck with you—anybody else?
VT: Lotto, the clothing company, stepped up right away. They wanted me to wear their stuff as soon as I came back. But apart from that, no, nothing. Ok, being Serbian, it’s already tough. But having this situation, it’s even tougher.
AM: What was it like returning to the Challenger tour after all these years?
VT: It was definitely weird, you know, being on the tour for however many years and being used to it and then coming back to the qualies of Challengers. It was different.
AM: Did you talk to any of the young players?
VT: Yeah, they helped me because I felt they were sometimes scared of me. They knew who I was, obviously, and my ranking in the past.
AM: There was an intimidation factor?
VT: Yeah, but on the other hand, they all wanted to beat me because they knew I was a good player. So, they were kind of scared but also had more motivation to go for it.
It was kind of weird, being on the Challenger tour, meeting some of the guys I’ve never seen and some kids that are coming up and probably going to be great players.
AM: How was the road trip with your team?
VT: It was fun—we were all excited about it, even though it was the Challengers and I had to play qualies. I felt like I was 19 or 20 again. When I finished juniors, that’s how I felt—I wanted it so bad, I was running for every ball and fighting for every point. It was definitely a great experience.
I was always a fighter—I would never give up. That’s why, I think, I made it—both times. When I was first coming up, trying to build my ranking, I believed in myself. Even though, when I was a junior, they told me I couldn’t have a career because I wasn’t talented enough.
AM: As juniors, Janko [Tipsarević] was always considered the more talented one.
VT: He was older than me by two years. I never even got to hit with him before I was about 18—he was way ahead of me, already playing professional tournaments at a young age. Novak was one year younger, but he used to play with the older guys. So, a lot of people never thought I could be any good or make it as a professional. I was never the best of my generation—there were a lot of kids who were ahead of me.
But I started playing better and better when I was 18. And that helped me a lot [last year], remembering these old times. I was fighting even then, working harder than the others, just to prove to people that I could make it. I had no sponsors, no help from anyone. Actually, a friend sent me an article recently from when I was young, saying that I shouldn’t get monthly support from the Federation because I had no future in tennis. It was funny to see that.
All these things help now. Just like when I was young, I want to do it because I believe in myself and that I can be where I want to be.
AM: When you came back, one of your first big goals was to make it into the top 100. What kind of goals do you have now?
VT: A definite goal is the top 10. As I’ve said, I’m hungry and I want more and the top 10 is the next step. It’s not easy: there are a lot of great players who want to be there, but I feel I have a chance. I believe in myself—that’s one of the main things you’ve got to have, other than quality and hard work. But if you don’t believe, you’re never going to be there.
AM: Even if this whole ITF case hadn’t happened, you weren’t doing too well in 2012. Weren’t you already in a bit of a slump before you started working with Jack Reader?
VT: I got settled into this kind of position—being in the top 30, 40, 50—and nothing major was happening. I got pretty used to this feeling of going to tournaments, playing matches, and not really enjoying it. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be here; but then, I wasn’t feeling the excitement.
When we started working together, even though I was top 50 in the world, my game was really bad. I wasn’t feeling confident at all and I was struggling with my game—it was falling apart. Jack came right in the moment when the new season was starting. Of course, it didn’t start great immediately, but we were going step by step and by working on specific things, I felt improvement. Everything was going better and better—already by the French Open I reached the fourth round, which was a good thing. At Wimbledon, I made the third round, beating Janko and playing other good matches. So, I felt like my game was back… Then it all stopped.
Such a coach, he could have gone with anyone. I know he had offers. When I got sanctioned, when we knew it would be a year, Jack took it hard. During the first call, he felt sorry; he was also very shocked and down. But then he called me back right away and said, “Ok, we’re going to do this. We’re going to come back. We’re going to prove that we belong there and be better than before.” He was pumped right away—it was crazy to see, but he was.
AM: That must have been especially helpful since you were so down at the time. I remember seeing you on the front page of a Serbian tabloid, with a headline like “I don’t know what to do with my life,” and being worried for you.
VT: Well, I was shocked more than anything. It was all over the news—all the attention was on me and nobody knew what really went on. All of a sudden, it was happening and it was a big thing, you know?
I’ve got to thank the Serbian media. They were all really supportive and I never expected that. My personal feeling is that they were behind me. First of all, they were trying to understand what had happened; but after that, they were trying to encourage me to come back. That helped me.
AM: What have you learned about your coach in the past two years?
VT: That he is a really great person, first of all. That he is genuine and honest—a true friend. It’s not just a professional relationship. He was never after any money or anything like that. He would always help you out.
It’s incredible how many friends he has around the world. I’ve met many of them and they all say the exact same thing—that he’s a great person and he cares about his friends. With me, he’s been really caring a lot and it’s unbelievable to have such a person next to you. He’s not just in it for business—it’s also to have a nice relationship outside the court. People love him on the tour: they know he’s funny, very relaxed, and always positive.
He also made me more happy on the court and helped me enjoy tennis more. There are a lot of things he’s taught me and a lot of things I’ve seen from him. It’s great to have him with me.