Meet the Sabanov Brothers

The Sabanov twins at the 2022 U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston

In many ways, Ivan and Matej Sabanov come from a typical family in what was once Yugoslavia. Two of four boys, they were born near the Hungarian border in the ethnically-diverse Vojvodina region to a Croatian father and a Serbian mother. This sort of “mixed” marriage was so common back then, it didn’t warrant comment. Unfortunately, however, it was 1992: the violent conflicts related to the breakup of the country were raging. Even though their family was safe in northern Serbia, the economic conditions were very difficult.

While they were kids, their mother relocated a two-hour drive away to Osijek, Croatia for work as a Latin and Greek high-school teacher. After the brothers completed primary school, they moved to live with her. By then, they were already accustomed to having long-distance relationships with family members, as their older brother and first coach, Aleksandar, had gone to Zagreb for university. (The Sabanovs are quite an erudite family: Aleksandar, in addition to being a certified coach, speaks five languages and holds a Masters degree in Religious Studies.) After finishing a sports gymnasium, the twins were all set to attend college in the United States. But, at the last minute, they decided to turn professional instead.

It’s been a slow road for the Sabanov brothers since then, one involving years playing ITF Futures (a.k.a. the World Tennis Tour) within driving distance of home before eventually graduating to the ATP’s Challenger Tour and airline travel. Along the way, the twins have slept in their car and strung racquets for colleagues to make ends meet. For winning a Futures doubles title (which they did nearly 25 times together and a handful of times with other partners between 2013-2019), they were generally rewarded around $500. Occasionally, they would travel far from home—for example, to Nigeria in 2017—in the hopes of winning more prize money (which they did: there, they earned $775 alongside a Futures trophy).

When they needed to push themselves, improving through competition against a higher caliber of opponents, the brothers would enter Challenger tournaments farther afield: after traveling throughout Europe in 2016, they made their first mid-tier final the next year in Bangalore, India. But then, without consistent success, they’d return home to the former Yugoslavia where they could stack up wins at Futures events without having to pay a lot for flights. It wasn’t until 2018, when they were steadily playing Challengers, that they began to break even. (A big factor: participants’ food and lodging are covered by tournaments at that level.) This is the sort of un-glamorous grind that fans don’t hear much about, as tennis media focus on the big names earning the big paychecks. In many ways, though, it’s more representative of most aspiring players’ experience of the pro tour: one with lots of effort and investment without any guarantee of a return.

At the time we spoke, the Sabanovs didn’t have clothing or equipment sponsors. One brother was playing with Filip Krajinović’s old racquets and the other with Laslo Djere’s sticks. While they joked that Djoković’s racquets are too heavy for them (the twins are about 4 inches shorter than the top-ranked men’s player), they’ve since been spotted wearing Novak’s older Lacoste kit. In January, Matej was selected to play alongside Nikola Ćaćić in the ATP Cup, while Ivan traveled down under (in place of Viktor Troicki) as Team Serbia’s coach. As they did for Wimbledon last year, the brothers partnered Filip Krajinović and Dušan Lajović in order to make the rankings cut for the doubles draw at the Australian Open. With their success in Houston this week, that kind of improvisation should be a thing of the past.

Team Serbia at the 2022 ATP Cup

The quotations below are selections from a Q&A session after they won their first title at the 2021 Serbia Open. Alas, because I only have an audio recording, I couldn’t tell which twin answered which question. I’ve lightly edited their answers for clarity.


On their start in the sport: “So, we are actually a big family. It’s four brothers: the two of us, and then two more brothers. The oldest, Aleksandar, is our coach since the beginning. He started training us when we were five. Our grandfather built a tennis court in our garden, so that’s how we started playing tennis.”

On their family and national identity: “We were born in Serbia, we lived in Croatia, and now we are back in Serbia. Our father is Croatian and mother is Serbian, so we are mixed. We like to be that way.”

“Yeah, we don’t want to be specifically Croatian or Serbian. I think we are all the same, the same people; so, I don’t see the difference.”

On their early-career struggles: “Every start is very tough, especially the financial side. I remember one time, we ended the year with our ranking at 230, I think, and we decided to go to South America to play Challengers. [Note: this was in 2016, when they began the season tied at #242.] But we didn’t have money for the travel, so we went to the bank and asked to take [out a line of] credit. But of course we couldn’t, because we don’t work. So, the sister of our mother, she got money from the bank. And she gave it to us and we went to South America.”

“At the first tournament, we passed first round and then we lost. And then, we didn’t get in the second tournament—we were in Buenos Aires and we didn’t [make the rankings cutoff]; we were first [team] out. So, we spent a lot of money to pay for the hotel and food and everything. [From there], we went to Rio, where we also passed the first round and then lost in the second round. And then we didn’t have money to actually come back home—and it was like the end of the world for us. We thought we were going to die there. And, somehow, we made it back home and started [all over] again. We always work very hard. And, in the end, I think it paid off, as we see.”

“There’s one more story: we were traveling with a stringing machine to the tournaments in our car, and we were stringing the racquets for other players. Instead of 10 euros, we were charging 5 euros per racquet and then everyone was giving us the racquets—and that’s how we earned the money for the hotels and apartments. And then we started earning some money winning these Future events and then somehow we managed to earn something playing a lot of club matches in Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, everywhere. We were sleeping in the car and driving all night just to earn some money to keep playing tennis. And then it pays off—it’s beautiful.”

[By the way, though it took several years to do it, they paid their aunt back.]

On the lack of sponsor support: “We don’t have sponsors—we are just getting some Fila clothes from one manager in Germany.”

“He’s sending us his own clothes. I mean, we don’t have any contract signed; so, it’s just his goodwill.”

“It’s difficult to get the contracts in Serbia and Croatia.”

“But this won’t stop us to do our thing and to become good players; and this tournament [win] also won’t change us. We will still be the same [people] and will work hard for our dreams—this is just a small step forward.”

On a fortuitous 2020 meeting: “Last year, we met Novak Djoković in Vienna, and he invited us to come to his club here in Belgrade—to practice here. He gave us the amazing facilities and everything. So, we are very thankful to Novak—he did an amazing job. And we stayed the whole winter [2021] in Belgrade; we practiced really hard. Also, we hired our old friend, Ivan Bijelica, as a coach, and he’s now with us: he’s traveling with us and he’s coaching us next to our brother…. This week shows that we really did a good job with them all together, and we couldn’t be more happy.

On idols and mentors: “We always dreamed about becoming professionals and we watched the videos of champions like Novak and Roger and Rafa. We always downloaded the videos and watched all night long, so that was our future life—we wanted to do that.”

“The Bryan brothers were our idols since we were starting playing doubles…. And then, last year, we had a chance to practice and to spend some time with Mike Bryan, because his wife is from Slovakia and his manager organized everything. We went to Slovakia and spent six, seven days with Mike. He gave us a lot of really good advice and said that we have a good potential, that we need to keep working hard and then we will get the chance—and that’s what happened this week. We’re still in contact with Mike Bryan and he is giving us advice and encouraging us. So, we’re very, very thankful.”

“Also, there’s some other players like Mate Pavić and Ivan Dodig from Croatia—whenever we saw them on the tournaments, they were encouraging us. And that really means a lot to us, because it shows that we have potential and then, one day, we will be there and we will earn a living from playing tennis—and that’s what we’ve always wanted to do.”

On their differences (beyond the fact that Ivan plays with a one-handed backhand): “Yeah, we are different, our personalities are different, definitely. Ivan is maybe more energetic and he’s a quick temper. I am a little bit more calm, let’s say. Also [in terms of physical differences], I have two small moles on my face and Ivan doesn’t, so that’s how people recognize us.”

On court during their 2021 title run in Belgrade

On winning their first ATP title: “Yeah, besides the money and the points and everything, it shows that we have a really good level. [Even] before this tournament, we were winning against Grand Slam champions on the Challenger level—for example, we beat Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies in a Bosnia and Herzegovina Challenger [in September 2018]. We beat some more players who were winning ATP titles, so we knew that we have a good level—and that we have to be patient and wait our time. It means a lot. We will definitely keep working very hard and we want to improve more, we want to play Grand Slam tournaments and to play on the center courts of the biggest tournaments. That’s our goal and that’s what we were dreaming about our whole life, so we’re not gonna stop here.”

“I think it’s the motivation for me. I feel like I will be more motivated to practice and to do all the things to improve more after this tournament because I now I have proof that we can do this. The hard work is paying off.”

Podcast and Radio Appearances

February 2022: It was a real treat for me to have the opportunity to talk about Goran Ivanišević, the state of Yugoslav tennis before the breakup of the country in the early 1990s, and what the big-serving Croat brings to Team Djoković with Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract. Listen here.

January 2022: Thought I made several appearances on BBC Radio during Novak’s Australian saga, they seem not to have permalinks for programs over a month old. So, the only segment I can share from the complicated lead-up to the 2022 Australian Open is this one on Melbourne’s ABC radio: “Decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa sparks anger in Serbia.” Listen here.

May 2021: “All About Djoković.” One of these things is not like the other: Niki Pilić, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanišević, and I were guests for an hour-long BBC 5 Live Sport discussion of the ATP #1.

July 2020: Carl Bialik invited me on to Thirty Love, his short-form podcast, to discuss Novak Djoković and the Adria Tour. Much of our conversation relates to my tennis journalism hobby-horse: shortcomings of the Anglophone-dominated international media in covering players whose native language isn’t English. Listen here.

Prologue: 2022

Note: this is an excerpt from a work in progress.

I. Spain: November, 2019

“Would you like to try some?” he asked, offering up a brown paper package he’d just retrieved from a stuffed gym bag. I must have looked dubious, as he added, “It’s good, actually.” But I was hesitant not because I feared how his gluten-free snack would taste but because I was unsure of the propriety of a writer’s sharing food with her subject.

In that moment, though, I wasn’t operating as a journalist. And Novak Djoković was less a world-famous athlete than one of a small group of Serbs hanging around after a press conference, commiserating over a painful loss. Despite our differences in status, it felt like we were in this together.

I cupped my hands and watched as he poured a mix of oats and carob chunks into them. He was right: it wasn’t bad. We both munched as we resumed our conversation—by that point, we’d shifted from tennis and sports journalism to the most apt Serbian translation for “drama queen” to recent films about Nikola Tesla.

We’d started talking some 15 minutes earlier, after Djoković stretched out on the dais near one of his Davis Cup teammates, with whom I was chatting. In front of the podium, the other Serbian players were taking turns doing their final domestic tv interviews of the week. In an unusual move, Djoković was waiting for everyone to finish up so they could leave the media center as a team. Even the players too young to have been there from the beginning knew what this day had become: it was the end of an era.

Photo taken from a distance by Argentine photographer JP

Whether the era in question began in 2001, when Jelena Janković and Janko Tipsarević foreshadowed the success to come by winning the juniors singles titles at the Australian Open, or in 2004, when Nenad Zimonjić lifted the mixed doubles trophy in Melbourne, beating defending champions Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes with his Russian partner, or even in 2007, when Ana Ivanović and Novak Djoković made their first major finals (at the French Open and US Open, respectively) and ended the year ranked among the top 4 players in the world—it hardly matters. In fact, one could argue that the era started in 1995, when rump Yugoslavia returned to international tennis competition, in both the men’s Davis Cup and women’s Federation Cup, after several years in the wilderness due to UN sanctions. Zimonjić, the only Serb whose career had spanned this entire quarter century, was now 43 and playing on artificial hips.

In November 2019, the Serbian men approached the Spanish capital for the national team tournament with two goals: to finish the decade as they’d started it, by winning the Davis Cup, and to give their outspoken, bespectacled teammate Janko Tipsarević a proper sendoff into retirement. (A group vacation in the Maldives was to follow.) Tipsarević had already competed at his final ATP event a month prior, making the quarterfinals at the Stockholm Open. He was selected for the national team despite having played only intermittently—not just during his last season but over the previous five years—due to a series of injuries which had derailed his career after two seasons ranked in the top ten. In Madrid, he and Viktor Troicki, who had performed the hero’s role in their 2010 Davis Cup victory, played two doubles matches in the round-robin group stage, winning one and losing the other to one of the very best doubles teams in the world: Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut of France, who had gone undefeated at the ATP’s year-end championship the previous week. In the quarterfinal tie against Russia, with the teams poised at one match apiece, the Serbs had opted to substitute Djoković in to partner Troicki in the deciding doubles contest. The childhood friends, who had won their first titles together as juniors, suffered a devastating loss in a third-set tiebreaker, having failed to capitalize on several match points.

The six-member team entered the interview room in silence and sat behind their microphones and tented name-cards with bowed heads, at least a few sporting red eyes and Djoković hiding his face under the bill of a baseball cap. The players’ answers were emotional from the start, with Djoković admitting the loss “hurts us really badly” and Troicki adding, “I probably feel the worst ever [after a loss]. I never experienced such a moment in my career, in my life. And I let my team down, and I apologize to them.” It likely wasn’t until Zimonjić, in the captain’s chair, choked up that the majority of the assembled press understood what was at stake for the Serbs in this Davis Cup campaign.

“Sorry,” he began haltingly. “It’s not [about] winning or losing, just for you to understand.” Through tears, he explained: “It’s that the four players sitting here. . . I would say they are the golden generation of our tennis. And I see it as an end because it’s Janko’s last match. . . . You dream, maybe, to go all the way—to celebrate, you know, with a victory. But sometimes it doesn’t happen, what you wanted to happen.”

Even though, two years later, Djoković remains on the top of the game, Zimonjić was right: the loss in Madrid marked the end of something significant. Ana Ivanović, the youngest of the “golden” group, had preceded all of them into retirement, opting to stop playing at age 29, after injury cut short her 2016 season. Though Jelena Janković hasn’t officially hung up her racquets, she also hasn’t competed professionally since undergoing back surgery after the 2017 US Open. Viktor Troicki, who rebounded from that worst-ever feeling by helping Serbia win the inaugural ATP Cup trophy at the start of 2020, spent the last year transitioning from active player to Davis Cup captain.

II. Serbia: July, 2010

Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was a summer that would change my life.

I spent a chunk of it, including my birthday, in the village of my father’s birth, 100km west of Belgrade. There was nothing unusual about this, as I’d been visiting my grandmother’s farm since infancy; nor was it a rare occurrence for me to celebrate at least part of my birthday inside, watching tv. When my grandmother first got a black and white television in the early ‘80s, my siblings and I would rush from the back yard where we spent most of our day into the living room to catch the cartoons that came on before the nightly news—most often, Looney Tunes reels dubbed into what was then called “Serbo-Croatian.” But as I got older, I watched more sports coverage, especially of my favorite event, Wimbledon, which (like my birthday) takes place in early July.

In 2010, I got a double-dose of tennis. Though Novak Djoković had lost in the semifinals at the All England Club, the Davis Cup quarterfinals were scheduled for the weekend following Wimbledon’s conclusion—and Serbia was playing in them for the first time as an independent nation. This was a huge occasion, in part because it had taken the Serbian team 15 years to climb from the lowest tier of regional zone competition to the “World Group”: the 16 best tennis nations. For the previous three seasons, they’d been knocking at the door of the tennis elite but unable to gain full entry, repeatedly losing in the first round and having to win September playoffs to get another chance the next year. Perhaps a bigger deal in the Balkans: Serbia was facing neighbors, former compatriots, and relatively recent co-belligerents in Croatia for a spot in the semifinals. As this was the first international meeting between the two men’s teams, members of which had all been born in Yugoslavia before the wars, there was some concern about what kind of welcome the Serbs would get from their hosts in Split. But apart from some hecklers in the crowd, it was uneventful off court. On court, the Serbs triumphed by a 4-1 margin, with all their wins coming in straight sets.

This victory—as well as those that followed, culminating in a championship tie played in front on twenty-thousand spectators packed into Belgrade Arena—marked a turning point not only for several members of the Davis Cup team but also for me.

Initiated into playing tennis by both parents and into being a tennis fan by my father, I’d been casually involved with the sport since childhood. Trips to the neighborhood court brought all manner of lessons, not merely in groundstroke technique but in sportsmanship as well. To this day, I can’t step on a tennis court without hearing my dad’s voice—at one moment, admonishing me for not returning balls directly to my opponent when it was his or her turn to serve; at another, expressing pleasant surprise at how well I hit a backhand. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the later rounds of majors were broadcast on network tv and I was allowed to stare at the screen for longer than usual. One of the first philosophical disagreements I recall having with my father concerned the on-court antics of John McEnroe: while we both admired Bjorn Borg and disliked Jimmy Conners, we were divided over the American who had earned his nickname “SuperBrat.” The introductory music NBC chose for their “Breakfast at Wimbledon” program still transports me back to our shared time in front of the tv—not quite as powerful or as sentimental as Proust’s madeleine, perhaps, but something like it. Though I rooted for Martina Navratilova and enjoyed seeing other WTA players in action, my early fandom reached its peak when Boris Becker—like me, a teenager—smashed his serve and threw his body around the grass courts at Wimbledon in the mid-‘80s.

In 1986, the year “Boom Boom” Becker won Wimbledon for a second time, another player in the men’s draw caught my eye. Though it’s the case that he was the stereotypical “tall, dark, and handsome” type of romance novels, I was attracted less by his features or physique than by his name—one bound to tie the tongues of Anglophone commentators. Because he shared my father’s first name, Slobodan (a name which would become infamous within a few years for reasons having nothing to do with tennis), I knew that meant he also shared his homeland. Growing up as an “ethnic” American, I was accustomed to people using Yugoslavia as a punchline: the long name, obscure location, and ambiguous geopolitical position, never mind the compact car, were the source of much teasing in the waning days of the Cold War. (One coach affectionately called me “half-breed,” something unimaginable today.) But Yugoslav passion for and prowess in sports were no joke. For one thing, Sarajevo had hosted the winter Olympics in 1984, while I was in high school. For another, the country had been collecting medals in team sports for decades: football, handball, volleyball, water polo, and (above all for an American) basketball. So, I had already experienced both collective exhilaration and cultural pride as a spectator of European championships and Summer Olympics. But since “Bobo” Živojinović was the first Yugoslav tennis player of whom I was aware, seeing him advance to the singles semifinal at Wimbledon—and, later that summer, win the men’s doubles trophy at the US Open—ignited a new feeling in me.

My favorite sport being played by people with names like mine, speaking the language I’d learned by communicating with my grandmother? That was something special. The rise and dominance of Monica Seles a few years later—she first won the French Open as a 16-year-old in 1990—was even more significant. Before she was stabbed by an unstable fan of one of her rivals, Seles had won eight grand slam titles playing under the Yugoslav flag.

Of course, all of this happened before the violent breakup of Yugoslavia—and before my ethnic identity became a source of shame rather than pride. As a child, I heard countless stories about both the traumatic events and heroic exploits of the two World Wars in which Serbs had fought alongside the Allies. In the center of our village, there was a monument bearing the names of both my grandfather and great-grandfather; their portraits, in uniform, hung in our living room. During our summer trips, I felt just as comfortable on Croatia’s Adriatic coast as in rural Serbia. At home in the DC suburbs, my parents hosted an annual “slava” celebrating our patron, Saint Nicholas, at which ex-pats from all over Yugoslavia outnumbered the Americans. Serbo-Croatian, spoken abroad, was like a secret language that only a select few could understand. And even though I’d had to correct the pronunciation of my name the first time the teacher called roll in every class for my entire school life, having such strong ties to another culture and what felt like a permanent home in a different country—as opposed to the various apartments, duplexes, and houses where we’d lived in California, Ohio, and Maryland—had always grounded me.

When the Serbian team became Davis Cup champions in December 2010, I felt something unfamiliar: pride in the part of myself that I’d tried to keep at a distance for nearly two decades. In retrospect, it seems unsurprising that when Novak Djoković began the 2011 season not just by winning the Australian Open but by going unbeaten for weeks, then months, totaling 41 matches and 7 titles in a row, I was hooked. No longer dependent on network or even cable tv, I watched every one of his matches during the first part of the season on my desktop monitor thanks to digital streams. At least weekly, I would call my father with updates or send him links to online coverage of the winning streak. Then, just a few days before my birthday, Djoković won Wimbledon, beating Rafael Nadal for the fifth time that year, and took over the top spot. Within the month, I had put my job search on hold and written my first piece about tennis. Within two months, I had booked a flight to Belgrade and talked my way into media credentials for the Davis Cup semifinal against Argentina.

In an interview during that September week in Serbia, Djoković recalled his twelfth birthday in 1999, during which NATO bombs dropped on his hometown, observing: “The war made me a better person because I learned to appreciate things and to take nothing for granted. The war also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I’d prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too.” It didn’t require twenty major titles and countless other records for Djoković to prove that there are good Serbian tennis players. Indeed, that had likely been established as a fact long before he made the promise to himself. But the burden of representing a twenty-first century Serbia to the world is one that he and, to a lesser degree, the other members of the golden generation still carry. It’s why tennis, for them, is more than a game.

All About Djoković

Belgrade Open 2021 Novak Djokovic (SRB) v Federico Coria (ARG) photo: Marko Djokovic/ Starsportphoto ©

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.

You can listen here and read excerpts from Fuller’s interviews with former players and Djoković coaches Niki Pilić, Boris Becker, and Goran Ivanišević here.

Introducing: Marko Topo

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?

: 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.

ATP 250 Belgrade Open 2021 Marko Topo v Federico Coria foto: Srdjan Stevanovic/Starsportphoto ©

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.”

Points from the Coria-Topo match are #3 and #1 on the highlight reel.

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.

Not Throwing Away Their Shots: Taro Daniel & Sven Groeneveld on Their Belgrade Experience

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.

Serbia Open semifinal highlights

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.

Tennis-ATP Serbia Open Belgrade 2021- Taro Daniel (JPN) v Matteo Berrettini (ITA) Beograd, 24.04.2021.foto: Marko Djokovic/Starsportphoto ©

“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.”

Serbian Davis Cup Team Unexpectedly Begins a New Chapter

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).

Davis Cup 2017 doubles

Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjić celebrate a doubles win against Spain in the 2017 Davis Cup quarterfinals.

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?

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.

➜➜➜➜➜➜➜

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.”