Srdjan, Serbian Nationalism, & the Uses of Information

Despite the title, this isn’t really a post about Srdjan Djoković. Like various others during the second week of the Australian Open, I’m using the father of the top men’s player in the world to get your attention. Unlike many of them, I’m doing so for what I hope is an edifying purpose. Namely, I want to unpack a widely-reported incident that took place outside Rod Laver Arena last month in order to make distinctions between different types of information. In the second part of the post, I’ll offer an interpretation of the varieties of fan sentiment, ethnic pride, nationalist iconography, &/or political ideology that were expressed on the tournament grounds after the quarterfinal match between Novak Djoković and Andrey Rublev.

Part 1

First, the facts: Following complaints by spectators during a first-round match between Kateryna Baindl (UKR) and Kamilla Rakhimova (RUS), as well as a demand from the Ukrainian ambassador to Australia, Tennis Australia belatedly introduced a ban on Russian and Belarusian flags. Over the course of the subsequent 12 days, they added more flags, banners, and symbols to the prohibited list in order to cast a wider net for potentially-provocative displays by attendees.

Though there may have been others who managed to sneak in flags here and there (and we know that security ejected unruly spectators for a variety of reasons throughout the fortnight), it wasn’t until the middle of the second week that there was a news-making incident involving about six men waving Russian (and related) flags and chanting pro-Putin slogans on the steps leading from the two main show-courts into Garden Square.

Map of Melbourne Park, with Garden Square at center, courtesy Tennis Australia

The timeline: Djoković’s on-court interview ended around 10:00pm; shortly thereafter, Novak fans began to assemble on the steps, as they had after each of his wins. Though at least one of the aforementioned men is visible in the background of my videos and photos of the festivities, it wasn’t until the significantly larger group began to disperse, at approximately 10:30, that these men briefly took center stage.

A few minutes prior to that, some of the men in question had stopped Srdjan Djoković for a picture as he was leaving the fan gathering. As can be seen in the photo below, the main culprit is not only holding a flag emblazoned with Vladimir Putin’s face but also wearing a t-shirt with a “Z” symbol over the Night Wolves logo. (I’ll discuss the significance of these accoutrements in Part 2.)

Srdjan Djoković poses with fans & other attendees as AO security looks on (photo credit: Miodrag Dimitrijević of Nova)

Within minutes, event security confronted the men and escorted them from the site, where they were questioned by Victoria Police.

For the record: while I spent some time observing the celebration, and walked past Srdjan and his entourage on my way from the media center to the steps, I left the area 5-10 minutes before things got ugly. So, unfortunately, I’m not in a position to say whether people were dispersing organically or began leaving due to these men’s disruptive behavior. (I do know, however, that some fans wishing to say hello to Novak’s father turned away when they saw these men approaching him.)

In the background: An ethnic Russian activist named Semyon Boikov, who also goes by the name “Aussie Cossack,” had encouraged his social-media followers to “retaliate” against Tennis Australia for what he called their “discrimination,” “racism,” and “attack on honor and dignity” in banning various Russian flags. The very day TA announced the ban, Boikov offered a cash reward to anyone who succeeded in displaying a pro-Russian symbol during a televised match and provided a helpful list of all matches featuring Russian players. Subsequently, he congratulated attendees who had managed to evade the ban, before specifically suggesting the Djoković-Rublev quarterfinal as a high-profile opportunity to do so. In all, Boikov—who has some 161,000 YouTube subscribers, solicits volunteers, and raises money off his content—published twenty-two posts and videos about Russian flags at the Australian Open on his channel over a two-week period.

Assessment: Clearly, the Tennis Australia flag policy and the security measures in place to implement it weren’t enough to stop people determined to bring banned items into Melbourne Park. In fairness, though, it’s pretty tough to thoroughly search the bags—and bodies—of each of the tens of thousands of people coming through the gates every day; and AO security had the additional challenge of distinguishing between similar-looking Russian (🇷🇺) and Serbian (🇷🇸) flags. In a few cases, members of the security team were over-zealous with flag-draped fans there to support Djoković; in a handful of other cases, they missed people who, I think it’s safe to say, had ulterior motives for coming to the tournament on the day(s) they did. All things considered, my main criticism of the AO is that their security staff didn’t act sooner to remove these men. But, even so, my criticism is qualified, as there may have been other factors contributing to their decision, such as waiting for police back-up or prioritizing the safety of the larger crowd by delaying action in order to minimize chances of people getting hurt should any violence erupt as they attempted to detain the men.

Afterwards: In the interest of transparency, I’ll confess that I jumped to conclusions when I first saw the headlines about Srdjan Djoković. Anyone who has followed Novak’s career knows that the father has often been a public-relations liability to the son; and I’ve followed it more closely than most—not least, because I speak Serbian. So, I reacted to the photo a colleague sent our Serbian media group chat late Wednesday night by rolling my eyes. The next day, I reacted to the flurry of tweets I saw when I first checked Twitter like a lot of other people did: by making a judgment without clicking the accompanying links and reading the articles, never mind watching the video “evidence” and evaluating its source. And I did this despite having more contextual information at my disposal than most people, not less. So, this whole episode was a salutary reminder for me, too: slow down; take a breath; read the article; check the source; try to keep your confirmation bias at bay; and consider what else you know or where you can look for more information. Also: since no one needs to tweet (ever), there’s no professional obligation or journalistic value in tweeting about an event before you have the facts straight.

In terms of the way this incident was covered in the first 24-36 hours, I’d suggest readers look at when stories were published or broadcast, which outlets published or broadcast them first (and which waited on details), whether they were published online only or also in print (the editorial standards for the latter are generally higher), what sorts of reporting they were based on, and how they were framed. Five things, in particular, stand out to me:

  • Many stories were published too soon after the incident to allow for much reporting (e.g., verification, interviews, & research) or even fact-checking.
  • The main character of the stories shifted very quickly from a group of disruptive men tossed from Melbourne Park to Novak’s father.
  • None of the articles that I read or news segments that I watched quoted eyewitness accounts (by the journalists themselves or spectators who had observed the events in question).
  • Many of the reports highlighted an inaccurate translation based on a questionable quotation of what Srdjan Djoković said to the men, often in the headline or subhed.
  • The primary source for most stories, other than a Tennis Australia press release, was a video created by the culprits themselves, which included misleading edits, descriptions, and subtitles provided by the “Aussie Cossack” channel.

As a result, stories presented a mix of accurate information (Srdjan did indeed pose for a picture with two of these men), misinformation (the misquotation and inaccurate translation), and speculation (e.g., attempts to interpret the deeper meaning of Djoković senior’s behavior based on an incomplete &/or inadequate grasp of the facts). On top of that, the stories also—albeit inadvertently—spread disinformation by amplifying a propaganda video made to manipulate viewers and advocate specific ideological and policy positions.

To expand on the disinformation point: even if one didn’t witness the scene that night or have enough information at hand to be able to spot the inaccuracies in the video posted by “Aussie Cossack,” one can make some inferences by viewing it in context. Specifically, who filmed the two parts of the incident: 1) the “photo” of Srdjan with two supposed Novak fans that abruptly (and presumably without explanation to Djoković senior) morphed into a video greeting to Alexander Zaldostanov; and 2) the group unfurling Russian flags and cheering Putin on the steps? Though The Guardian’s Tumaini Carayol happened to catch these guys in the latter act, they certainly weren’t leaving it to chance. Why were their short clips then featured in a longer video (set to patriotic Serbian music!) produced for social-media consumption? What can be gleaned about these fellows from a) what they were wearing, holding, and saying; b) the YouTube channel to which they submitted their cell-phone videos; &/or c) a simple Google search for either Boikov himself or the Night Wolves motorcycle “club”?

An aside: the initial media cycle lasted less than a day before it moved on to stories about reactions to the incident—interestingly, more to Srdjan Djoković himself than to the flag-ban-evading, political-statement-making culprits. If you’re interested in journalism, I’d recommend reading a post by NYU professor Jay Rosen about “scoops.” Rosen opens by observing that “Journalists tend to be obsessed with scoops, meaning: the first to break the news, and being seen as the first, which means getting credit for it among peers. But not all scoops,” he continues, “are created equal.” I’ll leave it to others to determine what kind of “scoop” the Srdjan story was—and how well the initial reports held up.

Jay Rosen, Four Types of Scoops

Answering only part of the last question: Boikov is someone with a substantial record of both pro-Russian activism in Australia, where he was born, and propagandistic videos and appearances on Russian television. Additionally, Boikov has stated, “We never felt ourselves to be Australian, we were aliens there. I consider myself to be a Russian.” He is not, to put it mildly, a reliable source. In fact, he has made his “Aussie Cossack” group’s motives quite clear in interviews: “We’ll always support the policies of the [Russian] state, we respect very much our Commander-in-Chief, Putin. And we have a unique capacity to support Russia from within a hostile state. Even the FSB or a battalion of the Russian SAS can’t achieve that, because unlike them we are citizens of this state.” Enough said. Why journalists would take what Boikov says on any subject at face value is beyond me.

To make matters worse: while most of Boikov’s videos have below 50 thousand views, the much-embedded, linked, and shared video about the “bold political statement” Srdjan Djoković supposedly made now has 181 thousand views. By every measure imaginable, this was a propaganda win for “Aussie Cossack” and his allies—not because his content is the work of a sophisticated genius but because so few media outlets could resist the lure of a controversy that could be tied to Djoković.

More to follow…

Q & A: A Few Words on “Vika-Gate”

Some of you know me from Twitter, from the handful of pieces I’ve written for the Tennis Space, or from tournaments where I occasionally impersonate an intrepid girl reporter.  All of these activities are part of my alter-ego as a tennis enthusiast and online enforcer of proper pronunciation of Serbian player’s names.  In my real life, however, I’m an English professor, a person who both interprets words for a living and spends much of my time, in classrooms or office hours, asking and answering questions as well as helping students formulate their own.  So, in what follows, I’m professing even more than usual and emphasizing some aspects of the recent controversy that caught my eye (and ear).

My primary point is pretty straightforward: how one frames & poses a question will shape, if not determine, the kind of answer one gets in return.  Here’s a brief hypothetical example before I get to the real one.  Imagine someone asking, “Was it unfair that Azarenka took such a long medical time-out (MTO)?  Do you think the rules should be better enforced?”  These questions imply a few things: that Vika took a break at her own discretion (whereas, after requesting a trainer visit during the ninety-second changeover, she received a MTO on the advice of medical professionals and by approval of the chair umpire), that it was unreasonably long (when, at approximately eight and a half minutes, its length was within the allowable time), and that her actions bent, if not broke, the rules (which is a descriptive claim or interpretation of what happened, not a fact). 

The average person being asked these questions is unlikely to respond with an analysis of them.  Rather, he or she will probably take them at face value, perhaps even be influenced by their thrust or tone, and answer accordingly.  The discussion has thus been limited in a very specific way.  Perhaps, in this case, it would have been warranted to ask some preliminary questions: “Why was Azarenka’s MTO longer than most?  Did it comply with tournament guidelines?”  The answers to these are less interesting than the discussion the earlier questions are likely to generate: it was indeed a long MTO because she was treated for two separate injuries (though it’s not clear she wanted to be); and yes, according to the ITF Rule Book, a player is allowed a maximum of two consecutive MTOs, with a “reasonable length of time” allotted for evaluation and a three-minute treatment per injury.  Further, the chair umpire, who uses a stopwatch to time everything from the five-minute warm-up and twenty seconds between points to changeovers and MTOs, did not call “time” until after Azarenka had returned from the off-court treatment area.  Conversation stopper?  Maybe notbut at least the conversation has a greater chance of heading in the right direction (assuming, of course, that you take the “right direction” to be toward discovering truth or solving problems, not provoking debate).

My central concern is with the Q&A that immediately followed Azarenka’s semi-final, as I think it shaped much of the reaction to her straight-set victory over underdog Sloane Stephens.  I hope my description of the way such exchanges generally proceed won’t strike anyone as controversial.

On-court interviews are ritual fluff designed to tie a bow on the match that just finished while also setting up the winning player’s upcoming contest.  The inevitable questions—basically, “How’d you do it?” and “What now?”—are tennis’s equivalent of the “previously on” and “stay tuned for scenes from our next episode” that begin & end tv shows.  Given these conventions, one doesn’t expect a question about a MTO in an on-court interview, as they can be sensitive subjects regardless of whether taken by the victor or her opponent.  Thus, at the 2012 US Open, CBS’s Mary Carillo didn’t ask Andy Murray about either the bathroom break he took after the fourth set (and which he later admitted helped him to regroup after dropping a two-set lead) or Novak Djoković’s fifth-set MTO, which some observers considered unsportsmanlike.  The on-court interview is not a press conference: it’s generally a feel-good moment engineered to give the spectators an opportunity to share in the players’ emotions, a sense that they’re getting to know them as people, and the victors one more round of applause after their opponents have left the court.

Keeping these fairly well-established conventions in mind, is it so surprising that Victoria Azarenka misunderstood what was happening in the on-court interview following her match on Thursday?  That the spectators in the stands and the fans at home understood what Sam Smith was asking Vika is, in part, a function of the reality that, while we weren’t with or in her body, we were privy to an awkward ten-minute discussion of it—a wait filled with images of Stephens sitting still in her chair and, for tv viewers, a noisy, one-sided debate about the legitimacy of Azarenka’s actions.  But because Vika didn’t think she’d done anything wrong by, first, asking to see the trainer during a changeover and, second, following the medical staff’s advice to get treatment off court (both of which are within the letter of the law governing such matters) and, further, since she may not have picked up on the vibe in Rod Laver Arena upon her return, she may not have grasped what she was being asked by Smith to explain.  Add to this the fact that English is not the Belarusian player’s first language and. . .  Well, you get the idea.  (Those who think Vika’s English is plenty good may never have heard Djoković, one of most articulate non-native English speakers on tour, say “simple-minded” when he intends “single-minded” or “collaborate” when he means “collapse.”  If you want the low-down on the linguistic ability and verbal tics of the players on tour, look no further than the wonderful women of ASAP Sports who transcribe the press conferences.)

So, what did Sam Smith ask Azarenka?  Not—literally—what most people think she did.  “Victoria, congratulations: you’re back in the final.  But, um, you had a few difficulties out there,” observed Smith.  “Can you tell us why you had to go off and. . . how are you?”  There was a pause in the middle of the sentence that I think it’s apt to call awkward and attribute, at least in part, to Smith’s not being in the habit of asking pointed questions on such occasions.  In fact, putting a victor on the spot might even be considered a breach of on-court-interview etiquette—not that I blame Smith, who likely had little choice in the matter.  Note the words that are missing here: injury, trainer, medical, time-out, leave, court.  Consider, too, other words or phrases that are ambiguous: difficulties, out there, go, off.  (After all, I’m going off at this very moment, aren’t I?  And I’m pretty sure players’ games go off unexpectedly at times—as, alas, do guns.)  Not least, there’s the totally vague final question “How are you?” which could mean just about anything from “How is the part of your body that got treated?” to “How do you feel to be back in the final of the Australian Open?” 

And yet, Smith’s is being represented as a “simple question” about the “supposed injury” by various journalists, with nearly all of those reporting on the incident paraphrasing rather than quoting her directly, thereby not only eliding the ambiguity but also assuming to know what Azarenka heard and understood.  It’s easy enough for us to say that what Smith asked was “Why did you leave the court to get medical treatment after failing to convert match points and when it was your opponent’s turn to serve to stay in the contest?”  But that’s not what she asked.  Nor did she ask the decidedly less long-winded but equally specific question: “Why did you request a trainer at that particular moment in the match?  Couldn’t you have waited a bit?” or even “What injury did you have treated when you left the court?”

If Azarenka had been asked one of the above questions, then I could understand the level of outrage that greeted her reply, which failed to answer the question on everyone but Sam Smith’s lips.  As it is, however, I found the response to her on-court interview not only impatient and ungenerous but even irresponsible.  What Azarenka did when she requested to see the trainer at 5-4 is controversial enough.  Like others, I’m pretty comfortable with the charges of poor timing and questionable sportsmanship against Azarenka and I, too, wondered about the severity of the injury she was suffering (a locked rib, she told the media in the press conference that followed) or the degree to which it, rather than nerves, were the cause of her chest pains and difficulty breathing.  Still, to suggest that she brazenly confessed to gamesmanship on court, that she indicated she had been treated for mentally choking (a “panic attack,” some were calling it), that there are major inconsistencies between her on-court responses and subsequent explanations, or, worse, that she’s a liar and a cheat seems both excessive and inaccurate.  She did something that almost all of us wish she hadn’t (and that many other players arguably wouldn’t)— something that may have compromised her opponent’s opportunity to try to hold serve, stay in the match, and perhaps even take the set.  That’s pretty bad.  Why make it worse by assuming she heard the words we did and by putting other words in her mouth?