Sometimes a person can surprise you even when doing something you recognize as entirely in character (at least what you know of it). So it was in a recent conversation with Janko Tipsarević, following his third-round win over Jack Sock, when he reacted to my telling him I wasn’t going to ask him much about specific matches. “Let’s talk about the war in Syria,” he suggested, without skipping a beat.
What does this wry response reveal about Tipsarević? He’s quick on his figurative feet (about the literal ones, more later), aware of the world beyond tennis, and not afraid to poke a bit of fun at himself, his interlocutor, and convention—in this case, of the athlete interview. His response to my opening question was telling, too. Though sometimes impulsive off court or less than completely focused on it, he’s both self-aware and willing to engage in analysis with others.
Below, our discussion of his year in tennis: past, present, and future.
On his recent form:
AM: A year ago, you obviously would have been a clear favorite coming into a match against somebody like Jack Sock. But he’s progressed quite a bit and you’ve been struggling, so even though rankings-wise you were still the favorite, this feels like a significant win. Does it to you as well?
JT: It feels significant because it’s the first time after a while that I was able to win three matches in a row. I’m very aware of that and I’m not ashamed to say it—if I don’t say it, somebody else will.
AM: Yes, that was my next question.
JT: So, I’m really happy that I was able to beat a young player, a crowd favorite, a guy who came out with all guns blazing. I was able to sustain him and, at the end of the day, at least in my eyes, have a very comfortable win.
AM: The Australian Open was the last time you won three in a row; you’ve gotten to some other tournaments’ fourth rounds, but you had a first-round “bye.” What do you think has made the difference?
JT: The story goes that I got injured at the Australian Open and I came back to the tour too soon. I wasn’t fit enough, I wasn’t healed 100 percent, and I wasn’t ready to play guys at the ATP tour level. I had some bad draws—playing Davydenko first round, Gulbis first round, Llodra first round, whatever—and then I started losing to players that I shouldn’t have lost to. Then, when you lose confidence, the ball starts kind of rolling, you lose matches that you shouldn’t lose, and your ranking starts to drop.
On the other hand, I was too much focused on things that I could improve, instead of keeping with the things that had gotten me to the top ten in the first place. So, I learned that I just need to keep it simple—nothing else.
AM: We talked a year ago about how being in the top ten brought additional obligations, especially off court. Have there been any other activities that have been distracting or may have contributed to the misplaced focus?
JT: No, not so much—and I think I proved that in 2012. In 2011, I moved from 49 to 9, and one of my biggest goals was to play London at the end of the year. Eventually, I ended up playing because Rafa got injured; but I proved in 2012, even with all the activities I have (which didn’t change that much this year), that I can be a top-ten player. I was nine, then eight, the majority of the year. So, I didn’t add any other activities in 2013 that I didn’t already have in 2012. The biggest thing is that I came back [from injury] too early, not ready, and I got lost in this “improving my game” kind of thing, which eventually ended up in my losing to players I shouldn’t lose to.
On injury & recovery:
AM: When you retired at the Australian Open, it wasn’t entirely clear what the injury was. If you recall, Andy Murray had blisters on his feet in the final, which affected his movement. Linking these two incidents, what I’m wondering is if you can explain how a seemingly minor issue can have a major impact or last much longer than initially anticipated?
JT: You know, I don’t want to put other sports down, but tennis is a very, very physically demanding sport and so tough in terms of getting injured because we are using almost every single part of our bodies. Even if the little finger on your right hand is injured…. If you have a small pain somewhere, at the end of the day, you are alone on the court. You can’t get a cheap or fake win against anybody because you’re not a team—you are alone and you don’t have anybody to pass the ball to.
So, sometimes maybe to the fans it might look like the injury is not that severe or serious. But, trust me, it’s doing way more damage than it looks.
AM: How long did it take until your heel felt normal—or you felt comfortable playing on it?
JT: I came back after three weeks, after getting injections, after getting cortisone and it still wasn’t right…. It was a bone bruise [caused from impact to part of the heel that doesn’t have as much fat padding]. The problem was that this is part of the body we use so much and there’s no treatment for it. So, I was lying in bed for three weeks wanting to shoot myself from boredom. I wanted to do something, but the only thing I could do is rest, even after the injections. So, then, my attitude was, “Ah, it’s not that bad, it’s going to pass…” But it was affecting every single move I made.
On Team Serbia:
AM: How much contact have you had with Viktor over the last month and what’s your sense of how he’s dealing this difficult period in his career?
JT: He’s handling it very well. I don’t want to talk in his name, but my guess would be that he’s waiting for a final decision from the Swiss court. The guy with whom I prepared for this US [hard-court] tour was Viktor—I practiced with him every single day for three hours, back in Belgrade, when he was still allegedly banned. But he’s handling it pretty well so far.
It’s a big loss for us that we will not have somebody like him by our side facing Canada in Davis Cup.
AM: My impression of Viktor is that he does particularly well in the team environment.
JT: He’s such a big team player. And in this scenario, not knowing how far Novak or I will go in the tournament, it would be so much easier for us to have him jumping in to play singles or doubles.
AM: If you were in Bogdan Obradović’s place, would you choose Lajović because he’s good on clay, Bozoljac for doubles, or think about who could best sub in for you or Novak in singles?
JT: Our captain did exactly what he should do: he invited both guys. The good thing is that Bozoljac played pretty well in a Challenger [on clay in Como, Italy] this week—lost in quarters. So, he invited both of the guys and will see what’s going on. He also can’t predict how far we’ll go in this event, how we’re going to feel and handle the jet-lag, and so on.
Don’t forget that Zimonjić and Bozoljac beat the Bryans in the US…
AM: Oh, believe me, I won’t. (Neither will Bob and Mike Bryan, by the way, who recently talked about their quarterfinal loss in Boise as one of the toughest they’ve suffered.)
JT: So, we have options. Obviously, without Viktor on the team, they are a little bit less clear.
AM: Other than Viktor missing, what do you think is the biggest challenge the Canadians will pose the Serbian team?
JT: You know, if you’d asked me this a few months back, when Miloš wasn’t playing so great and Pospisil was ranked out of the top 100, I would have said that we’d be a clear favorite. Now, with Pospisil being ranked around 40 and Miloš playing the tennis of his life, and us without Viktor, it kind of shifts the momentum a little bit.
But, I’m playing better and some of the best tennis I’ve ever played was in Davis Cup—I love playing in front of the full house. I don’t think the Canadians, other than Nestor, have ever played in front of twenty thousand fans cheering for the other guys; so, this will be huge. They’re a young team, excluding Nestor, of course. But I don’t want to run away from the responsibility. Even without Viktor playing, I am aware that we are favorites to win this match—obviously, having Novak on our side and playing in Belgrade, on a clay court. I would say the chances are at least 60-40 for our side.
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When Tipsarević and I talked in the players’ garden outside of Arthur Ashe stadium in Flushing Meadows, I knew two things. First, the number two Serb would be getting a stiff challenge from David Ferrer (who stopped his run at last year’s final Slam) in the next round.
Second, we’d be meeting again soon in Belgrade. So, I resisted asking some questions until I see whether and how Janko carries his US Open momentum into Davis Cup competition.
When I visited the Belgrade Arena today, Tipsy and team appeared in good spirits. Although he was there to practice with Lajović (known to friends and fans as “Dutzee”), Janko’s usual—that is, non-Serbian—support crew were there as well. Dirk Hordorff, in a crisp-looking white Fila tee (and no cigarettes in sight), observed from the sidelines as Bernardo Carberol and Stefan Düll put Janko though his warm-up routine. Dušan Vemić, lately of the #1’s entourage but currently helping coach Ivo Karlović and Andrea Petković, and Filip Krajinović were also on hand as hitting partners. With Nole’s arrival late this afternoon, it’s safe to say that the gang’s all here.
Note: an edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92. I’ll post further updates as the week progresses.