On the center court in Belgrade today, one of Serbia’s top juniors made his ATP debut. Marko Topo, 17, faced Argentina’s Federico Coria, who was promoted into the main draw after Pablo Andujar withdrew with an injury. Topo was impressive in the first set, which he won 6-4, going toe to toe with the ATP’s #94 player as if this level of competition were something he’s used to. Mid-way through the second set, however, the young Serb over-exerted himself—opting for a tweener at the end of a 25-shot rally (which Coria smashed back to win the point)—and seemed to hit a wall. He lost a bit of confidence after that, his head and his level dropping. Coria took advantage: winning the second set 6-2, then blanking the youngster in the third, 6-0. Despite the lopsided final set, it was a solid effort for Topo’s opening-day performance on the main stage. Watching on from the balcony of the Novak Tennis Center was none other than Djoković himself, whom I later asked for his impressions.
AM: I’m curious to get your scouting report on young Marko Topo. And more than what his potential is as a player, I’m wondering if you could reflect a little bit on what it might have meant to you to have a tournament like this at home when you were his age, and what kind of opportunity you think these juniors are getting by having an ATP tournament in Belgrade?
NĐ: It was tough luck [for him] to get injured. He was coming into the tournament with a slight back pain and it got worse today as the match went on; but he showed the fighting spirit, and I’m proud of him. I just saw him as he walked out of the court and congratulated him for not giving up and staying there and, you know, showing a good attitude on the court. I think that’s very important for a young player on the big stage like this to have a great opportunity to play with the best tennis players in the world. Coria, I think, is top hundred, a clay-court specialist. He was never going to hand Marko the match—he had to earn it. So, I thought he played very well for a set and a half. Then after, it just became more physical, where Coria was just more comfortable. But I think, overall, Marko showed a lot of positive things in his game, his behavior, and fighting spirit.
He really appreciated the opportunity to have a wildcard and play the main draw, and I’m very, very pleased with him. So, you know, not many negative things I can say. Actually, on the contrary, I’m really pleased with the way he’s playing, the way he has been improving. He’s been training here at our center with our coaches for a while now, moving between Serbia and Germany, where he grew up. So, we are very happy to have him around and I think he’s got great potential to become a successful tennis player professionally.
Now, there are many factors in play and elements that have to come together so that his formula of success is accomplished, but he’s got the means and we’ll do everything we can to support him, as much as we will do with Hamad [Medjedović, who] is playing tomorrow. Obviously, they are the same age, they know each other, and they’re both top-20 juniors in the world.* Both of these guys, I think, they can help each other actually; hopefully, they can spend more time training and traveling together. As I remember, back in the day, with Viktor Troicki—even though Viktor is a year older than me, I spent a lot of time with him on and off the court and we grew up together, played a lot of matches for our teams here in Serbia and individually. In individual tournaments, we faced each other quite often, but also we shared the room when we were traveling and I think if you have someone to really motivate you and pull you along, it makes your path and your journey much easier, and just more exciting. So I think these two guys, they seems to be in a really good relationship and I would want to see them spend more time together traveling and training.”
*Medjedović is currently ranked #22 by the ITF, with a juniors career-high of #9; Topo is #33 with a career-high ten spots above that.
Moving on to the man—or, rather, boy—of the hour, I wanted to get an introduction to Marko Topo. What I learned from our conversation is that Topo is the child of immigrants. He was born in Munich to Serbs who left Croatia in the 1990s due to the conflict there. Like many in the former Yugoslavia, he’s an ethnic mix: “a bit of everything,” as he said. He started playing tennis when he was six years old: that is, in 2009. Although he’s a dual citizen of Germany and Serbia, he opted to play for the country where his family’s roots are: “I moved here when I was 12, and. . . I got so many choices to play [with] the wildcards and they’re giving me so much. So, I’m just feeling more Serbian and I just feel at home here.”
Topo told the Argentine reporters present (virtually) that, “It was an amazing feeling to play here—to play with the top guys, to play with Federico. For the first set, I had the control. I played good: I served well; I pushed him back [from the baseline]. I was leading the game and [stepping into] the court. And then in the second set, I just felt a little bit of losing energy. My head started to think also about my back—I had a little bit of pain. So, I started to think too much, maybe. And that’s it. My level dropped [and] he raised his level. He played solid to the end and he won it.”
Informed that Djoković had said “very nice things” about him in his own press conference, Topo lit up. He then described what it means to him to have Novak as a mentor: “to be almost a friend with Nole, to practice with him is an amazing thing. . . For me, he is the greatest of all time. He’s my idol. I can’t say anything [else] about it. I mean, he’s the biggest in our sport. It makes me proud to hear good stuff about me from him. . . . I’m still young—I’m 17—and to be part of this academy and to be part of Nole, to have the chance to speak to him is just amazing and I’m very grateful to be here. And I’m grateful to have this chance to play, to get the wildcard.”
The rest of our exchange, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
AM: “When you picked up a tennis racquet, if my math is correct, Novak was already number three in the world (which is a little bit of a crazy perspective for those of us who are older!). Basically, your whole life, Novak has been at the top. So, I would imagine that even before you met him, he was probably your idol?”
MT: “Yeah, that’s true. I mean, when I started to play, the best guy of our country was Novak. He did so much for our sport. He’s just, for me, the greatest, like I said. It’s amazing that he is already 12 years at the top—I don’t know how he can manage it, but he’s just unbelievable.
AM: “Novak said that you’re training there. Does that mean you have your own personal coach or are you working with somebody from his center?”
MT: “I moved here two weeks ago. I’m just new here. So, yeah, we have to solve that problem. I’m training at the moment with Boris [Bošnjaković]. I was at Djukić Academy before, [where] I trained with Petar. So, we have to manage how to get a coach for me—maybe from another country, so I’m looking forward to that.”
AM: “I’m assuming you’re going to play all the big junior events for the rest of the year. And then, are you thinking of going pro immediately after you turn 18 or are you going to go to college? What are your plans?”
MT: “Now, the next tournament for me is Roland Garros, the junior one. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to play the big tournaments, junior Grand Slams. I will combine that with some Futures and Challengers, wherever I can get the chance to get a wildcard or just to get in. So, I will mix it up with some pro tournaments and some juniors. Then after my junior career, so next year, I’m looking forward to immediately go to the pros. Hopefully, everything will go as fast as possible, to get up there maybe where Nole is now. . . . That’s my plans.
AM: “Your plan is to go all the way to number one?”
MT: “I mean, I think it’s the dream of every tennis player—some reach it, some not. [But] everyone is fighting for that.”
AM: “Could you give us a little bit of a self-assessment in terms of what you think your strengths are as a player and what areas of your game you still need to improve?”
MT: “I’m a young player, so I have to improve a lot. I have many strengths and many, I would call them, problems in my game because I’m young—I mean, it’s normal. I have to improve. I think my game is based on an attacking game. I’m trying to play aggressive, maybe a bit different than Nole. But, yeah. My forehand—I like my forehand. I’m serving also well. Today I was not serving that good, but normally I’m serving well. And I have to improve on my fitness a little bit. That’s it overall.”
When Topo contrasted his with his idol’s game, he laughed a bit, as if to acknowledge his own audacity. It struck me as a potentially revealing moment—of what, precisely, we’ll have to wait and see.
Taro Daniel made an unexpected run to the semifinals at the Serbia Open as a “lucky loser,” pushing eventual champion Matteo Berrettini to a third set before succumbing to the big-hitting Italian.
But perhaps this run wasn’t as surprising as it looks on paper, where the 28-year-old Daniel beat three higher-ranked players, two of whom (Sousa and Delbonis) have titles on clay. Daniel himself is no slouch on the surface: his family moved to Spain when he was 14 years old and that’s where he won his first three professional titles at ITF Futures events in 2012. Flash forward a few years and Daniel also won his first two Challenger titles on clay—albeit in Italy and Germany, not Spain—and qualified for the main draw at Roland Garros. In May 2018, he won an ATP title on clay in Istanbul, beating then-#102 Matteo Berrettini in the first round.
I caught up with Daniel—virtually, of course—after his last match in Belgrade to find out how the Japanese player felt about his two weeks in Serbia’s capital, where he also competed in a Challenger tournament at the Novak Tennis Center.
“It’s a great feeling, to be honest, even though I lost. I was, energy-wise and physically, pretty drained today. But even then I found probably some of the best tennis I ever played for a little period at the end of the second set there. And, you know, I’ve been working really hard off the court with my coach. Also, I had my mental coach and my trainer with me; so, [it was] a very intense couple weeks here. But some stuff is paying off on court. So, I’m really happy with that and I can see the potential I can have in possibly improving a lot more.”
Since I’d noticed that Daniel had quite a few people cheering from his box during the semifinal, I wondered how things were going with coach Sven Groeneveld and the rest of his team.
“Yeah, it was just a coincidence that this time I had such a big team, because usually, especially with COVID, I’ve only been traveling with my coach. But it just happened that the mental coach was able to come this week and also my trainer. I wanted him to come at the beginning of the clay season to [help] adapt to the movements on clay, so it just happened to be.”
Regarding his mental coach, Jackie Reardon, Daniel said they’d been working together since shortly after the tennis tour resumed last August.
“You know, I’ve kind of struggled the last couple of years with enjoying the tour. I’ve worked so hard—and that’s kind of been my default setting, too. So, I’ve always kind of felt that if I suffer, then I should get a reward. That worked really well until I got to this level: I mean, [top] 100 in the world or 80 in the world, 110. But then I felt like something’s missing in order for me to take the next step. I think, obviously, there’s some stuff in the game of tennis; but then I think I’m playing well enough to be able to be [ranked] 50 or 60, as long as I have the right mind-set. I need to start believing in myself more and being happier with what I’m doing with tennis and bringing more joy into the game. But those things need to be trained, you know. And that’s actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I need to get into really, really uncomfortable situations to bring that out. So, it’s been a really intense but amazing process.”
At risk of faulty post-hoc reasoning, I’d suggest that process has already paid off, even before last week’s success in Belgrade, as Daniel won a Challenger title in Hamburg last October.
I also asked Daniel about his prospects for Tokyo, as well as his thoughts about the Olympic Games going forward while the pandemic is ongoing. Recent polls show that a majority of the country isn’t enthusiastic about the Olympics taking place. For one thing, Japan is hardly leading the pack with regard to vaccinating its population.
And, just last week, the government announced a state of emergency in an attempt to get case numbers under control in its biggest cities which, according to the Associated Press, are “home to about a quarter of Japan’s population of 126 million.” In mid-May, after the state of emergency has been lifted, IOC President Thomas Bach will visit Japan to get a progress report on preparations.
Currently, Daniel is ranked #112: fifth among Japanese ATP players, just behind Yasutaka Uchiyama (#108) and Yuichi Sugita (#109). With only 56 players gaining direct entry, and the rankings cutoff set for June 14 to include results from the postponed French Open, the competition is stiff. Daniel said that while he’d like to play in Tokyo, it isn’t his top priority for the year.
“We’re so close now with the two guys in front of me, we’re kind of in a really tight race. I’m obviously trying to make the Olympic cuts and I know that the [limit is] like four per county; so, it’s pretty important to try and make it. But, at the same time, it’s not my main focus. My main focus is to really keep investing in my mental strength and my tennis, and then… I’ll just let things be. But, obviously, that’s one of my goals, to make it there.”
“And then, with all the uncertainties with the Olympics, it’s so difficult to say. Because even if I’m from there and I know people that are working directly for the Olympics, they know exactly the same amount that I do, almost. I feel like everybody is really lost. And that’s the message that’s kind of being transmitted to the public, as well, [which] I think is normal because it’s such a complicated situation. And I think it’s also normal that the people are pretty afraid to have such a big event, you know, because can you really concentrate on the quality of the sport being played while there are so many concerns around all the other stuff? [But] I think once it happens, it’ll be okay. You know, I’m sure the Japanese are really good at organizing; so, when the athletes are in the village, it won’t be like a super-spreader thing in there. I mean, I don’t know what kind of protocols they’ll have for the public—for spectators. So, we’ll see. I don’t know anything, really, if it will go ahead or not, but I hope it will.”
When I asked whether he, like his coach, took the opportunity presented by the local surplus to get vaccinated in Serbia, Daniel reminded me that he’ll be playing the qualifying rounds for Roland Garros the week of the second Belgrade event. So, unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for him to return for a second shot.
Turning to Groeneveld, the high-profile coach had positive reviews for the Serbian Open, which has been granted a second life after an initial run from 2009-2012. Though he and Reardon had already shared some of their impressions of the organization on Twitter, the Dutchman also followed up with me by text after the tournament: “The facility, staff, and all of the services—for food, transport, laundry, stringing, and hotel—were run perfectly. We never had to wait for anything, as if they have been running this event for years and years.”
Despite the nine-year break between ATP tournaments in Belgrade, members of the Djoković family have had more recent practice in event management: Novak’s uncle Goran is the director at the Sofia Open in neighboring Bulgaria and his youngest brother Djordje was in charge of last summer’s well-intentioned but ill-fated Adria Tour. One of the ways in which the Serbia Open echoed its controversial predecessor was in having a lower-tier competition the week prior to the main event, with three-quarters of the participants in the former, like Daniel, playing in the qualification rounds of the latter.
Groeneveld was particularly grateful for the tournament’s efforts in facilitating vaccination for competitors and team members. “The vaccination was organized by the ATP tour manager, Denis Živković, who was collaborating with the local officials. We went to a facility where the vaccine was administered and all of the people there knew we were invited and took care of us, making sure we kept our distance during the procedure. Official tournament transport was taking us back and forth. Very smooth!” Serbia, unlike most countries in continental Europe, has a vaccine surplus—hence, the government’s willingness to provide shots for foreign guests. (As I discussed in a recent Twitter thread, there’s also a problem with vaccine hesitancy in the country; but the reality is that Serbia has about twice as many vaccines as needed for its population of roughly 7 million.)
Groeneveld confirmed, “I will be heading back to Belgrade around 21-22 of May to get my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, which is during the start of the ATP event.” The Belgrade Open, a one-time special proposed to fill the calendar gap resulting from pushing back Roland Garros, runs May 22-29.
As for his Japanese charge, Groeneveld observed, “Taro really took advantage of his ‘lucky loser’ spot and showed he is making progress in all areas. Nine matches in two weeks is great prep for the remainder of the clay court season.”
After what he perceived to be a bad call to put him down a break-point in the first, Troicki made his displeasure known to the lines-person, Chair Umpire Timo Janzen, and his more experienced colleague Cédric Mourier, who was watching from the sidelines. Upon losing the set, 6-4, Troicki had a further outburst—unlike the first, however, these complaints were both mostly directed toward a sympathetic member of his team and in Serbian. As he walked to his chair, Troicki was followed by a line judge, who seems to have reported that the Serb’s yelling included some choice curses; only then does the umpire call him for a code violation. Given how this incident was resolved, have matters improved over the past three years?
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In Madrid this week, there was a tense exchange between Novak Djoković and a crowd that was not simply lively or partisan toward his opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, but at times almost inexplicably hostile to the Serb. After saving a match point and winning the second-set tiebreaker, the men’s No. 1 defiantly shouted a vulgar phrase in his native tongue. While it stands to reason that few in the Caja Mágica understood what he was saying, Djoković’s outburst—or, more specifically, the lack of response to it from Chair Umpire Carlos Bernardes—nevertheless reignited an ongoing tennis debate. In an international sport with a global television audience, is it fair for only those players speaking English (or, in rare cases, the language of the umpire) to get penalized for violations of the “audible obscenity” rule?
1. Players on both tours agree to abide by a code of conduct geared toward encouraging professional behavior and promoting the integrity and positive image of tennis. In fact, the code is in effect throughout the tournament grounds, though fans generally hear about it only when it’s been breached during a match. The audible obscenity rule, which can include point penalties as well as fines of up to $5,000 per violation (up to $20,000 at Slams), differs from rules about the game itself as it concerns consideration for those within earshot of the court. As the rule is general, merely stating that a player can be called for a violation if he or she uses “words commonly known and understood to be profane and uttered clearly and loudly enough to be heard,” it makes sense that it should apply equally to all players. Or, if that seems unrealistic, perhaps the powers that be will consider abandoning the rule altogether rather than maintaining a double standard.
2. While audible obscenities are hardly a plague on the sport, it’d be a good idea for WTA, ATP, and ITF administrators to put their heads together and decide if they’re committed to the rule, what principles are behind it (for instance, is it intended to safeguard only the sensibilities of on-site spectators or those of all viewers?), and how to more fairly implement it. With the number of languages spoken by players, however, this may be easier said than done. We witnessed just how complicated—albeit entertaining—it can be earlier this year in Miami, when Chair Umpire Marija Čičak assessed a code violation to Svetlana Kuznetsova after she shouted a word that sounded like profanity in the player’s native Russian but turned out to be the Spanish word for “court.” Still, given that umpires call the score and request fans to be “Quiet, please” in various languages, I see no reason why they can’t be asked to master a short list of choice words in the three most common linguistic clusters on tour: Romanic, Germanic, and Slavic. (Readers who think this would be an onerous task for tournament officials are welcome to suggest alternatives.) If such a change encourages more players to learn Chinese, so be it.
3. The above example aside, determining whether a player has used an obscenity is relatively straightforward. Umpires, then, have only two judgment calls to make before enforcing the rule. Was the profanity sufficiently loud so that others, including ball-kids, will have heard it? Was there anything “flagrant” or “egregious” about the utterance that would warrant the player’s being assessed with a major offense of “aggravated behavior”? Unless the act falls under separate rules for verbal abuse or unsportsmanlike conduct, the direction in which a player is cursing—at him- or herself or in the general direction of the stands—doesn’t matter. As likely goes without saying, players are expected to comport themselves professionally, however frustrated they may be or poorly a crowd behaves.
4. Having said that, the umpire can and should warn a crowd if it gets out of hand. (For the record, I think cheering for faults and whistling or booing a player’s winners is a pretty low standard of behavior.) Everyone, especially players, likes an active and engaged audience. But since tennis has a longstanding tradition of silence, excepting “oohs” and “aahs,” during points, there’s good reason for officials to intervene before the atmosphere gets too rowdy. Even in Davis and Fed Cup, there are limits. While all players must learn to deal with adverse conditions, no player should have to put up with deliberate distractions or disrespect from spectators. To disrespect players is, after all, to disrespect the game.
5. Call it wishful thinking, but I think that if the rule were more fairly applied, we’d see two positive developments. First, non-Anglophone players would likely clean up their on-court exclamations. Second, fans might be less inclined to make moral judgments in response to players’ colorful verbiage. What sounds unusual or awfully vulgar to me may be common or fairly benign in another language, even another dialect. Almost without exception, players curse—they’re human, like the rest of us. And, in the immortal words of Andy Murray, they do so while “trying their tits off.” By all means, apply the rule to all players; then, let’s cut them some slack. Sound fair?
At the World Tour Finals in London, I had a chance to ask Novak Djoković for his thoughts on what Viktor Troicki has achieved this season. “Well,” started the ATP #1, “I think he managed something that not many have in the history of tennis: to return, practically from nothing, to where he belongs—in the world’s top 25.” Showing that he’d been following his teammate’s results closely, he added: Viktor “had a bit of difficulty in the last few months lining up successes and maintaining the continuity that he had in the first 5-6 months of the year. But, all things considered and taking into account where he was 15 months ago and where he is now, I think he really should be acknowledged and congratulated, because psychologically that is extremely difficult and a big challenge and he managed to overcome it. So, as his friend, I am extremely pleased that he succeeded in doing it.”
What does Troicki think of his own accomplishments? Earlier this year, I sat down with the Serbian player and his Australian coach for two wide-ranging conversations about their first year back on tour after a year-long suspension. With both Troicki and Reader, we talked a lot about the past: that fateful day in Monte Carlo and its aftermath. Even though it’s been two years since the CAS tribunal decided his case, the emotions of both men are still strong. (Those needing a refresher on Troicki’s case, which led to his being sanctioned for violating the ITF’s anti-doping rules, can read this overview from 2013.) Here, though, we’ll focus mostly on the positives: Viktor’s comeback and what he’s learned about himself and the man who travels with him for much of the year. Read my exchange with Jack Reader here; the Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.
AM: The week you returned, you were ranked 847 in the world and now you’re in the top 25. But those are merely numbers. What are you most proud of in terms of the last year?
VT: Well, it was hard. Before starting, it was hard mentally—not knowing what was going to happen. There was a lot of pressure, from everyone, and I wasn’t sure myself how it was going to be, whether I was going to return at all. Who knows, if I’d lost the first five matches, how I would have felt or whether I’d play again?
Even though a lot of people were doubting if I’d ever come back, I’m a very stubborn person—you know, Serbian inat. So, I wanted to prove, first of all to myself but also to others, that I could do it and that I could be even better. Of course, if I get into position to say out loud to the whole organization of the ITF that they were wrong in trying to end my career…
AM: But you know it wasn’t personal, right? I don’t mean for you—simply that the ITF would have gone after anyone in that position.
VT: Afterwards, I felt it was. Everything they said in public, they made it personal.
AM: Well, they have to maintain their position.
VT: Sure, sure. But, afterwards, whatever I felt before from the ITF, it’s not the same. For example, I asked for a wildcard for the US Open last year—just for qualies—and there was no response. I didn’t expect to get the wildcard, but it’s proof that they don’t care about me.
AM: To return to the good stuff, what else are you feeling after this year? Although you may not be at your career-high ranking now (he spent three weeks at #12 in 2011), have there been other high points?
VT: Definitely, winning the Sydney title was huge to start the year. I’ve had some good results, on grass especially. But I had a lot of good matches, good wins, and feel my game is improving, which is the most pleasing thing to see. I don’t want to stop here.
Troicki Triumphs in Sydney. Photo: Getty Images
Altogether, I’m still hungry for more results and for being better than I am. It’s nice to see where I am after just one year, but I still want to improve. That’s my goal and that’s why I’m working hard.
I have to say, though, that sometimes I’m disappointed that I’m not getting much credit. You know, when a player comes back from an injury or a long break, they write about it and it’s a big thing: “He came back; he made it!” A lot of players use their protected ranking; they get wildcards. It hurt me that I didn’t have any of those. It doesn’t even matter about last year—just for being where I am, right now… It seems like [the media] are almost forbidden to say anything about me because of what happened.
AM: From my perspective, it may be that doping is such a serious issue in sports that there’s a risk in criticizing the ITF and WADA or even appearing sympathetic toward a player like you, returning from suspension. Certainly, it’s been suggested that I’m naive for believing your version of events or that I don’t understand the bigger issues at stake. Sports journalists may be afraid to do or say anything that could make them look “soft” on doping.
What about sponsors? I know Babolat stuck with you—anybody else?
Photo: Lotto Sport Italia
VT: Lotto, the clothing company, stepped up right away. They wanted me to wear their stuff as soon as I came back. But apart from that, no, nothing. Ok, being Serbian, it’s already tough. But having this situation, it’s even tougher.
AM: What was it like returning to the Challenger tour after all these years?
VT: It was definitely weird, you know, being on the tour for however many years and being used to it and then coming back to the qualies of Challengers. It was different.
AM: Did you talk to any of the young players?
VT: Yeah, they helped me because I felt they were sometimes scared of me. They knew who I was, obviously, and my ranking in the past.
AM: There was an intimidation factor?
VT: Yeah, but on the other hand, they all wanted to beat me because they knew I was a good player. So, they were kind of scared but also had more motivation to go for it.
It was kind of weird, being on the Challenger tour, meeting some of the guys I’ve never seen and some kids that are coming up and probably going to be great players.
AM: How was the road trip with your team?
VT: It was fun—we were all excited about it, even though it was the Challengers and I had to play qualies. I felt like I was 19 or 20 again. When I finished juniors, that’s how I felt—I wanted it so bad, I was running for every ball and fighting for every point. It was definitely a great experience.
I was always a fighter—I would never give up. That’s why, I think, I made it—both times. When I was first coming up, trying to build my ranking, I believed in myself. Even though, when I was a junior, they told me I couldn’t have a career because I wasn’t talented enough.
AM: As juniors, Janko [Tipsarević] was always considered the more talented one.
Flashback: 2004. Photo: Getty Images.
VT: He was older than me by two years. I never even got to hit with him before I was about 18—he was way ahead of me, already playing professional tournaments at a young age. Novak was one year younger, but he used to play with the older guys. So, a lot of people never thought I could be any good or make it as a professional. I was never the best of my generation—there were a lot of kids who were ahead of me.
But I started playing better and better when I was 18. And that helped me a lot [last year], remembering these old times. I was fighting even then, working harder than the others, just to prove to people that I could make it. I had no sponsors, no help from anyone. Actually, a friend sent me an article recently from when I was young, saying that I shouldn’t get monthly support from the Federation because I had no future in tennis. It was funny to see that.
All these things help now. Just like when I was young, I want to do it because I believe in myself and that I can be where I want to be.
AM: When you came back, one of your first big goals was to make it into the top 100. What kind of goals do you have now?
2015 Stuttgart finalists. Photo: Peter Staples/ ATP
VT: A definite goal is the top 10. As I’ve said, I’m hungry and I want more and the top 10 is the next step. It’s not easy: there are a lot of great players who want to be there, but I feel I have a chance. I believe in myself—that’s one of the main things you’ve got to have, other than quality and hard work. But if you don’t believe, you’re never going to be there.
AM: Even if this whole ITF case hadn’t happened, you weren’t doing too well in 2012. Weren’t you already in a bit of a slump before you started working with Jack Reader?
VT: I got settled into this kind of position—being in the top 30, 40, 50—and nothing major was happening. I got pretty used to this feeling of going to tournaments, playing matches, and not really enjoying it. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be here; but then, I wasn’t feeling the excitement.
When we started working together, even though I was top 50 in the world, my game was really bad. I wasn’t feeling confident at all and I was struggling with my game—it was falling apart. Jack came right in the moment when the new season was starting. Of course, it didn’t start great immediately, but we were going step by step and by working on specific things, I felt improvement. Everything was going better and better—already by the French Open I reached the fourth round, which was a good thing. At Wimbledon, I made the third round, beating Janko and playing other good matches. So, I felt like my game was back… Then it all stopped.
Such a coach, he could have gone with anyone. I know he had offers. When I got sanctioned, when we knew it would be a year, Jack took it hard. During the first call, he felt sorry; he was also very shocked and down. But then he called me back right away and said, “Ok, we’re going to do this. We’re going to come back. We’re going to prove that we belong there and be better than before.” He was pumped right away—it was crazy to see, but he was.
AM: That must have been especially helpful since you were so down at the time. I remember seeing you on the front page of a Serbian tabloid, with a headline like “I don’t know what to do with my life,” and being worried for you.
VT: Well, I was shocked more than anything. It was all over the news—all the attention was on me and nobody knew what really went on. All of a sudden, it was happening and it was a big thing, you know?
I’ve got to thank the Serbian media. They were all really supportive and I never expected that. My personal feeling is that they were behind me. First of all, they were trying to understand what had happened; but after that, they were trying to encourage me to come back. That helped me.
Photo: Jason Reed/ Reuters
AM: What have you learned about your coach in the past two years?
VT: That he is a really great person, first of all. That he is genuine and honest—a true friend. It’s not just a professional relationship. He was never after any money or anything like that. He would always help you out.
It’s incredible how many friends he has around the world. I’ve met many of them and they all say the exact same thing—that he’s a great person and he cares about his friends. With me, he’s been really caring a lot and it’s unbelievable to have such a person next to you. He’s not just in it for business—it’s also to have a nice relationship outside the court. People love him on the tour: they know he’s funny, very relaxed, and always positive.
He also made me more happy on the court and helped me enjoy tennis more. There are a lot of things he’s taught me and a lot of things I’ve seen from him. It’s great to have him with me.
When his 2015 campaign came to an end with a loss to Stan Wawrinka at the Paris Masters, Viktor Troicki didn’t seem particularly disappointed. Instead, he posted a photo of his celebratory dinner on social media.
It’s no wonder: including his Davis Cup commitments, the Serbian #2 played 31 tournaments this year—the most of any player in the ATP’s top 30 (Djoković, by contrast, played only 17). This heavy schedule might have taken both a mental and a physical toll, but Troicki surely won’t mind, given what he’s been through in recent years.
With tennis players vacationing or engaged in pre-season training in sunny climates, it’s time to reflect on what Troicki has accomplished during his first full season on tour after a year-long suspension in 2013-14. Fans will recall that Troicki, ranked 847 upon his return last July, had already managed to boost his ranking to 102 by late November 2014—enough to earn himself a direct entry to the main draw of the Australian Open. Even more impressive is what he’s managed since then: getting back to the ATP’s top 25. Earlier this year, I sat down with the Serbian player and his Australian coach for two wide-ranging conversations about his comeback, their relationship, and, naturally, the case that forced him to sit on the sidelines for a year. What follows are some of the highlights. You can read the Serbian version of the interviews on B92.
First came a discussion with Jack Reader, the straight-talking coach who stood by Troicki’s side despite having every right to break his contract due to the Serb’s ban. Knowing that Reader has a reputation as an unconventional character, a “maverick,” I was curious to learn a bit about his life as well as his coaching philosophy.
Photo: Bianca De Marchi
Reader was born in England, raised in coastal Australia, and has traveled all his life—living in New Zealand, Florida, Germany, and Italy. “I’ve had a few experiences in life,” observes Reader. “You think, ‘What is life?’ I just try to enjoy it.” This is an easy-going philosophy he’s tried to impart upon his Serbian pupil. “I have to remind Viktor: what did you want to do when you were a kid? You loved playing tennis and wanted to do it. That’s what you’re doing now, so how can you be annoyed? You’ve got to learn to enjoy this stuff.”
Before he teamed up with Troicki in late 2012, Reader worked with the talented but unpredictable Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov for three years, assisting his young charge climb from the Challenger level to the top of the men’s tour and a career-high ranking of #13.
AM: How do you transition between players? What kind of adjustments are entailed when they have different playing styles, different personalities?
JR: I try and find the best in them. It takes a while. I look at them—I don’t just open my mouth and start saying things. I’m quiet. As I said to Vik the first time, “I’m probably not going to say anything for a while.” I just relax, start to understand his personality, and eventually I find out how he feels his strokes, ask him to try a couple of things, ask what he thinks.
It’s their tennis—you try to guide them and get feedback from them. You know, there’s not one way to hit a tennis ball. Just take Rafa and Roger—it’s pretty much night and day in terms of the ease and effort put into hitting a tennis ball, isn’t it? But who’s hitting it the “right” way? Whoever’s winning that day, I guess.
AM: In the coach-player dynamic, the player hires the coach—so people tend to think of the coach as an employee. Presumably, though, you won’t work with just any player. What you look for in a prospective partnership?
JR: First, you have to be able to get on well. That’s imperative, because you spend a heck of a lot of time with them. You travel together, having breakfast and dinner together most of the time. And then there’s the work. As you go along, you have to be compatible. Alex and Viktor are quite different, but I find the good in both of them.
When Vik and I first decided to try, I wanted spend some time in Belgrade. I wanted to meet his family; I wanted to meet his friends and see how he lives. I went out with him socially—had a few drinks with his friends and spoke to them. I had dinner with his mum and dad a number of times—to get to know them. That way, you understand where a person comes from, see how they think and how they react to situations, how they’ve been brought up.
AM: What were your impressions of Serbia?
JR: I love going to Belgrade—I enjoy Serbia. It’s totally different to how I expected. In Australia, we have a lot of ex-Yugoslavs, and they seem to bring the problems with them. There was always a lot of aggression between them in Australia. So I thought, “Wow, this is going to be interesting to go to Serbia. If it’s going to be full of people like that, what’s it going to be like?” Then, I went there and the people were super-nice to me and I had a great time. I like it.
AM: Viktor’s an interesting personality, I think, because he combines quiet and shy with a more emotional and demonstrative side. Did you see the passionate part of Serbia on those trips to Belgrade?
JR: Oh, sure. You get used to it. I’ve lived in different countries and I speak German and Italian. Like in Italy, when you don’t understand the language, you feel a little uncomfortable. For example, the Italians scream and yell and you think, “Are they going to fight?” Then they’re laughing and getting along—and you come to understand the nature of the people. I think that’s much the same with the Serbs, too. You have to understand it.
Photo: Getty Images
AM: Before you started working together, Viktor had already hit a peak in 2011 (with a career-high of #12), but was struggling.
JR: Yeah, he was going down. He hadn’t won many matches. The worst thing that happened was that his forehand was, well, laughable. At that stage, it was pretty bad. But we got to Belgrade and I did a few things and he liked what I was doing and I liked how he approached things. So, that’s when we both decided we’d like to work together.
Unfortunately, we had to wait until the Aussie Open to really start. I couldn’t do pre-season with him because I’d given my word to somebody that I’d work with him for a month. At first, Vik didn’t want to have an interview and trial with me because I said, “Yes, I’d be interested, but I’ve got to do this month because I verbally agreed to it and I stick by my word.” Then, he spoke to his manager and decided, “No, I actually like that. I admire that, so I think we’ll try.” You know, sometimes Vik’s a bit impatient; then he reflects on it. That’s something he’s got to learn—a bit of patience sometimes. It’s a youthful thing: you want it straight away, in a day. But I think he’s learning now that sometimes you have to chip away at things—tap, tap, tap.
AM: What have been some of his other improvements since 2013?
JR: It’s now twelve months since he started again and he’s reached #20 in the world. There have been some bad losses, too, which could have made a big difference. So, there’s a balance there. I expected him to come back, otherwise I wouldn’t have stuck by. There’s only about twenty guys above him at the moment, so that’s not bad.
Physically, I think he’s a lot better—Miloš Jelasavčić has done a great job with him. (He works with Gilles Simon as well.) The year off, I think, also rested his body. It’s a stressful game—lots of repetition, particularly in terms of serving, and unnatural movements all the time make for wear and tear on the body. Especially playing matches: when you’re competing, you’re a bit tense because you’re making things happen, whereas practice is nice and relaxed. So, I think he’s earned a couple of extra years on his career because of the time off—that’s how we look at it.
Mentally, he’s doing a lot better. You know, everybody gets mad sometimes. But I think, in general, he’s improved very much and his approach to tennis has improved.
AM: Viktor is well-known for a few things: scoring the winning point in Davis Cup in 2010, of course, and now his suspension and comeback. But there have also been some funny on-court moments that went “viral” —the ball-boy incident at Roland Garros in 2011 and the line call dispute in Rome. What were you thinking at that moment?
JR: Well, I wasn’t happy at first. But then I was pleased at the way he turned it around and kind of made it into a joke. The initial loss of self-control is something he’s had to improve on. You know, sometimes you lose it that little too much; but he’s getting much more control now.
AM: You wrote an open letter to Viktor during his suspension, explaining why you were sticking with him, even though there was an “exit” clause in your contract. Were you confident then that you’d made the right decision?
JR: Leaving money aside, my decision was made on moral grounds more than anything. I thought it was ridiculous, what happened.
AM: How was your relationship affected by going through this difficult experience together?
JR: Well, I think it’s a false world, in a way, the tennis world. You’re so popular when you’re doing well—and that’s how it is with celebrity. But people are so quick to drop you. Nobody gives a hoot and nobody’s prepared to do anything for someone like Vik, in this case. They don’t want to say anything or get in trouble—they just leave it alone. So, I think he was appreciative of somebody being there, you know, sticking by him. To me, it was unjust what happened to him.
AM: What did you do during the period when Viktor wasn’t yet training full time?
JR: I worked with an Aussie junior. I had a few offers, but I made it quite clear that I was going back to Viktor to finish the job with him; so, I didn’t want to start full-term with someone else. Then, Sergei Bubka got in touch with me. He’d had a big fall and broken a bunch of bones—he’s got metal here & there. So, he came out to Australia and I worked with him quite a bit. I’d go with Vik, then go back to Sergei, then go with Vik again.
AM: After all your experience at the top level of the ATP, what was it like to spend a few months on the Challenger tour?
JR: And the Futures! I did the Futures with Sergei. Then, when Vik started back, he had to go to Challengers. He did well enough that we didn’t need to go to Futures, but that could have happened. We were prepared to have to go through that channel.
AM: Was anything about that interesting? Didn’t you guys do a road trip through Italy at one point?
JR: Yeah, I kind of enjoyed that. I missed that. It’s nice to be able to just drive from tournament to tournament. It’s really good.
And everybody’s pretty good—number 300, even 600 in the world. They play well, you know, so you have to compete. Good on Viktor for keep his mentality—a lot of the time he didn’t play very good tennis, but he managed to keep going and getting results.
AM: As Novak says, you can be the favorite in every single match—you still have to go out and win it.
AM: How much of your job is about physical aspects of the game—working on the forehand, for instance—and how much is about strategy or tactics?
JR: Well, you’ve got to have the strokes up to a certain level so you can follow up with the strategy. It’s pretty hard to give a tactic if somebody’s not comfortable with how they’re hitting the ball. Vik’s still making some improvements in that area, which is very pleasing.
AM: What do you consider the best parts of Viktor’s game? What are his biggest challenges?
JR: Well, he’s a very good athlete—and such a great retriever. We’re trying to get him to be a little more aggressive and back himself a bit more. In too many cases, he’s ready to sit back and wait for the other guy to lose. That’s contributed to a few bad losses he’s had—he stopped being proactive. But he’s getting there.
AM: It’s been a year and he’s already made this huge comeback. Is this the hardest part now, staying at the top?
JR: No. I think we’ve done the hardest part. He’s got back to the top 25. Now, he needs time to sit on a beach somewhere and reflect—absorb what he’s done, be happy, and then be ready to go again. He’s achieved a heck of a lot, hasn’t he?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
What follows are two interviews in one. The first half contains excerpts from a conversation I had with Viktor Troicki at the 2012 Cincinnati Masters. The second half is a recent interview conducted by Nebojša Mandrapa, the tennis reporter for Serbian newspaper Večernje Novosti, who has kindly permitted me to post a translation. Troicki, considered a hero of Serbian tennis ever since he scored the clinching point in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over France in 2010, was suspended from professional activity last July. (Those needing a refresher on his case, which led to his being sanctioned for violating the ITF’s anti-doping rules, can read my overview and other players’ reactions here.) He’ll return to action in just over a week, in all likelihood playing on the Gstaad clay for the first time in his career.
As fans of men’s tennis will recall, Troicki rode the wave of his team’s triumph all the way to a career-high ATP ranking of #12 in June 2011. Although he broke into the top 100 as a 22-year-old in 2008, and finished both 2009 and ‘10 within the top 30, it wasn’t until his first singles title in October 2010 and the Davis Cup win six weeks later that Troicki’s career really took off. In fact, many in Serbian tennis circles were surprised at just how fast and how high he rose, given that he had long played second fiddle to not only Novak Djoković but also Janko Tipsarević, who was a more talented junior player. Although Troicki’s time among the men’s tennis elite—thirty-four weeks in the top 20—was relatively brief compared to the elder Tipsy’s, it was Viktor who made more efficient progress up the ranks as a young pro and he who earned an individual title first.
When we sat down in what is technically Mason, Ohio, Troicki was feeling good after demolishing former #1 Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets. Knocking off top players wasn’t a new experience for Viktor (for instance, he beat Andy Roddick in the Washington quarterfinals back in 2008, when the American was #9), but he’d been having a difficult year. Though his recent struggles became our focus fairly quickly (even before I’d asked about them), we began by looking back to 2010.
AM: Can you compare winning the Davis Cup with winning your first ATP title about a month earlier? Together, they mark a key turning point in your career. (Troicki was ranked #54 before a semifinal run in Tokyo, #43 before the Kremlin Cup in mid-October, and #30 at the end of the regular season.) So, do you think of them together, as a sort of unit, or separately?
VT: Yes, definitely different things—totally different things. It also felt different. Of course, my first title gave me a lot of confidence. I played great that week in Moscow, beat some big names, and I think I played my best tennis at the end of that year.
Then, the Davis Cup finals came and, for sure, knowing that I had a title already and that I was playing very well, I was more confident than usual. I think that’s why I played very well in Davis Cup also. Winning Davis Cup was the biggest moment of my life—it was just a great experience. It felt unbelievable on the court, winning that last [rubber]. I just hope it happens again.* I mean, it’s the moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life—just an unbelievable experience.
AM: How was the first half of 2011 different from the previous few years—coming off of Davis Cup and rising to your career-high? (One thing that struck me here is how quickly Vik turned to the second half of the year—that is, to negative stuff. Even at the outset of his answer, it sounds like he’s brought down by what he knows is coming.)
VT: Well, I started 2011 great, continuing to play very well. I came to #12 in the world playing really good tennis. And then I had some matches where I. . . (sigh) had the chance to win, where I was very close to winning, for example against Murray at the French—I had a chance to go to the quarters, I was serving for it—and also in Montreal against Monfils, I had match points which I didn’t use.
So, all these. . . those two matches, like, [set] me back. I lost a bit of confidence and then I started to play less [well] than I was playing before; my ranking was dropping and I was losing some matches that I shouldn’t lose and I was unhappy. . . I would say 2011 was a year with ups and downs. Luckily, I hope, that’s over and I think I’m going to rise again in the rankings and get back to the top 20 and then, hopefully, go for the top 10.
AM: You talked about the effect of those two losses on your confidence, but is there anything else you want to add about why it’s been hard to maintain a high level consistently. I mean. . . people are going to say that you’re in a slump, right? But I don’t know if you think of it that way or not. When I look at your playing activity, there are actually only a few losses that jump out at me as unexpected—like Bucharest. Something like losses to Rosol no longer look weird after what he did at Wimbledon.
VT: It happens to every athlete—it happens that he has good days and bad days. (Sigh.) We all have ups and downs. I guess it’s normal for every tennis player also. I mean, the thing is to get out of it as quickly as you can, try not to think about it, and try to improve from those things—what you did wrong. So, I hope I’ve learned some things from those matches. I work hard every day to improve my game, so I hope these things won’t happen again.
AM: How much do you work on mental aspects of the game—not so much strategies or tactics, but things like positive thinking?
VT: Yeah, I had a person this year, during the tournaments in Europe, who I was talking to. We were doing some sessions—mental sessions, psychological treatments. He helped me a lot, I think. We did a good job and I still use those things.
AM: Did you guys actually identify, say, types of negative thinking?
VT: We talked about not just tennis, but how to make life a nice place—to enjoy life, to be happy on the court. Sometimes when I was on the court and I was losing, I was really not happy. When it was not going my way, I was pretty unhappy—those were the things that were maybe not helping me. So, we tried to improve that and to start thinking positive on the court, even if it’s not going well. Hopefully, I’ll still improve on that point.
AM: What do you consider your best or most satisfying performance of the year? Dusseldorf strikes me, since it was several wins in a row. . .
VT: Well, I played Wimbledon fourth round, which was my best Wimbledon so far. I reached the fourth round (lost to Novak), which was a good result for me. Beating Juan Monaco, I also played a good match there. Maybe [today] was the best win, against Hewitt: to beat him 6-2, 6-0 was pretty surprising, even for me, and I think I played very well. But my best tournament, I would say, was Wimbledon.
AM: You won a couple five-set matches in a row—arguably, it’s especially important to get through those.
VT: Definitely, definitely. Actually, I made a record in Grand Slams for most consecutive five-setters. So, it’s definitely a good thing when you’re winning those important matches, when it’s really tight—it means a lot and gets your confidence back.
* “I just hope it happens again.” This line is especially poignant in light of the fact that a requisite part of “it”—Serbia making another Davis Cup final—did happen again (in 2013), only not for Viktor. Due to his suspension, he was able neither to play nor even to cheer on his teammates from inside the Belgrade Arena. Watching the final two rounds on tv from home was, understandably, an emotional experience for Troicki: “When Janko dedicated the [semifinal] tie to me and Novak took the microphone and got the stadium to shout ‘Viktor,’ I had a breakdown and started crying like never before in my life.”
It wasn’t only Troicki who suffered through those ties, however. Due to his and the injured Tipsarević’s absences, Team Serbia was significantly undermanned when they faced Czech Republic in the final.
2. Making Up for Lost Time
Speaking with Mandrapa in Belgrade last week, Troicki was both bursting with motivation to return to the top ranks of the ATP and anticipating mixed emotions when he steps on court at his comeback tournament.
Q: What will you be feeling when you return to action?
VT: From the wish to show that they were wrong to suspend me, to the hope of proving to myself that I can do even better than before— above all, a desire to make up for lost time… All of these emotions and much more will be present. To be honest, I don’t know myself how it’ll be on court in the beginning, until I get used to it. At the same time, all my points will be gone by July 21 and I’ll be starting from scratch, completely from scratch. However, I often remember a very good saying, “Once a doctor, always a doctor.” That’s why I haven’t given up on tennis: because it’s who I am.
Q: This period, from July 2013 until today, did it feel like an eternity?
VT: Too long, I’d say. It was hard for me without tournaments, very hard. But, I have to admit, some moments were nice and interesting, too. I had time for everything. Now, I’m completely recovered mentally, and not so nervous and burdened with all of this like at the beginning. When [the CAS tribunal] made their decision to uphold my suspension, it was a huge shock. But since then, I thought about it all in peace—about the future, not so much about everything that happened.
“If you run into the [Doping Control Officer from last year] at a tournament, what would you say to her?”
“It’s better that you don’t know. They [presumably, the ATP] will see that this doesn’t happen; but the woman continued to do her job, even though she’s a total amateur (not to say something harsher). I think it’s too bad that she continued to work without any consequences, even though the [CAS] judgment stated that she also bears some blame, because of poor instructions and irresponsibility. I don’t know what would happen—I just hope that I’ll never meet her again in my life.”
Q: Have you had any psychological help to overcome all these difficulties?
VT: I tried, but I didn’t like it too much. I realized that it was all up to me. If I sort out the dice in my head, then that’s that—and I don’t need someone else’s help. If I manage to straighten myself out, that’s enough.
Q: You mentioned that the year was, at times, interesting. What did you have in mind?
VT: I went skiing four times last winter—more days skiing than ever before in my life. I wanted to catch up on things I love and haven’t had much chance to do. Often, I’d play football with the guys—we had an indoor league. And I went on a couple of trips with Nole, including my first time in South America, which was interesting. Then, when I started to train, I also accompanied Djoković to a few tournaments he played, so I’ve practiced with him a lot.
Q: Was it difficult for you to find sparring partners, players with whom to practice?
April: Viktor trains with Dutzee & Nole in Monte Carlo.
A: Exactly; that’s exactly right. But Novak helped me there, too. Mostly, I worked with him—in Monte Carlo, or during tournaments in Dubai and Miami. I also sparred with our younger players: Lajović, Krajinović, Milojević in Belgrade.
Q: What were you working on, looking to improve?
VT: For the last four months, I’ve really practiced a lot. Luckily, both members of my team—coach [Jack] Reader and [fitness trainer/ physiotherapist Miloš] Jelisavčić—are still with me. In some areas, I feel progress, but I’m lacking competitive play: points and other match situations. That’ll come eventually, after a couple of tournaments. I can’t claim that it’ll all be in place by the first tournament (at that point, everything will probably still be totally strange), but I hope it’ll be sorted out as soon as possible.
Q: Due to the loss of ranking points, you won’t have direct entry to the biggest tournaments at first?
VT: Some tournament organizers have kindly offered me a wild card. I won’t play at the major events. Right now, we’re waiting for confirmation from Gstaad, and I’ll definitely participate in the Italian Challengers, four or five tournaments which coincide with the US hard-court season. Novak will try to help me with securing wild cards for the Asian swing. If he succeeds, that would be great.
Q: Serbia’s Davis Cup team heads to India in mid-September for a World Group playoff. Will it be with or without you?
VT: I honestly don’t know what to say. It doesn’t fit into my schedule at all. At that point in the season, I plan to play on clay, and I don’t feel like going to India. I’d be losing two weeks, not just one; I can’t play on the main tour if I don’t get wild cards and, just then, I’m planning to play some bigger tournaments. I hope the younger players will help and that they’ll be able to win the tie. We’ll see who’ll even be in a position to play. Maybe Tipsarević will manage to recover by then, but I think we’re the favorites no matter who plays.
In a New Year’s statement, however, Viktor had a slightly different perspective on whether a return to the tour or the opportunity to rejoin the Davis Cup team is more important to his comeback.
“Both things go hand in hand. If I’m able to win on the ATP tour level, then I’ll be a help to our team. Of course, coming back and playing Davis Cup in front of my home crowd will mean the real end of this chapter. Then I’ll be able to say that it’s behind me.”
Q: Are you fulfilled on a personal level—because that can have an impact on your results?
VT: Everything’s in the best possible order. My mother and father have been the biggest support my whole life. They always believed in me. There were also a few other people, like Neša Trifunović, who’ve been a lot of help. From them, I got valuable advice. They told me that a year is short period in life and that it’ll pass—that I have to survive mentally, to be even stronger and even better. I appreciate that. My parents are very excited that I’m returning to the court, although I won’t see them as much as in the past year.
Q: Do you believe you can do better than the #12 spot you once occupied?
VT: I don’t know, but I’ll try to prove I can. We’ll see how well I’ll succeed in that. Certainly, I’ll give my best—more than I gave before. My goal is to fight to the last point, and to get into the top 100 by the end of 2014. It won’t be easy; but if I start well, I think I have a chance. In the end, it’s all up to me.
By the time I arrived in Miami, Dušan Lajović was already well practiced at waiting. Although he’d lost in the final round of qualifying two days earlier, he was hanging around Crandon Park, next in line to get into the main draw of the Sony Open as a “Lucky Loser.” Spending all day on site, waiting for a message that might not come, Lajović had time to talk at length about recent developments in his life on the ATP tour. (An edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.)
When we met in a small room under the stadium court, Lajović was, at #89, the de facto Serbian men’s number two player due to the absence of both Janko Tipsarević and Viktor Troicki from competition. Just that week, he’d had dinner in a local Chinese restaurant with Troicki, then training in Miami, and posted his Davis Cup teammate’s fortune on Twitter.
But it is Tipsarević whom he credits with being among the biggest influences on his young career: not only does Lajović share Janko’s manager (Dirk Hordorff) and clothing sponsor (Fila) but the older player also serves as a mentor, providing court-side advice and general insight about existence as a professional tennis player. Though Tipsarević was obviously disappointed not to be able to compete in the Davis Cup finals, he is likely proud of the way his protégé has performed, both in his November debut at the Belgrade Arena and during the first months of the new year. It was this stretch of time that “Dutzee” and I discussed in most detail.
AM: This has been a season of “firsts” for you: qualifying for your first main draw of a major, first win at a Slam, first entry in the top 100, first time playing as Serbia’s #1 in Davis Cup, first main draw at a Masters series event, maybe even the first opportunity to travel with a physiotherapist (Stefan Duell, whose services he also shares with Janko). Out of all these firsts, what stands out to you—which achievement means the most?
DL: I would say that qualifying for a Slam was the biggest for me, even though more came after that, since I won a round in the main draw. Last year, I was in the final round of qualifications in Paris [at Roland Garros] and I lost pretty badly. Qualifying in Australia was tough for me because there’s a lot of wind there and I’m not really used to playing in those conditions. But I was mentally strong in the qualies, even though I lost in qualies of the previous tournament (in Chennai) and was a little bit down. So, qualifying at the Australian Open took some of the pressure off; after that, I kind of relaxed and started playing much better. Then, the results kept coming: I also qualified in Rio and won a round, so I feel like I’m ready for the next level.
AM: When you think about the Australian Open, do you see that as the turning point, after which things changed, or was your success there actually proof that things had already changed?
DL: I think it’s all connected. In Australia, I also had a good draw—a wildcard in the first round [Lucas Pouille]. But that’s a lot of pressure, too, because you have to win that match. If you lose, you’re in a tough situation, even though you qualified, because you lost to a much younger guy who’s up & coming but not that experienced. So, I still needed to win that match. That win also showed me that I’m ready. A year ago, I might have lost it, but now I feel like everything is falling into place.
AM: What was more difficult: the transition from juniors to the pros or the last few years, since you entered the top 200?
DL: In juniors, during the early ITF stage, I actually wasn’t very good—nor did I play many tournaments. So, when I started playing seniors, every point I earned was a really big deal and I’d feel like, “Ok, this is going really well.”
This feeling lasted through his nineteenth birthday. By 2010, however, Lajović was having doubts. Even though he made the finals of one Futures tournament in June and won the title at another in August (results which helped him move up a hundred spots in the ATP rankings to 415), he considered going to the US for college or perhaps even quitting tennis altogether. It was the Davis Cup finals in December of that year which helped change his mind.
DL: I was there with the guys, just to experience the atmosphere and everything. And the next year, I broke into the top 200—from 430 at the beginning of 2011 to 190 by the end of the season. So, this was the biggest jump in my career.
At that point, needing a coach with the flexibility to travel with him more regularly, he split from Nemanja Lalić, who’d been guiding him for nearly seven years. Still, he says, “When I’m home in Belgrade, I always call Nemanja and we practice together. We’re really close. I think this was very important for my career, that he was not just my coach but also my friend.”
AM: So, which was harder: the period from 18 to 21 or between then and now, when you’ve reached the top 100?
DL: I think getting to the top 100 was much harder, because there’s this mental pressure that you want to break in. I was in a position to do so last summer, when I was around #115—I had some chances while playing in two different tournaments. There was a lot of pressure because I was also supposed to be earning points to get direct entrance into the US Open, so I kind of put the burden on my back and it broke. I lost in the second round at two tournaments in which I could have gone much further and slipped in the rankings.
Since that point, I told myself not to think about breaking in to the top 100—just think about becoming a better player. Once you do this, the top 100 will eventually come. When you stop thinking about whether you’re #101 or 90, I think you can improve more easily…. We’re human, so we can’t completely block these kinds of thoughts—they’re always there. But you have to try to keep it in the back of your head and put the priority on your game.
AM: Even before the Australian Open, playing your first live rubber in the Davis Cup final was a sort of “coming out” party. Although people in Serbia knew you, that was when fans and media in the rest of the tennis world were introduced to you. What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed in this new stage of your career?
Lajović vs Stepanek (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)
DL: I really felt this during Davis Cup finals. Some people would say I was thrown to the sharks, but it was a really great experience. Though I was saying this at the time, I really didn’t know what it would mean to me until more recently. My match with Stepanek is an example: even though I was losing badly, I was still fighting for every point. And this is something important that helped me play well this season—realizing that you have to stay humble until the end of the match. Even if you’re leading in a set by a break, when you get up from the bench [after a changeover], you can’t let yourself relax.
Now, even when I have a break, I run to the baseline to get another one—I think maintaining this high level of energy is one of the things that’s kept me going this season. If your opponent suddenly starts playing better, it’s not necessarily because you did anything wrong; so, you have to stay positive. In a couple of losses I’ve had this year, I think that was a big part of the problem—that I wasn’t pushing it to the limit. But if I can keep the positive energy up, I think it’ll be even better for my season and my career.
AM: You mentioned getting thrown to the sharks in Davis Cup. In terms of sharks, you’ve faced a number of them lately, starting with Tomas Berdych. Watching a match of yours in Brazil, I was thinking that you might need to get a little more mean. You seem like a nice guy and you’re very calm and level-headed on court, so there’s no need to get crazy. But, sometimes, maybe more of a killer instinct would help?
DL: Yeah, that’s true. I would say that killer instinct is coming a bit more this season. It all has to do with personality, I think. Maybe I was a little bit insecure before, but now I try to be more confident and to know what I’m worth. While it’s important not to be arrogant on the court, you have to be a fighter. Fair play is for me the number one thing during the match, but you also need to be a little bit “rude” on the court, if I can say it that way. Maybe that was a piece that I was missing, this shark instinct, and it’s very important. But I feel like it’s coming—that I’m going in the right direction.
AM: Have there been any perks to being in the top 100?
DL: Let’s face it, there aren’t many better jobs in the world than living on the tour. You get to travel a lot—ok, from one side that’s a good thing; from the other, you’re away from home for more than thirty weeks a year. But, I think that tennis players have a pretty nice life once they’re in the top 100 or top 50.
When you’re playing Challengers, you can have tournaments in some pretty small places and you need to change several planes [to get there]. When you play tour events, they’re always in big cities, so you can fly direct or maybe one connection. You also know for sure that you will have a big hotel. I’ve played a Challenger in Uzbekistan, so you can imagine what that’s like—in Qarshi, near the border of Afghanistan. There, the hotel was really bad, and the breakfast… You can never know what kind of food you’re going to get, so you’ve got to be careful. When you’re at a tour event, food is provided on site or there are good restaurants in the city.
From that side, it’s much better to play these events. And all the best players are here and you have the chance to compete against them, which is what I always dreamed of. So, I would say that as soon as I don’t have to play Challenger events, I will try not to play them, to just keep playing here—even if it means playing a bit more in qualies when I don’t get in [directly]. But now I have a good ranking, so I think this will also help me to gain more experience on the tour.
AM: Other than being able to play more highly-ranked players, and some big names, is there any difference in how people treat you—in the locker room or elsewhere?
DL: Yeah, they’re getting to know me, and everybody says “hi.” Once you get there, eventually everybody will know you. For me, it doesn’t matter if somebody in the top ten knows you and he’s your friend or if somebody’s top 500. If he’s a good person, it’s the same—he’s your friend.
AM: How about in terms of media and fan attention? How much about yourself are you interested in sharing, beyond aspects of your game?
DL: I realize that the better you get, the more people will know you and they’ll want to know more. I think it’s a good thing nowadays, with Twitter and everything. On Twitter, I’m not very active, but I try to keep my fans (as much as I have them) posted about some different things that I like.
“Little fuzzy koala”
Because I don’t think that I would just put, “Yesterday, I lost; tomorrow I play at this time…” I feel like they can find all this kind of information online, and they want to know something that’s behind the curtain, something that they could not see on tv or whatever. I still haven’t had any interviews where I get asked something personal—there are always one or two questions about what I do in my free time or something like this… which you can basically answer automatically. I didn’t have any goofy questions and I haven’t been in the tabloids*; somebody maybe posted my tweets a couple of times in the newspaper, but that’s it. So, I don’t feel any different yet.
[*Strictly speaking, this isn’t accurate. Tennis players in Serbia are frequent tabloid fodder and Lajović is no exception (here he is looking dapper during a night out with teammate Ilija Bozoljac, for example). But it’s good to know that Dutzee doesn’t spend his free time Googling himself or reading the gossip pages.]
AM: Speaking of Twitter, you usually keep it pretty light: updates about your matches, some pictures, this and that. But earlier this year, you re-tweeted an article Sergiy Stakhovsky posted—a story about British player calling it quits. Why did it seem worth sharing?
DL: I played once against Jamie Baker. I didn’t know him as a person; I saw him at tournaments, but personally we never connected. He was just there and I didn’t know what was on the other side. So, when I read the article… I don’t want to say some bad words now, but I was like, “Oh my god.” I mean, I thought, “Shit, this is bad,” you know? A tough life. This person was there and I never knew anything about it. Maybe he didn’t share with anybody, or maybe some people knew but they weren’t speaking about it. When you read it from somebody else and see how tough it is, I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’ve been through many things like this”—apart from the injuries he had.
AM: When you described playing Challengers, I thought maybe that’s why the Jamie Baker story struck you. I don’t know if this saying exists in Serbian: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Was it that sort of feeling, that it could be you? We can both point to talented guys in the top two or three hundred—on some level, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be ranked higher; on another level, we could identify the reasons, though it’s not necessarily about quality.
DL: All the guys who are [at the top] are there because they want it more than the other guys—this is my thinking. Even if you do all the things properly, there are probably some things you should do differently to get up there. Maybe you’re practicing, going to sleep, doing everything right, and at some point you’re thinking “Why am I still number 150 and not 80? I’m doing everything that all the guys who are 50 or 80 are.” But maybe you need to change something that you haven’t even thought of to get there.
I also think that your thoughts are very important in terms of going in the right direction. Because even if you do everything right, if you look at this guy and think, “Why is he there and not me?”—you should not pity yourself. It may be going badly now; but at some point, if you’re doing everything right, it will come. And if your maximum is to be at 120, then you’ve got to face it and say, “I gave it everything that I could, I’m 120, and I couldn’t do more.” But if you don’t give your maximum, you don’t know how far you can go. So, if my maximum is 89, ok, it’s 89; but when I finish my career, I will know I gave everything to get there. Right now, I can’t remember the whole article about Jamie. But apart from things you can’t control, like injury or illness, it’s all about yourself—how much you want it and how much you give to get there.
AM: Isn’t it the case, though, that unless you get to a certain point in the rankings, the financial side of the sport is pretty difficult? Where would you put that cut-off—is it where you are now? For instance, when you won that round at the Australian Open, you got the biggest paycheck of your career. How much does that help?
DL: Well, it also makes a difference in terms of not having to think about the financial situation when you travel. I would say that all the players from Serbia didn’t have a good financial status to compete regularly, in every tournament, or to travel when they were starting. So, some of them were borrowing money, and some found sponsors, but nobody had his own money to do so. This, from one side, was a good thing for us and why, as people always ask us, we’re so hungry to succeed.
But from the other side, when I was playing Futures or Challengers, there were times when I didn’t know if I could go to this or that tournament. I’m lucky to have parents who provided for me, even when they didn’t have anything—they always found a solution. I always knew the pressure, but I knew they did this because they believed in me and wanted to see me do something I like. From this point of view, I could never give up and say, “Ok, it’s hard for you guys and it’s hard for me, so now we’re quitting.” Because I know how much I gave of myself and how much they gave of themselves for me to keep playing tennis.
AM: Did you get much financial support from the Serbian tennis federation?
DL: In the years when I was young, it was difficult. The situation in our country was not good, so [the federation] didn’t have money or a system to help players. Over the years, it’s gotten better—it can always be much better. At the point when it was most important, I would say that I didn’t have the help, the resources I needed. But I wasn’t always the best player in my country, so from that side I can also realize that they didn’t see my potential. When you look at other countries, like Spain, they have like fifty guys that they sponsor. But when you’re from Serbia, you’ve got to do 90% on your own.
AM: Until what stage was your family your main support?
DL: I would say until I was top 200, but maybe even a year ago. But it all depends. I mean, I still live with my parents because I’m barely home—I travel for two months, then go home for five days. If you’re top 200, you can be top 200 [by playing] Challengers and still not earn anything, just be on the edge of covering costs. Or, you can be top 200 with maybe a few ATPs, and then you have more money than a guy who’s the same rank as you.
AM: When you won a match at the Australian Open, other than its relaxing you a bit about finances and making it possible for you to hire Stefan, did you do anything for yourself as a reward or indulgence?
DL: Not really. I mean, I don’t go shopping very often; but when I do, I’m just searching for one thing that I really need. Because I have a phone, I have a car, I have this and that… I don’t need anything special. Maybe at one point, I’ll start buying some crazy things.
AM: I don’t think that’s necessary—I just wondered if you marked the occasion.
DL: No, I didn’t. For me, the best thing is to be with people I love. Then maybe go for a nice dinner—I really enjoy good food. But I was just there with my coach; I don’t think we did anything.
I also feel like this is something I should have done earlier—winning a round [at a major]. That’s why, even though it’s big for me, I want to feel like it’s normal because I really want to do greater things. So, if I buy an expensive watch for myself when I win one round, what will I do if I win a Slam?
Doubles: Serbia vs Switzerland (photo by Srdjan Stevanović)
AM: A question about the first round of Davis Cup: if Zimonjić & Krajinović had won the doubles rubber, you would have had to play Roger Federer instead of Michael Lammer. Would you have liked to play Federer in that situation, or were you happy to get the win?
DL: No, no, I really wanted to… I think this is also a big difference from a couple months ago. When I played in the finals, I wanted to give my best; but, on some level, I think I didn’t play to beat this guy. When I played against Stanislas, I went on the court to really try to beat him, even though he just won the Australian Open.
This is also something that has improved a lot this season: that it doesn’t matter who you play, you’ve got to go on court and expect to win. Otherwise, don’t go on the court. I think that if you have this [attitude] every match, doesn’t matter against which player, then you will keep improving. Maybe I just needed this kind of experience against top-10 players to see that I need to go on court and try to beat these guys as well, not to have [too much] respect for them.
Then again, I had to play the other guy on Sunday—and we didn’t want to lose. Even though we lost [the tie against Switzerland] 3-0, I really wanted to win. [Lammer] also wanted to win and he played well—better than his ranking. So, I was happy to win this match, even though it didn’t mean anything; but it would have been much better to play Federer in a live rubber.
AM: At the beginning, we talked about some of the “firsts” you’ve recently achieved. What’s the next “first”—the next big step you’re going to take?
Two days after our conversation, Lajović got called in to replace an injured Tommy Haas, who’d received a “bye” into the second round. If his more experienced opponent, Yen-Hsun Lu, felt any relief not to be facing Haas (against whom he has an 0-2 record), that feeling wouldn’t have lasted long: the Serb got an early break and went on to take the first set 6-1. Another break early in the second proved more difficult for Dutzee to hang on to and Lu sent the match into a deciding set by winning the tiebreak.
I suspected I wasn’t the only one on Court 7 wondering whether—or to what extent— Lajović’s chances of a victory diminished when he wasn’t able to wrap up the match in two sets. As if giving voice to my doubt, a Serbian woman in the crowd urged “Dule,” as he is also known, not to rush during his first service game. His bark in reply seemed cause for concern. (As I later learned, however, this invested elder was Dušan’s mother, and his tone with her likely borne more of familiarity than frustration.) A break in the sixth game proved decisive. Despite a wobble of nerves after the umpire called for a replay of what Lajović thought was a winning point, he took the match 6-1, 6-7(3), 6-3.
Lajović serves during his win over Lu.
After he’d had a chance to recover from his three-setter against Lu, Lajović shared some thoughts about his main-draw showing. (You can read his comments in Serbian on B92.)
AM: How does it feel to be a Lucky Loser?
DL: Pretty lucky. I got the chance to play and I used it the best I could. If somebody had asked me five days ago how I’m doing, I had a totally different feeling when I lost. So, now I’m pretty happy and I appreciate that I got in… And that I played a good match last night—it’s a really good thing for me.
AM: Was it all awkward that the guy you were drawn against is someone with whom you share a physio?
DL: Yeah, we did the preseason together a couple of times and we’ve practiced many times. But, when you’re in these tournaments, you can always play against anybody; so, you’re prepared for the possibility. Then again, Stefan couldn’t watch—he was watching from the locker room, actually.
AM: You mean he couldn’t watch in the stands because he can’t cheer?
DL: It’s better if he doesn’t watch on the court—it’s his rule and we respect it. But it was ok, nothing too weird. I’ve played a few times against some people who are friends in my personal life, so it’s kind of something you have to get used to.
Fellow players Filip Krajinović & Kiki Mladenović showed up to support Lajović.
AM: Even though you didn’t have your coach or physio out there, you did have a nice little cheering section, including your mother. What’s it like when you have friends or family watching?
DL: It’s always good—I love when my family’s there. Whenever they have the chance, they come to watch me and it’s the best support I could have. So, I’m really enjoying the time and that my mother’s here.
AM: The first set went perfectly according to plan, but when the second got more complicated, there was a question about how that might affect you going forward. Were you frustrated after you lost the early break advantage?
DL: I think that the problem was that I was feeling little tired in the second set since I’ve been here all day for the last four days. I had to be here from before the first match until the last match because there was always a chance to get in. This is really tiring when you have to stay all day in the club, plus practice. So, even before the match, I wasn’t really fresh.
After I won this second-set break, I felt so tired all of a sudden. Probably I was a little bit empty, emotionally, from winning the break—and I couldn’t keep up the energy. After I lost the break, I thought, “If we go into a third [set], it will be even harder for me, and I should try to finish in two.” But this wasn’t going. So, when I lost the second set, I said, “Ok, now you know there is only one set left and you’ve got to push as much as you can.” In the end, I did it, though I was maybe even cramping in the third set a little bit.
AM: In terms of the disappointment of losing the second-set tiebreak, and heading into a third set, would you say your concerns were more physical or mental?
DL: Both—equally both. The good thing is that I was serving well in the third set. Because if we had played longer rallies, it would be even harder and I don’t know if the ending would be the same.
AM: I know fitness can be an issue with some of the younger guys—Raonić and Dimitrov, for example—especially at majors, since you aren’t as accustomed to playing longer matches. Is stamina something you’re working on?
DL: Well, I haven’t played many best-of-five; but with those I did, I didn’t have physical problems. I feel I’m pretty fit to compete on this level, though I don’t know how I’d feel when it gets to the point of playing four or five best-of-five matches in a row. But I feel I could handle it physically, because I always do a good, tough preseason in Kenya, where it’s really hot and we practice more than five hours a day. Ok, when you play a match it’s different—you get tired more because emotions are working. But I think I can handle it physically.
AM: Since your coach (Jan Velthuis) isn’t here, what do you do for match preparation?
DL: I speak with my coach over the phone—it’s not a problem. He advises me before the match and gives me tactics. We always talk after every match, so it doesn’t feel like he’s away.
AM: When you’re going into a match like tomorrow’s, do you ever target a very specific thing you’re going to work on, or is it more general?
DL: For me, it’s better when I think more generally. Because I have my own game and I always try to focus on that, and then just do things that I need and which may not be good for my opponent. When I focus on his game, I’m not doing my game as good as I should and everything breaks down.
AM: Looking forward to the match against Dolgopolov, what can you expect?
DL: Expect the unexpected, I would say. He is playing really well the last couple of weeks—doesn’t matter on hard court or on clay. He beat Rafa last week, so he’s in good shape with a lot of confidence. For me, it’ll be a big challenge to play him, first of all. I hope that I can just keep my game on a high level… For sure, I’m going to go out on the court and try to beat him, but this will be tough, especially because he’s playing so well. The only thing for me is to keep my game like I did last night, and in the previous weeks, and to manage to stay focused during the whole match. Then, I think I have a chance.
Post-script: the unexpected took several forms in the third-round match between Dutzee and Dolgopolov. Although there were a number of welcome developments, such as the Serb’s level of play in the first and third sets, the match ended on several less pleasant notes, not least of which was a controversial call in the final set tiebreak.
Lajović handled the set-back in stride and had reason, despite a defeat seemingly snatched from the jaws of victory, to be pleased with his week. The Monday after Miami, he achieved a new career high of #78. We may see more firsts from him when he returns to his favorite surface: European clay.