Speaking Out of Turn: Five Thoughts on the “Audible Obscenity” Rule

This piece was published on the (apparently-defunct) Tennis Space in May 2013.  I was inspired to re-post it this week by a scene at the ATP tournament in Vienna, where Viktor Troicki had another of his infamous meltdowns.

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?

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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?

Troicki: “I was always a fighter”

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

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

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.

“He’s achieved a heck of a lot, hasn’t he?” Jack Reader on Viktor Troicki

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.

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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.

JR: Sure.

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?

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Catching Up with Nenad Zimonjić

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting from Scratch: The Return of Viktor Troicki

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.

Teammates hold Viktor Troicki aloft to be cheered by Belgrade fans after he delivers the decisive rubber against France. © Paul Zimmer

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.

1. “I just hope it happens again.”

© Getty Images Viktor Troicki dismissed Lleyton Hewitt for the loss of two games.

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.

Serbian players celebrate winning the 2012 World Team Cup in Dusseldorf. Troicki beat Dodig, Tursunov, F. Mayer, & Stepanek en route to the title. © Kevin Kurek/ AFP/Getty Images

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.

Troicki practices with Nikola Milojević in Belgrade. © N. Skenderija

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?

Wedding guests arrive in Sveti Stefan: Viktor Troicki & Sofija Milošević.                   © A. Ljumović

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.