In the lead up to the busiest part of the tennis season, I had the pleasure of joining BBC radio host Steve Crossman and tennis correspondent Russell Fuller on a 5 Live Sports special program discussing what makes the ATP #1 tick.
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.
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.
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?