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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