Talking with Newsmen about Novak II

For the second installment, I spoke to two sports journalists who present quite a contrast: one American, one Brit; one 40-year veteran of tennis writing, one who got his start covering tennis just as Djoković made his push to the very top of the ATP rankings; one who now writes mostly for online sports publications, one who works for a daily newspaper. The interviews with Peter Bodo and Simon Briggs were conducted primarily with a Serbian audience in mind and published by B92. Read my earlier exchanges with Brian Phillips and Steve Tignor here.

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Simon Briggs became The Telegraph’s tennis correspondent in 2011 after writing about England’s national sport, cricket, for fifteen years. He played both sports in his youth, but opted for cricket “properly”—on a competitive level—and tennis only “socially,” as the two sports’ seasons overlap. Briggs began dabbling in tennis journalism while in Australia covering the start of the cricket season, being asked to send reports home when Andy Murray did especially well down under (the Scot made his first of four Aussie Open finals to date in 2010). This spring, Briggs got to meet with Djoković one on one for a Telegraph magazine cover story, an interview during which he got to know the “real Novak.”

AM: During Wimbledon, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas quoted a British journalist saying, “I’m not a tennis correspondent; I’m an Andy Murray correspondent.” I’m curious if you think that accurately describes your job?

Briggs: I have said that in the past… Yeah, that’s because of the lack of depth that we’ve had. So, when we have the Konta story or something, it’s a nice break from covering Andy. He keeps us going as journalists, because if there wasn’t Andy—I don’t know how many of us there are, maybe 10-12, in that alley—we certainly wouldn’t exist in the numbers that we do. There wouldn’t be anything else to write about.

AM: Since tennis has such a long history in Britain, why don’t the big British newspapers cover the sport as whole?

Briggs: I think it’s unfair to say we don’t—it’s a slight exaggeration. The tabloids do sometimes withdraw from events when Andy goes out, so that is proper “Andy Murray correspondent,” whereas The Telegraph, The Times, and The Guardian never do that because they take the other guys seriously. But, if Andy’s playing on a given day, then he’s the story. Unless one of the “Big Three” goes out—and he has a routine victory—that’s the only situation in which he wouldn’t be the story.

AM: To what degree do you think the focus on Murray shapes, for instance, coverage of Djoković?

Briggs: Yes, a little bit. But I think people just don’t “get” Novak the way they got Roger and Rafa. I wrote in that Telegraph magazine story that he’s in a unique position in the history of the sport to have become the guy who inherits the mantle of “top man” from two such charismatic players—they’re both phenomenons whose game style and physical appearance and marketing created a perfect storm. They’re just absolute freak events, those two. So, I think it’s tough for him to come behind them.

There’s a big problem with his game style, for one thing, in a sport which is very aesthetic. His game style isn’t pretty. He’s not a “looker” as a player; he’s a player you admire, for sure. Anyone who doesn’t admire him is not a true tennis fan—you can’t not admire and respect that guy. But it’s very tough for him in that sense.

Then, in the UK, the viewing figures (that Sky Sports record for their matches), which is the best indication, put him at fourth out of the Big Four by quite a long way. So, even though he’s been the best player in the world since I started doing this, he still isn’t anywhere near the others in terms of popularity.

AM: I’ve seen Federer referred to as an “honorary Brit.” Do you think that’s mostly because of his success at Wimbledon or also because the way he carries himself—with gentlemanly restraint, and so on—is sympathetic to the British public?

Briggs: I wouldn’t have thought that the Roger-Rafa split is so different in Britain compared to everywhere else, but maybe the Wimbledon factor means that it is. But when you’re a nation of introverts, you sometimes admire people who are out there with their emotions because that’s what most introverts really want to express.

AM: With reference to Novak’s unique position historically, do you think a player with a different style or personality might have been received more warmly by fans or media? Or would anyone face similar challenges?

Briggs: Any player who doesn’t have an absolute lorry-load of charisma. Let’s say that Kyrgios had come up behind Roger and Rafa and been the third wheel, then he would be huge because he’s just got that marketability, the “X factor” which those two have. Andy’s got a bit more weirdness about him that doesn’t apply to Novak. His game style’s quirkier and he’s more unhinged—more likely to melt down. Whereas with Novak, his very grindingness may make people take him for granted a little bit.

AM: What do you think of the Murray-Djoković rivalry? It’s been fairly lopsided recently— until Andy’s win in Montreal, Novak had won eight matches in a row.

Briggs: I think we always painted it, maybe unfairly, as an “even-Steven” business until the moment when Andy went into his back-surgery recession (after September 2013). Maybe I’m biased… In 2011, he got stuffed by Novak in Australia—that was the moment we thought, “Oooh, crickey! There seems to be a gap emerging.” Before that, it hadn’t been that big. I mean, Novak had won his first major and Andy hadn’t, right? But we all said, “Well, Andy’s always had to play Roger [in finals] and Novak got to play Tsonga.” So, there was a little bit of a sense that we could make excuses for him on that front. After that, Novak didn’t win any more majors; though he won Davis Cup, that’s not a massive deal in the UK when we’re not involved.

I think Andy always felt he had Novak’s number in juniors—he was generally ahead of him, wasn’t he, when they were growing up. So, 2011 was a bit of a shock. Then, through the Lendl years, you felt that Andy had pulled it back, beating him in two finals (even though he still lost to him in Australia).

AM: But then it was another two years…

Briggs: Yes, it was after the Wimbledon final in 2013 that it completely switched into annihilation. So, it may be British bias, but our coverage always painted them as rivals on a pretty equal level with the exception of that one big blowout in Australia. That probably was the result that drove Andy, in the long run, to get Lendl into his camp and led to a couple of years of great tennis.

AM: This year, they played the Australian Open final and French Open semi-final. Then, in the lead-up to Wimbledon, I remember seeing Andy described in the British press as the biggest threat to Novak’s title defense. There was a lot of attention at the time to Novak’s medical time-outs, courtside coaching, the ball-kid incident. What do you think of that? Is some of that the tabloid influence?

Briggs: That was the Daily Mail that really took him on about the ball-girl. I think that is maybe influenced by the Murray-Djoković rivalry and by the aftermath of the play-acting row in Australia.

AM: Do you think there was “play-acting” or did that get blown out of proportion?

Briggs: In a way, we didn’t have to make that decision, because Andy said it… I was quite careful in the immediate report—there may have been one sentence trying to explain what was going on overall, but I tried to put as much of it as possible in Andy’s words and not editorialize because it’s so difficult to know what’s going on in players’ bodies. But, sure, I think the British media would have taken Andy’s side on that.

AM: But even Andy later said that it had been blown out of proportion and that he had no issue with Novak.

Briggs: Yeah, inevitably.

AM: In some February interviews, he talked about how he had allowed himself…

Briggs: …to be sucked in.

AM: Well, not necessarily to be sucked in but to lose focus—because to say “sucked in” suggests that Novak was doing something deliberate, which I don’t think is a fact. In any case, Andy seemed to back away from that position pretty significantly.

Briggs: I think our view is that there had been some gamesmanship going on, but that Andy was as culpable for not handling it. The key quote in that whole interview after the final was something like: “I’ve experienced it before, but maybe not in the final of a Grand Slam.” You could see that what he was thinking was, “I can’t believe he’s doing this to me in a Grand Slam.” My strong interpretation of that was that he was talking about behavior—because we all know that juniors, in particular, do a lot of limping around…

We disagreed on this matter of interpretation, so perhaps it’s best to leave readers with the transcript of Murray’s comments so they can read between the lines on their own.

AM: What I found odd about some of the British coverage of the match is that it gave the impression Murray was leading, when in reality the match was tied at a set-all and Murray had a single break and hold in the third before Novak came back. Do you think there’s some wishful thinking there?

Briggs: Some thought the distraction had lost him the match, whereas I didn’t think he would have won anyway. We all know how hard it is to put Novak away. There’s also just looking for a bit of drama.

AM: But not everybody wrote it up that way, which makes me wonder: how much of that drama-seeking is because they’re writing for a British audience?

Briggs: What you’ve got to remember is that tennis is a sport that is slightly odd and unique—a sport without boundaries. It sees itself as a land in which fans follow heroes who aren’t necessarily from their country. It’s not tribal in the same way as football or other team sports. So, we maybe bring a bit more of that nationalism to our coverage, possibly because we’re competing for readers with the Premier League. Whereas the Americans take an Olympian perspective, viewing the sport from a distance, we may focus more on the “blood and guts,” since tennis—lacking the physical contact of football—can seem antiseptic otherwise.

Recommended Reading:
“Different Strokes” (2015)

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Peter Bodo has been writing about tennis for nearly forty years, beginning as a newspaper reporter during the “tennis boom” of the 1970s. He is the author of numerous books on the sport, including A Champion’s Mind, which he co-authored with Pete Sampras, and his latest, about Arthur Ashe’s historic 1975 Wimbledon win. Additionally, he’s an outdoor enthusiast who has written about hunting and fishing in both fictional and non-fictional formats. Many readers will be familiar with his writing for Tennis Magazine and its associated website, where he worked for over two decades. Currently, his columns are featured on ESPN.

AM: Do you remember when Novak first appeared on your radar?

Bodo: I remember the early controversies—the breathing issue, I think, at the French Open. But I wasn’t there that year (2005), so I really zoned in on him the year I wrote a story called “The Perfect Player.” This was at Indian Wells early on (2007) and it raises the question of the theoretically perfect player. I sat down and interviewed him for that piece. It’s kind of funny: to this day, if I write something where I criticize Djoković or not even criticize him but praise his opponent, Serbs will come out of the woodwork and attack me. Some will remind me, “You once wrote a piece…”

AM: So, your early impression was that he was a complete player?

Bodo: He was on his way. I loved the fact that he was so clean and how much rotation he had. I loved how flat his back-take was—stuff like that. He was just very economical and I thought he had all the upside in the world.

AM: What about his personality? In 2007, when he first made the final at the US Open, he was getting a lot of press for the “Djoker” side of him, the showman.

Bodo: Like most of the Eastern Europeans, he tried too hard. I’m from there, too, so I know. [Bodo’s parents were ethnic Hungarians who emigrated from Austria to the US in 1953, when he was four years old.] They try too hard, they get shat on, and they never get the respect they either deserve or feel they deserve. There’s a fair amount of snobbery toward them. They try to impress the West and are looked down upon by the West and dominated by the East (Russia). That whole region is caught in that crunch.

Of course, I’m speaking in broad generalities, but you often see the symptoms of this kind of thing. They really try to impress, they work extra hard, they try to show how smart they are: “We’re not just peasants from the middle of Europe. We can do this.”

So, you know, there was a touch of that with Novak—there still is. I always get a kick out of the way he talks like a bureaucrat—he kind of gives speeches.

AM: I noticed that his press conference answers have been getting longer and longer.

Bodo: Yes. He never says, “I don’t think that’s true, period.” There’s always a preface to his answers, a middle part, and a conclusion. On the whole, though, I think he’s been a real asset. He really wants to do the right thing. He wants to be a good citizen, a good representative of his country, and a force for good in the sport and the world.

AM: Looking back to somebody like Lendl, it seems to me that he was not only from Eastern Europe but also a particular kind of player and personality. That lent itself, in a way, to certain stereotypes. I’ve seen a number of comparisons between the two, especially regarding fans’ response to them. But I’m not sure I buy it—for one thing, because I’m skeptical of using “machine” metaphors to describe Novak.

Bodo: Right. They’re different. Lendl came from a very different and harsher situation. When Lendl got off the plane here and saw the headline “John Lennon was shot,” he asked, “Who is John Lennon?” Novak went to Germany when he was fairly young and was exposed to Western culture. He grew up in a whole different time. Their personalities are different, too. I got to know Lendl pretty well over the years. He’s got a good sense of humor, and I quite like him, but he’s a cold guy. If you were drowning, I’m not sure Lendl’s the guy you’d want passing by in a boat.

AM: You probably remember the Roddick incident from 2008. To what extent do you think something like that changes how people feel about a player or how a player acts in public? Do you attribute how much more circumspect he is now to maturity or something more strategic?

Bodo: I think it’s all of the above. He was a young guy who had a sobering experience. I’m not sure what he took away from it, but he probably got back to the locker-room and said, “I don’t want to get in these situations.” I don’t think it mattered one bit to people. It didn’t matter to me. Even somebody who booed him at that moment, I don’t think they came back the following year and thought, “There’s that Djoković who did this last year and I booed him.”

AM: Do you think it’s inevitable that any player coming after Federer and Nadal would find media and fans slow to warm to him or could you imagine his being welcomed with open arms?

Bodo: Well, there’s not that much room at the top, for one thing. So, I think it would have taken an exceptional amount of a) charisma, b) results, and c) marketability—a last name like Federer, Nadal, Johnson, or Roddick would have helped, too. It would have taken a perfect storm of user-friendly features to make that happen, which weren’t necessarily there.

AM: When you talk about marketability, you mean mainly in the West?

Bodo: Yes, of course.

AM: So, the fact that Serbia’s a tiny market is relevant. Do you think its recent history matters as much to Novak’s reception?

Bodo: Nobody here knows Serbia’s history, trust me. (Laughing.) No, I don’t think it’s that he’s from Serbia—it’s because he’s from “Where the **** is that?” That’s what it is for these people. Nobody knows.

He’s exotic. His name’s hard to pronounce, he’s got the funny hair—all that stuff sort of plays into it, even his accent, though that’s changed a lot. It never gets to the level of, you know, “He’s from that place that did this or has this history.”

AM: You don’t think there’s an anti-Serb bias to it?

Bodo: No. It’s definitely not anti-Serb—it’s anti-otherness. Anyone who believes that must think all these people read about the UN and Serbia and what NATO did. No: 99.2% of Americans have no idea about that stuff.

AM: Especially after he won Wimbledon for the third time this summer, reaching nine major titles, there seemed to be a critical mass of articles saying Novak should be more appreciated. Have you seen any shifts in terms of the coverage he’s gotten over the years?

Bodo: Yes, he’s won people over. You know, I’m tempted to say it shows how fickle the media is, but that would take credit away from what he’s done, which is significant. And I don’t think it’s been calculated—I don’t think he’s this skeevy guy who decided that it’s going to serve his best interests to be nice all of a sudden. I think he’s just a guy who’s gone through a very appealing and heart-warming evolution into who he is today, which is a wonderful citizen of the world and tennis ambassador. He’s matured beautifully.

Still, I love the fact that he’s retained a lot of his original passion and he still cares about his country—he’s not one of these guys who doesn’t want to have anything to do with his roots. Some players in the past have wanted to escape all that—and they had good reason to in the past, given what they left behind.

It’s really a testament to what he’s done. He earned a renewed respect—he transformed the opinion people had of him through hard work and attitude and actions and success.

AM: How much do you think the coverage of Novak depends on the nationality of the writer or, more to the point, who he’s playing—say, the Brits and Murray? Even if you don’t read around, you must notice the kinds of questions Novak gets from them in press?

Bodo: I don’t read a lot; I do notice their questions. They’re fixated on Murray, just as the French are fixated on the Frenchmen. I think most of them are pretty fair, but they know where their business is. You don’t get as many of the antagonisms that you once did—there used to be that against German players. I remember (British writer) Rex Bellamy’s line about Becker, “It’s curious the Germans would take such a deep interest in a Centre Court that not so many decades ago they had chosen to bomb”—stuff like that. I guess he was trying to be clever, but it was definitely a dig. You don’t see too much of that any more. I think they’re generally pretty fair, but they’re looking out for their own guys and whatever rooting interest they have tends to be for their own people.

AM: They seem to play up the rivalry which, until Murray beat Djoković in Montreal, was pretty lopsided of late.

Bodo: None of that is, I don’t think, negative toward Djoković—they’re all just trying to whip up some kind of storyline and interest. We talked about this the other day: he knows that type of game is played.

AM: He even used the word “storyline” in responding to you, which I thought was interesting. Djoković has been asked, Becker’s been asked these kinds of questions: “Do you feel you get enough respect or appreciation?”

Bodo: See, that’s a storyline in and of itself now. That’s the next one. Sometimes it really helps to try to quantify these things. You know what? He’s appreciated in direct proportion to how much he’s won. He’s number three on the list—you can’t get around that—and he gets number-three appreciation. That’s pretty self-evident, I think.

People are awed by Federer—they’re “ga-ga” over him. He’s unique that way. Even Nadal doesn’t get that. Now that he’s down, you see that he never had the same aura. It’s not like they’ve abandoned him, but it’s awfully quiet out there in Nadal-land.

AM: It sounds to me that your perspective on Novak has been pretty consistent—is that the way you see it? Has there been a major turning point in your thinking about him?

Bodo: No, I don’t think there has. I’m kind of proud of the fact that I’ve always been accused by one camp or the other of being the other guy’s guy. You pick me up on Monday, and I’ve got a man-crush on Federer because I wrote that his hair was “lustrous” in a final. Then, you pick me up on Wednesday, and I’m ga-ga for Nadal; then, on Friday, I’m suddenly on the Djoković band-wagon and isn’t that unfair! I don’t like to shift intentionally, I try to catch myself and not to get too sucked into any of the narratives, and I like to look through different eyes sometimes. Frankly, if I look at my own work over time… I’ve taken my shots at all of them.

AM: Is there anything you find particularly interesting or challenging in writing about Novak?

Bodo: Frustrating? No, nothing actually. I love the stories about him when he was a little kid. I like this idea, this picture of him diligently packing his bag and waiting with his lunch—how earnest and sincere he must have been. I really, really like that.

You know, this isn’t just a Novak thing, but I regret in a way that the game has gone so far… When I started out, you really got to know these guys. They only occasionally became bosom buddies, but you could get fairly close to them if you covered them a lot. Not any more. So, I don’t really know these guys in the same way. I had one-on-one interviews with almost all of them when they were young, but not lengthy ones since then. And if I went now and made an effort, I could get an interview with this new kid coming up, Borna Ćorić. At the front end of my career, I would have known them much better as people.

Recommended Reading:
“The Perfect Player” (2007)
“Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer at heart of ‘great’ debate” (2015 US Open)

Views from Elsewhere: Talking with Newsmen about Novak

During the US Open, I had conversations with a number of tennis writers about Novak Djoković and coverage of him in anglophone media. For this first installment, I spoke to two Americans who aren’t, strictly speaking, sports “reporters.” While Tignor travels to tournaments much more often than does Phillips, you won’t find either of them asking questions from the front row of press conferences or posting updates on the tennis controversy du jour. Both tend to focus on one match at a time and their articles are generally stylish essays with an emphasis on analysis, not news. Our exchanges were originally published in Serbian by B92. To follow: my discussions with ESPN’s Peter Bodo and The Telegraph’s Simon Briggs.

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Brian Phillips has been writing for pop culture website Grantland since its 2011 inception. After college, he got his start as an Assistant Literary Editor at The New Republic—and his work is still as likely to be a book review as a sports story. Most recently, the literary and sports worlds collided for Phillips in a piece about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s detective fiction. Asked if he considers himself a journalist, he responded “definitely not… I’m not sure exactly where the line falls, but I feel too devoted to subjectivity” for that label to fit. As for what drew him to tennis, Phillips recalls it was heartbreak: “my high-school girlfriend broke up with me in January 1996, and since I couldn’t sleep for a couple of weeks, I stayed up watching Monica Seles win the Australian Open. After that, I was hooked.”

Stephen Tignor is the author of High Strung, a history of men’s tennis in the “golden age” of the 1970s and ‘80s. He has worked for Tennis Magazine for almost twenty years and written a regular column on their website for a decade. He played tennis competitively as a child as well as for his alma mater, Swarthmore College. After that, he moved to New York and tried his hand at music journalism, becoming a bigger fan of the sport when he wasn’t playing as often. “But writing about tennis became a natural fit,” he says, “because I knew how to play the game.”

AM: What were your early impressions of Djoković?

Phillips: “My first impression of him was very much filtered through the ‘Djoker’ persona—I particularly remember his impersonations of other players and thinking that here was a brilliant tennis talent with a perhaps debilitating need to be liked.”

Tignor: “My first Djoković sighting is very vivid in my mind, because it was a real discovery, with no warning. At the US Open in 2005, a fellow writer and I went out to a side court to see Gael Monfils, an up-and-comer at the time. Then both of us found ourselves watching the guy across the net instead… I remember seeing Djoković hit a series of forehands that looked like Top 5 material.

Then, in the fifth set, he began to hyperventilate after a long point. He walked over to the sideline and sat down. That was it; no word to the chair umpire. Finally, after what seemed like 10 minutes, a trainer came out, and Novak eventually got up, came back, and won the match. I was left with a very favorable impression of him as a player, but I didn’t like the way he handled the ‘timeout’ situation… By the time my friend and I got back to the press room, though, there was already a buzz about him.”

“That’s the way it continued for me. I loved to watch Djoković play, and was excited that a another full-blown Hall-of-Famer was suddenly in our midst. I wrote a short profile on him for Tennis Magazine that I titled “The Player’s Player”; there was a purity to his game that I liked, and which I felt was especially evident to anyone who played tennis. But I still didn’t like how he pulled the plug in matches when things weren’t going his way: the French Open in 2006 against Nadal, Wimbledon in 2007 against Nadal. Djoković retired in part, I thought, because he couldn’t face defeat. For the most part, though, I was a fan.”

AM: How, to your eyes, has Novak changed since then?

Phillips: “I think his consciousness of the crowd has remained a vulnerable point for him through the years—I am thinking of his 2013 US Open match against Wawrinka, when at one key moment he parodied Stan’s arms-raised ‘applaud-me’ gesture. But one of the ways in which he has changed over the years is that he’s developed a fascinating ability to compartmentalize what could be seen as weaknesses; he hasn’t exorcised his uncertainties, but he has figured out how to keep them to one side of his tennis. You could call that ‘maturity.’ He certainly seems to have grown and changed more—and to have become more comfortably an adult—than many tennis players do during their careers.”

Tignor: “I think that right away Djoković wanted to be something more than just a tennis player. He also wanted to take his place with Federer and Nadal, who were the kings of the tour at the time. Those were the days when Novak said he was going to be the next No. 1, as if it were only a matter of time. And he did shoot right up behind Federer and Nadal; Rafa said he knew from the start that Djoković was going to challenge him very quickly. But he couldn’t pass them. It was during that period of stagnation that he lashed out at Roddick, and took a contrite beating from Federer two days later.”

Memory Lane: 2008 US Open

(By his post-match press conference, Novak was already expressing regret.)

“But I think that changed when he helped win the Davis Cup, and then really did pass Rafa and Roger in 2011. He didn’t need to prove himself as a personality anymore, and I think he has taken the ‘job’ of being No. 1 and presenting himself as a representative of the sport and his country seriously, and done it well.”

AM: Would almost any player rising to the top right after Federer and Nadal face resistance from both fans and media?

Phillips: “Yes, I think it’s inevitable. But it’s also easy to imagine cases where the resistance would be less than the resistance to Djoković; an American player would have had an easier time winning American fans, for example. I think there’s also a psychological dimension to the resistance to Djoković. I always think of a line from a poem by James Merrill when I think of him: ‘What least thing our self-love longs for most / others instinctively withhold.’ I think he wants the kind of love that Federer and Nadal receive, and the crowd in New York or London senses that desire and turns ever so slightly away. In a strange way, he might be more popular if he held the crowd in more contempt.”

Tignor: “Yes, I think it is inevitable. Federer and Nadal aren’t just one-of-a-kind tennis players, they’re one-of-a-kind sportsmen. Federer is the most popular player since Bjorn Borg retired 35 years ago, and Nadal has brought an electricity to the sport that didn’t exist before him. Just as important, they became linked in the public eye, first through the 2008 Wimbledon final, and then the 2009 Australian Open final. The most famous image of them isn’t of a handshake at the net; it’s the shot of Nadal with his arm over Federer’s shoulder during the trophy ceremony in Melbourne in ‘09. Between them, they also embody so many opposing traits—elegance vs. passion, effortlessness vs. effort-fulness, lordliness vs. stoicism—that it’s hard to know how any other player could find something to represent to fans. They’re the Beatles of the Golden Era, the originals.

The tennis writer Joel Drucker wrote something similar about the ‘70s generation. Borg was the Beatles and McEnroe was the Stones; that made Ivan Lendl, the man who vanquished them, Led Zeppelin—brutal, awe-inspiring at times, and hard to love. Djoković is nothing like Lendl in many ways: he doesn’t rule by intimidation, he doesn’t play a brutal style of tennis, and he does go out of his way to connect with fans and entertain them. But he’s portrayed at times in a somewhat similar light—he’s ‘efficient’ instead of ‘elegant,’ ‘clinical’ rather than ‘artistic.’ It’s like he’s taken the fun out of the sport. It’s interesting that Djoković and Lendl are two of the only Eastern European men to reach No. 1. I do think it’s a barrier for U.S. fans.

But I also think Djoković is winning people over, first and foremost with his sustained excellence. These days I hear from more people who call themselves Djoković fans than I once did; his name is universally known now, which isn’t easy for a tennis player in the States. But I do think he could have made life easier for himself along the way. There were the early retirements; there were the shirt-ripping celebrations; there was his bellicose father; there was the brazen challenge to the beloved Federer. Fairly or not, I don’t think any of those things endeared him to people in the US, and it’s obviously hard to shake a first impression.”

AM: How much does Novak’s being from Serbia impact the Western response to him?

Phillips: “As the only male world #1 from a country that’s been bombed by NATO, Djoković may simply seem complicated to fans in Western Europe and the US, in a way that a player from somewhere else might not. My sense is that most fans don’t think consciously—or much—about that complicatedness. He simply offers a kind of felt, unexamined friction that doesn’t point to hostility or malice, necessarily, but just to a difference that no one is coming to tennis to deal with.”

Tignor: “I do think there’s a barrier with Eastern Europeans among US tennis fans, but I think Djoković has made strides in crossing it. In my mind, being No. 1 in an international sport kind of raises him above other divisions.

From my own experience of Americans and our collective lack of interest in, and knowledge of, the world outside our borders, I don’t feel like there’s a widespread recognition of Serbia, for example, as the home of war criminals. I think people here have trouble telling, or remembering, which country did what in the Balkan Wars. I followed the wars in the papers at the time and had a hard time keeping track even then. I also never associated, in any way, the Serbian tennis players of the last decade with the country’s leaders or its past—it never entered my mind. I could be wrong, but I think this is true for the majority of tennis fans here.”

AM: Has English-language coverage of Djoković shifted over the years?

Tignor: “The coverage has changed as he has changed. You read and hear little about his parents now. Physically, he’s now considered invulnerable rather than vulnerable. As a figure in the sport, he’s no longer an apprentice to Federer and Nadal. I think the coverage of his childhood in Serbia has brought some depth to his image. And I think there was sympathy for him after the French Open this year. There’s also no longer a sense that, when he beats Federer, that some cosmic injustice has been done, the way there was when Rafa first started to beat Roger. For the most part, I think the tennis public has the utmost respect for Djoković. If Federer loses to him now, I feel like the reaction from Roger and his fans will be, ‘Well, at least he lost to the best.’

The one negative I’ve seen since Djoković’s rise to the top is that there are attempts to undermine his credibility. Some say he’s faking his injuries, he’s over-dramatic on court, he takes suspicious bathroom breaks, he’s getting an unfair edge somehow. Or, like Lendl, he’s making tennis robotic. It’s all nonsense, and I don’t think the general tennis public in this country thinks of him that way. I think the sense is that, right now, like it or not, he’s just better than everyone else.”

AM: How has your view of Novak changed since he became the top men’s player in 2011?

Phillips: “That’s hard to answer, because I really only started covering Djoković when he was in the middle of conquering the world. My early Djoković pieces are mostly about being worried about him—worried that his psyche might be too normal or too fragile to stand up to the insane demands of elite tennis. That fear turned out to be spectacularly unfounded, but the basic tension it enclosed—the tension between the dominant, consistent, tennis star and the vulnerable human being—is still the lens through which I tend to view him. It’s a much more interesting tension in his case, I think, than in the case of Federer or Nadal.”

Tignor: “My own perspective has only changed only a little. I was always sympathetic to him, but I’ve grown to like and respect him more as he’s matured. His game is still great to watch, he’s a good loser, and he’s a good sport about his duties off the court. From what I see of him, I think he has remarkable patience with people, and does his best to handle every public encounter the right way. I’ll never forget him losing the French Open final this year and still walking over to talk to John McEnroe for NBC TV about it.”

AM: What do you enjoy or find challenging in writing about Novak?

Phillips: “I love writing about Djoković because he’s both one of the most complicated and one of the most talented figures in sports—he’s an extraordinary character, which is exactly what I’m drawn to as a writer. Players who offer easy answers are boring!

Any hugely popular athlete whom you write about for a reasonably large audience will have fans who feel you weren’t adulatory enough, and I certainly hear from angry Djoković fans who aren’t comfortable seeing him treated ironically or with much nuance. I mostly don’t find that kind of criticism very compelling and I mostly tune it out. Although my pieces on him are not hagiographic, they are sympathetic in the sense of earnestly trying to understand Djoković. Ultimately, I’m trying to share my own perspective, not write the piece that every Serbian will love or every American will love or every Djoković fan will love.”

Tignor: “As a player, I find Djoković’s ability to overcome his own anxieties and frustrations interesting. Unlike Federer and Nadal, he can pull the ripcord mentally when things aren’t going his way. But he’s one of the few players who can then gather himself, settle down, and win anyway (Serena is another). He’s as elastic mentally as he is physically, and that’s not something that was always true. I see a lot of my own on-court anxieties in him, so I feel like I have an idea of how hard it is to do what he does. For a guy who is supposed to be a machine, he’s very human. His screams and fist-pumps may not make him beloved by tennis fans, but I like that he’s himself out there. He wants to be loved, yes, but he can’t help acting the way he acts even if it doesn’t get him that love.

Off court, I’ve found his maturation process interesting, especially his ability to be such a professional and carry a lot of responsibility on his back. I also like his sense of humor—it’s broad, rather than cutting. And it’s great that tennis has a No. 1 male player who can dance.

Putting myself in his skin is a challenge. As an American, I sense the difference in the Serbian mentality, history, and way of life. I’m not so well-versed in that history that I feel like I know where he’s coming from, culturally, all the time. But reading about his life has been a good window into Serbia for me.”

AM: Any lasting impressions of Novak from the US Open?

Tignor: “The thing that struck me about him in the Open final is how bouncy and quick and spry he was. I’ve never seen Federer look slow, but Djoković came close to making him look that way. He’s really in his prime physically.

Unfortunately, it’s a trait that translates better live than it does on TV. You can obviously be impressed by his speed and athleticism on TV, but it’s not quite the same as seeing Federer’s shot-making and flair with a racquet. Live, up close, when you see and hear him move, Djoković is an equally exciting athlete.”

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Recommended Reading
Phillips: “The Problem with Novak Djokovic” (2011) “describes what I see as his genuineness in terms of the perils presented to it by major sports stardom. All things considered, I’d say he’s done amazingly well at dealing with the issues I described back then.”
Tomorrow in the Valley of Ashes” (2015 US Open)

Tignor: “Into the Lion’s Den” (2015 US Open)

Kiki: “Sport is in our blood”

DSC_728019330Birmingham Kiki friday new

Before her breakout run to the US Open quarterfinals, Kristina Mladenović was kind enough to talk to me in the players garden behind Arthur Ashe stadium.  Our conversation was published in Serbian by B92; an extended English version is posted at Tennis Translations.  Her wins in New York will earn the Franco-Serbian player a new career-high singles ranking of #28.

DSC_610518699Holland Kiki

Photos by Christopher Levy.

Nick Kyrgios and Casual Sexism

First and foremost, let me say here what I’ve said elsewhere: sexism isn’t only something men do to women; it’s a cultural condition to which none of us is immune.  When sexism is put to a good beat, as in the songs mentioned below, I bob my head right along with it. So, it certainly isn’t a problem unique to Nick Kyrgios.  That I’m responding to his now-infamous outburst in the Coupe Rogers match against Stan Wawrinka is a function of two things: its being a conveniently brief and illustrative statement to unpack; and the lack of attention to the sexism that undergirds it.  Although ESPN’s Pete Bodo wrote a piece in which he refers to Kyrgios’ sexism, he didn’t explain why he judged the comments to be not only generically “demeaning and disrespectful” but also “misogynistic.”  To me, Krygios’ comments are garden-variety casual sexism, made worse by the public setting and the specificity of their target.  Having said that, I still think they’re worth analyzing—especially because this sort of thing is so insidious, it can be hard to see.

I’m not going to address the first unsavory comment that Kyrgios made on court in Montreal—“He’s banging an 18-year old”—in detail, except to say that Wawrinka’s sex life is none of our business unless psychological abuse or a criminal act is being committed.  Only Kyrgios knows what bothers him about the discrepancy in age between the Swiss player and his current partner—if she is, indeed, that.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s not necessary to know their relationship status or even her identity to explore the troubling, and all too common, assumptions behind the Australian’s words.  Nor is it necessary for Kyrgios to have intended to convey all of what I discuss below: language is a living, individual thing, but it’s also a social thing with a long history.  The words we use both reflect and shape our shared existence.  In this case, one of the key features of our existence is patriarchy—and women’s traditional position within it.  Even if some of these traditions are things of the past, their legacy lingers on.

Without further ado, the offending statement: “Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend.  Sorry to tell you that, mate.”  Leaving aside the very public breach of several people’s privacy (a major issue) and the feigned concern of the sarcastic apology (a minor one), what’s the problem here?  Well, there are several.  In using this bit of information to rile or retaliate against his opponent, Kyrgios clearly intended to insult Wawrinka.  But why would this apparent “fact” be insulting unless one believed that the aforementioned girlfriend’s prior sexual activity were both Wawrinka’s business and somehow dishonorable?  (For the sake of narrowing the discussion, I’m not going to entertain the possibility that the young Aussie was informing his elder opponent about his partner’s infidelity, though that could certainly be another way to humiliate someone.)  Perhaps unwittingly, both the comment and the response play into many age-old, overlapping stereotypes and assumptions about women and sex.

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1) Woman as Object
Whether as a trophy to display, a spoil of war or other forms of conquest, an acquisition, or an item of exchange between men (e.g., father and husband in a marriage ceremony), women have long been regarded as men’s property.  Kyrgios perpetuates this notion by informing Wawrinka of his girlfriend’s activity and expecting him to be upset about it.  Note that Stan the Man obliged, perhaps defending his territory.  Like I said, sexism affects us all.

Further, in this instance, a woman is being used to mediate relations between two men.  All the stranger, then, that Kyrgios employs his pal Thanasi Kokkinakis as a proxy.  Although it wouldn’t be much better if he’d said, “I banged your girlfriend,” it’d be slightly more understandable because more direct.  Despite the pseudo-concern or judgment evinced by “He’s banging an 18-year old,” the unnamed but easily identified girlfriend and her feelings—her status as a subject—are irrelevant here.  Make no mistake: this is all about men and hetero-masculinity.

Simpler times: Kyrgios & Wawrinka shake hands at the Queens Club.

Simpler times: Kyrgios & Wawrinka shake hands at the Queens Club.

2) Woman as Passive
In phrasing things the way he did, Kyrgios taps into the longstanding but misguided belief that sex is something men do to women—in this case, his pal did the “banging.”  The sentence hardly connotes a sense of the female partner’s agency, does it?

3) Sex as Shameful
The colorful verb Kyrgios chose, as well as suggesting violence, signals less than respect or support for the woman’s participation in this presumably mutual act.  Nor does it imply a reciprocity of feeling—or, indeed, much feeling at all.  For a woman to have sex under these circumstances is apparently tantamount to degrading herself: it’s shameful in itself and also devalues her on the relationship market.  Were it not for that, this line couldn’t be used as an insult.  The girlfriend is being presented as damaged goods: she is, per today’s consumer euphemism, “previously owned.”  This is meant to humiliate Wawrinka because he’s getting what another man has already “used.”

By responding how he did, observing that “What was said I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy,” the Swiss unintentionally endorses this set of assumptions—albeit in a benevolent way.  Imagine if, instead of defending his girlfriend’s honor, Wawrinka rejected the faulty premise that there is anything to defend.  It’s possible, after all, to think Kyrgios crossed both moral and behavioral lines without believing or acting like he revealed something shameful.

4) Virgin-Whore Dichotomy
Both the comment about the girlfriend’s age and the subsequent dig get at the notion that female adults are either innocents or fallen women; alternately, they can be mothers or. . . not.  Essentially, a single, sexually active woman is a problem: sex should be for procreation or not at all.  This is one reason why Sex and the City was considered ground-breaking television.  The “girl you take home to mom” is unlikely to be a Samantha Jones: for those unfamiliar with the character, a woman who’s “been around.”  Historically, female virtue has been tied, in a limiting way, to sexual activity—or, to be more precise, a lack thereof.  To qualify as “wife material,” women were (and, in some cultures, still are) expected to be abstinent until marriage, while single men are free, as the saying goes, to “sow their wild oats.”  Although many believe women’s elevated moral stature is a product of nature, further cultivated by their traditional nurturing and restricted activities within the private sphere, the expectation of purity is historically rooted in property and inheritance: women’s chastity and fidelity ensure any family wealth is passed down to a legitimate heir.

This dichotomy goes back at least as far as the Bible (think of the Virgin Mother’s immaculate conception), was identified as the source of a complex by Freud, and, of course, gave pop star Madonna much of her iconic material.  More recently, as the poet

Ludacris suggests, men want both/and: a “lady in the street but a freak in the bed” (a phrase he’s fond enough of to have used in multiple songs ).  The Pussycat Dolls’ best-known song also perpetuates contemporary versions of the dichotomy and makes a competition between women for male attention explicit.  The “freak” represented by the Dolls is hot, raw, and fun.  The girlfriend?  All we know about her is that she loves her man.  Their lyrics may involve a reversal of the original split, one which instead puts a sexualized woman on a pedestal, but it still traps women in a false dilemma.  Are these really the only two options?

5) Double Standard: Stud versus Slut
Although it is likely embarrassing for Kokkinakis to have his sexual activity announced to the world without his permission, it’s pretty clear that he’s not the target of his friend and Davis Cup teammate’s comment.  “The Kokk,” unlike the girlfriend involved, didn’t do anything wrong.  In fact, it’s safe to say that “banging” an attractive young woman is widely viewed as an accomplishment, a notch on his racquet handle.  Not so, of course, for the woman in question, whose reputation is sullied by the making public of this information.  Should it be?  Of course not.  But take a look at a certain young WTA player’s Twitter mentions and you’re likely to see more abuse than support.  Whether Kyrgios endorses or even understands all the connotations his comment carries doesn’t matter: his statement was intended and received as a slight because that’s how this stuff works.

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To end at the beginning: attitudes like this—and behavior that reinforces them—don’t constitute a problem for Nick Kyrgios alone.  He’s a product of a sexist culture: not the ATP and not Australia, but a world still recovering from centuries of patriarchy.  If we’re going to fight sexism, we’ll have to do more than point fingers at him.

Catching Up with Nenad Zimonjić

Zimonjić takes a shot during the Citi Open semifinal. Photo by Christopher Levy (@tennis_shots).

Zimonjić takes a shot during the Citi Open semifinal. Photo: Christopher Levy.

I had a chance to sit down with Nenad Zimonjić at Washington’s CITI Open, a tournament he first attended in 1999 and has subsequently won twice (2011 and 2013).  While we spoke, the Serbian doubles specialist was watching the quarter-final between Dodig/Melo and Lopez/Mirnyi, sharing observations about tactics and execution with both Marcin Matkowski and his trainer Vlade Kaplarević.  Naturally, that’s where our conversation started.  A version of this interview was published in Serbian by B92.

AM: How often do you get to scout your potential opponents like this and what kinds of things do you look for?

NZ: Any kind of detail: who is struggling with which shot, what they try to do on the big points, if there are any specific plays they use, where they like to serve, where they like to return—stuff like that.

AM: Do you get a chance to do this at every tournament?

NZ: Not at every tournament.  Sometimes, you can watch on the TV screens in the locker- room or lounge; sometimes, you have indoor events where you can just go to the court and sit, which is quite convenient.  Here, I just finished my practice and they’re playing; so, I don’t mind coming out for a little bit.

AM: If you didn’t have a chance to watch them live, would you go on YouTube the night before to look for clips, or is this viewing sort of a bonus?

NZ: No, I wouldn’t—because I know all of them quite well and I’ve played against all of them many times.  So, only if it’s a team I’ve never heard of or never played against, then I try to do a little research and get as much information as I can.

After a tightly-contested match, it was the Roland Garros champions who prevailed, 10-7, in a super tiebreak. Although Zimonjić had faced the current #3 team with other partners over the past three seasons, Saturday’s semifinal was the first time for the Polish-Serbian duo.  It didn’t go well: the straight-set loss to Dodig and Melo included the first bagel set for “Ziki” in over four years. Their previous round quarterfinal against the Colombian pair of Cabal and Farah, which seemed headed for a straight-set win, got unnecessarily complicated after an intervention by Chair Umpire Paula Vieira Souza.  So, I had to ask.

AM: What happened on your serve at the end of the second-set tiebreak?

NZ: We played the point: I made the first serve, then Marcin played a volley; after that, Cabal was at the net and he tried to reflex it. Then, [just as Matkowski was making what appeared to be a winning shot] an overrule came from the chair umpire. She called the serve out—and it was way too late to do that after three [additional] shots. There’s no way you do this—we’d already played the point. Then, I made a double-fault there and it directly affected the set…

AM: Since there isn’t “Hawk-Eye” on that court for a challenge, did you think of calling the supervisor?

NZ: You can’t change anything; it’s the umpire’s call and that’s it.  But if they do an overrule, they should do it way earlier—right away.  She said she was waiting to see if the line judge was going to call it.  Why wait?  Even if it’s the same call, you should say it out loud.

Matkowski & Zimonjić greet Federer & Lammer at the net after beating them at Indian Wells. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

AM: Even before the season started, you had a setback with Michael Llodra’s injury and surgery.  Then, Qureshi, your first substitute partner, didn’t work out.  It’s been better with Matkowski, and you guys are #7 in the doubles race, but you haven’t won a title yet.  How would you assess your season so far?

NZ: Like you said, it was unpredictable.  It was something that I was hoping for: to play with Mika again after some time, because I thought we played really well together; and he was going to play only doubles, so that was a perfect opportunity for me.  But then, it was unlucky that he needed the surgery; he’s been out since then and I don’t know if he’s been practicing a bit, whether he wants to come back or not.  He’s been doing a little TV commentary and some other things, so we’ll see what’s going to happen.

At that point, the beginning of December, all the teams were set up; so, the only guys who I could actually ask were those in a partnership with a singles player, because that’s easier to get out of.  Qureshi was one of the guys, so I asked him to play.  I had to change the side I was playing and it didn’t start very well.  I was expecting more from that, to be honest; it wasn’t a long time, but I felt like it was better to switch early…  With Matkowski, I started playing at Indian Wells and that worked out well from the beginning—we started by making the semifinals there… In the past, Marcin didn’t have much success at Wimbledon, so making the quarterfinals, losing to [eventual champions] Rojer and Tecau, was his best result.

AM: Looking back at last year’s successes, being the #2 team for most of the year, do you have any second thoughts about the decision to end things with Nestor?

 Llodra & Zimonjic en route to winning the 2011 Rogers Cup in Montreal.  Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Llodra & Zimonjic en route to winning the 2011 Rogers Cup in Montreal. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

NZ: No, not really.  Maybe [under different circumstances] I would have thought more after the US Open about what I wanted to do, whether I want to continue or not.  But we didn’t have the communication that I wanted on the court: talking about tactics or things that we should work on, stuff like this.  And the opportunity to play with Mika—somebody I’ve played with in the past, is four years younger than me, and wants to play only doubles—made it a very easy decision for me to make…  I think it was good that Danny and I played together last year, but for this one I definitely needed a change.

AM: Davis Cup didn’t go very well.  What do you think went wrong there?  With Novak pulling out and Tipsarević unable to play, was it kind of a combination of factors?  How much did Troicki’s Wimbledon loss (to Pospisil, after being up two sets) weigh on him?

NZ: He knows best how it was.  I think he was very confident, and very close—one set away—to making his best result at Wimbledon: quarter-finals.  So, he was playing really, really, well and it’s a pity he didn’t make it.  Then again, he’d played many tournaments in a row and the conditions [in Buenos Aires] were for sure something he doesn’t like: very slow clay.  They used that to their advantage, which is normal, and they chose it perfectly—it was much better for them.

What affected us there is that Viktor didn’t win that singles match on the first day—he had a chance, being up two sets to love and kind of cruising through the match…. So, that affected the next day: that he lost, that it wasn’t one-all, and that he was physically a little tired.  These guys played unbelievably: [Leonardo] Mayer was on fire in the singles the first day, and also in the doubles, and [Carlos] Berlocq played really well, too. We basically didn’t have any chance.  Of course, if Novak was there, it would have been completely different.  Then again, if Viktor had won that first day, it would have been a completely different doubles match.  So, it’s a pity; but they were a better team & they deserved it.

AM: With 2016 being an Olympic year, it makes Davis Cup even more complicated.  Will Team Serbia be able to give a full effort?

NZ: Well, I don’t know. I’ve always played Davis Cup—I don’t remember when I last missed it. So, for me, it doesn’t really matter; I’ll try to help the team.  We’ll see in September which opponent we’ll draw in the first round and about the schedule— everything changes because of the Olympics. Hopefully, we’ll play at home, which make things a little easier.

AM: Four men are in contention for the ITF presidency and they’ve each proposed changes to the Davis Cup schedule & format. Do you have any thoughts on what could be changed to increase player participation and improve the event?

Serbia lost to Argentina 0-3 in the 2015 Davis Cup quarter-finals. Photo: Sergio Llamera.

Serbia lost to Argentina 0-3 in the 2015 Davis Cup quarter-finals. Photo: Sergio Llamera.

NZ: I think Davis Cup takes a lot out of you—first, the days of preparation and then the tie itself, over three days.  What could be changed is to play best-of-three sets instead; that would make a big difference to the players participating.   Also, we could have two additional players on the team: to have five or six guys that you could substitute. That would make it much easier on the top guys, if they decide to play, because then they know they might only have to play one match.  Also, maybe it could be played in two days, like Fed Cup is doing.

AM:  At least one candidate has suggested playing all of them in one location, like the World Cup.  What do you think about doing away with home-and-away ties?

NZ: This is a tradition that I think should be kept, so the countries that don’t have big professional tournaments get to see top players.  This is very nice—and good for sports.  Then again, maybe every few years, like the Olympics, we could alternate and have a world championships somewhere, playing a format like they used to do [at the World Team Cup] in Düsseldorf.  That was a good competition.

AM: Over the years, you’ve played with so many greats of the game.  What do you cherish about playing with guys like Santoro, Paes, or Nestor himself?  What did you learn from veteran players in your 20s & early 30s?

NZ: Every time I had a chance to play with a top guy, it was a huge experience.  The first one like that who asked me to play was Wayne Ferreira, then one of the “Woodies” asked me to practice.  Playing against them or playing with them, you always try to learn something, to improve as a player by seeing what they do better.  From each partner, you can learn something new and use it for yourself.

For me, playing with Henman in Monte Carlo and winning my first Masters series title [in 2004] was like that.  It was really nice.  Different personalities, different styles—that’s what’s made me a better player now.  I’ve played different sides, with more or less aggressive players, lefty, righty, players with more feel, somebody who doesn’t serve big (so you have to be ready with your volleys)—everything. Over the years, it helped me a lot that I played with many different partners.

AM: In most cases, do you feel like you were learning primarily through your own observations?  Were any of your partners more actively mentoring or advising you?

NZ: Yes, sometimes.  As partners, you try to help each other—saying some tactical or technical things. Then, through this, you learn from them, seeing what they are doing when they’re playing points. If you make some mistakes, then you talk about it and try not to do the same again.  So, these are the things that help you a lot as a player.  Sometimes, when you’re not sure what to do, you can even ask, “What do you think? What play should we use?”  This is where [communication] can be very helpful.

Generation gap: Zimonjić is closer in age to Serbian legend Slobodan Živojinović than he is to teammates Krajinović & Lajović. Photo: Srdjan Stevanović

Generation gap: Zimonjić is closer in age to Serbian legend Slobodan Živojinović (L) than to teammates Krajinović & Lajović. Photo: Srdjan Stevanović

AM: When you’re playing on the ATP tour, unless you’re with Nestor, you’re usually partnered with guys about five years younger.  But when you’re playing Davis Cup, some of your partners are significantly younger—for example, Filip Krajinović.  In a case like that, when there’s more than a fifteen-year difference, are you more aware of passing on lessons?

NZ: For sure.  In all the Davis Cup matches, I’m going to be the leader of the team because I’m more comfortable in doubles and I can help them a lot.  So, I have to think tactically— knowing what they’re capable of, what they can do—and try to encourage them to play their style but, at the same time, to play in a way that I can help them.

AM: The US Open is not your most successful Slam.  Do you go into it thinking differently because of that? Is there anything particular you’ll do to prepare for the North American hard-court swing this year?

NZ: First, it’s a big adjustment: the courts are quicker, the balls bounce much higher after grass… So, it’s a huge adjustment and you have to be ready for it.  The second thing is the weather: it’s extremely hot and can be humid here and in New York; so, practicing in these conditions is something you try to focus on. The reason why you come a little earlier to the tournaments and use this [Washington] tournament as great preparation for Montreal and Cincinnati is that there, we have a “bye,” so we’re going to play a tough first match, whoever goes through.  The cut-offs [at the Masters] are extremely tough and these guys will already have played one match.  Every match that we play here is beneficial for us—and, so far, it’s going well.

Also, I would say Marcin feels most comfortable on hard courts and indoors; so, this part of the season now should be good for us.  I’ve had success at these tournaments everywhere but the US Open. I felt like I’ve been playing good at the US Open but was just a little unlucky—last year, for instance, with the heat.  So, I can’t be unsatisfied with the way I’ve been playing there—I just have to make sure that I work hard and come there ready.  Marcin had his best [Slam] result in New York, where he made the finals.  So, he knows he can play well there. We’ll see.

AM: Are you guys actively thinking about the World Tour Finals in London?

NZ: For sure, that’s one of the goals.  We’re #7 in the race, even though we started in Indian Wells.  Then, there are some new teams… Right now, you can say that four teams have already qualified: Dodig and Melo, the Bryans, the Italians [Bolelli and Fognini ], plus Tecau & Rojer.

Currently, fewer than two thousand points separate the doubles teams ranked 5-12 in the race; so, it’ll be a fight to the end of the season for the final four spots.  In Montreal, Matkowski and Zimonjić are the fifth seeds and will play the winners of a marquee first-round match between Australians Hewitt and Kyrgios and Frenchmen Monfils and Tsonga.

Five Thoughts on “Playing” Serena

This piece was published on the Tennis Space on 14 December 2012, but since that site has been experiencing technical difficulties for a while & I think the points remain relevant, I’m re-posting it here.

Let’s cut to the chase.  Do I think Caroline Wozniacki is a racist or even that her recent imitation of Serena Williams was racist (defined very narrowly to mean a belief in the inferiority of another race of people expressed via bias, bigotry, discrimination, hostility, and so on)?  No.  Do I believe it’s still worth discussing race and gender in the context of such impersonations?  Yes.  At the same time, we’d benefit from shifting the focus of the conversation from the individuals involved to the larger forces shaping the incident’s interpretations and impact.

Since tennis is, first and foremost, a sport, it follows that websites like this focus on matches and players, tournaments and titles.  But tennis is also of the world, not apart from it: it intersects with history as well as culture.  So, when controversies like this arise, to either wish they’d go away immediately or limit discussion of them in a manner that implies tennis exists in a separate dimension from other parts of our lives is to risk missing the opportunities they provide for introspection and growth.

Idle Hands: The incident that sparked this controversy took place during an off-season exhibition match.  This timing and occasion are relevant mostly because they are indicators that tennis writers have little new material to work with and fans, without their favorite pastime, are bored.  And when boredom strikes, watch out: “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” as the saying goes.  At virtually any other point in the season, Tennis World would not be paying terribly much attention to—not to mention fiercely arguing about—the meaning of a one-minute video.  However, just because we wouldn’t normally be doing so doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do so now.

Us versus Them: Although plenty of people in Tennis World had likely seen videos of (and even developed opinions on) various players imitating Serena, it didn’t become a hot topic until two things happened.  First, the story out of Brazil was picked up—and the word “racist” introduced into it—by the Huffington Post.  Second, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim, who has one of the biggest audiences in Tennis World, tweeted a link to their article.  Some of the subsequent furor, then, is about the tennis community feeling scrutinized by and wanting to respond to the criticism of outsiders—to people who aren’t following the tennis story closely, and who therefore don’t know the main characters or plot-lines.  It happens so rarely that the sport gets mainstream media coverage in the US, for instance, that fans have reason to be upset that this is the sort of tennis item that gets the attention of . . . actress Whoopi Goldberg, the other hosts of The View, and the wider media universe.  Added to disappointment that the story is being circulated at all is some resentment about how the subject is being framed—especially, but not only, from the Dane’s fans.  With sensational headlines, hasty conclusions about a popular player’s character based on an instance taken out of context, and tension mounting between fans squaring off on the issue, it’s no wonder many dedicated to the sport want this story to disappear.  “Can’t we all get along?” you might be asking.  Yes, we can—but we may actually get along better if we dwell in this discomfort a while longer.

Mixed Messages: Part of the difficulty here is that three overlapping conversations are taking place—sometimes all at once, which only adds to the confusion and increases the likelihood of conflict.  One is mostly about Caroline Wozniacki: her actions, intent, sense of humor, relationship with Serena, judgment, and reputation.  Another is mostly about Serena Williams: her body, self-image, sense of humor, interactions with fellow players, achievements, athletic prowess, physical presence, and power (on court as well as in terms of cultural influence, most notably as a role model for young women of color).  A third and much more abstract conversation links the recent cartoonish representations of Serena to how black women, specifically, and people of African descent, generally, have been and are depicted in white-dominated popular culture—and the negative ramifications thereof—in the US especially.

Just because criticism and outright hostility have been misdirected at Wozniacki, or just because people from beyond the borders of Tennis World have misunderstood other aspects of our complex culture (what’s an exhibition, who does impersonations, which players are friends) doesn’t mean the most significant topic of all isn’t relevant or that discussion of it should be deferred until a more emotionally convenient time.  Contrary to Fox Sports’ Greg Couch, who said that people like Goldberg are “picking the wrong moment” to raise the issue of race, I’d argue that this controversy has created a teachable moment: a perfect opportunity to explore an important issue that might not get our attention in a busier part of the season.

The Exhibition: Despite what this heading suggests, I want to leave aside the tennis event in São Paulo and emphasize two things it has in common with another exhibition some two hundred years ago: a public display featuring a foreign body, with special focus on her breasts and over-sized buttocks.  Without knowing what the so-called “Hottentot Venus” looked like, or that she was an African woman whose body was first put on exhibit in Europe and then (after her early death) dissected in the name of understanding “primitive sexuality,” it is much more difficult to understand why some people are so upset by the light-hearted exaggeration of Serena’s curves.  When Goldberg referred to Wozniacki-as-Williams using the phrase “that visual” and noting “it’s an image that we have seen before,” illustrations of Saarjite Baartman are the sort of thing she had in mind.  (At the risk of sounding smug, I’d encourage anyone whose response to this claim—that people could leap in one or two short moves from a silly moment on a tennis court to the history of race relations from colonialism onward—is disbelief to read more widely, perhaps starting with William Faulkner, who famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”)

Popular culture in the West—from the Hottentot Venus to title characters in ‘70s blaxploitation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown to the “bitches” and “‘hos” of contemporary hip hop—is rife with such images of black women.  They’re so common, in fact, that there’s a name for the promiscuous black female stereotype: the Jezebel.  These depictions, which often include body parts exaggerated and meant to suggest sexual appetite and availability, are not simply bad for black women’s “body image” (which commentators like Couch, speaking of Serena’s “bootylicious” body type, have acknowledged).  The strong reaction to these images, in other words, concerns more than black women’s frequent representation as out of shape or fat (on the negative end of the spectrum), curvy or voluptuous (on the positive end).  Rather, for those with the requisite historical knowledge, such imagery is virtually impossible to disentangle from the racist ideologies underpinning much of European and American slave-trading and colonial enterprises (including those in Brazil, by the way).  To put the finest point on it possible: if Europeans and their American counterparts did not think Africans were inferior to whites and, in many cases, less than human, they would not have been able to justify buying, selling, and treating them as property.  Further, as few likely need reminding, being perceived as chattel led not only to physical cruelty such as whippings but also, in the case of black women, to rape and other forms of sexual exploitation.  Stereotyped images of blacks were part and parcel of other, more brutal, types of oppression.  Thus, to ascribe all of the pain and anger about negative representations of black bodies in general and black women’s bodies in particular to “cultural insecurities” (as ESPN’s Jamele Hill does) or to refer to “prevailing sensibilities” of political correctness (as The Telegraph’s Oliver Brown does) is to put the matter mildly—even inaccurately.

Performing Race: It’s no surprise that Charles Caleb Colton, the writer who coined the phrase “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” died before minstrel shows—and performances in blackface—became a popular form of entertainment in the mid-nineteenth century.  It’s hard to imagine how anyone witnessing such mimicry of blacks by whites could be confused enough to think the former group were admired or being complimented by the people on stage.  Although it may seem counter-intuitive, lampooning blacks became more, not less, common in the US in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those needing a primer on common stereotypes could do worse than watching The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), Amos ‘n Andy (the first television show featuring black actors, 1951), Hollywood Shuffle (1987), or Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000).  The latter’s conclusion, a three-minute montage of blackface imagery from film and television, is a short but powerful reminder of how prevalent and insidious such racist depictions have been.

So, what does this have to do with impersonations of Serena Williams?  Almost certainly nothing, if we only consider the knowledge and intent of her peers putting on these acts.  There’s no doubt in my mind that none of them deliberately set out to mock, demean, or dehumanize one of the most accomplished players of the modern era—a respected colleague and, to differing degrees, friend to Roddick, Wozniacki, and Djoković.  Nevertheless, the legacy of blackface, which today includes everything from white performers appropriating black cultural forms to ignorant &/or insensitive undergraduates who don inappropriate Halloween costumes every fall, is relevant to the interpretation of performances in which white athletes attempt to embody some essential aspect of Serena.  That these imitations remind some people of racist imagery from the past is not something that can be prevented with a warning or undone after the fact by patiently noting, “No, that’s not what they mean” or even forcefully insisting, “That’s got nothing to do with it!”  The power of association—so central to individual and collective imagination, memory, and meaning-making—simply doesn’t work that way.  Indeed, for our small community to suggest that others are misinterpreting these impersonations because they don’t know enough about tennis, rather than the other way around (that the tennis community is missing something about such performances because it is not paying enough attention to the world), seems myopic.

***

Tennis, once an almost exclusively white sport, is increasingly diverse in terms of the race, ethnicity, and nationality of its participants.  With shifting demographics among the pros and the fact that ATP and WTA tournaments are now scattered across the globe, tennis is played and watched by people from all walks of life.  One of the benefits of the rapid internationalization of the game is that players, umpires, lines-people, members of the media, and even fans travel the globe, learning about different cultures, eating exotic foods (Donkey-milk cheese, anyone?), attempting to master at least a few words of a foreign language, and forging new friendships, in person and online, through a common love of tennis.  The United States, long the host of major events and home to many a tennis champion, is familiar tennis terrain.  Given the extent of American economic, cultural, and political influence, and the fact that Ashe, Connors, McEnroe, Evert, Navratilova, Sampras, Agassi, and, yes, Williams are tennis’s equivalent of household names, it may seem odd to suggest that the US is one of the distant lands we need to learn more about in order to understand the game of tennis, the people who play it, and even our own reactions to it.  Occasionally, though, we just might.

Rohan Bopanna on Bangalore, Davis Cup, and Tennis in India

Somdev Devvarman & Rohan Bopanna at the pre-draw press conference in Banglaore. Photo by Srdjan Stevanović

This weekend in Bangalore, India will host Serbia in an intriguing Davis Cup World Group play-off. Under different circumstances, 2013 finalists Serbia would be hands-down favorites for staying in the elite sixteen-nation group at the top of men’s tennis. But a Serbian side without three of its top players is vulnerable, as seen this past February when the “B” team—composed of Ilija Bozoljac, Filip Krajinović, Dušan Lajović, and Nenad Zimonjić—lost in Novi Sad. Serbia’s second city also happens to be where these two nations first met to contest a Davis Cup tie, a 4-1 win for the Serbs in 2011.

India’s team for this meeting will feature three of the same players: relative youngster Yuki Bhambri and veteran Somdev Devvarman alongside doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna, who together with Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi makes up the ATP tour’s “Indo-Pak Express.” Though he and partner Katarina Srebotnik were still in the US Open mixed-doubles draw, Bopanna was kind enough to sit down for a conversation about the city he calls home, Indian tennis, and the growth of the sport in Asia. (An edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.)

Create your own caption… ©ATP

When we talked, the final rosters for both teams were uncertain. Bopanna thought he’d be paired with Saketh Myneni, with whom he’d played—and won—doubles rubbers during India’s previous two ties, and the status of the ATP #1 was up in the air. While the rest of the Serbian team was preparing to compete without their singles star, Novak Djoković spoke about both what it means to him to participate in Davis Cup and the decision he was weighing: “Of course playing for the country is something that awakens a real passion in me and a sense of. . . belonging and really positive emotion and drive. But [on] the other hand, I also have a very important stage of my life. I’m about to become a father, so that’s something that is a priority now.” Given the “wait and see” situation, I started by asking Bopanna an obvious question.

♦♥♠

AM: You said in an interview for the Davis Cup website that you think it’d be good for tennis if Novak comes to India, regardless of the outcome. But in the interest of your team winning, wouldn’t it be better if he didn’t come?

RB: You can’t think like that. At the end of the day, he’s been such a great player for his country and won the Davis Cup title with them. Not only that: if you look at it that way, we wouldn’t want any of the top players competing. Davis Cup is such a format that the rankings never matter—I mean, on one given day there can be many upsets. If you saw the last one, Wawrinka was playing Golubev in Switzerland and that was a big upset.

So, I think it’d be great for Indian tennis—not only if Novak’s playing, but even if he’s just there as part of the team. Tennis needs encouragement in our country and having a such a great player like him come and participate in an event like this would be wonderful, no matter what. Of course, it’ll be much tougher, no doubt: their team goes up from 10 to 20 with Novak on it. But we have to be ready for the best team to come to India and play. The thing is that before Thursday, they can still change the nominations.

AM: It’ll partly depend on what happens here, of course.

RB: Exactly. And Novak isn’t thinking of Davis Cup right now, because this is such a big event.

AM: There’s the US Open on this end and his baby’s due-date on the other.

RB: Yeah, he has a lot of things going on.

♣♦

Since then, Leander Paes was called in to play his fifty-first tie for India and Djoković, after a disappointing semifinal loss to Kei Nishikori in New York, opted to skip the play-off to recuperate for the final stretch of the season and spend time with his expectant wife, Jelena. Luckily, Bopanna and I discussed more than how the two teams match up.

The Garden City was named for its numerous green spaces, including Cubbon Park (where this tie will take place) and the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens.

AM: Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to attend the tie, though I’d love to see India. But I’m still curious: what would you tell Serbs visiting Bangalore (or Bengaluru, as the locals call it) for the first time?

RB: I live in the city! The first thing is that language is not a problem, because everyone speaks English; so, that’s a big bonus when you’re going to a new place. I know a lot of people do speak English in Serbia, as I’ve been there. Of course, there are a lot of great restaurants around the city, many different cuisines to sample. Bengaluru is known for its breweries as well, so people who like to drink beer will enjoy that.

Though it’s called the Garden City of India, do expect a lot of people on the road, a lot of traffic and honking. That’s normal—it doesn’t matter which city in India you go to. We are used to it, of course, living there; but if you come from a country that doesn’t have all that it can be a bit overwhelming. There are various different categories of hotels and the hospitality in India is always very good—the service is good, so that’s a good thing to expect. People in Bengaluru love tennis, so I think there will be a great crowd, too, to come watch the tie.

Tipsarević gets a lift from Paes after finishing his second final at the 2012 Chennai Open. © AFP/Getty Images

There are a number of connections between members of the Indian and Serbian squads. Most notably, Nenad Zimonjić has partnered Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, collecting trophies with both men. Two other Serbs, Janko Tipsarević and Bozoljac, have also had success with Indian partners, winning titles with Paes and Devvarman, respectively. While Tipsy kicked off both the 2012 and ‘13 seasons with quality runs in Chennai, this year was Bozo’s turn for a hot streak in India: he made the semifinals in New Delhi and won the Kolkata Challenger. Not least, the two nations have this in common: they’ve both produced remarkable results in tennis despite not having the world-class infrastructure of some of their Davis Cup rivals.

AM: Obviously, it’s a big deal to have Davis Cup at home, and I know you have the ATP 250 event in Chennai, as well as the series of Challenger tournaments in February. You have had so many top players in the past couple of decades, and a long tennis tradition as well, rooted in the British influence. How would you assess the current state of Indian tennis?

RB: I think there’s still a long, long way to go because our system is not really good. So, that is slowly picking up. [To give an example,] I have a physio from South Africa, Shayamal, traveling with me for a while and he’s now opened his own clinic in Mumbai, trying to help and get physios involved in tennis. Especially for an athlete, after training, you need a physio. So, even the awareness of that—plus fitness, along with coaching, and building a few more academies—makes for more progressive tennis. It’s going to take a while, I think, to really come up. There’s also good corporations coming out and helping a lot of these academies and teams, which raises awareness and gives everyone hope.

Bopanna & Bhupathi won the 2012 Paris Masters. © Getty Images

You know, in India it’s still the fact that people think, “Ok, so you’re playing tennis, but what else are you doing?” In India, the [professional] priorities are such that everybody needs to be either a doctor or an engineer—studying is such a big thing. A lot of people don’t realize that tennis could also be a living. And they don’t realize that it’s a full-time, committed career. . . It’s not a hobby.

Also, we have cricket in India—and it’s grown so much in recent years. Now, there are corporations trying to invest in other sports as well and trying to get recognition for them. So, tennis is still very much at the grass-roots level and needs a lot more building. Luckily, we have many more athletes coming up. . . . The fans are looking for new, different sports as well, which is nice.

AM: Speaking of other sports: in the US, there’s been some excitement about an Indian basketball player who’s going to be in the NBA, playing for the Sacramento Kings. Have you heard of him?

RB: That’s right, Sim Bhullar—I know because actually he’s the nephew of one of my friends. He was telling me when we were into Toronto [for the Rogers Cup] and they actually came to the tennis courts. My trainer took a picture with them and he’s about 5’8” and these guys are 7’5”!

AM: India, given its size, has a huge pool of potential talent that hasn’t necessarily been tapped. Will his being in the NBA make a big difference for basketball in India, like Yao Ming did in China?

RB: Definitely. I think it’s great. Hopefully, we have more of those 7-foot athletes—that’s not there in India so much. Even when I go back, at 6’3”, I’m considered above average, which I’m not when I’m traveling on the tennis tour! In tennis, I think 6’2” is the average. Especially for the NBA, you need the height.

AM: Among people in the former Yugoslavia—and not only tennis players—there’s certainly interest in forging ties with the East as well as the West. For instance, even before his Uniqlo sponsorship, Novak was quite attuned to the Asian market for tennis. Do you think the IPTL (promoted by former partner Bhupathi) is also going to help the growth of tennis in India and other parts of Asia?

RB: I think it’s going to be really good for Asia to have all these top athletes coming and playing night matches. And for us, as players, it’ll also be fun to be a part of it and playing on these different teams.

In June, Bhupathi hosted a London reception for players committed to the new International Premier Tennis League.

In June, Bhupathi hosted a London reception for players committed to the new International Premier Tennis League.

Three of Serbia’s biggest names have already signed on to play in the IPTL later this year: Djoković and Zimonjić (along with Croatian legend Goran Ivanišević) were selected by the UAE team, while Ana Ivanović is on the India team along with Bopanna, Sania Mirza, and Rafa Nadal. The league runs for two weeks, starting in late November.

Postscript: The day after this interview was published, the ITF announced that Rohan Bopanna will be one of the players honored with the Davis Cup Commitment Award this weekend.