Kiki: “Sport is in our blood”

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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.

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Photos by Christopher Levy.

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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.

Lesson 2: Admit There Are Things You Don’t Know

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

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

In that spirit, here’s some stuff I don’t know:
●    What actually happened that day: what the relevant parties said, thought, felt, or did (beyond what is represented in the IADT & CAS reports).
●    If Viktor Troicki has ever used PEDs or was doping in April 2013.  (Some will argue that this is the only thing that matters & since Troicki didn’t submit blood for testing that day, he himself forestalled further discussion of the case.  Obviously, I disagree with that position.)
●    Whether Troicki &/or the DCO deliberately misrepresented anything (to anyone) on the days in question or in their subsequent testimony.
●    Anything about the DCO involved other than what’s contained in (and can be deduced from) the two decisions.
●    What was in the written statements submitted on behalf of the parties or the oral testimony of witnesses at either hearing, unless it was quoted in the case summaries.
●    What I would have done in the position of any of those concerned.
●    Many, many other things—for instance, what’s in appendices two, three, five, or six of this rather lengthy TADP document.

However, since the end of last July, when Troicki’s suspension was first announced, I’ve filled in a few gaps in my knowledge.  At this point, I should probably note that while my blog’s name is a reference to Lucy van Pelt’s sideline offering psychiatric advice, I am neither a medical doctor nor a psychologist.  Luckily, one doesn’t have to be a board-certified MD or a licensed mental-health provider to enter the phrase “needle phobia” into an internet search engine.  Here’s what I learned in a matter of minutes, thanks to Google.

●    “Needle phobia” is the common name for a specific phobia of the “blood-injection-injury” type.  Specialists estimate that between 4-10% of the population suffer from it.
●    A specific phobia—called that because it is an “unwarranted fear of specific objects or situations”—is, in turn, a subset of the broader category anxiety disorder.  As probably goes without saying, both the specific blood-injection-injury phobia and anxiety disorders are medically-recognized conditions, the criteria for which are outlined in professional guides such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
●    Blood-injection-injury phobias (BIP) are marked by “a strong, persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable,” and can be triggered by not only a present object (e.g., a needle) but also an expected procedure.  Whatever the specific stimulus, the response is anxiety, with physical discomfort and distress that can be severe—that is, a panic attack &/or loss of consciousness.  According to one clinician’s guide, “A person who must face one of these feared activities or objects will immediately begin to feel nervous or panicky, a condition known as anticipatory anxiety…. When it causes a patient to avoid feared situations, anticipatory anxiety can be a major inconvenience; it can even interfere with working” (259).  That the person may be aware his/her fear is “out of proportion to the actual danger or threat in the situation” doesn’t mean he/she has the power to control his/her response to it (6).
●    The condition—aspects of which can be genetically inherited, as well as learned—is a “neglected diagnosis,” in part because people who suffer from it “typically avoid medical care.”
●    Physiological symptoms associated with BIP include: sweat, muscle tension, trembling, heart palpitations, numbness, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, pallor, and difficulty breathing.  (While I consulted more authoritative sources than Wikipedia, much of the essential information is on that site.)
●    Significantly, BIP is also the only variety of specific phobia associated with vasovagal response, a type of neuro-cardiac episode involving decreased heart rate &/or blood pressure which can result in fainting.  Even if he/she doesn’t faint, a person suffering from a vasovagal episode “may experience an almost indescribable sensation of weakness or impending doom” (9).
●    As scientific studies have observed, BIPs “can be so severe that they interfere with receiving necessary medical care.”  Also, unlike patients with other kinds of phobia, those who suffer from BIP “are typically less responsive to relaxation techniques, which in fact may be counterproductive.”
●    Because BIP can cause fainting, falls, & associated trauma, it’s important that those drawing blood from a needle-phobic patient be aware of the condition and have ready assistance.

With this information at hand, let’s return to Pete Bodo’s assessment: “Personally, I have some trouble buying the idea that a strapping, 6’3” professional athlete in the full bloom of health is so squeamish that he can’t give blood.”  In concluding his post, Bodo observes, “The reality is that not you, not I, not even the great former No. 1 and six-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic, really knows the truth about how and why Troicki decided to skip that blood test.”  He’s not entirely wrong, is he?  We don’t know the whole truth: after all, none of us were in the room or, more importantly, in Troicki’s body that day.  But here are a few things someone even minimally curious about blood-injection-injury phobia does know: that it’s not about being “squeamish” (consider both the imprecision and connotation of that word choice, if you will); that one of the three basic criteria of the condition is avoiding needle procedures altogether or, when unavoidable, enduring them with considerable distress; and that, yes, a professional athlete—whether “strapping” or not—can suffer from it.  That’s the thing about such medical disorders, which (in Troicki’s and some 75% of needle-phobes’ cases) have both inherited physiological and learned psychological components: they don’t discriminate.  And they don’t cease to exist or cause real difficulty in people’s personal and professional lives because some unaffected others are resistant to “buying the idea.”

While Bodo is certainly not the only tennis expert to establish himself as something less than that when it comes to needle phobia, his invocation of Troicki’s size, strength, and line of work in expressing his skepticism does considerably more harm than others’ inaccuracy or silence on the subject.  For starters, Bodo is among the most accomplished and respected of anglophone tennis writers; so, his word carries more weight than it might if he had a lesser reputation or smaller platform.  Next, he perpetuates ignorance and incuriosity about a mental-health condition by displaying his own—if not proudly, then certainly without hint of self-consciousness.  Further, he reinforces the stigma associated with the condition by implying it’s a kind of weakness.  (Although Bodo didn’t go the extra step of telling the Serb to “toughen up,” plenty of others suggested precisely this as a solution; one example is in the first reader question to which Tignor responds here.)  Not merely privately doubting but publicly questioning if Troicki—neither a tennis aesthete nor one of the WTA’s “tear-stained drama queens” but, let’s face it, a manly man—really suffers from an occasionally debilitating anxiety disorder speaks volumes about Bodo’s assumptions about physical ability, gender, mental health, and the relationship between them.  More than that, it speaks to the freedom people feel to judge and dismiss things they don’t understand.

This sort of attitude wouldn’t be so troubling if it weren’t so common.  That it is, unfortunately, so can be seen in many pop-cultural spheres, though sports appears to be lagging behind other parts of the entertainment industry when it comes to mental-health awareness.  Not incidentally, one of the best pieces of sports writing I read last year is “Man Up,” an essay Brian Phillips wrote on masculinity and mental health in response to a bullying scandal in the National Football League.  Tennis is not the NFL, and the mere fact that the former is an international, individual sport in which women and men compete alongside one another—on the same courts and, often, for equal prize money—means that there is more awareness of and sensitivity to difference than there might otherwise be.  But, as I’ll discuss in the next lesson, tennis is hardly ahead of the athletic pack when it comes to tackling mental-health issues among its ranks.

That Viktor Troicki suffers from a needle phobia—as opposed to being a person who simply “doesn’t like giving blood” or “didn’t want to provide a sample that day for his own personal reasons,” per Richard Ings’ characterizations—is abundantly clear from the IADT summary.  And if one doesn’t want to take Troicki’s word for it that “the giving of blood is something that he faces with trepidation and that induces feelings of panic,” that he has fainted during the procedure in the past, and “that he feels unwell for the rest of the day after” the process, there’s the testimony of Professor Slobodanka Djukić.  A specialist in microbiology and immunology who has treated Troicki in Belgrade, Professor Djukić confirmed that he “reported dizziness with vertigo, nausea and chest pain following the taking of blood samples” (B9I).  We might know even more about his condition had the IADT or CAS quoted from the statement the FFT’s Dr. Bernard Montalvan submitted on Troicki’s behalf.

Since neither the original decision nor the appeal went into much detail about how Troicki has responded to previous needle procedures as an ITF athlete undergoing required anti-doping tests or a human being seeking routine medical care, I decided to look into it myself.  Taking a bit more time than in my initial Google search, I gathered the following information about the condition.

●    Blood-injection-injury phobia—in part because it was only added to the DSM in 1994 and in part because people wrongly assume it’s “a simple issue”—is poorly understood and often dismissed, even by health-care professionals.  Still, as this clinical psychologist notes, “Good management of needle phobia can literally save lives.”
●    One of the challenges of researching BIP is that “the physical body is studied ‘in pieces’ in a number of different disciplines…. This is very apparent when reviewing the quantitative literature in and around needle phobia.  Classification as a specific phobia places needle phobia within the realm of psychology and psychiatry… and yet this is a fear that is accompanied by wide ranging physiological responses” (21).  In other words, while BIP isn’t “all in your head,” it is often regarded as the exclusive concern of proverbial “head-shrinkers.”  Several of the pieces I read indicated that needle-phobes are actually (even if not consciously) afraid of vasovagal syncope, not needles or blood—that is, of their body’s response, not the procedure in question.
●    Though many who suffer from BIP simply try to avoid triggering stimuli (e.g., by staying away from doctor’s offices), the condition can also be managed through alternative injection methods; with medication, from topical anesthetics & anti-anxiety drugs to sedation; and in therapy, particularly of the cognitive-behavioral variety.  Matthews notes that stories about treatment suggest “therapy, at best, needs to be highly individualized and is both very time consuming, expensive, and has variable success” (13).
●    Specific tips for managing phobias can be found here.  It bears repeating that trying to get someone who is needle-phobic to relax may well be the wrong thing to do, as it can actually increase the possibility of fainting.
●    A cognitive-behavioral psychologist I consulted recommended this title from the self-help aisle (and I can attest it makes perfectly decent airplane reading): Overcoming Medical Phobias: How to Conquer Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, and Dentists.
●    Unfortunately, “doctors, nurses, and other people tasked with administering vaccinations and drawing blood are not typically properly educated about needle phobia.  They’re accustomed to patients who dislike needles and may reassure them with promises that the puncture won’t hurt or will only take a minute.  But with a true needle phobic, these reassurances don’t work.”
●    As I wish went without saying, “the behaviour, skill and care afforded by health practitioners makes a significant difference in both preventing the development of needle phobia in children… and in lessening the phobic response and reported fear of adults” (13).  Chapter six of Matthews’ study offers recommendations for clinical practice, “in terms of [both] caring for patients with needle phobia and supporting and assisting nurses to provide expert technical and pathic care” (96).  Perhaps someone who works for the ITF &/or IDTM should read it.
●    Some evidence to support the claim that everything’s on YouTube: video tips for medical professionals who deal with patients’ fear of needles during the phlebotomy process.  Of course, not all such fears meet the diagnostic criteria for BIP.
●    Last, but not least, more needle-free procedures may soon be in our future.

What I take away from all of this is that there was nothing in the least unusual about Troicki’s seeking to avoid a needle procedure on that April day—or, for that matter, on any other.  Ings is no doubt correct when he observes, “seeking a pass that day was not necessary.”  At the same time, a statement like this fails to take the nature of the phobia into account.  Although it may not have been medically necessary “to skip it this time,” it clearly felt necessary to Troicki; in his words, he was “not able” to give blood (3.15C).  People with untreated BIP never want to give blood; they’d always prefer to bypass needle procedures—such is the condition.  In a case like this, where occasional blood testing is one of his professional obligations, Troicki has to cope with his condition better than he did that day.  This might be easier for him to do if he sought treatment (for all I know, he has done so over the past year).  In all likelihood, his condition would also be easier to manage if Viktor felt confident that the BCOs with whom he interacts on the job had been trained to deal with the challenges to the routine process someone like him poses.

There are so many “what if…?” questions we could ask about how the circumstances and outcome of that encounter might have been different.  What if Troicki had only been selected to give a urine sample that day?  What if he weren’t already feeling physically ill?  What if he’d encountered a DCO less inclined to be sympathetic and accommodating (this is not my view but, rather, how both Troicki and the CAS interpreted her behavior; see 9.12-14 and 9.28C) and more inclined to speak in authoritative, unequivocal terms about the seriousness of the situation?  I’m sure anyone reading this can think of other such questions.  The hypothetical question I think is most important (because it has implications far greater than Troicki’s one-year suspension) is this: what if the ITF recognized that needle phobia is a psychological disability that needs to be accommodated—for example, by modifying sample-collection procedures, as the International Standard for Testing, adopted by WADA signatories, allows for other forms of disability (see Appendix Four, section 5.4 and Annex B)?  I’ll return to the issue of disability in sports in lesson 4.

As I said at the outset, I don’t blame the DCO for not having been better prepared to handle the predicament last April.  It’s not her fault that “this was the first time [in 15 years of anti-doping work] that [she] found herself in the precise situation which she faced with Mr Troicki” (29aI).  (For that matter, we don’t even know if “the precise situation” refers to dealing with a player who’s requesting to get out of or delay giving a sample, dealing with a needle-phobic player, or both.)  Going forward, however, I will blame the ITF if they do little to learn from what transpired that day.  That writers weighing in on the subject, or other players and fans opining on it, could also stand to learn a bit more is fairly obvious from responses to Troicki’s case.  But the stakes of their not knowing relevant things—and, in many cases, seeming not to be aware they don’t know—are much lower.  Regardless, all those responding, whether formally or informally, would benefit from practicing empathy, the focus of lesson 3.  (Return to the discussion overview here.)

Lesson 1: Do Your Homework

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.—Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”

Different tennis constituencies—including players, the ITF, and sports journalists—have work to do in order to avoid or better respond to similar situations in the future.  Many discussions of the case have focused on Troicki’s seeming naiveté or ignorance of the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme, suggesting the problem could have been avoided if only he’d known and followed “the rules”—that is, had he not sought an exemption from them in the first place.  This “lesson” identifies and discusses a number of other things that the case reveals need, at minimum, review.

Players
The 2013 anti-doping cases, as well as responses to them, have revealed that some—perhaps many—players don’t know as much as they should about a key aspect of their professional lives.  (We assume they know the rules of the game itself, but not even that is always so, as USA Today’s Doug Robson discovered last year at Indian Wells.)  A few players’ public statements on the issue, including Troicki’s, also raised eyebrows— whether with confusion, concern, surprise, or disapproval.  While top players, especially, have certain media obligations during tournaments, no player is required to answer any specific question from a journalist.  Particularly if asked about a controversial subject, responding with some version of “No comment” is always an option.  Players choosing to speak on the topic du jour—be it time limits between serves, equal prize money, or anti-doping policy and procedure—would do themselves a favor to know whereof they speak.

●    When in doubt about tennis basics, players—as well as fans, media, & officials—can always consult the ITF’s various rule-books.
●    Regarding the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP), this “wallet card” outlining the essentials is a must-have for both players and their team members (ahem, Jack Reader).  New in 2014: a “wallet card” for mobile phones.
●    That players need to understand the TADP requirements, familiarize themselves with standard procedures, and know which substances are prohibited—as well as, more broadly, what constitutes a rule violation—seems like a no-brainer.  At the same time, I think it’s a bit much to expect players to have read the entire TADP document or to know the sanctions for rule violations they have no intention of committing.  (I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you how much speeding tickets cost in my city, though I exceed the limit knowingly and on the regular.)
●   As important as players’ TADP responsibilities are their rights.  Note that there are a number of valid reasons for a player to delay reporting to—or temporarily leave—the Doping Control Station (DCS).
●   Significantly, the ITF’s sheet on players’ rights & responsibilities is missing one key point listed on WADA’s Doping Control Form: “If you are an athlete with a disability, [you have the right to] request modifications to the sample collection procedure” (4; I discuss why this might be so in section 4).

Viktor Troicki, were he more familiar with his rights or had he consulted his wallet card (what are the chances that players bring their wallets to the DCS after a match?), may have been able to remind the DCO of the following: “Provided that [players] are chaperoned, [they] may delay reporting to and/or leave the DCS for one of the following activities: …obtaining medical treatment… [and] other exceptional circumstances, which must be approved by the DCO.”  Even if Troicki wasn’t aware of this right, the DCO—noting “he did not look well; he looked tired and weak,” having been informed of his needle phobia, and hearing his concerns about giving blood in this condition—certainly could have sought assistance herself or recommended he seek medical attention from another doctor (11I).

In fact, the CAS addressed this possibility both directly and indirectly.  First, they included the following detail, missing from the IADT report, in their overview of the case’s “factual background”: the DCO’s supervisor, when informed by e-mail of what had happened with Troicki that afternoon, responded by asking, “Did you call for the ATP doctor on site?” (3.21).  Comparing the CAS decision with sections 18-19 & 21 of the IADT document, it becomes clear that the latter presents the matter as if the player’s actions, not the DCO’s, were in question.  After hearing from her supervisor, the DCO made several inquires about whether Troicki had subsequently gone to see a doctor, and even suggested to the ATP supervisor that it “was not good for him” that he hadn’t.  (There’s no indication where that idea originated, but one effect of it in the IADT text is to imply that neither player nor coach took Troicki’s condition seriously.  There are certainly other ways of interpreting the flurry of activity on the DCO’s part, as well as the fact that Troicki wasn’t the one who took the initiative to follow up with officials the next morning.)  Second, they note that they would expect a DCO to “have been provided with the telephone numbers of relevant tournament personnel she could have contacted to assist her in such a situation” (9.28.1). Unfortunately, she wasn’t; nor did her office have internet access.  Third, their conclusion observes that the panel “finds surprising that there is no provision in the [TADP] requiring a DCO to call for the attendance of an ATP representative (for example an ATP doctor) in any case where an athlete refuses or fails to submit a sample collection, for medical or other reasons, or to remind the athlete about his or her rights and duties under the Programme” (10.2).  Not incidentally, while both the IADT and CAS decisions make numerous references to requirements and responsibilities, this sentence contains the only mention of a player’s rights in either document.

The CAS analysis confirms that the DCO didn’t clearly articulate the possible—indeed, likely, if not certain—consequences of failing to submit a sample to Troicki or his coach (see sections 9.9-14 and 9.28).  What the the arbitration panel didn’t do, in my view, is press further regarding other ways the DCO and Troicki could have resolved their impasse.  Specifically, they didn’t seem to challenge a rather beside-the-point comment from the DCO: that “the DCO and his or her assistant cannot leave the DCS” (9.28.1).  As the TADP materials establish, the player may temporarily leave the DCS, as long as he/she is chaperoned.  As it happens, Roger Federer provided an example of such “exceptional circumstances” in London: once, after being selected to provide a urine sample, he couldn’t “go to the toilet.”  “It’s happened to me one time,” he shared; “Then the [chaperone] has to stay with you all night.  It just becomes really complicated.”  (Maybe it’s me, but that sounds more awkward than complicated.  Was Mirka there, too?)  In the case at hand, the player or his coach could have gone to fetch an ATP doctor—whether to provide treatment or to assist with the drawing of blood.  And had Troicki been accompanied by a chaperone over night, his blood test the next morning may have meant much more than it did.  So, while it may be true that the DCO didn’t have the authority to tell Troicki if his medical condition was a “compelling justification” for skipping a blood test altogether, it’s not the case that players aren’t ever allowed to delay giving samples.  Unless I’m misinterpreting the TADP, that is, both Troicki and the DCO had other—likely mutually agreeable—options that fell within the rules.

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As for players speaking to media on anti-doping issues, I was impressed by the measured comments in press from most who were asked about the subject.  (Reactions from the week after the two ATP suspensions were announced are here.)  However, when addressing the Troicki case, specifically, I think a few players erred in saying too much on the basis of too little knowledge.  For instance, Federer’s comments in Shanghai and London suggest he wasn’t following the case very closely (which is, of course, his prerogative).  His general responses wouldn’t be a problem in the least if those quoting them noted that they were just that—general responses.  Granted, it doesn’t make for great copy to quote the GOAT saying, “Uhm, look, I don’t know the conversation, the situation, exactly what happened” or “Honestly, I don’t talk a whole lot with other players about it.”  But it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge that he is speaking largely from personal experience, so that statements like “I believe whatever [the CAS] decided on” should be taken with a grain of salt, since they’re not coming from someone who has spent much (if any) time looking over their decision.

On the other end of the spectrum from the diplomatic Swiss is Djoković, who was arguably following the Troicki case too closely and not closely enough at the same time.  What I mean is that Novak, while proving to be a loyal friend and passionate advocate of players’ rights, did not always establish himself a master of objectivity or reading comprehension.  This last may be a bit unfair, as I doubt Djoković had time to read a 31-page document (in its entirety or closely) before making his “statement” following a match with Federer the day of the CAS decision.  But, in both London and Beijing a month earlier, Novak made what I think are ill-advised, even irresponsible, comments about the DCO in Troicki’s case, saying “she was lying a lot” and accusing her of “negligence and… unprofessionalism.”  Though I appreciate that he was speaking from the heart, and believe he had plenty of worthwhile criticisms of both the procedure in this case and larger issues of tennis politics, his legitimate points were somewhat overshadowed by the less accurate, more sensational (and thus headline-grabbing) ones.

ITF
As Troicki’s case makes abundantly clear, the ITF—and, specifically, the IDTM firm to whom they’ve outsourced their drug-testing efforts—needs to improve sample-collecting protocols to decrease the possibility that their staff are muddying, rather than clarifying, the waters.  Comparing the IADT and CAS decisions, it’s tough not to be struck by the different pictures they paint.  Little of this helps the ITF’s credibility with regard to anti-doping efforts.
●   The CAS panel’s analysis (especially sections 9.7-14 and 9.27-28) and conclusion merit review by everyone involved in the TADP.
●    ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti is certainly right to encourage interested parties to read the CAS decision, and probably isn’t wrong that some “critics of Viktor Troicki’s doping suspension have misunderstood” aspects of it.  At the same time, I doubt it’s true that all disagreement with the decision is due to “a problem of words”—for instance, a failure to grasp the difference between “no fault” and “no significant fault.”  Ricci Bitti might earn some credit with players by indicating a willingness to listen to critics’ legitimate concerns about how this case was handled by both the IDTM representative and the IADT, in particular.
●    The ITF has already indicated procedures are “likely to be changed in 2014 to say that, where a player refuses or fails to provide a sample (as Mr. Troicki did), the doping control officer should try to offer the player an opportunity to speak to the event supervisor or referee to confirm the player’s responsibilities under the program.”  Hopefully, this change will also mention that players should be given a chance to speak to a doctor or other advocate—not merely rule-enforcers—before or during DCS visits.
●   From manager Stuart Miller on down, those involved in any aspect of the TADP might review players’ rights under the program (elaborated upon in Appendix 4 of the TADP).
●    The ITF leadership could also stand to reflect a bit more on the fact that the stated purpose of the TADP is not only “to maintain the integrity of tennis” but also “to protect the health and rights of tennis players participating in Covered Events” (1.1).

In reading over the relevant documents, I didn’t find a lot of evidence to support the idea that the DCO in this case did much to “to protect the health and rights” of a player who was physically ill, experiencing anxiety about his needle procedure, and looking to avoid a full-blown panic attack and/or fainting episode when he entered the DCS.  On the one hand, I don’t blame her: regardless of whether the Blood Collection Officer holds a medical degree, it’s not actually the DCO’s job to treat patients.  Instead, as their titles— emphasizing “control” and “collection”—indicate, they are officers of the “law” that is the TADP: specifically, the World Anti-Doping Code (see 1.2, 1.7).  Further, if this DCO was less than adept in handling a needle-phobe, she is hardly unique in this and likely didn’t get much help from the player, as I’ll discuss in the next section.  On the other hand, while they are not technically doctors caring for patients but officers implementing (and, to some degree, enforcing) the “law” upon its “subjects,” BCOs are still operating in the guise of health-care professionals.  The procedure they are responsible for isn’t an administrative transaction (like filling in a form) but one involving fairly intimate contact with real—and sometimes vulnerable—human bodies.  So, in cases like this, as the CAS suggested, it’s reasonable to expect the DCO to seek assistance from another doctor on site or at least advise the player to get medical attention elsewhere since he/she is not in a position to provide it.  Neither of these things happened in Monte Carlo last April.

Nor did I find evidence in the IADT or CAS decisions to indicate that they gave much thought to the matter of Troicki’s “health and rights.”  Although both groups accepted his needle phobia diagnosis as a fact, it was barely discussed in their decisions.  They did acknowledge Viktor’s “stress” as a mitigating factor when it came to determining his penalty (46I).  But they didn’t, in my view, take it sufficiently seriously when addressing whether he had a “compelling justification” for committing the rule violation in the first place or in considering how the ITF, going forward, might adjust their procedures to accommodate needle-phobic players—specifically, with reference to the part of the TADP that addresses, in a limited way, “modifications for athletes with disabilities” (Appendix 4, section 5.4.1 and Annex B).  That Troicki’s preexisting medical condition played a significant role in the interaction between him and the DCO would be self-evident to anyone who understands what needle phobia entails.  But maybe that’s precisely the problem: it’s not obvious that the anti-doping authorities involved—from the DCO on up to the two doctors who sat on the IAD tribunal—had the requisite knowledge.

Nevertheless, the IADT felt free to repeatedly opine on Troicki’s “state of mind” (50I).  Most notably, they judged his credibility as a witness, assessed how “reasonable” he was on the day in question (39, 44I), and concluded that “Mr Troicki acted in the way that he did in consequence of the stress that he was under—in this case, as a result of a combination of his physical condition and his panic at the prospect of giving blood” (46I).  Call me crazy, but it would be my preference that those using “a little psychoanalysis”—as Tignor describes the Tribunal’s process in deciding to accept the DCO’s account of events over Troicki’s—be trained in the field and experienced with the medical condition in question. (The IADT members in this case are specialists in sports medicine, physiotherapy, and anti-doping; as far as I’m aware, no psychologist provided testimony.)

Tennis Experts                                                                                                                Many of those addressing anti-doping policy and procedure need to take greater care with such work, starting with reading the IADT or CAS rulings before commenting on specific cases.  While I’m using “experts” to refer to journalists above all, I also have in mind tv commentators, bloggers, and those with expert or informational power, if not formal positions, in the tennis world.  (Among the second group, for example, I include the anonymous blogger who runs the THASP site and Richard Ings, the former umpire who headed the ATP’s anti-doping program a decade ago, whose Twitter feed focuses on “drugs in sport”).  The expert’s professional position—and social media platform—brings with it some responsibilities.  Since informing readers is first among them, it seems worth double-checking to see that one has gotten the facts right, quoted sources accurately, provided relevant context, and not left out any important details.

For what it’s worth, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to wade through lengthy documents about the Troicki case.  After all, not every tennis writer relishes close-reading texts or has a law degree (though at least three North Americans—Courtney Nguyen, Kamakshi Tandon, and Jon Wertheim—do).  But if one is going to discuss it in print, can’t we agree there’s a minimum amount of preparation one should do?  After all, an opinion unsupported by a decent grasp of the issues is next to worthless to tennis fans, who can access the reports themselves.

Before proceeding, let me be clear that I don’t think any journalist discussing the case deliberately or maliciously distorted it to favor either Troicki’s or the ITF’s claims.  Repeatedly, though, writers got aspects of the case wrong—or not quite right.

A sample:
1.    A BBC article on the case claimed that “two independent panels have concluded that [the DCO] did inform the Serb of the consequences of leaving the anti-doping room without first providing a blood sample.”  This is simply not so.  The IADT accepted the ITF’s argument that the DCO hadn’t given Troicki “unequivocal assurance, without any qualification” that “he definitely would not be sanctioned if he did not give blood on that occasion” (39, 44I; my emphasis).  Further, the CAS agreed with them that the DCO a) told Troicki that she did not have the authority to determine if his reason for delaying the blood test was valid, and b) eventually got him to sign the BCF acknowledging awareness that his behavior “may be treated as an anti-doping rule violation” (12I, my emphasis; the corresponding phrases in 9.29C note that he “could” or “might face sanctions”).  However, they were quite critical of a number of things the DCO “did and did not do,” going so far as to say that she’d “failed to heed [IDTM] recommendations” that might have prevented Troicki from exiting the DCS believing there would be no problem (9.11, 9.13C).  Notably, there was no evidence that the DCO told Troicki that the standard penalty for breaking the rule in question is a two-year suspension.  Had she done so, there would have been no need for this information to be conveyed in a footnote of the IADT ruling (40I) and, needless to say, no reason for the CAS to make the recommendations they did (10.2-3C).

2.    Predictably, Serbian media were most interested in Troicki’s version of events and the reactions of their other top players.  Unfortunately, there was widespread failure to note that short of the CAS overturning the IADT decision, the one-year mandatory minimum ban was the best possible outcome for Troicki.  Nor did local journalists correct Djoković’s assertion that his teammate’s not being allowed to enter Belgrade Arena during the final stages of Davis Cup was “not a normal situation.”  Who knows if ITF spokesman Nick Imison’s idea of circulating hard-copy excerpts of the relevant policy for suspended players resulted in more accurate coverage of the matter; after all, a headline quoting Novak—“Troicki’s not a terrorist or murderer”—draws more eyeballs.

3.    In various English-language outlets, including Sports Illustrated, Troicki’s reasons for seeking to avoid or delay having blood drawn were understated, with writers saying Troicki didn’t “give a sample because he said he felt unwell,”  “was ill on the day,” or was “too sick.”  (In fairness, both Nguyen and Wertheim had mentioned Troicki’s fear of needles in earlier posts on the topic, although only the former used the clinical term “phobia.”)  Still other articles, while raising plenty of good points about the case, didn’t mention Troicki’s mental &/or physical condition—only that he did “not want to take a [blood] test.”  Such oversights seem telling, even if it’s not obvious what they’re saying.

4.    Unsurprisingly, then, top players also described aspects of the case in incomplete, if not entirely inaccurate, ways.  For example, Federer: “I do believe that when you are requested for a sample, you have to give the sample.  It doesn’t matter how bad you feel.  I’m sorry.”  As I’ll elaborate in the next section, “feeling bad” doesn’t adequately capture what’s involved during a needle-phobic episode; nor does it address the other factors contributing to the misunderstanding between Troicki and the DCO.

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At the risk of alienating my friends at Tennis magazine, I’ll single out their colleague Pete Bodo for not doing his homework before weighing in on the matter.  Focusing on three sentences of his “Three Controversies” post should be enough to make my point.  Bodo offers: “Personally, I have some trouble buying the idea that a strapping, 6’3” professional athlete in the full bloom of health is so squeamish that he can’t give blood.”  I’ll get to the most problematic parts of this comment in the next section.  Suffice it to say here that anyone checking Troicki’s ATP profile will learn he’s 6’4”; further, witnesses to the day in question attested to his lack of a rosy glow (including the DCO, who had nothing to gain by doing so).  It may seem petty or pedantic to call attention to minor errors like this, but my motivation is a serious one.  If readers can’t count on writers to get basic, easily verifiable facts right, how can we trust them on more complicated matters of interpretation or argument?

“What happened to Troicki was a manifestation of the drug-testing protocol working exactly as it should,” Bodo continues.  Other than Stuart Miller and other ITF executives looking to save face in the wake of a major controversy, how many people familiar with the case would endorse this claim?  Bodo is, of course, welcome to disagree with Djoković—and to agree with the CAS and virtually everyone in the anglophone media—about whether Troicki had a “compelling justification” for failing to give blood when selected.  But even those who take no issue with the ultimate outcome of the investigation and appeal are likely aware of the problems with the ITF’s testing procedure illuminated by Troicki’s case.  Can’t or don’t want to read the full CAS report before pressing “publish”?  That’s ok.  You could skip ahead to its conclusion and peruse two paragraphs to discover this statement is off-base.  If you have a bit more time on your hands (say, enough to read five pages), you could look over the measured criticisms of the process in section 9, too.  For that matter, you could read Steve Tignor’s analysis of the decision, posted the day before his colleague’s piece.

According to Bodo, the ITF’s testing protocols operate by way of the “same rules for all, zero tolerance for cheats or excuse making.”  This statement is fine—in the abstract.  But how well does it apply to Troicki’s case, in particular?  Not even the ITF tried to prove that the Serbian player was a “cheat.”  Those who read the CAS analysis know the panel agreed with the IADT’s finding that “there is no suggestion that this failure or refusal [to give blood] was in fact prompted by the player’s desire to evade the detection of a banned substance in his system” (9.28.4).  Was Troicki “making excuses” on that April day or engaged in “outright lying” subsequently?  Interestingly enough, all four aspects of his argument for “compelling justification” (a pre-existing needle phobia, physical illness, a panicked state of mind, and the DCO’s lack of clarity) were either accepted as fact or granted considerable weight by the CAS.  They’re the reasons, after all, that his appeal was partially upheld.  Lastly, is it even a good idea for the system to treat a player with a needle phobia the same way that it treats a player without one—that is, to fail to acknowledge or accommodate a disability?  The criticisms Djoković and others have made is not of a rule, per se, but of how it was and should be implemented in practice.  In sum, Bodo’s presentation of the case leaves a lot to be desired and leads us to lesson 2: feel free to admit when there’s something you don’t know.  (Return to the discussion overview here.)