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 (11:58):

  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 (4:35).

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 (5:45): 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 be here at Jelena’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?

Novak Djoković and the Burden of Serbia

English: Novak Djokovic was interviewed after ...

Novak Djoković after winning a mixed doubles match with Ana Ivanović in the 2011 Hopman Cup (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Preface:
This essay was written over several days last week, in response to a new-media dustup that followed a tweet by Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim: “Have been debating whether to tweet this, but here comes quite an indictment of #djokovic http://tinyurl.com/l46nnbg; happy to link a rebuttal.”

My response to Wertheim began its life as a tweet, grew into a note, and graduated as a long letter, which I sent to him over e-mail.  Though there are a variety of reasons I chose him, rather than the blogger, as my primary—my first, if not my most important—interlocutor, I’ll name just one: these issues are contentious enough without making them personal.  No individual is responsible for creating the messy political situation that still exists in the Balkans; and no individual is alone in having incomplete, uninformed, &/or problematic views on the subject.  To me, this is not a time for the type of debate in which the main goal is to score points—to win—rather than to work, collectively, toward understanding.  Neither I nor the original blogger, Jon Wertheim, anyone reading this, or Novak Djoković himself is in a position to single-handedly solve a problem as complex as the conflict over Kosovo’s independence.  Together, however, there are a few things we can do—and keep doing.  Those include thinking, reading, writing, sharing our views, and engaging in civilized (and, yes, I use that word advisedly) conversation with others.

First and foremost, then, I am interested in dialogue.  However, this priority doesn’t mean that I’m not making an argument here.  Rather, it’s meant to emphasize my firm belief that there’s a big difference between making an argument and having one.  And, to the extent that I am writing to make an argument (and not to have one with either Wertheim or any individual blogger), part of my point is about argument itself.  Who’s already guessed that I’m a teacher?  Come on, raise your hands. . .  Good.  I’ll make a point of toasting you the next time I have something other than Earl Grey in my cup.

To give credit where credit is due, I want to acknowledge some of my own teachers.  To that end, I’ve scattered a handful of references to true experts on the subjects I discuss here.  Also, I should note that my views on writing have taken shape over approximately 30 years of being—alternately and simultaneously—a student and teacher, a reader and writer.  One huge influence on my thinking about both writing and the teaching of writing was Greg Colomb, director of the Writing Program at the University of Virginia, who sadly passed away a few months ago.  If anyone is looking for a great book on the subject, I would highly recommend his and Joseph Williams’ The Craft of Argument (of which there are several editions).

On the off, off chance that it’s not obvious merely from the number of words here, let me make it so: I take both the form and the content of this argument very seriously.  This is not only—or even mostly—because I take myself seriously.  Of course, I do that, too: it’s an occupational hazard of being a professor, I’m afraid.  (Though I’m also glad to laugh at myself: for instance, at the fact that I haven’t showered or changed out of my bathrobe for three days because I’ve been too busy writing this.)  I take what I’m saying here seriously because this is a very, very difficult subject about which to have substantive discussion.  Here’s another thing that likely goes without saying: while I certainly don’t expect anyone to read this entire piece or to take it as seriously as I do (other than my family, who loves me!), I hope that anyone who decides to read and comment will keep the sensitivity of the issues we’re discussing in mind.

Given this sensitivity, I want to put the following caveat up front: I am no apologist for a single one of the many horrific crimes committed—by any group—in the former Yugoslavia or the current Republic of Serbia over the past two decades.  There is no denying that these things happened and no number of apologies that could undo their damage after the fact (which is not to say that no one should make apologies).  Nor, because I am half-Serbian, do I feel any particular need or desire to defend or diminish criminal, unethical, or even morally & politically ambiguous acts by any Serb—any more than I would, because I am a US citizen by birth, defend an act by my own government or a group of Americans which I not only disagreed with but also found destabilizing of my faith in humanity.  (If you doubt this, I’d be glad to send you video footage of the fights that took place in my parents’ home during the 1990s.  Actually, and perhaps unfortunately for my current purposes, no such documentation exists.  But if you’re still uncertain about whether to take my word that plenty of Serbs had and have disagreements on these issues, I invite you to attend a dinner party in virtually any home in the Yugoslav diaspora, to raise the issue in a Belgrade café, or, indeed, to read the article linked at the very end of this missive.)  Thus, what follows should by no means be taken as an attempt to defend Novak Djoković from legitimate criticism.  Everyone is open to that; nobody is free from the consequences of his or her words or deeds.  But not everyone—in fact, not a single Serb—is as clearly in the public eye, and as obvious a target of criticism, as is Djoković.  For that reason, and even though I don’t believe for a second that this debate is really about the world’s top-ranked tennis player, I will begin by acknowledging and responding to one of the blogger’s central claims about him.
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