Headcases & Homework: Reactions to Viktor Troicki

Preface: I posted parts of this introduction in December, then decided to hold off on the rest until the completion of Troicki’s ban.  Now that he’s returned to action, the time seems right to reflect on what we did and didn’t learn from his case.

In a review of the 2013 tennis season, Steve Tignor called doping suspensions the “controversy of the year.”  Here, I’ll focus on reactions to the case that generated the most debate, aiming to develop a point Tignor makes at the outset of his column: “the game’s testing system remains a learning process for all concerned.”  Perhaps unlike him, I consider those concerned to include not only players and doping authorities but the tennis media and fans as well.  Because I’m not writing for a tennis publication, I’ve also got more latitude in drawing four general lessons from Troicki’s case and connecting them to issues in the wider world.  So, expect fewer citations of anti-doping policy from me and more references to psychology, philosophy, and even literature (does Peanuts count as “literature”?).

As will become increasingly clear, I’m interested in one dimension of the Troicki story above all others: the mental-health angle (an imperfect phrase I’ll parse in lesson 2).  Why this is so has partly to do with the extent to which it seems to have been neglected in most discussions of the case, and partly to do with how important the matter of mental health is—not simply in this specific instance, or sports more generally, but in life.

After this introduction, I’m not going to rehearse familiar details of the case, as they are available for all to read and have been dissected elsewhere.  Instead, I want to stake out a position from the start: I believe this incident, including how it was resolved, raises more questions than many others writing about it (not least, those publishing 140 characters at a time) seem to.  Further, I don’t think it makes sense to separate the issue of whether Troicki submitted the required blood sample that spring day in Monte Carlo from that of why he did or didn’t do so—something we can’t address without exploring his needle phobia in greater depth.  Troicki’s failure to fulfill his professional responsibilities has gotten plenty of attention.  What has generated less discussion than I think they deserve are his rights—how he should, ideally, have been treated as both a professional tennis player and a human being.

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Analyses of the case, including the ITF’s Independent Anti-Doping Tribunal (IADT) and Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) appeal decisions, tend to rest on three questions.  The first is about as straightforward as they come: “Did Viktor Troicki give a blood sample immediately after he was notified that he’d been selected for testing?”  Since Troicki himself doesn’t dispute that the answer to this is “No,” most concluded that he had clearly broken an anti-doping rule and moved on to the second question, one of judgment rather than fact: “What is the appropriate sanction for this violation?”  Not even Troicki’s staunchest public defender, Novak Djoković, argued that his compatriot bears no responsibility for what transpired in Monte Carlo: “as a tennis pro, our job is to play, of course, tennis and respect all the rules and know all the rules of our sport…. I’m not saying that it’s completely not his fault,” the Serb acknowledged during the World Tour Finals in November.  But because he nevertheless regards the outcome of the appeal as a “total injustice,” we can assume Djoković disagrees with the CAS on the stickiest point: “Did Troicki have a compelling justification for failing to provide a blood sample?

Like many others viewing the case, the then-ATP #2 zeroed in on the “he said, she said” conflict between the player and the Doping Control Officer (DCO) as central to the case. (Though one is tempted to refer to them as “patient” and “doctor,” this is would be a mistake, for reasons I’ll elaborate in lesson 1.)  Did the DCO tell the player that “it will not be a problem” and it “should be all right” if he didn’t give a blood sample that day, as Troicki claims (16c, 3.13.1*)?  Whereas the IADT found the DCO’s account much more credible than Troicki’s (and thus concluded the DCO had not offered “an unequivocal assurance” [39I]), Djoković, unsurprisingly, believed the word of his friend of nearly twenty years.  Though they still assigned the player a degree of fault, the CAS panel scrutinized the DCO’s role in the interaction more closely, calling it “a misunderstanding,” enumerating a number of the DCO’s “acts and omissions” that contributed to it, and reducing Troicki’s suspension to the ITF-mandated minimum of one year (9.9, 9.14).  As Tignor has observed, “Djokovic may not agree with the CAS’s decision, but the CAS agrees with him,” offering both criticisms of the procedure and suggestions for how it might be improved.  Given that the CAS determined Troicki bore “no significant fault or negligence” with regard to the rule violation, it’s entirely possible they would have reduced his penalty still further had that been an option.  (*Parenthetical citations refer to paragraph numbers in the two rulings, abbreviated I for IADT and C for CAS.)

I take a different position from both Djoković and the CAS, though I similarly focus on the interaction between player and DCO, as well as between the DCO and others, including her supervisor at IDTM, to whom she reported immediately after the initial encounter.  (Those familiar with the case will recall that player & officer met again the next day, at the latter’s initiative; see 21-24I and 3.22-25C for details).  Troicki’s team argued that the case against him should be dismissed due to four intertwined factors: not that “the facts of his illness at the time, his phobia of needles and his panic at the likely physical consequences for him of giving blood would of themselves amount to ‘compelling justification’” for not providing a sample that day but, rather, that these three things “in conjunction with” the DCO’s assurances do (38I).  Based on my research, I believe their interaction was likely complicated by additional factors not discussed in the IADT report and mainly alluded to by the CAS: namely, that Troicki was not aware of his rights—particularly, but not only, as a player with a disability—and that the DCO was both unaware of (or ignored) other options available to her and ill-equipped by her training to handle someone experiencing a phobic reaction to the prospect of a needle procedure.  Ultimately, both of the latter, if accurate, are failings that must be addressed at the administrative level by the ITF.

Because I was not in the room last April and, more importantly, am not an expert on needle phobia, some of my claims are necessarily speculative.  (Call those “thought experiments,” if you wish.)  The evidence I invoke to support my points, I hasten to add, is not.  My view, developed at what is almost certainly too great a length for most readers, is that Troicki’s was a mismanaged disability case, in addition to—or perhaps more so than—a case of a Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP) violation.  In other words, I believe the above-mentioned circumstances amounted to compelling justification for Troicki’s breaking the rule in question.  In the best-case scenario, of course, that would have been avoided altogether through a joint effort by both player and DCO, in consultation with other officials on site and in line with established policy.  However, I don’t believe that Troicki’s condition at the time or lack of awareness of his rights is a justification for representatives of the ITF not to respect them, either during or after the fact.  It’s obviously too late now for the CAS to reconsider the case or for Troicki to get a year of his professional life back.  But given that similarly challenging situations may arise, with Viktor or another needle-phobic player, both the ITF and those governed by their rules need to be better prepared.  In order for that to happen, policy and procedure related to the taking of blood samples require updating, and affected players and staff need educating.  Such things, in short, will require advocacy and follow-through on someone’s part.  While, to my knowledge, no one with power to effect change is actively discussing these issues or pursuing them through concrete steps, I hope to be corrected.

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From Umag, where Troicki first learned of the ITF’s decision to suspend him, to Washington, where other ATP players responded to the news, from Belgrade to Beijing and London to Lausanne, this case made for much controversy.  On Twitter, in online comment sections, and in press conferences—not least, of Serbian Davis Cup team members—there was often more heat than light.  The source of this heat ranges.  Look and you will find strong emotions, misinformation, ignorance, hyperbole, conspiracy theories, and (what is to me) unwarranted certainty.  Also significant are a number of oversights, oversimplifications, and silences, the reasons for which may be more difficult to pinpoint.

In case anyone reading needs this reminder: learning is a lifelong process.  Here are highlights from the lessons I’m taking away.  For further discussion &/or more sources, please click on the individual section numbers.

1. Do your homework.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.  There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,/ And drinking largely sobers us again.
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)

Different tennis constituencies—including players, the ITF, and sports journalists—have work to do in order to avoid or better respond to similar situations in the future.  Many discussions of the case have focused on Troicki’s seeming naiveté or ignorance of the TADP, suggesting the problem never would have arisen if only he’d known and followed “the rules”—that is, had he not sought a partial exemption from them in the first place.  This section identifies and discusses a number of other things that the case and subsequent coverage reveal need, at minimum, review.

Troicki’s resistance to having his blood drawn at the requested time was greeted with surprise and incredulity in both media and player circles.  A typical response, for instance, was to point out that “the rule is there for a reason and is pretty simple.”  The thing is, there’s not much evidence to support the claim, made by too many to name, that Troicki disregarded or didn’t understand the rules.  He reported to the Doping Control Station directly after his match, gave the required urine sample, and then asked to be excused from giving blood; he also delayed signing the requisite form until after he’d had a discussion with the DCO.  Say what you will about those last two steps and their implications (and I’ll say lots more about the former), the fact is that neither of them is against the rules and actually show an awareness of them.  Nevertheless, people discussing the case and Troicki’s reaction to the penalty implied that he “arbitrarily” broke the rules by “skipping” a test, as if he rather capriciously failed to show up altogether, and was then confused about why he got in trouble.

One of the most frequently misrepresented aspects of the case is the suggestion that Troicki asked to and “claims he was told by the ITF official that he could take the test the next day.”  In fact, Troicki did not ask to take the blood test the next day.  What he was after was not a 24-hour delay but a pass, essentially, until the next time he was randomly selected for testing.  Per the IADT report, “he asked if there was any chance that he did not have to give blood on that occasion” (15b).  In Troicki’s own words, from the explanatory note he appended to the required form: “I always did blood tests before, and I [will] do them in the future, but today I was not [able to] provide [a] blood sample” (15e; my emphasis).  That he ended up giving blood the next day is almost entirely a result of the fact that the DCO herself initiated contact with him.  She went looking for him, enlisted the ATP supervisor’s help in finding him (recall that, as he had lost the day before, Troicki was officially out of the tournament), and told Viktor “there could be a problem” (see sections 21-24I).  Upon hearing that, as if for the first time, the player then asked, “Does it make any sense to do the blood test today, since I am feeling better today?”  If the DCO were entirely confident about how she’d handled the previous day’s encounter, would she have gone in search of him and would he have had the opportunity to ask this question?  We’ll never know.  But the fact is that she certainly didn’t need to talk to him or take his blood the next day.  Nor was that procedure something Troicki, who left the DCS the day before thinking he’d gotten out of the blood test altogether, is likely to have requested if left to his own devices.  Why this is so will be discussed in the next section.

2. Feel free to admit when there’s something you don’t know.

Socrates: “Well, I am certainly wiser than this man.  It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance.  At any rate, it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”                                                                                              —Plato, Apology

Rest assured: recognizing the existence of uncertainty or confessing to lack knowledge on a given subject doesn’t make one’s position any weaker.  One could do worse, after all, than take the lead from Socrates, who posited that awareness of one’s ignorance is a step along the path of learning.

Unfortunately, saying “I don’t know” doesn’t bring many readers to one’s website, newspaper column, or talk-show (for you youngsters, a “podcast”).  Journalists, bloggers, tweeters, and other sports commentators make a name for themselves and develop a following by having opinions and being able to come up with them as quickly as the news cycle (or tennis calendar) demands.  This is obviously not the place to diagnose the current condition of sports journalism.  Rather, I want to point out that the need to say something—fast and frequently—can yield less than well-supported views and positions, which are often not adjusted, even if or when new information is acquired.

In terms of the Troicki case, needle phobia is the topic most commenters would have done well to acknowledge an insufficient grasp of—both in general and in terms of how it may have affected the events of that specific day.  Many addressing the controversy simply ignored this aspect of the incident (which is certainly one, if not the best, way of dealing with the unfamiliar).  But some writers took the opposite approach: not proceeding as if it didn’t exist or wasn’t worth discussing but acting all-too-certain about its relevance.  As I’ve noted above, I think Troicki’s needle phobia is central to understanding the case; hence, it’s the focus of this “lesson.”

I’d already written this section when I ran across a recent piece that’s an example of the type of thing that set me off on a weeks-long research binge last November.  As a result of that reading, I can state with confidence that Troicki’s needle phobia is a corroborated matter of fact.  It’s a preexisting medical condition with both psychological and physiological symptoms—not a claim, not a suggestion, not a figment of his imagination, and not an “excuse” Viktor came up with one day because he was selected to submit a blood sample.  It was accepted as such by both the IADT and the CAS on the basis of, among other “clear and convincing evidence,” the testimony of one of the French Tennis Federation’s chief medical officers, Dr. Bernard Montalvan (9I).  In spite of this, numerous journalists felt free to dismiss it as a significant factor in the case—in the process, casting doubt not only on Troicki’s word (plus that of his coach, trainer, father, Davis Cup teammates, and friends/colleagues since childhood like Andrea Petković) but also, if indirectly, on that of the medical experts who submitted statements supporting it.

While this may seem, to some, an overly strong reaction to the skepticism, my view is that any journalist who suggests this part of “Troicki’s story was not corrobarated [sic] by the authorities” is open to numerous charges, including poor reading comprehension skills, sloppiness, laziness, irresponsibility, &/or bias.  Frankly, unless you’re an experienced phlebotomist, psychologist, or someone familiar with current thinking on blood-injection-injury phobias, I don’t want to hear your musings on whether “having a little blood drawn was. . . going to harm Troicki if he was feeling a little under-the-weather.”  In fact, I think it’d be best if no one heard such ill-informed speculations.  I do my best in this section to help readers become more informed about the condition and consider the ways in which it may have influenced matters for both Troicki and the DCO that day.

3. Practice empathy.

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.  Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers.  They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.  Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case.  It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy.  By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.  His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.  For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.
—Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

None of us—not members of the two tribunals, the tennis media, other players, or the author and readers of this piece—witnessed what happened in the Monte Carlo tournament DCS that day.  Though we may have read Troicki’s brief version of events in the case documents or a handful of interviews, what we haven’t heard in vivid detail is what it feels like for him to go through a phobic episode.  I suspect there are good reasons for this.  For example, while the word “phobia” appears three times in the IADT (B9, D38, E46) and once in the CAS decision (3.8), Troicki himself doesn’t use that word in any of his quoted statements.  This linguistic choice, which likely reflects “a tendency to downplay the fear and the significance it had in [his life],” aligns with what researchers have observed: “The very nature of the fear means it is not generally thought or talked about” (54, ii).  Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate because it means we’re missing a key part of the story.  But even in the absence of first-hand experience, observation, or abstract knowledge of something (what some might call “book learnin’”), we can still use our imaginations.

This section focuses on the difficulty of talking about mental-health issues in public—and thus, of combating both ignorance and stigma.  These difficulties may very well be why we haven’t seen much discussion of Troicki’s condition in media reports on his case. However, recognizing that something’s unfamiliar or difficult isn’t a reason to avoid it.  On the contrary, it’s a reason to pursue it by whatever means we have at our disposal.  My effort is ongoing: I’ve reached out to the player’s representatives and hope to interview him once he’s settled back into the routine of week-in, week-out life on tour.  But there’s no guarantee he’ll be willing to delve into the topic that I think most needs his insight.  After this “lesson,” I hope more people will understand why Viktor might be reluctant to do so on the record.

It’s worth emphasizing from the outset that practicing empathy in this case doesn’t necessitate changing your position on whether the CAS decision was correct or Troicki’s suspension just.  What I’m most trying to encourage readers to do, going forward, is imagine what needle-phobes (in general) and needle-phobic players (in particular) experience every time they’re faced with a blood-drawing procedure.

4. Acknowledge ambiguity & complexity.

Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing. —Jean-Martin Charcot

The Judge does not make the law.  It is people that make the law.   Therefore if a law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the law, that is justice, even if it is not just.                                                        —Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)

This section is dedicated to two groups, in particular: those, like Andy Murray, who seem to believe that following the rules is the (only or best) solution to the problems Troicki’s case presented; and those who haven’t to this point understood why some think the outcome of the CAS decision was unjust.

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

Starting from Scratch: The Return of Viktor Troicki

What follows are two interviews in one.  The first half contains excerpts from a conversation I had with Viktor Troicki at the 2012 Cincinnati Masters.  The second half is a recent interview conducted by Nebojša Mandrapa, the tennis reporter for Serbian newspaper Večernje Novosti, who has kindly permitted me to post a translation. Troicki, considered a hero of Serbian tennis ever since he scored the clinching point in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over France in 2010, was suspended from professional activity last July.  (Those needing a refresher on his case, which led to his being sanctioned for violating the ITF’s anti-doping rules, can read my overview and other players’ reactions here.)  He’ll return to action in just over a week, in all likelihood playing on the Gstaad clay for the first time in his career.

Teammates hold Viktor Troicki aloft to be cheered by Belgrade fans after he delivers the decisive rubber against France. © Paul Zimmer

As fans of men’s tennis will recall, Troicki rode the wave of his team’s triumph all the way to a career-high ATP ranking of #12 in June 2011.  Although he broke into the top 100 as a 22-year-old in 2008, and finished both 2009 and ‘10 within the top 30, it wasn’t until his first singles title in October 2010 and the Davis Cup win six weeks later that Troicki’s career really took off.  In fact, many in Serbian tennis circles were surprised at just how fast and how high he rose, given that he had long played second fiddle to not only Novak Djoković but also Janko Tipsarević, who was a more talented junior player.  Although Troicki’s time among the men’s tennis elite—thirty-four weeks in the top 20—was relatively brief compared to the elder Tipsy’s, it was Viktor who made more efficient progress up the ranks as a young pro and he who earned an individual title first.

1. “I just hope it happens again.”

© Getty Images Viktor Troicki dismissed Lleyton Hewitt for the loss of two games.

When we sat down in what is technically Mason, Ohio, Troicki was feeling good after demolishing former #1 Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets.  Knocking off top players wasn’t a new experience for Viktor (for instance, he beat Andy Roddick in the Washington quarterfinals back in 2008, when the American was #9), but he’d been having a difficult year.  Though his recent struggles became our focus fairly quickly (even before I’d asked about them), we began by looking back to 2010.

AM: Can you compare winning the Davis Cup with winning your first ATP title about a month earlier?  Together, they mark a key turning point in your career.  (Troicki was ranked #54 before a semifinal run in Tokyo, #43 before the Kremlin Cup in mid-October, and #30 at the end of the regular season.)  So, do you think of them together, as a sort of unit, or separately?

VT: Yes, definitely different things—totally different things.  It also felt different.  Of course, my first title gave me a lot of confidence.  I played great that week in Moscow, beat some big names, and I think I played my best tennis at the end of that year.

Then, the Davis Cup finals came and, for sure, knowing that I had a title already and that I was playing very well, I was more confident than usual.  I think that’s why I played very well in Davis Cup also.  Winning Davis Cup was the biggest moment of my life—it was just a great experience.  It felt unbelievable on the court, winning that last [rubber].  I just hope it happens again.*  I mean, it’s the moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life—just an unbelievable experience.

AM: How was the first half of 2011 different from the previous few years—coming off of Davis Cup and rising to your career-high?  (One thing that struck me here is how quickly Vik turned to the second half of the year—that is, to negative stuff.  Even at the outset of his answer, it sounds like he’s brought down by what he knows is coming.)

VT: Well, I started 2011 great, continuing to play very well.  I came to #12 in the world playing really good tennis.  And then I had some matches where I. . . (sigh) had the chance to win, where I was very close to winning, for example against Murray at the French—I had a chance to go to the quarters, I was serving for it—and also in Montreal against Monfils, I had match points which I didn’t use.

So, all these. . . those two matches, like, [set] me back.  I lost a bit of confidence and then I started to play less [well] than I was playing before; my ranking was dropping and I was losing some matches that I shouldn’t lose and I was unhappy. . .  I would say 2011 was a year with ups and downs.  Luckily, I hope, that’s over and I think I’m going to rise again in the rankings and get back to the top 20 and then, hopefully, go for the top 10.

AM: You talked about the effect of those two losses on your confidence, but is there anything else you want to add about why it’s been hard to maintain a high level consistently.  I mean. . . people are going to say that you’re in a slump, right?  But I don’t know if you think of it that way or not.  When I look at your playing activity, there are actually only a few losses that jump out at me as unexpected—like Bucharest.  Something like losses to Rosol no longer look weird after what he did at Wimbledon.

VT: It happens to every athlete—it happens that he has good days and bad days.  (Sigh.)  We all have ups and downs.  I guess it’s normal for every tennis player also.  I mean, the thing is to get out of it as quickly as you can, try not to think about it, and try to improve from those things—what you did wrong.  So, I hope I’ve learned some things from those matches.  I work hard every day to improve my game, so I hope these things won’t happen again.

AM: How much do you work on mental aspects of the game—not so much strategies or tactics, but things like positive thinking?

VT: Yeah, I had a person this year, during the tournaments in Europe, who I was talking to.  We were doing some sessions—mental sessions, psychological treatments.  He helped me a lot, I think.  We did a good job and I still use those things.

AM: Did you guys actually identify, say, types of negative thinking?

VT: We talked about not just tennis, but how to make life a nice place—to enjoy life, to be happy on the court.  Sometimes when I was on the court and I was losing, I was really not happy.  When it was not going my way, I was pretty unhappy—those were the things that were maybe not helping me.  So, we tried to improve that and to start thinking positive on the court, even if it’s not going well.  Hopefully, I’ll still improve on that point.

Serbian players celebrate winning the 2012 World Team Cup in Dusseldorf. Troicki beat Dodig, Tursunov, F. Mayer, & Stepanek en route to the title. © Kevin Kurek/ AFP/Getty Images

AM: What do you consider your best or most satisfying performance of the year?  Dusseldorf strikes me, since it was several wins in a row. . .

VT: Well, I played Wimbledon fourth round, which was my best Wimbledon so far.  I reached the fourth round (lost to Novak), which was a good result for me.  Beating Juan Monaco, I also played a good match there.  Maybe [today] was the best win, against Hewitt: to beat him 6-2, 6-0 was pretty surprising, even for me, and I think I played very well.  But my best tournament, I would say, was Wimbledon.

AM: You won a couple five-set matches in a row—arguably, it’s especially important to get through those.

VT: Definitely, definitely.  Actually, I made a record in Grand Slams for most consecutive five-setters.  So, it’s definitely a good thing when you’re winning those important matches, when it’s really tight—it means a lot and gets your confidence back.

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* I just hope it happens again.”  This line is especially poignant in light of the fact that a requisite part of “it”—Serbia making another Davis Cup final—did happen again (in 2013), only not for Viktor.  Due to his suspension, he was able neither to play nor even to cheer on his teammates from inside the Belgrade Arena.  Watching the final two rounds on tv from home was, understandably, an emotional experience for Troicki: “When Janko dedicated the [semifinal] tie to me and Novak took the microphone and got the stadium to shout ‘Viktor,’ I had a breakdown and started crying like never before in my life.”

It wasn’t only Troicki who suffered through those ties, however.  Due to his and the injured Tipsarević’s absences, Team Serbia was significantly undermanned when they faced Czech Republic in the final.

2. Making Up for Lost Time

Speaking with Mandrapa in Belgrade last week, Troicki was both bursting with motivation to return to the top ranks of the ATP and anticipating mixed emotions when he steps on court at his comeback tournament.

Troicki practices with Nikola Milojević in Belgrade. © N. Skenderija

Q: What will you be feeling when you return to action?

VT: From the wish to show that they were wrong to suspend me, to the hope of proving to myself that I can do even better than before— above all, a desire to make up for lost time… All of these emotions and much more will be present. To be honest, I don’t know myself how it’ll be on court in the beginning, until I get used to it.  At the same time, all my points will be gone by July 21 and I’ll be starting from scratch, completely from scratch. However, I often remember a very good saying, “Once a doctor, always a doctor.”  That’s why I haven’t given up on tennis: because it’s who I am.

Q: This period, from July 2013 until today, did it feel like an eternity?

VT: Too long, I’d say.  It was hard for me without tournaments, very hard.  But, I have to admit, some moments were nice and interesting, too.  I had time for everything.  Now, I’m completely recovered mentally, and not so nervous and burdened with all of this like at the beginning.  When [the CAS tribunal] made their decision to uphold my suspension, it was a huge shock.  But since then, I thought about it all in peace—about the future, not so much about everything that happened.

  “If you run into the [Doping Control Officer from last year] at a tournament, what would you say to her?”

“It’s better that you don’t know.  They [presumably, the ATP] will see that this doesn’t happen; but the woman continued to do her job, even though she’s a total amateur (not to say something harsher).  I think it’s too bad that she continued to work without any consequences, even though the [CAS] judgment stated that she also bears some blame, because of poor instructions and irresponsibility.  I don’t know what would happen—I just hope that I’ll never meet her again in my life.”

Q: Have you had any psychological help to overcome all these difficulties?

VT: I tried, but I didn’t like it too much.  I realized that it was all up to me.  If I sort out the dice in my head, then that’s that—and I don’t need someone else’s help.  If I manage to straighten myself out, that’s enough.

Q: You mentioned that the year was, at times, interesting.  What did you have in mind?

VT: I went skiing four times last winter—more days skiing than ever before in my life.  I wanted to catch up on things I love and haven’t had much chance to do.  Often, I’d play football with the guys—we had an indoor league.  And I went on a couple of trips with Nole, including my first time in South America, which was interesting.  Then, when I started to train, I also accompanied Djoković to a few tournaments he played, so I’ve practiced with him a lot.

Q: Was it difficult for you to find sparring partners, players with whom to practice?

April: Viktor trains with Dutzee & Nole in Monte Carlo.

A: Exactly; that’s exactly right.  But Novak helped me there, too.  Mostly, I worked with him—in Monte Carlo, or during tournaments in Dubai and Miami.  I also sparred with our younger players: Lajović, Krajinović, Milojević in Belgrade.

Q: What were you working on, looking to improve?

VT: For the last four months, I’ve really practiced a lot.  Luckily, both members of my team—coach [Jack] Reader and [fitness trainer/ physiotherapist Miloš] Jelisavčić—are still with me.  In some areas, I feel progress, but I’m lacking competitive play: points and other match situations. That’ll come eventually, after a couple of tournaments.  I can’t claim that it’ll all be in place by the first tournament (at that point, everything will probably still be totally strange), but I hope it’ll be sorted out as soon as possible.

Q: Due to the loss of ranking points, you won’t have direct entry to the biggest tournaments at first?

VT: Some tournament organizers have kindly offered me a wild card.  I won’t play at the major events.  Right now, we’re waiting for confirmation from Gstaad, and I’ll definitely participate in the Italian Challengers, four or five tournaments which coincide with the US hard-court season. Novak will try to help me with securing wild cards for the Asian swing.  If he succeeds, that would be great.

Q: Serbia’s Davis Cup team heads to India in mid-September for a World Group playoff.  Will it be with or without you?

VT: I honestly don’t know what to say.  It doesn’t fit into my schedule at all.  At that point in the season, I plan to play on clay, and I don’t feel like going to India.  I’d be losing two weeks, not just one; I can’t play on the main tour if I don’t get wild cards and, just then, I’m planning to play some bigger tournaments.  I hope the younger players will help and that they’ll be able to win the tie.  We’ll see who’ll even be in a position to play.  Maybe Tipsarević will manage to recover by then, but I think we’re the favorites no matter who plays.

In a New Year’s statement, however, Viktor had a slightly different perspective on whether a return to the tour or the opportunity to rejoin the Davis Cup team is more important to his comeback.

  “Both things go hand in hand.  If I’m able to win on the ATP tour level, then I’ll be a help to our team.  Of course, coming back and playing Davis Cup in front of my home crowd will mean the real end of this chapter.  Then I’ll be able to say that it’s behind me.”

Q: Are you fulfilled on a personal level—because that can have an impact on your results?

Wedding guests arrive in Sveti Stefan: Viktor Troicki & Sofija Milošević.                   © A. Ljumović

VT: Everything’s in the best possible order.  My mother and father have been the biggest support my whole life.  They always believed in me.  There were also a few other people, like Neša Trifunović, who’ve been a lot of help.  From them, I got valuable advice.  They told me that a year is short period in life and that it’ll pass—that I have to survive mentally, to be even stronger and even better.  I appreciate that.  My parents are very excited that I’m returning to the court, although I won’t see them as much as in the past year.

Q: Do you believe you can do better than the #12 spot you once occupied?

VT: I don’t know, but I’ll try to prove I can.  We’ll see how well I’ll succeed in that.  Certainly, I’ll give my best—more than I gave before.  My goal is to fight to the last point, and to get into the top 100 by the end of 2014.  It won’t be easy; but if I start well, I think I have a chance.  In the end, it’s all up to me.

First: Dušan Lajović on his Breakthrough Season

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

Roland Garros 2013 (photo by Hector for Tennis Alternative)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lajović vs Stepanek (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

Lajović vs Stepanek (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Little fuzzy koala”

“Little fuzzy koala”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 in Zagreb

Lajović on the stretch (© PBZ Zagreb Indoors)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubles: Serbia vs Switzerland (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

Doubles: Serbia vs Switzerland (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

Lajović serves during his win over Lu.

Lajović serves during his win over Lu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

Davis Cup Diaries

The Davis Cup semifinal between Serbia and Argentina in September 2011 was the first sporting event I attended with credentials allowing behind-the-scenes access.  Knowing Serbia as I do, I suspected their tennis federation’s communications representative wouldn’t care that I wasn’t a journalist but an academic visiting to do research for a project conceived just over a month before.  At the time, I thought it was a one-off: a fun way to pass the time during a short stint between teaching jobs.  Little did I know that this was the beginning of an adventure lasting two years (and counting) and taking me to tournaments across the US and in three other countries.

Most people reading this won’t need a reminder of the kind of 2011 Novak Djoković was having.  (If you’d like to refresh your memory, Brian Phillips’ pieces about the final two matches of the Serb’s US Open run or Jon Wertheim’s nomination of him for SI’s Sportsman of the Year are good ways to do so.)  He returned home, just days after winning his third Slam of the season, with an almost unthinkable 64-2 record.  Though much has been written about his year, two things that sometimes get overlooked in reviews of his accomplishments are the fact that Novak wasn’t in great shape when he arrived in Belgrade and would be in even worse condition by the end of the Davis Cup weekend.  During the US Open final against Nadal, he received treatment on his back and was clearly hobbled in the fourth set, serving at well below his average speeds.  Add to this the mental fatigue of a long year and the physical exhaustion of jet lag (never mind the whirlwind media tour that preceded his flight from New York), and it makes sense that Djoković didn’t play in the first singles match of the tie.

But with his team down 1-2 entering the third day of competition, Nole opted to enter the fray.  It was a no-win situation.  On the one hand, he had to play—both because his team, the defending champions, would almost certainly lose otherwise and because his home fans expected it.  On the other hand, he couldn’t really play—he simply wasn’t physically fit enough for a five-set match against one of the best players in the world.  Despite this, he put up a brave fight in the first set, eventually losing to Juan Martin del Potro in a tiebreaker.  While it was obvious to anyone watching closely that he wasn’t 100%, no one expected him to fall to the ground three games into the second set.  Given that the DJ opted to play Goran Bregović’s rousing “Kalašnjikov” at that moment, I’m confident I wasn’t the only one in the Belgrade Arena who had no idea what had happened—perhaps, I thought, he’d merely lost his footing and would bounce back after being evaluated.

Despite the warning signs (grimaces and awkward stretches during the first set and a medical time-out before the second), Djoković’s retirement was still somehow a surprise.  In his press conference after the final rubber, Janko Tipsarević noted that while he was disappointed by the loss, he had a “full heart” due to the risk his teammate had taken for them.  Only later, when Novak missed six weeks of play with a torn rib muscle, was the extent of his sacrifice clear.  Although he returned for the last three events of 2011, one could say that Djoković’s season really ended there, with thousands of his compatriots looking on in shock and sorrow as he was helped off court, towel over his head.

***

I’ve been back to Belgrade twice since that fall: for the Serbia Open in 2012 and the Davis Cup semifinal in 2013.  Because the project I’m working on aims to explain something about Serbia itself (not just Serbian tennis) to non-natives, I tried to capture a bit of the city’s scenery during my frequent walks downtown.  First-time visitors to Belgrade will get a history lesson by observing the architecture.  The mix of styles and degrees of dilapidation make it fairly easy to identify different periods: from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences to the more decadent designs of the turn of the twentieth century, from the massive slabs of Communist-era concrete to postmodern structures of glass and steel (either from the 1980s or the first decade of the new millennium).  While many buildings of historic significance have been refurbished, plenty of evidence of both war and economic hardship remains.

Marked on the above map are the primary locations of the photos that follow: the temple of St. Sava (near my home-base in the Vračar district), the Arena (across the river in “New Belgrade”), Tennis Center Novak (venue for the now-defunct Serbia Open), Kalemegdan fortress, and Republic Square (the heart of the old city).  Since buildings, flowers, and food were my most frequent subjects, I have no choice but to share photos of some of them.  Taking far too many pictures of inanimate objects is, I think, one of the lesser-known hazards of traveling alone.  Other things I’ve learned: trying to take action shots with a pocket camera is not advisable.

In the spring of 2012, my visit coincided with the run-up to a parliamentary election, so I was able to observe that process in various ways—by watching tv, reading the local papers, and documenting political speech in public spaces, from graffiti to official campaign posters.  Soon, I’ll offer more analysis of the intersection of sports and politics in Serbia.  For now, suffice it to say that there were rumors that then-president Boris Tadić had deliberately called the election to coincide with the final day of the Serbia Open, so he could be photographed handing the trophy to the most popular person in the country.  As it turned out, Nole pulled out of his home tournament, due in large part to the death of his grandfather some ten days earlier—and Tadić lost the election (though I’m sure there’s no causal relationship between these two events).

In the fall of 2013, Serbian media covering Davis Cup were focused on three stories.  The most sensational of these concerned Viktor Troicki, who, because he is serving an eighteen-month suspension for an ITF anti-doping rule violation, was not allowed to attend the tie.  Contrary to comments from the understandably emotional Troicki and his loyal team members, there was nothing out of the ordinary—and certainly nothing personal— about this prohibition.  He was not being treated like a “terrorist” or “murderer,” per Djoković’s hyperbole, but like a suspended player.  The second story centered on members of the visiting team: three Canadians have strong ties to the former Yugoslavia, with Daniel Nestor and Miloš Raonić born in the region.  Needless to say, the locals were particularly interested in what the guests made of their one-time home, whether they speak the language, and which elements of the cuisine they enjoy.  The third story was really a question: how would Novak rebound from losing in the US Open final earlier in the week?  It was partially answered by his straight-set handling of Vasek Pospisil on the tie’s opening night.  As in 2010, the Serbs came from behind to win the semifinal, with Tipsarević once again scoring the decisive point.  But unlike 2011, the team’s top player got through the weekend unscathed.

(Most of the images marked with asterisks are the work of Srdjan Stevanović.)

Tipsy Turning Point?

Sometimes a person can surprise you even when doing something you recognize as entirely in character (at least what you know of it).  So it was in a recent conversation with Janko Tipsarević, following his third-round win over Jack Sock, when he reacted to my telling him I wasn’t going to ask him much about specific matches.  “Let’s talk about the war in Syria,” he suggested, without skipping a beat.

What does this wry response reveal about Tipsarević?  He’s quick on his figurative feet (about the literal ones, more later), aware of the world beyond tennis, and not afraid to poke a bit of fun at himself, his interlocutor, and convention—in this case, of the athlete interview.  His response to my opening question was telling, too.  Though sometimes impulsive off court or less than completely focused on it, he’s both self-aware and willing to engage in analysis with others.

Below, our discussion of his year in tennis: past, present, and future.

On his recent form:
AM: A year ago, you obviously would have been a clear favorite coming into a match against somebody like Jack Sock. But he’s progressed quite a bit and you’ve been struggling, so even though rankings-wise you were still the favorite, this feels like a significant win.  Does it to you as well?

JT: It feels significant because it’s the first time after a while that I was able to win three matches in a row.  I’m very aware of that and I’m not ashamed to say it—if I don’t say it, somebody else will.

AM: Yes, that was my next question.

JT: So, I’m really happy that I was able to beat a young player, a crowd favorite, a guy who came out with all guns blazing.  I was able to sustain him and, at the end of the day, at least in my eyes, have a very comfortable win.

AM: The Australian Open was the last time you won three in a row; you’ve gotten to some other tournaments’ fourth rounds, but you had a first-round “bye.”  What do you think has made the difference?

JT: The story goes that I got injured at the Australian Open and I came back to the tour too soon.  I wasn’t fit enough, I wasn’t healed 100 percent, and I wasn’t ready to play guys at the ATP tour level.  I had some bad draws—playing Davydenko first round, Gulbis first round, Llodra first round, whatever—and then I started losing to players that I shouldn’t have lost to.  Then, when you lose confidence, the ball starts kind of rolling, you lose matches that you shouldn’t lose, and your ranking starts to drop.

On the other hand, I was too much focused on things that I could improve, instead of keeping with the things that had gotten me to the top ten in the first place.  So, I learned that I just need to keep it simple—nothing else.

AM: We talked a year ago about how being in the top ten brought additional obligations, especially off court.  Have there been any other activities that have been distracting or may have contributed to the misplaced focus?

JT: No, not so much—and I think I proved that in 2012.  In 2011, I moved from 49 to 9, and one of my biggest goals was to play London at the end of the year.  Eventually, I ended up playing because Rafa got injured; but I proved in 2012, even with all the activities I have (which didn’t change that much this year), that I can be a top-ten player.  I was nine, then eight, the majority of the year.  So, I didn’t add any other activities in 2013 that I didn’t already have in 2012.  The biggest thing is that I came back [from injury] too early, not ready, and I got lost in this “improving my game” kind of thing, which eventually ended up in my losing to players I shouldn’t lose to.

On injury & recovery:
AM: When you retired at the Australian Open, it wasn’t entirely clear what the injury was.  If you recall, Andy Murray had blisters on his feet in the final, which affected his movement.  Linking these two incidents, what I’m wondering is if you can explain how a seemingly minor issue can have a major impact or last much longer than initially anticipated?

JT: You know, I don’t want to put other sports down, but tennis is a very, very physically demanding sport and so tough in terms of getting injured because we are using almost every single part of our bodies.  Even if the little finger on your right hand is injured…. If you have a small pain somewhere, at the end of the day, you are alone on the court.  You can’t get a cheap or fake win against anybody because you’re not a team—you are alone and you don’t have anybody to pass the ball to.

So, sometimes maybe to the fans it might look like the injury is not that severe or serious.  But, trust me, it’s doing way more damage than it looks.

AM: How long did it take until your heel felt normal—or you felt comfortable playing on it?

JT: I came back after three weeks, after getting injections, after getting cortisone and it still wasn’t right…. It was a bone bruise [caused from impact to part of the heel that doesn’t have as much fat padding].  The problem was that this is part of the body we use so much and there’s no treatment for it.  So, I was lying in bed for three weeks wanting to shoot myself from boredom.  I wanted to do something, but the only thing I could do is rest, even after the injections.  So, then, my attitude was, “Ah, it’s not that bad, it’s going to pass…”  But it was affecting every single move I made.

On Team Serbia:
AM: How much contact have you had with Viktor over the last month and what’s your sense of how he’s dealing this difficult period in his career?

JT: He’s handling it very well.  I don’t want to talk in his name, but my guess would be that he’s waiting for a final decision from the Swiss court.  The guy with whom I prepared for this US [hard-court] tour was Viktor—I practiced with him every single day for three hours, back in Belgrade, when he was still allegedly banned.  But he’s handling it pretty well so far.

It’s a big loss for us that we will not have somebody like him by our side facing Canada in Davis Cup.

AM: My impression of Viktor is that he does particularly well in the team environment.

JT: He’s such a big team player.  And in this scenario, not knowing how far Novak or I will go in the tournament, it would be so much easier for us to have him jumping in to play singles or doubles.

AM: If you were in Bogdan Obradović’s place, would you choose Lajović because he’s good on clay, Bozoljac for doubles, or think about who could best sub in for you or Novak in singles?

JT: Our captain did exactly what he should do: he invited both guys.  The good thing is that Bozoljac played pretty well in a Challenger [on clay in Como, Italy] this week—lost in quarters.  So, he invited both of the guys and will see what’s going on.  He also can’t predict how far we’ll go in this event, how we’re going to feel and handle the jet-lag, and so on.

Don’t forget that Zimonjić and Bozoljac beat the Bryans in the US…

AM: Oh, believe me, I won’t.  (Neither will Bob and Mike Bryan, by the way, who recently talked about their quarterfinal loss in Boise as one of the toughest they’ve suffered.)

JT: So, we have options.  Obviously, without Viktor on the team, they are a little bit less clear.

AM: Other than Viktor missing, what do you think is the biggest challenge the Canadians will pose the Serbian team?

JT: You know, if you’d asked me this a few months back, when Miloš wasn’t playing so great and Pospisil was ranked out of the top 100, I would have said that we’d be a clear favorite.  Now, with Pospisil being ranked around 40 and Miloš playing the tennis of his life, and us without Viktor, it kind of shifts the momentum a little bit.

But, I’m playing better and some of the best tennis I’ve ever played was in Davis Cup—I love playing in front of the full house.  I don’t think the Canadians, other than Nestor, have ever played in front of twenty thousand fans cheering for the other guys; so, this will be huge.  They’re a young team, excluding Nestor, of course.  But I don’t want to run away from the responsibility.  Even without Viktor playing, I am aware that we are favorites to win this match—obviously, having Novak on our side and playing in Belgrade, on a clay court.  I would say the chances are at least 60-40 for our side.

✈ ✈ ✈ ✈ ✈

When Tipsarević and I talked in the players’ garden outside of Arthur Ashe stadium in Flushing Meadows, I knew two things.  First, the number two Serb would be getting a stiff challenge from David Ferrer (who stopped his run at last year’s final Slam) in the next round.

Second, we’d be meeting again soon in Belgrade.  So, I resisted asking some questions until I see whether and how Janko carries his US Open momentum into Davis Cup competition.

When I visited the Belgrade Arena today, Tipsy and team appeared in good spirits.  Although he was there to practice with Lajović (known to friends and fans as “Dutzee”), Janko’s usual—that is, non-Serbian—support crew were there as well.  Dirk Hordorff, in a crisp-looking white Fila tee (and no cigarettes in sight), observed from the sidelines as Bernardo Carberol and Stefan Düll put Janko though his warm-up routine.  Dušan Vemić, lately of the #1’s entourage but currently helping coach Ivo Karlović and Andrea Petković, and Filip Krajinović were also on hand as hitting partners.  With Nole’s arrival late this afternoon, it’s safe to say that the gang’s all here.

Note: an edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.  I’ll post further updates as the week progresses.

Master Class: A Conversation with Nenad Zimonjić

I had an opportunity to sit down with doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjić at the start of the Citi Open in Washington.  Returning to competitive play after a month’s rest, the Serb was in a reflective mood while discussing his rivalry with the Bryan brothers, his numerous partners in recent years, and the ITF’s recent decision to suspend his Davis Cup teammate Viktor Troicki for eighteen months.  (An edited Serbian version of the interview appeared on the B92 website.)

Nenad Zimonjić and Julien Benneteau celebrate a point during their win over Mardy Fish and Radek Stepanek in the Washington final. Photo by Mariya Konovalova.

Nenad Zimonjić and Julien Benneteau celebrate a point during the Washington final. Photo by Mariya Konovalova.

As a winner of multiple Grand Slam titles, including back-to back Wimbledon victories in 2008 and ‘09, Zimonjić is fairly well known in tennis circles.  Together with Canada’s Daniel Nestor, he wrestled the Bryan brothers for the top spot in men’s doubles for three years, winning the year-end ATP championships in 2008 (Shanghai) and 2010 (London).  He has also won four major titles in mixed doubles, two with Slovene veteran and frequent partner Katarina Srebotnik.  While not known for his singles career, he has played solo as recently as this winter’s Davis Cup tie with Belgium and lists a 2004 win over Andre Agassi, then ranked #6 in the world, among his achievements.

Perhaps less appreciated outside of the Balkans is the role Zimonjić serves—part older brother, part elder statesman—within the Serbian tennis community.  Given his compatriot’s success in singles, it’s little surprise that the first name that comes to most people’s minds when they think of Serbian tennis is Novak Djoković.  Nevertheless, at 37 years old and with 49 doubles titles to his name, “Ziki” is widely regarded as the stalwart of Team Serbia.  Not only has he appeared in 44 Davis Cup ties but he also possesses at least one trophy to mark every year since 1999 (and the range of experiences and insight that comes with that kind of longevity).  Though Djoković is the player now most relied upon to bring points in their Davis Cup clashes, Zimonjić remains a strong presence both on and off the court.  His effect on younger players can be observed in any number of ways: a striking recent example was his steadying influence on the talented but streaky Ilija Bozoljac in their dramatic win over the Bryan brothers in Boise this spring.

Last week, it was my turn to listen and learn.

***

AM: The last time you played here, two years ago, you and Michael Llodra won the title.  Does having won a tournament before affect or motivate you in any particular way?

NZ: It’s always nice to come back to the places where you’ve played well, especially defending a title.  I don’t find it to be a pressure—it’s more like you remember that you played really well, you have good memories, and that can help you in the results.  Then again, it’s been two years now, since we had Olympic Games last summer.  But I’ve always had good experiences here in Washington; I remember playing well most of the time, so hopefully we can do the same this year.

AM: You’ve played two great matches against the Bryan Brothers this year with a lot on the line and won both.  What does it mean to beat the most accomplished team in doubles history?  Will you miss them here this week or are you and other players kind of glad when they’re not in the draw?

NZ: Not really.  I enjoy playing against the best—this is why I compete, this is why I train every day: because I want to play the best on the biggest stages.  So, if you meet them in the finals, that’s the best possible thing.  In my career, I’ve had a lot of matches against the Bryans and some of them were really big matches—some I lost, some I won.  They’re probably going to go down as the most successful team of all time and it’s nice that I’ve had the chance to play against them with various partners on various occasions.

What they’ve achieved this year is amazing, really.  Actually, it started from winning the Olympic Games—from that point on, I thought they played incredibly well.  They were so consistent, they had really great results, and they won a tournament they’ve never won (and which means a lot to them), Indian Wells.  They had chances in the past, but they didn’t make it, and it took them a while.  But now they can say that they’ve won everything that you can win in doubles.  Obviously, they want to keep winning as much as they can—and everybody on tour wants the same thing.  So, for me to play them is always a big challenge and it’s always nice to compete against the best.

AM: One difference between the Bryan Brothers and other teams is that they have worked together for so long.  Even if they weren’t twins, such a long-term partnership is an advantage.  What have been the challenges for you over the past year or so playing with so many partners?  Have you learned anything new about yourself and how you work in this period?

NZ: Obviously, it helps when you play with the same partner.  When you practice a lot together, you’re going to improve.  You’re going to have ups and downs, but you get to know each other and find a way to help each other—that’s the advantage the Bryans have.  They work extremely hard.  Then again, there are a lot of changes in doubles.  So, where they benefit the most is the beginning of the year, because a lot of guys are just getting to know each other.  This is where they have a head start—they get ahead of everybody and it’s difficult to catch them.

By playing with many different partners, I got the chance to improve my game.  Sometimes playing a different side, different styles—that helped me to become a better player.  But, my most successful partnership was with Daniel [Nestor], and that’s when we were there with the Bryans.  For the three years we played together, it came down to the last match of the season to decide who was going to be number one.  The first year, we finished #1; the second year, they finished #1; then, the third year, they finished first and we tied for third.  It was very competitive.  We played against them, I believe, fifteen matches and won nine of those; so, head-to-head, we had better results.  But, at the end, we decided to split.

Then, I thought I had a good partnership with Mika.  It took a while to get going, probably because we were expecting a little bit more from ourselves.  We knew that we were capable of playing really well, but it took time because he is also focused on his singles and we didn’t have much time to practice.  Unlike the Bryans, who practice day-in, day-out and can even play points in practice, with Mika, I can count on the figures of one hand how many times we played practice points against somebody.  So, this is something that was missing.

We stopped because they were expecting their third child during Wimbledon and I couldn’t really take a chance about when it was going to happen.  So, we decided to play with different partners.  He played with a good friend of his, his Davis Cup teammate and now captain, Arnaud Clement, for his last tournament as a professional player.  After that, Mika dropped in the singles rankings, so he had to play different tournaments.  He skipped the whole summer, when we were defending a lot of points—we won Washington and Montreal, reached the finals of Cincy.

AM: It was something like two thousand points.

NZ: Yeah.  So, when he came to the US Open, I’d been playing with different partners (two tournaments with [Paul] Hanley, with Janko at Queens and the Olympics, and with [Alexander] Peya at Wimbledon).  We still had a chance to make the [World Tour Finals]; but we knew the US Open was probably the last chance, since he’d made plans not to go to Asia—where we again had done well, winning Beijing and playing the finals in Shanghai.  So, it was a lot of pressure and that’s where we decided to split.  I had to find a different partner for the next year because I really didn’t know what to expect from him.

That’s when I decided to play with Robert.  We started the year working extremely hard, trying to get to know each other, understand our games, and find the best game style for us to play.  But in the end, it didn’t really work out.  What I can say is that we tried extremely hard, both of us.

AM: You won Rotterdam, right?

NZ: Yeah, we won Rotterdam, and we played the finals in Stockholm and Dubai—those were good results, good moments.  But we didn’t really get to understand each other, and I think it was a good decision that we stopped.

AM: How has it been working with Julien Benneteau?

NZ: Benneteau is again a singles player with whom I don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice, similar to the situation with Mika.  But we get along really well, and we were lucky to start with a win—a huge win—in Monte Carlo.  That gave us a chance to make the Masters, which is something he hasn’t achieved yet.  So, that’s a good motivation for us—and for me, it’s a challenge to make it again with a different partner.  A good thing about the Bryans winning everything is that the rest of the teams are going to fight until the end of the year to see who’s going to make it.  Even if the Bryans don’t play another match for the rest of the year, they’re going to finish number one, which is a great achievement for them.

Julien and I are hoping to work at our partnership.  It’s difficult when you start without being seeded.  We had some tough draws, then some injuries that Julien had at the French Open during his singles match.  So, it’s a little frustrating when things like this happen, but it’s part of the sport and hopefully we can continue a good partnership from here.

AM: As of today, you guys are #9 in the race, but fewer than 1000 points—essentially, spitting distance—separate the teams ranked 3-13.  Other than winning, what do you need to do over the next few months to secure a spot in London?  Are there specific adjustments you and Julien need to make as a pair?

NZ: Not really.  Sometimes you have to be a little lucky with the draw.  Here, we have a pretty tough first round, with Nestor & Lindstedt, seeded third.  The difference is that if we keep winning, starting in Washington and then Montreal, it’s going to improve our ranking so that we can get a top-eight seed at the US Open.  That would give us a little better chance to get to the quarters.  It doesn’t really matter who you play then—you’ve made some points, which is good for the race.  Later on, when you play Masters series, being seeded or getting a “bye” makes a big difference; you get a better draw, for sure.  This is where it’s a little difficult to start with a new partner, who isn’t ranked high enough.  But, I believe in our game—we proved that we can beat anybody.  Our first tournament, we played against the best teams and we won; so, I’m sure we can keep playing well.  The main thing is to stay healthy, and the results will come.

AM: Have you been in touch with Viktor since the ITF decision?

NZ: Of course I’ve talked to Viktor—he’s my great friend, like everyone on the team.   We’ve known each other a long time and know each other well; so, this news is extremely difficult for all of us.  Naturally, I already knew about this, because I was there when it happened in Monte Carlo.  I think it came down to a big misunderstanding—and Viktor will be the one to suffer, even if he’s not guilty.  I’m one-hundred percent confident that he hasn’t taken any prohibited substances.  Something very unusual happened: I think it’s partly his fault and partly the fault of the person who did the test.  She should have told him, in fact, that he absolutely doesn’t have the right to refuse to take the test.  If he were told in that way, I think he’d have done it at any cost and then everything would’ve been fine.  We’ll see what happens in the end—he has the option to appeal and I trust that we’ll at least reduce what I think is an extremely strict and heavy penalty, particularly given that he’s never tested positive for anything.  I hope it’ll end well.

AM: Moving on to Davis Cup, how will Viktor’s absence affect the team, both psychologically and strategically?

NZ: With anyone from the team absent, it makes our path harder.  If we all participate, if we’re all healthy, we have a lot more options and possibilities as far as tactics, freshness, and so on.  Certainly, it won’t be easy, given that we play right after the US Open and that Novak will surely come late.  We’ve also got to adapt to the time difference and a different surface.  Regardless, we’ve had to deal with this situation before when Novak wasn’t on the team or, this year, Janko hasn’t been with us twice.  So, in the worst-case scenario, if Viktor can’t play, I trust we’ll still find a way to get the win.

AM: Do you have any input on who will replace him, since this player might be partnering you in doubles, or does Captain Obradović make the decision on his own?

NZ: The captain always consults with me about who I’d want to play with, even though it’s not ultimately my choice who ends up being my partner because we have to decide based on who needs to be freshest for singles the next day or for some other reason.  But for the most part, we talk together—all the players.  Because I’m the oldest and most experienced, there are some things that I can predict better, at least where doubles are concerned.  So, we’ll see.

If Viktor’s not there, it decreases our options for doubles since Novak probably won’t come until Wednesday and he’s supposed to play on Friday; then, for him to play all three days would be too hard.  Whether I’ll play with Janko or maybe a fourth player—Bozoljac or Lajović—we’ll have to see what the situation is.  We have plenty of time, and those are decisions that get made a day or two in advance.

AM: What kind of reception do you think the Canadian team will get in Belgrade?

NZ: Well, Daniel and Miloš are Canadians and they’ll be representing their country.  Daniel was born in Belgrade, but he definitely feels Canadian.  Of course, the Serbian crowd will cheer for us.  But I believe there will be both Canadians and, say, Montenegrins who will be a great support for Miloš, considering he was born in Podgorica and his family is there.  So, that’s something we’re expecting.  I think it’ll be interesting in that regard, since 75% of their team—Dančević, too—have roots in the former Yugoslavia.

AM: How do you rate Serbia’s chances to get to another final?

NZ: I think we have chances against any team in the world—especially if Novak is there, because he can always deliver two points, no matter the opponent or surface.  He’s proven that and I trust it’ll be the case this time.  I also hope Janko, who has at least three tournaments before Davis Cup, will play himself into form and lift his confidence, which will be extremely important, given that he and Novak will play singles.  And that, too, will be a very important point.  I think the Canadians have a very strong team with Nestor and Pospisil, who has shown that he can play both singles and doubles exceptionally well.  Then again, we’re playing on clay—a surface on which their second player, whoever it is, really shouldn’t be able to threaten either Janko or Novak.  So, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of form Miloš is in; with his serve, he’s a very troublesome player who can surprise anyone.  But I think that kind of surprise is much harder to pull off on clay, over best-of-five sets—and that’s why I think we have an advantage irrespective of Viktor’s presence.  Of course, circumstances could arise in which Nole arrives late, or a player is tired or injured, and we don’t have an adequate substitute; but they could have the same problems.

***

Benneteau and Zimonjić went on to win not only their first match in Washington but, in fact, the whole tournament, beating Mardy Fish and Radek Stepanek in the final.  Afterwards, Nenad shared a few thoughts on the week as well as on the state of men’s doubles more generally.

Citi Open men's doubles trophy ceremony. Photo by Mariya Konovalova.

Men’s doubles trophy ceremony. Photo by Mariya Konovalova.

On the Citi Open
It feels really great to win such a big tournament.  It’s a 500 series, but not just that: it was a very strong field—you didn’t have any easy matches here.  To return after a long break and to play this well and win the tournament without losing a set is really the best way to come back to the tour.  It was a lot of fun, I have to say, for both of us to play—we had a great time here, on the court and off.  So, hopefully this will help us for the upcoming three tournaments.

On the popularity of doubles
I think in the States, doubles is quite popular—England, too.  The biggest problem is, I think, scheduling.  The biggest problem is maybe not putting the doubles at the good times, which is before the singles.  I would compare it to a boxing match or some concerts, where you go and you want to see the best at the end.  The best here is definitely singles, no question about that.  But doubles is a lot of fun: it’s a good game, it’s something different that you don’t see in singles.  I think this is a good combination—you can use both “products,” if you can call them that, and make them popular and people can enjoy them.  Before, you had guys serving and volleying, playing that style; now, in singles, you don’t have that any more.  Still, you have it in doubles, where you have these reactions and quick points that you’re not going to see in singles.  Then again, the rallies, the running, some incredible points that you’re going to see in singles, you’re not going to see in doubles.  So, I would never compare it, but I believe that you can make tennis really popular by promoting doubles as well.

On his and Federer’s racquet changes
I changed it completely.  I’ve played with the same racquet from, I would say, 2001 and this was the first week playing with this racquet.  Usually, you don’t do this in the middle of the season, if you’re not 100% sure.  But you’re never really right when you start playing—it’s one thing in practice.  So, when you come to play, it’s always nice to have this confirmation with wins and shots that you make, that, “OK, this is it, this was a good decision.”  Then, you move on.  For me, it was a very nice transition.  It’s the same brand (Head) racquet and I think it was good for me….  I don’t know about [Roger], but I’m guessing that maybe it’s a bigger sweet spot, which is the case with my racquet, and a little bit of extra power.  This is what can make a big difference nowadays, with everybody serving big and hitting the big ground-strokes.  You want to find the best equipment that you can, with the strings, with the racquet, with the shoes—this is what’s very, very important.

On playing other doubles specialists & predominantly singles players
I want to play against the best players.  For me, it doesn’t matter if you’re a singles or doubles player.  There are singles players that are really good in doubles and there are some that are not as good.  Also, the other way around…. So, you want to play against the best and to challenge yourself as an athlete.  You want to play the best singles guys, the best doubles guys—you want to play them all.  And nowadays, it’s interesting because it’s changing a little bit, the way the guys are playing.  Some of them have decided to stay back, playing from the baseline and hitting big ground-strokes; some teams are playing traditional doubles, which is what we are doing, serve and volleying; some guys are playing I-formation.  There are a lot of tactics going on; so, as a player, you have to be adjusting to all of this, practicing to get better to face all these opponents.

On doubles formats and scheduling
Regarding no-AD scoring and match tiebreaks: I think it’s a good format.  We don’t really know, because nobody made a survey after that change, if it’s the right decision to go super tiebreaker at the end or to play a regular set with no-AD—which would take maybe five or ten minutes longer, but which I think could be a little more fair.  Then again, maybe some of the singles guys would then decide not to play….  This format where you play super tiebreaker is a little tricky because you could be the much better team for the first set and most of the second, then you end up losing the set [snap!]—and you’re in the super tiebreaker and everything happens so quick.  So, sometimes this is not fair that teams like this lose—you don’t have a chance, really, to get back in the match since the super tiebreaker’s really quick.  On the other hand, the points are very interesting: every point counts, every point is a big point, it’s a lot of fun for the crowd, and we are adjusting to it.

But the format that we’re talking about and the point about playing doubles before the singles, the best example is in the [World Tour Finals] at the end of the year in London, where all the matches are televised.  The turnout is really amazing, it’s a lot of pleasure for the players and the fans.  You have both a day session and a night session and you can watch a doubles match and a singles match with the best eight teams and best eight players in the world.  I think this is the winning combination and this is what we should aim to do as much as possible.  Sometimes, the same players will be in singles and doubles, and then you have to play doubles after; but every other time, I think you should play doubles before—maybe a little closer than what we did today [the men’s doubles and singles finals were scheduled at noon and three, respectively].  Because I think if we started at one o’clock, that would still give us time to finish the match and have the ceremony.  In any case, this is much better than to play after, in my opinion.

Regarding best-of-five set matches: As a player, if you play best-of-five, you have a lot of chances to get back in the match.  If somebody wins against you, he’s definitely the better player that day.  So, you have no excuses, really.  But, in my mind, because tennis is very physical now, I think it’s really long to play best-of-five.  I love to watch tennis—I love playing, I love watching, and for me it’s too long.  I think this format that we’re testing in doubles, which is no-AD, could be very interesting in the future in singles if they were to try to change something.  Then, you would not have these long games—same thing as what happened in volleyball, with the rule changes, same thing in table tennis.  I think those are good changes.  Maybe the only difference I would suggest in singles is that it could be the server’s choice, not the receiver’s, about where to serve….  Then, you will have quick games and the matches won’t go really long—advantage, deuce, advantage, deuce—and maybe playing best-of-five wouldn’t take such a long time.  But you would make it a special thing at the Grand Slams to play best-of-five, with no-AD—why not?  This is something that maybe we should try.  At the end of the day, the best players will be at the top no matter what rules you play—everybody will adjust…. We’ll see where tennis will go, but some changes wouldn’t be bad at all.

***

Although they lost to Colin Fleming and Andy Murray in the first round of the Coupe Rogers in Montreal, the French-Serbian pair earned enough points in Washington to be seeded at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati next week.  They also moved into the sixth spot in the race to London.

A Boy and His Teacher

English: Novak Djokovic celebrates his 2011 Wi...

English: Novak Djokovic celebrates his 2011 Wimbledon semi-final win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Victory meant that Djokovic successfully clinched the ATP World No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career. He also reached his first ever Wimbledon final, which he eventually won. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the fall of 2011, a reunion took place between Novak Djoković and his first coach, Jelena Genčić.  For reasons that remain unclear, and despite their obvious closeness, the two hadn’t seen each other for several years.  During that time, Nole won his first few Slam trophies, led the Serbian team to a Davis Cup championship, went on a 43-match undefeated run to start the 2011 season, and became the ATP #1.  It is significant, then, that the achievement the two most joyously celebrated on this late-November day was his Wimbledon title.

In my view, Genčić was not only Novak’s most important teacher but also the first Djoković “mythologist.”  It is she who first told him that he was destined for greatness.  It was her experience, insight, and faith that gave the Djoković family confidence to put so many of their hopes for the future in the prospects of a little boy.  Hers were the words his elders repeated amongst themselves to help justify the sacrifices they were making and would continue to make.  So, understanding the relationship with Genčić, his “tennis mother,” is a route to better understanding Novak: the child he was as well as the man he’s becoming.

While the March 2012 60 Minutes feature on Djoković excerpted a few minutes of this conversation, a Serbian tv program, Agape, aired its full length, providing a significant perspective on his early development as both a player and a person. The first segment and opening part of the second are mostly in English.  I will provide translations in updates to this post.

Update:

To start at the end, with the closing montage voice-over (42:11):

  When was the last time you heard a story that encourages, inspires, and endures?

  Kopaonik, 1993: Novak Djoković meets Jelena Genčić for the first time.  He watches the training through the fence around the court.  He’s there every day, until Jeca finally asks him, “Would you like to play tennis, too, dear?”  “This whole time I’ve been waiting for you to invite me.”

  A little man with a big dream, a neat bag for practice, and a short cross-court backhand shot.  “This one is mine,” thought Jelena, and said aloud, “For you it is written.  You’ll be in the top five in the world at 17.”  The boy drank in every word.

  He beat the best of the best, stronger in body and richer in soul.  Jelena taught him that the arm doesn’t play tennis, but rather the soul which leads it.  Jeca and Nole: thousands of hours on court, hundreds of serves, slices, forehands, volleys, and smashes—as well as hundreds of poems, books, concerts: the wisdom of the ages. And even many springs and falls and winters—until there came a summer, when… [cuts from images of childhood training in Serbia to Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2011]  He becomes first… and lifts the golden trophy above his head.  Novak Djoković, world #1.

Update II:

On Monday, September 23, while also celebrating his 100 weeks at number 1 in the ATP rankings, Djoković and his girlfriend of eight years, Jelena Ristić, got engaged.  In light of this news, it seemed appropriate to share some of Novak’s observations on his important relationships (34:47).

JG: Can I ask you about something different now?

: You can.

JG: You know how it always was when we talked like this—we wandered here and there… [Therein commences an exemplary digression about a dog of their mutual acquaintance.]  Can I ask, how is Jelena?

: She’s good—excellent.

JG: Give her my best.

: I will.

JG: He may not remember (or, he does) when he brought her—where else, to see me, but the tennis courts, right?

: Jeca, what can I say, other than that I’ve always liked the name Jelena.  So…

JG: I knew it!

: That has followed me.

The interviewer chimes in (35:59): How much does this harmonious relationship with Jelena [Ristić] mean to you and what about her won you over?

: Well, we’ve been in a relationship for six years now and she is also my great support, someone I lean on a lot.  She won me over first of all with her sincerity, her intelligence— and, ultimately, we developed a great understanding, a great love…. Without this you can’t maintain any relationship.

To be honest, that balance in my private life and the equilibrium that I have between my professional and private life very much helps me be happy and emotionally fulfilled and to somehow carry everything more lightly.  People need to be dedicated to their professions, particularly one like tennis, which is the most demanding sport today as it has a longer season than any other.  So, you have to be professional and persistent, in the desire to fulfill your dreams.  But, on the other hand, your whole life can’t be reduced to work.

You need to have the right balance, to cherish and respect love—toward your family, parents, brothers, girlfriend, wife, friends.  You shouldn’t forget where you come from, from what country.  You shouldn’t forget the past: situations you’ve been through, people who helped along the way.  That’s how I was brought up and I’ve tried my whole life to surround myself with people who honestly want the best for me.  And I really believe that it’s precisely because I was around people like Jelena [tapping Genčić on the knee]—both Jelenas—as well as my family, my friends, people who truly wished the best for me, people who aren’t there because I’m a successful tennis player but who’ve really been there, with me, for a long, long time.  Of course, my parents, who were there my whole life, who raised me and believed in me and my abilities.  So, there it is.  Because of these people and their support, I’ve managed to overcome my psychological barriers and crises, and so on (problems, even in puberty, like everyone else)—and succeeded in arriving in the situation where we are now: to be #1.

JG: Bravo!

: …and to come to Jeca’s house!

A Tweet Heard ‘Round the World?

Last night’s Twitter speculation about the nature of Novak Djoković’s ankle injury, full of needless anxiety about the condition of the world’s top male tennis player, holds two tennis-media lessons for me.

First, in an ideal world, journalists should feel a similar responsibility on Twitter as they do on their official media outlet websites.  In other words, if you wouldn’t print it, why tweet it?  I realize that many sports reporters’, writers’, and pundits’ Twitter accounts are as much personal as professional.  It’s an informal medium by design.  Hence, no one is surprised or bothered by getting tweets containing photos of Brad Gilbert’s dog, Neil Harman’s musical selections, or Martina Navratilova’s political musings throughout the season (let’s leave Boris Becker out of this, shall we?).  Nevertheless, these public figures have as many followers as they do on the basis of their professional expertise, activities, and positions—and particularly due to their access to key sources of information.  If your Twitter bio states your affiliation with a media outlet, chances are people follow you as a professional, not as an interesting person (though you may well be both).  So, it stands to reason that you should keep your journalistic function and the standards of the profession in mind when on Twitter—as well as how quickly a tweet can circulate around the world.  Such is, after all, the nature of a social media network.  Twitter may seem like an unreal, impermanent sphere, but what happens in this space can have real and lasting effects.

Second, all media access is not identical.  Although all press credentials are created equal, every individual with a badge on a lanyard is not the same—which is a good thing and fundamental to the meaning of the phrase “freedom of the press.”  The press is not only free in terms of being at liberty to say what it wants without fear of reprisal from government or other powerful forces but also in the sense of being open to a variety of people and perspectives.  Each member of the media brings his or her own unique background, knowledge, interests, investments (not necessarily biases), skills, m.o., contacts, relationships, and values to the occasion.  Specifically, as the RTS interview with Djoković after hed secured his nations spot in the Davis Cup semifinals illustrates, media from a player’s home country are often able to get more—or different—information from their primary sources.  This ability, related to the comfort of both native tongue and personal familiarity, is but one reason why it’s important to have media diversity.  Sometimes, though, it’s not enough to open one’s doors (or, technically, one’s online credentials application form).  In order to have media diversity, we—both the public and the institutions of the media—must actually pursue and cultivate it. 

But how?  As individuals with technologically-enabled access to the world, we can search out new sources of information easily.  This is one of the life-changing consequences of the internet: a kid with a computer in Kazakhstan may find relevant information about a given topic before a top ESPN analyst.  Anyone can post on Twitter; anyone can upload his or her video to YouTube; anyone can start a blog (even people, like me, who aren’t entirely sure they want to!).  The professional media, however, is only as diverse as the people in charge—editors, producers, publishers, advertisers, and investors—are committed to making it.  And commitment, ultimately, means money, even more than it does values or mental and physical effort. 

As I hope will be clear, I’m speaking of only one type of diversity now: cultural.  Leaving the selection of not-so-easily-accessible Boise aside, the central media problem in the case of this Davis Cup tie wasn’t, ultimately, that the USTA may have mishandled one credential application.  It’s that Serbian media are not in an economic position to send their journalists to events abroad— which is to say, virtually all of them.  As a result, while they do send television crews to major tournaments (in fact, their TV coverage of tennis is much better than in the US because all of it is on network TV &/or a sports cable channel that practically everyone has, unlike Tennis Channel here), Serbian newspapers, websites, and radio are not able to send their sports reporters.  Thus, it falls on bloggers (often paying their own way) or members of the Yugo-diaspora living in the tournament locale to provide eyewitness coverage.  This is not, as you might imagine, an ideal situation; but given economic realities, it’s not obvious what can be done to improve it. 

A related problem is that Serbian media are largely reliant on the foreign press coverage of tennis tournaments.  This wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t for the immense success of Serbian players in recent years.  So we must, in a way, be grateful to be facing this challengebetter this than to have no players in the top ten or twenty, right?  Still, much of what passes for sports journalism in Serbia is copy & paste—or, rather, copy, translate, then paste—from English-language websites.  Among other things, what this situation means is that questions Serbian media might have raised, had they been at the event, don’t get asked—or, almost as significant, they don’t get asked in front of the assembled group and widely circulated thereafter.  The resulting press-conference transcript is the poorer, I think, for their absence (though it is often quite rich, both because Linda and Julie of ASAP are great at their jobs and because the largely English-speaking tennis media are very good at theirs).  Not incidentally, some of the best press conferences are those at smaller events or those in which the media are faced with something or someone new: the intimacy or novelty of such occasions brings a welcome disruption to the perfunctory aspects of the Q&A sessions with the usual suspects.

A corollary of the above-mentioned absence was in evidence last night.  Because the only Serbian media at many events are the TV production crews, who generally occupy a different space at tournaments than members of the print media, there isn’t a lot of commingling or networking between Serbian and non-Serbian press.  Even when there are a few Serbs in the main press room, they tend to stick together or, if the only one of their kind, keep to themselves.  They’re not part of the fairly exclusive fraternity of traveling tennis media and many, even most, arent part of Tennis Worlds Twitter conversation.  Further, unlike Spanish or French, German or Italian, which some Anglophones speak, BCS (the somewhat confusing acronym for the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language) tends not to be understood by anyone who isn’t either a former Yugoslav or a professional who works in the region.  And don’t get me started on Justin Gimelstob’s pronunciation of Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjić: I watched Saturdays thrilling doubles match from the ITF stream and kept the volume low.

Put these different factors together and the result can look like last night: an English-speaking member of the media apparently misunderstands an exchange in Serbian (or perhaps overhears people talking in tentative English) and decides, for reasons I dont claim to understand, to tweet about it.  Because the tweet was prefaced with the words “JUST IN,” as well as sent hours after the conclusion of both match play and the subsequent press conferences, readers had every reason to believe it contained new information about the severity of Djoković’s injurySo, others re-tweet it.  Still others add their own interpretive layers and emotional responses.  Questions from the US to Serbia, from South Africa to the Philippines are asked and not answered because—guess what?—no one actually knows anything yet.

Add water and stir: we’ve got an instant controversy.

Why Novak Djoković Matters

This piece from August 2011 is the first thing I ever wrote about tennis—and it’s not even about tennis in the traditional sense.  It was addressed, initially, to a broad American audience, not necessarily tennis fans.  However, as I hope is obvious, the message is meant for anyone without ties to the former Yugoslavia.  What inspired me to post it today is Steve Tignor’s discussion of what distinguishes the fans of tennis’s “Big Three.”  Specifically, I wanted to add a few words about why Djoković’s “strong Serbian following” consists of lots of people who are either relatively new to tennis or not fans of the sport at all.  If, after reading this, you care to hear more on the subject, check out the initial post on this site or the article I wrote for the Tennis Space on what turns out to have been the last Serbia Open.

✍✍✍✍✍✍✍

Picture this: you’re flipping channels after midnight on a Tuesday.  Suddenly, you come across Jay Leno and Katie Holmes dancing a little jig with a bunch of people in funny outfits.  You pause, bemused.  What are they doing—and who’s that with them?

I can imagine the Tonight Show producers were thinking a couple of things when lining Novak Djoković up for an early August guest spot.  First, it’s the dog days of summer, so viewers will be happy not to be watching a re-run.  Second, Djoković is an attractive, charismatic guy who happens to be having an incredible year, winning his first Wimbledon title and achieving his goal of becoming the #1 men’s tennis player in the world in the same July weekend.

But let’s face it, Djoković still may not pass the “who cares?” threshold for most of Leno’s audience.  Sure, he’s an international sports star on a record-breaking run, but since when do Americans give a damn about tennis players—and foreign ones, with hard-to-pronounce names, at that?  Andy Roddick, the closest thing U.S. men’s tennis has to a household name, recently tweeted after a guy serving him in Panera innocently inquired, “Does someone in your group work for Lacoste?”

So, as a guest on Leno, Nole (pronounced “Noh-leh”), as he is known to friends & fans, faced a hurdle.  Add to the basic one—the marginal status of tennis in the US sports & entertainment industry—the fact that Djoković hails from Serbia.  The obstacle here isn’t simply that most Americans don’t know anything about this small, south-eastern European nation.  It’s that what they do know is likely extremely negative—based on nearly two decades in which Serbia, or the former Yugoslavia to which it once belonged, was associated with little more than ethnic conflict, war, and political corruption.  Before Djoković, the three most “famous” Serbs were strongman Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić (all three of whom ended up in the UN’s war crimes tribunal in the Hague)—not exactly the type of guys who get invited onto the Tonight Show.

Djoković matters—not simply to Leno’s viewers but in a larger sense—for three reasons.  This year, he’s a been a major story, both on the men’s tennis tour (where his record now stands at a remarkable 61-2) and in the world of sports more generally: a May Sports Illustrated cover banner proclaimed him the “most dominant athlete in the world.”  He’s also a big deal because he’s the first player to break the duopoly that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have had on the #1 spot for an incredible seven years.  In the long run, of course, it remains to be seen what kind of name Djoković will make for himself—or where he will rank in the history of men’s tennis.  For now, though, he’s on top—and showing little sign of letting up.

Ultimately, Djoković may matter most not as a tennis player but as a cultural figure: a global ambassador for a young nation with a lot to prove.  Serbia has only existed in its current form, as an independent country, since 2006—not incidentally, the same year a nineteen-year-old Djoković broke into the ATP top 20.  In the five subsequent years, Djoković (and, to a lesser degree, his 2010 championship Davis Cup teammates, all of whom were granted diplomatic passports in April) has quickly become Serbia’s top export and most reliable salesman.  While he normally represents his nation in Olympic and Davis Cup competition, you can now add late-night television to his list of venues.  There, he not only talked to Leno about tennis and his love for karaoke but also brought along a troupe of costumed Serbian folk dancers—with whom he proceeded to dance a traditional kolo (or “round”).  “The Djoker” even managed to charm both his host and Tom Cruise’s wife into joining him on the dance floor.  If nothing else, these moves should make it clear that there’s a lot more at stake here than selling a bunch of “Novak” t-shirts or US Open tickets to American consumers.

Q & A: A Few Words on “Vika-Gate”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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