Podcast and Radio Appearances

February 2022: It was a real treat for me to have the opportunity to talk about Goran Ivanišević, the state of Yugoslav tennis before the breakup of the country in the early 1990s, and what the big-serving Croat brings to Team Djoković with Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract. Listen here.

January 2022: Thought I made several appearances on BBC Radio during Novak’s Australian saga, they seem not to have permalinks for programs over a month old. So, the only segment I can share from the complicated lead-up to the 2022 Australian Open is this one on Melbourne’s ABC radio: “Decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa sparks anger in Serbia.” Listen here.

May 2021: “All About Novak Djoković.” One of these things is not like the other: Niki Pilić, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanišević, and I were guests for an hour-long BBC 5 Live Sport discussion of the ATP #1.

July 2020: Carl Bialik invited me on to Thirty Love, his short-form podcast, to discuss Novak Djoković and the Adria Tour. Much of our conversation relates to my tennis journalism hobby-horse: shortcomings of the Anglophone-dominated international media in covering players whose native language isn’t English. Listen here.

Sport Klub’s Dubai Interview with Novak Djoković

The night before his quarterfinal match in Dubai, Djoković sat down with veteran Serbian sports journalist Nebojša Višković in the garden outside a tent housing the player gym. “Viško,” as he’s known to colleagues and Sport Klub viewers, has covered Novak since he was a promising junior—and they have a friendly rapport rooted in obviously-mutual respect. Indeed, were it not for this longstanding relationship, it’s unlikely Sport Klub would have gotten this time with the then-ATP #1. To my knowledge, Novak did no other one-on-one interviews during his first event of the season, and the three Serbian print reporters in attendance got one native-language question each per press conference.* At the start of their chat, Višković semi-jokingly observed that talking with Novak had become “a journalist’s toughest-possible task.”

In addition to providing match analysis from SK’s Belgrade studios and conducting post-match interviews at the handful of tournaments he attends each year, Višković co-hosts a weekly tennis podcast called “Wish and Go” with fellow commentator Ivan Govedarica. In that format, which they started using during the pandemic, the pair have interviewed not only every top Serbian player and plenty of local tennis insiders but also a bunch of other ATP and WTA athletes from the region (e.g., Croatia’s Borna Ćorić and doubles team Mektić and Pavić, Montenegro’s Danka Kovinić, and Bosnia’s Damir Džumhur). The conversations are quite long for today’s media climate—often running over an hour—and substantive, with hosts well-versed in both the history of the sport and the intricacies of the game. Govedarica, once a junior player, was a tennis coach and an official before he turned to broadcasting; Višković, who also coached in his twenties, is father to a current Serbian junior; and both men play tennis regularly (their on-court rivalry is one of the podcast’s running themes). Whenever I watch the show on YouTube, I lament the fact that episodes don’t have subtitles making them accessible to the wider tennis world. Until there’s a reliable transcription app for Serbian, though, I understand why this is too much work for anyone to take on in addition to the rest of his/her professional responsibilities.

This SK interview, however, is short enough to be manageable. Here’s my translation of the full interview, with occasional, hopefully clarifying, additions in brackets. Please note: I produced this translation before “Wish and Go” made a subtitled version of the interview available on YouTube (today!) and I decided to post my work, regardless, because it allows me to both introduce and comment on the Q&A content.


NV: “It seems to me that something like this is perhaps easier in Dubai. Even with all the protocol, it’s more relaxed.”

NĐ: “Well, yes, the atmosphere is different here, a bit more pleasant and less formal than at the Grand Slams and some other tournaments where you’ve been. You’ve been involved in tennis all these years and we know each other, of course; that relationship is why I wanted to do this. Plus, you’re the only representative here from Serbian tv. So, thanks for coming.”

NV: “We won’t talk about Australia, because that story’s passé and you’re sick of it, I’m sick of it, everybody’s sick of talking about it.”

NĐ: “Thanks.” [laughing]

NV: “But I will have a few questions that aren’t ‘tra la la,’ just so you know.”

[crosstalk]

NV: “Just tell me: have you put a period on that episode—Australia, full stop, turn the page, done?”

NĐ: “You know, I can’t completely erase everything that happened from my memory. And everything is so fresh. There have been some other things in my life —whether tied to tennis or not— that shook me, emotionally, that I couldn’t forget, let alone something like this. This really was unprecedented in every sense, in terms of everything I’ve experienced in my professional career and in my life overall.

But I can accept that it is as it is—and move on. What you’ll certainly not see or hear from me is that I’m running away from responsibility or from answering anyone’s questions. I have nothing to hide; I’m not avoiding anyone; and I’m here [i.e., available]. I also invited the BBC, who weren’t always friendly to me as global media. They came to Belgrade—and I thank them for that. They allowed me to say, for an international audience, what I had to say. We agreed to whatever questions they asked. They broadcast half an hour, but we talked for almost an hour and a half; so, there was a lot…”

NV: “If I could interrupt—why’d you invite the BBC [specifically]?”

NĐ: “Well, precisely because if I’d invited someone with whom I have a better relationship, then people would say, ‘Eh, here he is, setting up an interview so that they don’t ask him anything [because] they’re inclined toward him,’ like they may’ve said about RTS. Of course, it’s logical to expect that when I talk to the national broadcaster of Serbia, or someone from international media who’s been more sympathetic toward me over the course of my career—and people who follow tennis know who’s more sympathetic and who isn’t—then, some would think, ‘Here he is, running from uncomfortable situations; so, he’s hiding something and doesn’t want them to ask anything awkward.’

That’s absolutely the biggest reason I called them: I really wanted those who’ve criticized me a lot to come and ask me anything they thought was necessary to ask. And, of course, because they’re one of the world’s biggest media, with over half a billion viewers, I’d have the opportunity to speak to the world.”

Radio Television of Serbia aired a lengthy interview with Djoković the week before he played Dubai.

NV: “They didn’t just criticize you—they dragged you in the worst way.** I gave a couple of interviews to the BBC and fought for you. I’m glad that you mentioned at the beginning how long we’ve known each other… But I was sorry when I saw that you chose the BBC—this isn’t a lament, like ‘Why not me?’”

NĐ: “For what reason?”

NV: “Because we defended you during the whole Australian [episode] and then you suddenly give an interview to the very people…”

[crosstalk]

NĐ: “That’s it, though. Simply: to those who criticized me the most, come and you’re welcome to ask me whatever you want…. I had absolutely no influence on the questions they raised. We only wished for it to be in Belgrade, if possible, because I was training there, getting ready for Dubai. They accepted, came, and were very nice, polite, neutral, and firm—in the sense that, ‘Ok, we’ll ask everything that hasn’t yet been addressed from your side.’ No problem. I’m sorry they didn’t broadcast some things…”

NV: “They cut a lot.”

NĐ: “Of course, I know that they had to make cuts to fit the time slot they had, but…”

NV: “They cut what didn’t suit them.”

NĐ: “Well, that’s how it is. But, to repeat: I run from no one and nothing.”

NV: “Politics shouldn’t interfere with sports, but sports should influence politics—at least, that’s how I see it. Because there are many good things…”

NĐ: “For me, sports—excuse me for interrupting—has always been above politics. Even if, perhaps, some people who aren’t well-versed in the situation or who don’t necessarily follow tennis much think I politicized this whole thing, that I deliberately intended to enter the country by force or to attract attention to myself and somehow distract from other tennis players…”

NV: “Don’t go back over all that—we know, all of it’s clear…”

NĐ: “No, no, no—but it matters in the context of all this. Because some people think I went more into politics than sports. Just the opposite: I went because I’m an athlete and that’s the place where I’ve achieved my best results. And because I wanted to respect my colleagues, I didn’t explain or respond to all the questions until [the Australian Open] was finished. The other side, so to say, didn’t hesitate to speak in public, and it went the way it went: a very ugly picture of me was created. They really humiliated me, if I may say so, on the world stage.

And that’s why it’s very important, when I get the opportunity, and if someone asks, that I answer questions. I’ll probably repeat the same responses that I gave to the BBC because I don’t have anything else to add, especially in terms of questions about things like the [COVID] tests—I’m neither an IT expert nor do I understand how those tests are processed and registered. I mean, that’s not on me.

I did everything that was required of me and was in the same position as any other tennis player—which is very important since I see there’s some belief that I was privileged or used my position to get that [medical exemption] status due to who I am. But everyone had the same opportunity [to apply] for an exemption. Since I see that the BBC cut this, it’s important that I say it and that people hear it. So, I’ll repeat this a hundred times like a parrot: when I arrived in Australia, a WTA player from the Czech Republic and an ATP coach from Croatia with the exact same exemption—in the same situation, with the same vaccination status as I have—had already been there for days. She played in a tournament, he coached his player in a different tournament and there was no problem. Suddenly, I get there and it’s a problem. Why is that? You tell me, because I’m stopping there. ”

NV: “I said I wasn’t going to ask about Australia…” [laughing]

[The body language from 7:50-7:58 is universal, so I suggest watching it yourself.]

NĐ: “What’d you want to ask me?” [laughing]

NV: “Listen, what you’re saying is clear to everyone. It’s not [clear] only to those who won’t use their brains and don’t want to [understand], and that’s that.”

NĐ: “But Viško, it’s important for me to repeat it, not only for our people and those from the Balkans but because I know that some international media will pick this up. It’s important to say it and I hope that some people will write about this situation.

So, you tell me: is it political or is it not? If I enter, I’m a problem; but two people who entered before me with the identical situation had no problem at all?”

NV: “It’s 100% political and that’s totally clear. But, unfortunately, politics and your career are intertwined nonstop. You just had a meeting with the president of Serbia which provoked a lot of comments, upheavals, emotion, and so on.”

NĐ: “I’m aware of that. I saw that people think that I now support the president or his political party in their re-election campaign. There’s been a bunch of speculation on that topic, condemnation. I’ve become accustomed, in this period [presumably, during the pandemic], to condemnation from the international media; and now, likely because of such situations, also some domestic ones. However, I have to thank the majority of our national media, who were with me [during the Australian episode]. The nation stood with me—so, from my heart, thanks to all Serbs around the world. I felt the support, listened to the recordings, and saw the people who met me at the airport, the messages on the Belgrade waterfront tower. It was fantastic, really, and I have to mention it because I feel an [emotional] obligation.

I went to see the president because I wanted to thank the man, as the leader of our country, who stood up for me as a statesman in public, just as the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, did.*** Also, the Institute for Public Health “Batut” didn’t stand up for me, specifically, but they came out with a public statement that there was no problem with my test results. That meant a lot to me because Der Spiegel, and others who got into the investigation, picked on [the results] and thought that I was somehow cheating on them. [The IOPHOS] said, ‘Here you go: everything is perfectly clean.’

So, I went to the president as a Serbian citizen, as an athlete, as someone who felt that support. And I wanted to thank him—and to do it publicly because he deserved it, as did everyone who stood by me. I’m not getting involved in any kind of politics or any election campaigns—it’s never a good time for that. I haven’t done that before, even though I received recognition from the former president and I’ve been in the National Assembly. I’ve always tried to keep my distance from the political sphere, and [related] stories and currents. When I went to do it, I knew that people would talk about it. Like I said, it’s always a bad time to do it—there’s always a campaign; there’s always something. But I wasn’t thinking about that.”

NV: “It’s the spot [i.e., a political ad] that caused the most uproar.”

NĐ: “What spot?”

NV: “The ruling party’s [campaign] video. You appear in it—that’s actually the biggest reason…”

NĐ: “Honestly, I haven’t seen it. I heard… I only saw a video on Instagram of our meeting that [the president] posted. There was no mention of the Progressive party.”

NV: “They put a video on YouTube.”

NĐ: “I didn’t see anything with a logo on it or tied to the Serbian Progressive Party. What I saw was just an edited version of our meeting that day. For me, that was… Again, people will always look for a needle in a haystack and try to take anything they don’t like and make it into something that [supports] their side.

But if we want to look at it that way, I went ‘against’ both his party and the state when I supported the [environmental] protests. In the end, as I told him and everyone else, that had nothing to do with politics. I didn’t get involved in the negotiations or agreement between Rio Tinto and the state—I was supporting my people, who took to the streets to fight for cleaner air, water, and food. Those are elementary things and not tied to politics. It’s a problem that dates back 15, 20, 30 years. We have a problem with pollution in Belgrade and it has nothing to do with any [specific] government. I mean, it does—every government is responsible for [things like] that. And that’s why I did it [i.e., posted on Instagram about the protests]—it has nothing to do with politics.”

NV: “Nole, thank you for being forthright. You’re open to the core, as always, and that always…”

NĐ: “Well, yes, it’s honest… Viško, look: I have nothing to hide. Of course, I know that I sometimes need to “filter” things. But the truth is the truth, and my position is my position. I know that people will continue to criticize me because I decided not to get vaccinated and because I have some views that are incomprehensible to people. I respect everyone’s decision and I hope that people, even if they don’t understand, will at least respect mine. I don’t think I’m endangering anyone. It’s my decision, I’m aware of the consequences, and it’s not in my hands. It’s not entirely up to me whether I will go to Indian Wells or to some other tournaments.

At the moment, I’m here [in Dubai] and I’m enjoying tennis. I’m grateful and proud of everything that I’ve achieved. And this sport has given me so much, I’m trying to give back to the same extent. It’ll always be the case that some people don’t like me or criticize me for this or that. Sorry, because you’re part of that world, but the media often live off sensationalism—many in media, not all.”

NV: “Do you differentiate?”

NĐ: “You’ll agree, that’s how it is. Of course, I differentiate—I mean, I’m talking to you because I know you’re not like that.”


  • * Note 1: Despite my “mixed” ancestry and the fact that I was in Dubai representing my blog, not a Serbian outlet, I include myself in this category. Frankly, it was a long way for me to go to get in my allotted three questions and the limitations put on us by the ATP is something I’ll have to weigh in making future plans for tennis travel.
  • ** Note 2: I was also invited on BBC Radio before, during, and after the 2022 Australian saga and generally found the program hosts, in addition to their tennis correspondent Russell Fuller, to be quite fair. Given that the BBC is a huge media organization comprising print, radio, and tv services, there are a range of sports journalists and commentators who have covered Djoković over the years. So, I think it’s possible that “BBC” is standing in not only for some specific individuals who work for the UK’s national broadcaster but also for the whole of British sports media, who have been rough on Djoković, particularly between 2011 and 2017, when he and Andy Murray were competing regularly for major titles. Having said that, it is the case that a BBC article was cited by the Australian government in making their case that Djoković may, by his mere presence in Melbourne, galvanize anti-vaccine sentiment. As I noted on Twitter at the time, almost all international reporting on Novak’s vaccination-related views has been based on a problematic translation of comments he made in April 2020.
  • *** Note 3: I couldn’t help but notice that while Novak mentioned the Serbian PM by name, neither he nor Višković ever referred directly to President Aleksandar Vučić. Of course, I have no idea how conscious or deliberate this was on either man’s part—so, it may not be terribly significant. This would probably be a good time to clarify that the Serbian Progressive Party is not what most would consider ideologically “progressive.”

Prologue: 2022

Note: this is an excerpt from a work in progress.

I. Spain: November, 2019

“Would you like to try some?” he asked, offering up a brown paper package he’d just retrieved from a stuffed gym bag. I must have looked dubious, as he added, “It’s good, actually.” But I was hesitant not because I feared how his gluten-free snack would taste but because I was unsure of the propriety of a writer’s sharing food with her subject.

In that moment, though, I wasn’t operating as a journalist. And Novak Djoković was less a world-famous athlete than one of a small group of Serbs hanging around after a press conference, commiserating over a painful loss. Despite our differences in status, it felt like we were in this together.

I cupped my hands and watched as he poured a mix of oats and carob chunks into them. He was right: it wasn’t bad. We both munched as we resumed our conversation—by that point, we’d shifted from tennis and sports journalism to the most apt Serbian translation for “drama queen” to recent films about Nikola Tesla.

We’d started talking some 15 minutes earlier, after Djoković stretched out on the dais near one of his Davis Cup teammates, with whom I was chatting. In front of the podium, the other Serbian players were taking turns doing their final domestic tv interviews of the week. In an unusual move, Djoković was waiting for everyone to finish up so they could leave the media center as a team. Even the players too young to have been there from the beginning knew what this day had become: it was the end of an era.

Photo taken from a distance by Argentine photographer JP

Whether the era in question began in 2001, when Jelena Janković and Janko Tipsarević foreshadowed the success to come by winning the juniors singles titles at the Australian Open, or in 2004, when Nenad Zimonjić lifted the mixed doubles trophy in Melbourne, beating defending champions Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes with his Russian partner, or even in 2007, when Ana Ivanović and Novak Djoković made their first major finals (at the French Open and US Open, respectively) and ended the year ranked among the top 4 players in the world—it hardly matters. In fact, one could argue that the era started in 1995, when rump Yugoslavia returned to international tennis competition, in both the men’s Davis Cup and women’s Federation Cup, after several years in the wilderness due to UN sanctions. Zimonjić, the only Serb whose career had spanned this entire quarter century, was now 43 and playing on artificial hips.

In November 2019, the Serbian men approached the Spanish capital for the national team tournament with two goals: to finish the decade as they’d started it, by winning the Davis Cup, and to give their outspoken, bespectacled teammate Janko Tipsarević a proper sendoff into retirement. (A group vacation in the Maldives was to follow.) Tipsarević had already competed at his final ATP event a month prior, making the quarterfinals at the Stockholm Open. He was selected for the national team despite having played only intermittently—not just during his last season but over the previous five years—due to a series of injuries which had derailed his career after two seasons ranked in the top ten. In Madrid, he and Viktor Troicki, who had performed the hero’s role in their 2010 Davis Cup victory, played two doubles matches in the round-robin group stage, winning one and losing the other to one of the very best doubles teams in the world: Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut of France, who had gone undefeated at the ATP’s year-end championship the previous week. In the quarterfinal tie against Russia, with the teams poised at one match apiece, the Serbs had opted to substitute Djoković in to partner Troicki in the deciding doubles contest. The childhood friends, who had won their first titles together as juniors, suffered a devastating loss in a third-set tiebreaker, having failed to capitalize on several match points.

The six-member team entered the interview room in silence and sat behind their microphones and tented name-cards with bowed heads, at least a few sporting red eyes and Djoković hiding his face under the bill of a baseball cap. The players’ answers were emotional from the start, with Djoković admitting the loss “hurts us really badly” and Troicki adding, “I probably feel the worst ever [after a loss]. I never experienced such a moment in my career, in my life. And I let my team down, and I apologize to them.” It likely wasn’t until Zimonjić, in the captain’s chair, choked up that the majority of the assembled press understood what was at stake for the Serbs in this Davis Cup campaign.

“Sorry,” he began haltingly. “It’s not [about] winning or losing, just for you to understand.” Through tears, he explained: “It’s that the four players sitting here. . . I would say they are the golden generation of our tennis. And I see it as an end because it’s Janko’s last match. . . . You dream, maybe, to go all the way—to celebrate, you know, with a victory. But sometimes it doesn’t happen, what you wanted to happen.”

Even though, two years later, Djoković remains on the top of the game, Zimonjić was right: the loss in Madrid marked the end of something significant. Ana Ivanović, the youngest of the “golden” group, had preceded all of them into retirement, opting to stop playing at age 29, after injury cut short her 2016 season. Though Jelena Janković hasn’t officially hung up her racquets, she also hasn’t competed professionally since undergoing back surgery after the 2017 US Open. Viktor Troicki, who rebounded from that worst-ever feeling by helping Serbia win the inaugural ATP Cup trophy at the start of 2020, spent the last year transitioning from active player to Davis Cup captain.

II. Serbia: July, 2010

Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was a summer that would change my life.

I spent a chunk of it, including my birthday, in the village of my father’s birth, 100km west of Belgrade. There was nothing unusual about this, as I’d been visiting my grandmother’s farm since infancy; nor was it a rare occurrence for me to celebrate at least part of my birthday inside, watching tv. When my grandmother first got a black and white television in the early ‘80s, my siblings and I would rush from the back yard where we spent most of our day into the living room to catch the cartoons that came on before the nightly news—most often, Looney Tunes reels dubbed into what was then called “Serbo-Croatian.” But as I got older, I watched more sports coverage, especially of my favorite event, Wimbledon, which (like my birthday) takes place in early July.

In 2010, I got a double-dose of tennis. Though Novak Djoković had lost in the semifinals at the All England Club, the Davis Cup quarterfinals were scheduled for the weekend following Wimbledon’s conclusion—and Serbia was playing in them for the first time as an independent nation. This was a huge occasion, in part because it had taken the Serbian team 15 years to climb from the lowest tier of regional zone competition to the “World Group”: the 16 best tennis nations. For the previous three seasons, they’d been knocking at the door of the tennis elite but unable to gain full entry, repeatedly losing in the first round and having to win September playoffs to get another chance the next year. Perhaps a bigger deal in the Balkans: Serbia was facing neighbors, former compatriots, and relatively recent co-belligerents in Croatia for a spot in the semifinals. As this was the first international meeting between the two men’s teams, members of which had all been born in Yugoslavia before the wars, there was some concern about what kind of welcome the Serbs would get from their hosts in Split. But apart from some hecklers in the crowd, it was uneventful off court. On court, the Serbs triumphed by a 4-1 margin, with all their wins coming in straight sets.

This victory—as well as those that followed, culminating in a championship tie played in front on twenty-thousand spectators packed into Belgrade Arena—marked a turning point not only for several members of the Davis Cup team but also for me.

Initiated into playing tennis by both parents and into being a tennis fan by my father, I’d been casually involved with the sport since childhood. Trips to the neighborhood court brought all manner of lessons, not merely in groundstroke technique but in sportsmanship as well. To this day, I can’t step on a tennis court without hearing my dad’s voice—at one moment, admonishing me for not returning balls directly to my opponent when it was his or her turn to serve; at another, expressing pleasant surprise at how well I hit a backhand. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the later rounds of majors were broadcast on network tv and I was allowed to stare at the screen for longer than usual. One of the first philosophical disagreements I recall having with my father concerned the on-court antics of John McEnroe: while we both admired Bjorn Borg and disliked Jimmy Conners, we were divided over the American who had earned his nickname “SuperBrat.” The introductory music NBC chose for their “Breakfast at Wimbledon” program still transports me back to our shared time in front of the tv—not quite as powerful or as sentimental as Proust’s madeleine, perhaps, but something like it. Though I rooted for Martina Navratilova and enjoyed seeing other WTA players in action, my early fandom reached its peak when Boris Becker—like me, a teenager—smashed his serve and threw his body around the grass courts at Wimbledon in the mid-‘80s.

In 1986, the year “Boom Boom” Becker won Wimbledon for a second time, another player in the men’s draw caught my eye. Though it’s the case that he was the stereotypical “tall, dark, and handsome” type of romance novels, I was attracted less by his features or physique than by his name—one bound to tie the tongues of Anglophone commentators. Because he shared my father’s first name, Slobodan (a name which would become infamous within a few years for reasons having nothing to do with tennis), I knew that meant he also shared his homeland. Growing up as an “ethnic” American, I was accustomed to people using Yugoslavia as a punchline: the long name, obscure location, and ambiguous geopolitical position, never mind the compact car, were the source of much teasing in the waning days of the Cold War. (One coach affectionately called me “half-breed,” something unimaginable today.) But Yugoslav passion for and prowess in sports were no joke. For one thing, Sarajevo had hosted the winter Olympics in 1984, while I was in high school. For another, the country had been collecting medals in team sports for decades: football, handball, volleyball, water polo, and (above all for an American) basketball. So, I had already experienced both collective exhilaration and cultural pride as a spectator of European championships and Summer Olympics. But since “Bobo” Živojinović was the first Yugoslav tennis player of whom I was aware, seeing him advance to the singles semifinal at Wimbledon—and, later that summer, win the men’s doubles trophy at the US Open—ignited a new feeling in me.

My favorite sport being played by people with names like mine, speaking the language I’d learned by communicating with my grandmother? That was something special. The rise and dominance of Monica Seles a few years later—she first won the French Open as a 16-year-old in 1990—was even more significant. Before she was stabbed by an unstable fan of one of her rivals, Seles had won eight grand slam titles playing under the Yugoslav flag.

Of course, all of this happened before the violent breakup of Yugoslavia—and before my ethnic identity became a source of shame rather than pride. As a child, I heard countless stories about both the traumatic events and heroic exploits of the two World Wars in which Serbs had fought alongside the Allies. In the center of our village, there was a monument bearing the names of both my grandfather and great-grandfather; their portraits, in uniform, hung in our living room. During our summer trips, I felt just as comfortable on Croatia’s Adriatic coast as in rural Serbia. At home in the DC suburbs, my parents hosted an annual “slava” celebrating our patron, Saint Nicholas, at which ex-pats from all over Yugoslavia outnumbered the Americans. Serbo-Croatian, spoken abroad, was like a secret language that only a select few could understand. And even though I’d had to correct the pronunciation of my name the first time the teacher called roll in every class for my entire school life, having such strong ties to another culture and what felt like a permanent home in a different country—as opposed to the various apartments, duplexes, and houses where we’d lived in California, Ohio, and Maryland—had always grounded me.

When the Serbian team became Davis Cup champions in December 2010, I felt something unfamiliar: pride in the part of myself that I’d tried to keep at a distance for nearly two decades. In retrospect, it seems unsurprising that when Novak Djoković began the 2011 season not just by winning the Australian Open but by going unbeaten for weeks, then months, totaling 41 matches and 7 titles in a row, I was hooked. No longer dependent on network or even cable tv, I watched every one of his matches during the first part of the season on my desktop monitor thanks to digital streams. At least weekly, I would call my father with updates or send him links to online coverage of the winning streak. Then, just a few days before my birthday, Djoković won Wimbledon, beating Rafael Nadal for the fifth time that year, and took over the top spot. Within the month, I had put my job search on hold and written my first piece about tennis. Within two months, I had booked a flight to Belgrade and talked my way into media credentials for the Davis Cup semifinal against Argentina.

In an interview during that September week in Serbia, Djoković recalled his twelfth birthday in 1999, during which NATO bombs dropped on his hometown, observing: “The war made me a better person because I learned to appreciate things and to take nothing for granted. The war also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I’d prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too.” It didn’t require twenty major titles and countless other records for Djoković to prove that there are good Serbian tennis players. Indeed, that had likely been established as a fact long before he made the promise to himself. But the burden of representing a twenty-first century Serbia to the world is one that he and, to a lesser degree, the other members of the golden generation still carry. It’s why tennis, for them, is more than a game.

All About Djoković

Belgrade Open 2021 Novak Djokovic (SRB) v Federico Coria (ARG) photo: Marko Djokovic/ Starsportphoto ©

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

You can listen here and read excerpts from Fuller’s interviews with former players and Djoković coaches Niki Pilić, Boris Becker, and Goran Ivanišević here.

Introducing: Marko Topo

On the center court in Belgrade today, one of Serbia’s top juniors made his ATP debut. Marko Topo, 17, faced Argentina’s Federico Coria, who was promoted into the main draw after Pablo Andujar withdrew with an injury. Topo was impressive in the first set, which he won 6-4, going toe to toe with the ATP’s #94 player as if this level of competition were something he’s used to. Mid-way through the second set, however, the young Serb over-exerted himself—opting for a tweener at the end of a 25-shot rally (which Coria smashed back to win the point)—and seemed to hit a wall. He lost a bit of confidence after that, his head and his level dropping. Coria took advantage: winning the second set 6-2, then blanking the youngster in the third, 6-0. Despite the lopsided final set, it was a solid effort for Topo’s opening-day performance on the main stage. Watching on from the balcony of the Novak Tennis Center was none other than Djoković himself, whom I later asked for his impressions.

AM: I’m curious to get your scouting report on young Marko Topo. And more than what his potential is as a player, I’m wondering if you could reflect a little bit on what it might have meant to you to have a tournament like this at home when you were his age, and what kind of opportunity you think these juniors are getting by having an ATP tournament in Belgrade?

: It was tough luck [for him] to get injured. He was coming into the tournament with a slight back pain and it got worse today as the match went on; but he showed the fighting spirit, and I’m proud of him. I just saw him as he walked out of the court and congratulated him for not giving up and staying there and, you know, showing a good attitude on the court. I think that’s very important for a young player on the big stage like this to have a great opportunity to play with the best tennis players in the world. Coria, I think, is top hundred, a clay-court specialist. He was never going to hand Marko the match—he had to earn it. So, I thought he played very well for a set and a half. Then after, it just became more physical, where Coria was just more comfortable. But I think, overall, Marko showed a lot of positive things in his game, his behavior, and fighting spirit.

He really appreciated the opportunity to have a wildcard and play the main draw, and I’m very, very pleased with him. So, you know, not many negative things I can say. Actually, on the contrary, I’m really pleased with the way he’s playing, the way he has been improving. He’s been training here at our center with our coaches for a while now, moving between Serbia and Germany, where he grew up. So, we are very happy to have him around and I think he’s got great potential to become a successful tennis player professionally.

Now, there are many factors in play and elements that have to come together so that his formula of success is accomplished, but he’s got the means and we’ll do everything we can to support him, as much as we will do with Hamad [Medjedović, who] is playing tomorrow. Obviously, they are the same age, they know each other, and they’re both top-20 juniors in the world.* Both of these guys, I think, they can help each other actually; hopefully, they can spend more time training and traveling together. As I remember, back in the day, with Viktor Troicki—even though Viktor is a year older than me, I spent a lot of time with him on and off the court and we grew up together, played a lot of matches for our teams here in Serbia and individually. In individual tournaments, we faced each other quite often, but also we shared the room when we were traveling and I think if you have someone to really motivate you and pull you along, it makes your path and your journey much easier, and just more exciting. So I think these two guys, they seems to be in a really good relationship and I would want to see them spend more time together traveling and training.”

*Medjedović is currently ranked #22 by the ITF, with a juniors career-high of #9; Topo is #33 with a career-high ten spots above that.

ATP 250 Belgrade Open 2021 Marko Topo v Federico Coria foto: Srdjan Stevanovic/Starsportphoto ©

Moving on to the man—or, rather, boy—of the hour, I wanted to get an introduction to Marko Topo. What I learned from our conversation is that Topo is the child of immigrants. He was born in Munich to Serbs who left Croatia in the 1990s due to the conflict there. Like many in the former Yugoslavia, he’s an ethnic mix: “a bit of everything,” as he said. He started playing tennis when he was six years old: that is, in 2009. Although he’s a dual citizen of Germany and Serbia, he opted to play for the country where his family’s roots are: “I moved here when I was 12, and. . . I got so many choices to play [with] the wildcards and they’re giving me so much. So, I’m just feeling more Serbian and I just feel at home here.”

Topo told the Argentine reporters present (virtually) that, “It was an amazing feeling to play here—to play with the top guys, to play with Federico. For the first set, I had the control. I played good: I served well; I pushed him back [from the baseline]. I was leading the game and [stepping into] the court. And then in the second set, I just felt a little bit of losing energy. My head started to think also about my back—I had a little bit of pain. So, I started to think too much, maybe. And that’s it. My level dropped [and] he raised his level. He played solid to the end and he won it.”

Informed that Djoković had said “very nice things” about him in his own press conference, Topo lit up. He then described what it means to him to have Novak as a mentor: “to be almost a friend with Nole, to practice with him is an amazing thing. . . For me, he is the greatest of all time. He’s my idol. I can’t say anything [else] about it. I mean, he’s the biggest in our sport. It makes me proud to hear good stuff about me from him. . . . I’m still young—I’m 17—and to be part of this academy and to be part of Nole, to have the chance to speak to him is just amazing and I’m very grateful to be here. And I’m grateful to have this chance to play, to get the wildcard.”

The rest of our exchange, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

AM: “When you picked up a tennis racquet, if my math is correct, Novak was already number three in the world (which is a little bit of a crazy perspective for those of us who are older!). Basically, your whole life, Novak has been at the top. So, I would imagine that even before you met him, he was probably your idol?”

MT: “Yeah, that’s true. I mean, when I started to play, the best guy of our country was Novak. He did so much for our sport. He’s just, for me, the greatest, like I said. It’s amazing that he is already 12 years at the top—I don’t know how he can manage it, but he’s just unbelievable.

AM: “Novak said that you’re training there. Does that mean you have your own personal coach or are you working with somebody from his center?”

MT: “I moved here two weeks ago. I’m just new here. So, yeah, we have to solve that problem. I’m training at the moment with Boris [Bošnjaković]. I was at Djukić Academy before, [where] I trained with Petar. So, we have to manage how to get a coach for me—maybe from another country, so I’m looking forward to that.”

AM: “I’m assuming you’re going to play all the big junior events for the rest of the year. And then, are you thinking of going pro immediately after you turn 18 or are you going to go to college? What are your plans?”

MT: “Now, the next tournament for me is Roland Garros, the junior one. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to play the big tournaments, junior Grand Slams. I will combine that with some Futures and Challengers, wherever I can get the chance to get a wildcard or just to get in. So, I will mix it up with some pro tournaments and some juniors. Then after my junior career, so next year, I’m looking forward to immediately go to the pros. Hopefully, everything will go as fast as possible, to get up there maybe where Nole is now. . . . That’s my plans.

AM: “Your plan is to go all the way to number one?”

MT: “I mean, I think it’s the dream of every tennis player—some reach it, some not. [But] everyone is fighting for that.”

Points from the Coria-Topo match are #3 and #1 on the highlight reel.

AM: “Could you give us a little bit of a self-assessment in terms of what you think your strengths are as a player and what areas of your game you still need to improve?”

MT: “I’m a young player, so I have to improve a lot. I have many strengths and many, I would call them, problems in my game because I’m young—I mean, it’s normal. I have to improve. I think my game is based on an attacking game. I’m trying to play aggressive, maybe a bit different than Nole. But, yeah. My forehand—I like my forehand. I’m serving also well. Today I was not serving that good, but normally I’m serving well. And I have to improve on my fitness a little bit. That’s it overall.”

When Topo contrasted his with his idol’s game, he laughed a bit, as if to acknowledge his own audacity. It struck me as a potentially revealing moment—of what, precisely, we’ll have to wait and see.

Rival Cause: Explaining the Adria Tour

Friends, can we talk about causal reasoning—and causation, more generally?

This isn’t what we usually turn to tennis to do, I realize, but some of the arguments circulating in the wake of the Adria Tour, especially after four participants (plus team and family members) tested positive for covid-19 early last week, have hurt my brain.  More than giving me a headache, though, this stuff isn’t good for our understanding of the event and its consequences—or of the figure at the center of the controversy.  Odd a response though this may be, reading some of the initial analysis sent me scrambling for a textbook I used to assign in a course at the University of Richmond.*  After refreshing my memory on the topic of rival causes, a term for “a plausible alternative explanation [for] why a certain outcome occurred,” I decided to identify a couple of patterns I’ve observed in the assessments of what went wrong with the Adria Tour.


Diction like this is a sign that causal thinking is afoot.

causation 1


 

A Tennis Channel segment reacting to the news of Novak Djoković’s covid-19 diagnosis provides us with a convenient starting point for discussion.

During the exchange, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim asked Paul Annacone how he thinks the developments from the truncated Balkan tennis tour will play in the locker-room.  The coach and commentator replied, “I think there’s a lot of [Novak’s] peer group that are scratching their heads.”  “If I were on the [ATP Player] Council,” Annacone added, “I would be asking a lot of difficult questions to understand how he got to where he was.”  Even before the ATP #1 reunites with his colleagues, we’ve had plenty of tennis media attempting to answer these very questions—some, like Annacone, with the benefit of having interviewed the Serbian player recently, and others by putting at least a few puzzle pieces together on their own.

Not only because I could use some exercise after being stuck at home for months, I think it’s worth walking through what we know about the Adria Tour and what we don’t.  Given journalism’s primary function, some combination of these two categories forms the basis of the descriptive claims we see in virtually any media response, whether it’s straightforward reporting, a column offering an interpretation of events, or a debate about how professional tennis should proceed as it returns (spoiler: not like this).  So, let’s start with the basics.  Journalism 101 tells us there are five questions news stories need to answer: who, what, when, where, and why.  With regard to this event, the first four are easy to answer—and they’re not up for much, if any, debate.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things we know about the Adria Tour (“AT”):

  • The traveling tournament was conceived by Novak Djoković and designed to bring tennis to several ex-Yugoslav countries over four weeks. In addition to being the one with the money & influence to make it happen, the host was responsible for inviting the featured players—most notably, the top-20 talent.
  • It occurred during what I’ll call “phase 2” of a global pandemic: i.e., when most countries have lifted restrictions on public movement and activities (to differing degrees & with varying levels of success).
  • The AT ended up taking place over two consecutive June weekends in Serbia and Croatia.
  • It was planned & run by an organizing committee led, at least nominally, by director Djordje Djoković. Each stage of the event had a separate tournament director & sub-committee: for example, Goran Ivanišević was TD and Neven Nakić, VP of the Croatian tennis federation, was the president of the organizing committee for the Croatian stop.
  • Round-robin, short-format matches were broadcast on regional network Sport Klub, as well as internationally on Eurosport, Tennis Channel, and beIN Sports.
  • The Serbian and Croatian tennis federations, who helped organize the first two stages of the AT, also held tournaments for regional players in the weeks leading up to the main events in Belgrade and Zadar, respectively.
  • Subsequent stops were being planned in the two biggest Bosnian cities: Banja Luka & Sarajevo. Particularly after an anticipated third leg in Montenegro had to be scrapped (because the government couldn’t guarantee entry from Serbia in time), organizers scouted other possible locations in the former Yugoslavia.
  • While the marquee players traveled from abroad to participate, most others hail from, and were already in, the region. (Djoković and his family, who had spent several months isolating in Marbella, Spain, arrived in Serbia three weeks before the official tournament start.)
  • In addition to the on-court action, there were press conferences, kids days, concerts, fireworks, & other affiliated group activities, at which neither mask wearing nor social distancing was widely observed.
  • Thus far, some 8 Adria Tour participants (& at least two of their spouses) have tested positive for covid-19.

Turning to “why,” answering questions gets more complicated.  Why did Djoković want to host this tournament?  Why now?  Why in Serbia and the neighboring countries? (The first part is easy, obviously; the second part is more complicated, as this article suggests. I’ll have more to say about Novak’s motivations in a separate post.)  Why did he invite players from Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, and Russia (several of whom had been staying in the US since Indian Wells was canceled in early March &/or made other stops en route to Belgrade), instead of sticking with an all-Serbian or even all-Balkan contingent?  Why did the event have a) live spectators, b) so many of them, &/or c) so close together?  Why, despite having masks (and gloves!) available at entrances, wasn’t more done to encourage or enforce use of them among event staff, volunteers, spectators, or participants?  And the question everyone’s been asking: why all the hugging?!

Cultural interlude…

 

I could go on, but you get the point.  The overarching question that emerges is: why, given what is common knowledge about how the coronavirus spreads, did this event take the particular shape it did—on court, in the stands, across the tournament grounds, and after hours?  For what it’s worth, I don’t think “Because it was allowed by the local authorities” is a sufficient answer.  That the tournament was given a green light by the powers that be is clear—and that Belgrade nightclubs weren’t specially opened for the player party should be evident to anyone looking at photos.  But those facts don’t really help us understand why so many people—and not, by the way, just a dozen or so players—were acting like they’d found a time-traveling portal to the pre-covid era.

Although it’s not an official, alliterative part of journalism’s “5 Ws,” the question “how” is, of course, also relevant.  For instance: how did this happen?  By that, I mean both “What went into planning the Adria Tour?” and “How did an event like this, with few to no precautionary measures in place, occur in June 2020?”  How were all the organizational and logistical tasks divided and decided?  For that matter, how many and which regional tennis figures were on the organizing committee?  With whom from the Serbian and Croatian governments did organizers coordinate?  What shared attitudes or beliefs contributed to thousands of people, seemingly without concern, going along with it all—not once, either, but in ten separate sessions in two different (albeit culturally quite similar) countries?  One of the things a lot of the international coverage has missed, or perhaps ignored, is just how many people were involved in this event.  While it’s understandable that the focus would be on Djoković and his high-profile ATP guests, there were also hundreds of people behind the scenes helping the show go on and a whole crew of regional broadcasters and print journalists on hand to capture the scene, not to mention all the people in the stands, whose main expression of disappointment in all of this was to boo when local sports hero Ivanišević took to the court to announce the Zadar final between Djoković and Rublev had to be called off.  Were people in Serbia and Croatia—whether press or public—also shocked and outraged by what they observed of the Adria Tour?  Are folks in Bosnia breathing a collective sigh of relief that their leg of the event won’t happen?  If not, why not?

Without having access to sources on the ground (or being able to read BCS), it’s tough to answer most of these “how” questions.  In spite of this obstacle, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to explain what happened, often by making descriptive claims based on assumptions and deductions based on limited information.

Sidebar: I’ll take advantage of this moment to ride a hobby-horse of mine.  A serious shortcoming I see in tennis journalism and the online tennis community’s discourse isn’t that most of it happens in English, though that’s true of the latter.  Rather, it’s that there is not nearly as much cross-cultural collaboration and exchange as this uniquely international sport demands.  Read more

On some level, all the questions above are secondary: it’s not hard to imagine readers who’ve gotten this far wondering, “Who cares about this minutiae? The only thing that matters about the Adria Tour is that it was a mistake!”  Well, yes.  That’s certainly true if all we’re interested in doing is making a judgment, which I think virtually everyone has already done (isn’t Twitter grand?).  Me?  I also like to try to understand things—including the reactions to them, by media in particular.  And I get more than a little uncomfortable when I see analysis that seems to skip the asking questions stage (call it “curiosity”) and go directly to reaching conclusions, not least if the outcome suggests logical short-cuts along the way.  By now, you may have gathered that this is not a complaint unique to the treatment of a single event: the general terms I use below can be applied to virtually any piece of writing that makes an argument, from tweet to thesis.

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Without further ado (there’s been plenty of ado already, I know), here are three patterns I’ve observed in coverage of the Adria Tour aftermath: causal oversimplification, post hoc fallacy, and fundamental attribution error.

Since all three have to do with causal reasoning, let’s establish some common ground.  When we think about causation, it takes this basic form: this because that.

To give a generic example: effect B was brought about, at least in part, by cause A.

Broadly speaking, we can say that the Adria Tour (A) caused participants (and perhaps others) to become infected with covid-19 (B).

The main deduction that people have made on the basis of photographic evidence of participant activity at A is that a key factor, C—the lack of precautionary measures like mask wearing and social distancing—caused the spread of the virus within the group. Though this seems like an uncontroversial conclusion to me, it’s also the case that we have very little idea of these individuals’ activities either in the days before June 11 (the first day all the participants were together in Belgrade) or when they were not in front of tv or other kinds of cameras.  With that qualification, let’s move on to examples of where some, perhaps required by the nature of the profession to publish quick takes, got tripped up by gnarly causal reasoning.#

So, what caused factor C?  Almost in unison, the international media answered: Novak Djoković, of course!  From there, we’ve gotten different explanations for how and why Novak ended up where he did on June 23rd: covid-positive, isolating at home in Belgrade, and in the sports section of every major media outlet in the world.  causation 3

Exhibit A comes courtesy of Racquet magazine.

Unlike surreal fanless exhibitions conducted elsewhere on earth, the Adria Tour looked like it was held in the peaceful obliviousness of some other planet. Djokovic maintained that the event fell in line with Serbian guidelines, a claim that has come under fire, and that also makes you wonder bleakly about his sheer force of personality back home.

The “sheer force” of Novak’s personality caused the Serbian health authorities to adjust their guidelines for public gatherings in May and June?  His influence is what led thousands of spectators to decline to wear masks that the tournament itself provided?  Is that what this line is suggesting?  As long as we’re speculating, did the pied piper of Serbia also compel some 25 thousand people to pack Belgrade’s “Marakana” for the soccer grudge match between Partizan and Red Star a few days before the Adria Tour started?  Might there be any other viable explanations for these deeds?  Out of curiosity, what else has Aleksandar Vučić’s government been up to over the past few months—that is, other than granting Djoković last-minute permission to sell more than a thousand tickets to each session of the Belgrade stop?  And let’s not forget about Croatia.  Has the pandemic forced them to abandon all hope for the summer tourist season, which brings in some 20% of the country’s GDP?  (To get a sense of  how things were looking in Zadar in the weeks before the Adria Tour came to town, see the second half of this article.)

causation 4

In lieu of spending more time unpacking this piece, I’ll just leave the above explanations here.

causation 5

Exhibit B is from a Twitter thread by a tennis journalist especially influential on social media.

adria BR reaction

This one-two punch—bad news followed by a tidy explanation for it—implies “after this, therefore because of this.”  Though the causal connection isn’t made explicit, it is nevertheless unmistakable: fringe scientific beliefs resulted in Novak and Jelena’s being at increased risk for catching covid-19.

So there’s no misunderstanding, I’ll say this as clearly as I can: personal opinions are certainly relevant in shaping the behavior of those who have them.  But unless every other person associated with the Adria Tour is also pals with a bearded wellness guru from California, this account only gets us so far.  Also, however “alternative” some of the Djoković views on health, they didn’t stop the pair from urging people in Serbia to stay home during the quarantine so healthcare providers wouldn’t be overburdened with patients or from using their foundation money to purchase ventilators for Serbian hospitals.  These are things they likely wouldn’t do if they don’t think the coronavirus is a serious threat or believe that positive thinking, room-temperature water, and a teaspoon of manuka honey to start the day is enough to ward it off.  Also: crystals.  Don’t forget the crystals.

causation 6

Exhibit C is a column by Jon Wertheim.  Reacting to the announcement of Djoković’s positive covid-19 test, the SI senior writer and Tennis Channel studio analyst crafted a cautionary tale modeled on Greek mythology, in which the ATP #1 serves as a sort of modern-day Icarus.  Unlike the tragic finality of the classics, however, this story remains open-ended: “there are chapters left to be authored,” Wertheim notes before suggesting a few ways Novak might “make amends” for his recent lapses and “win back” whatever—or whomever—he’s lost thus far this season.  Instead of quoting at length, I encourage you to read it, as it’s a much more creative piece of writing than we generally get from tennis journalists.  (You can find the less-creative version of Wertheim’s thoughts on the Adria Tour fallout in his weekly podcast.)

I have no quarrel with the poetic license Wertheim takes and think his narrative gets its message across in an entertaining, self-consciously dramatic manner.  (It’s a tragedy, after all.)  Having said that, the emphasis on the explanatory power of the contents of Novak Djoković’s head strikes me as an example of a what psychologists call fundamental attribution error: a cognitive bias “in which we typically overestimate the importance of personal tendencies relative to situational factors in interpreting the behavior of others. That is, we tend to see the cause of others’ behavior as coming from within (their personal characteristics) rather than from without (situational forces)” (126*).  Abundant in the short tale are terms like “hubris,” “self-belief,” “narcissism,” and “self-importance”—as much the language of personality science (if not psychopathology) as mythology.  Given not only the humanitarian nature of the venture (with the winner’s prize money going to a charity of his choice) but also Djoković’s desire to both provide lower-ranked regional players an opportunity to compete and earn some much-needed cash and bring top-tier tennis to a part of the world that doesn’t normally get it, it’s tough to accept the notion that the event aimed for self-glorification.  Not least, the Balkans is the last place on earth where Novak would need to do anything to be greeted with immense affection, admiration, even gratitude.  There are much easier ways for him to get showered with praise: for instance, he could stand in Trg Republike, Belgrade’s central square.

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A common thread linking these three cases is that the explanations they provide for why the Adria Tour took the form it did and ended, perhaps inevitably, with a health crisis rely almost entirely on surmises about the goings on in the mind of an individual human being.  This would be one thing if Djoković were the king of not just Serbia but the former Yugoslavia, and all subjects faced a choice between doing his bidding and being punished.  (Representatives of four countries were involved in the planning! The prime minister of Croatia attended one of the Zadar sessions—likely coming from Zagreb to do so.)  Closer to reality, I’d have an easier time understanding such causal oversimplification if Novak had simply invited a bunch of top-ranked tennis bros to a holiday weekend in his hometown, with practice matches on his backyard court followed by nights out on the town.  But the Adria Tour isn’t a morality play with a single protagonist, nor did it take place on a billionaire’s private island.  Perhaps it’d be better if it had.

Essentially, all of this boils down to one question: are Djoković’s personal views—about himself, about “science”—the cause or a cause leading to the questionable decisions on display during the Adria Tour?  Granting the latter, which I hope you do, are we quite sure those beliefs were the most significant causal factor in shaping the risky behavior at the event? It’s certainly possible, perhaps even probable, that they played a part—in the players’ off-court activities, particularly.  Still, even there, I suspect it was Novak’s pride not in himself but in his country that was among the strongest influences in his decision to perform as a tour-guide for his guests from abroad.  Despite the circumstances that had brought them there, it seems he wanted to give his rivals, colleagues, and friends a weekend to remember: showing them the sights, making sure they tasted a bit of Balkan hospitality, and, yes, giving them a sense of why Belgrade’s nightlife has the reputation it does.  (My guess: they’ll remember.)

Given that the event itself wasn’t merely a debauched weekend among members of the men’s tennis elite, and that thousands of people attended, staffed, or helped organize the event, we have to consider what other factors may have contributed to the outcomes observed on screens both large and small across the globe.  I’ve hinted at a few possibilities from the spheres of politics and economics above (in links under Exhibit A).  Here are some others that aren’t unique to the Balkans: skepticism about expertise; the politicization of science; a less-than-healthy media ecosystem (including sensationalism, propaganda, and misinformation); lack of trust in leadership; public frustration with, even resentment about, months under lockdown; and lovely spring weather.  Though the increasingly rare opportunity to watch live tennis featuring both local favorites and international stars surely drew the crowd, many other factors likely determined the incautious behavior in the stands and on the grounds in Belgrade and Zadar.  To be fair, tennis journalism isn’t suited to explore all of the potential causes of multifaceted occurrences like this: sports reporters are generally on site or watching from home, not embedded as foreign correspondents.  Normally, we talk about what happens between the lines on court, in the media center, at the gym, and in the board rooms of the ITF, ATP, and WTA. For good measure, we check players’ Twitter and Instagram feeds.  The coronavirus pandemic has not only deprived us all of the sport we love but also given us a whole new set of concerns to ponder—separate from the ways in which it’s turned the rest of our lives upside down.  Still, wouldn’t it be something if we could take a bit of the extra time many of us, unable to pursue our professions or pastimes as before, now have to seek out and consider a few more causes?

 

 

 

Notes

* All textbook citations are from chapter 9 of Browne & Keeley, Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (12th edition).

# I hope it goes without saying that I selected these three examples not out of any personal animus for the authors but because they come from widely-read sources and help make my point.  Although its length suggests otherwise, this is not an exhaustive survey of English-language coverage of the Adria Tour.  A little scary, I know.

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

This piece was published on the (now-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?

atp-audible-obscenity
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?

Talking with Newsmen about Novak II

For the second installment, I spoke to two sports journalists who present quite a contrast: one American, one Brit; one 40-year veteran of tennis writing, one who got his start covering tennis just as Djoković made his push to the very top of the ATP rankings; one who now writes mostly for online sports publications, one who works for a daily newspaper. The interviews with Peter Bodo and Simon Briggs were conducted primarily with a Serbian audience in mind and published by B92. Read my earlier exchanges with Brian Phillips and Steve Tignor here.

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Simon Briggs became The Telegraph’s tennis correspondent in 2011 after writing about England’s national sport, cricket, for fifteen years. He played both sports in his youth, but opted for cricket “properly”—on a competitive level—and tennis only “socially,” as the two sports’ seasons overlap. Briggs began dabbling in tennis journalism while in Australia covering the start of the cricket season, being asked to send reports home when Andy Murray did especially well down under (the Scot made his first of four Aussie Open finals to date in 2010). This spring, Briggs got to meet with Djoković one on one for a Telegraph magazine cover story, an interview during which he got to know the “real Novak.”

AM: During Wimbledon, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas quoted a British journalist saying, “I’m not a tennis correspondent; I’m an Andy Murray correspondent.” I’m curious if you think that accurately describes your job?

Briggs: I have said that in the past… Yeah, that’s because of the lack of depth that we’ve had. So, when we have the Konta story or something, it’s a nice break from covering Andy. He keeps us going as journalists, because if there wasn’t Andy—I don’t know how many of us there are, maybe 10-12, in that alley—we certainly wouldn’t exist in the numbers that we do. There wouldn’t be anything else to write about.

AM: Since tennis has such a long history in Britain, why don’t the big British newspapers cover the sport as whole?

Briggs: I think it’s unfair to say we don’t—it’s a slight exaggeration. The tabloids do sometimes withdraw from events when Andy goes out, so that is proper “Andy Murray correspondent,” whereas The Telegraph, The Times, and The Guardian never do that because they take the other guys seriously. But, if Andy’s playing on a given day, then he’s the story. Unless one of the “Big Three” goes out—and he has a routine victory—that’s the only situation in which he wouldn’t be the story.

AM: To what degree do you think the focus on Murray shapes, for instance, coverage of Djoković?

Briggs: Yes, a little bit. But I think people just don’t “get” Novak the way they got Roger and Rafa. I wrote in that Telegraph magazine story that he’s in a unique position in the history of the sport to have become the guy who inherits the mantle of “top man” from two such charismatic players—they’re both phenomenons whose game style and physical appearance and marketing created a perfect storm. They’re just absolute freak events, those two. So, I think it’s tough for him to come behind them.

There’s a big problem with his game style, for one thing, in a sport which is very aesthetic. His game style isn’t pretty. He’s not a “looker” as a player; he’s a player you admire, for sure. Anyone who doesn’t admire him is not a true tennis fan—you can’t not admire and respect that guy. But it’s very tough for him in that sense.

Then, in the UK, the viewing figures (that Sky Sports record for their matches), which is the best indication, put him at fourth out of the Big Four by quite a long way. So, even though he’s been the best player in the world since I started doing this, he still isn’t anywhere near the others in terms of popularity.

AM: I’ve seen Federer referred to as an “honorary Brit.” Do you think that’s mostly because of his success at Wimbledon or also because the way he carries himself—with gentlemanly restraint, and so on—is sympathetic to the British public?

Briggs: I wouldn’t have thought that the Roger-Rafa split is so different in Britain compared to everywhere else, but maybe the Wimbledon factor means that it is. But when you’re a nation of introverts, you sometimes admire people who are out there with their emotions because that’s what most introverts really want to express.

AM: With reference to Novak’s unique position historically, do you think a player with a different style or personality might have been received more warmly by fans or media? Or would anyone face similar challenges?

Briggs: Any player who doesn’t have an absolute lorry-load of charisma. Let’s say that Kyrgios had come up behind Roger and Rafa and been the third wheel, then he would be huge because he’s just got that marketability, the “X factor” which those two have. Andy’s got a bit more weirdness about him that doesn’t apply to Novak. His game style’s quirkier and he’s more unhinged—more likely to melt down. Whereas with Novak, his very grindingness may make people take him for granted a little bit.

AM: What do you think of the Murray-Djoković rivalry? It’s been fairly lopsided recently— until Andy’s win in Montreal, Novak had won eight matches in a row.

Briggs: I think we always painted it, maybe unfairly, as an “even-Steven” business until the moment when Andy went into his back-surgery recession (after September 2013). Maybe I’m biased… In 2011, he got stuffed by Novak in Australia—that was the moment we thought, “Oooh, crickey! There seems to be a gap emerging.” Before that, it hadn’t been that big. I mean, Novak had won his first major and Andy hadn’t, right? But we all said, “Well, Andy’s always had to play Roger [in finals] and Novak got to play Tsonga.” So, there was a little bit of a sense that we could make excuses for him on that front. After that, Novak didn’t win any more majors; though he won Davis Cup, that’s not a massive deal in the UK when we’re not involved.

I think Andy always felt he had Novak’s number in juniors—he was generally ahead of him, wasn’t he, when they were growing up. So, 2011 was a bit of a shock. Then, through the Lendl years, you felt that Andy had pulled it back, beating him in two finals (even though he still lost to him in Australia).

AM: But then it was another two years…

Briggs: Yes, it was after the Wimbledon final in 2013 that it completely switched into annihilation. So, it may be British bias, but our coverage always painted them as rivals on a pretty equal level with the exception of that one big blowout in Australia. That probably was the result that drove Andy, in the long run, to get Lendl into his camp and led to a couple of years of great tennis.

AM: This year, they played the Australian Open final and French Open semi-final. Then, in the lead-up to Wimbledon, I remember seeing Andy described in the British press as the biggest threat to Novak’s title defense. There was a lot of attention at the time to Novak’s medical time-outs, courtside coaching, the ball-kid incident. What do you think of that? Is some of that the tabloid influence?

Briggs: That was the Daily Mail that really took him on about the ball-girl. I think that is maybe influenced by the Murray-Djoković rivalry and by the aftermath of the play-acting row in Australia.

AM: Do you think there was “play-acting” or did that get blown out of proportion?

Briggs: In a way, we didn’t have to make that decision, because Andy said it… I was quite careful in the immediate report—there may have been one sentence trying to explain what was going on overall, but I tried to put as much of it as possible in Andy’s words and not editorialize because it’s so difficult to know what’s going on in players’ bodies. But, sure, I think the British media would have taken Andy’s side on that.

AM: But even Andy later said that it had been blown out of proportion and that he had no issue with Novak.

Briggs: Yeah, inevitably.

AM: In some February interviews, he talked about how he had allowed himself…

Briggs: …to be sucked in.

AM: Well, not necessarily to be sucked in but to lose focus—because to say “sucked in” suggests that Novak was doing something deliberate, which I don’t think is a fact. In any case, Andy seemed to back away from that position pretty significantly.

Briggs: I think our view is that there had been some gamesmanship going on, but that Andy was as culpable for not handling it. The key quote in that whole interview after the final was something like: “I’ve experienced it before, but maybe not in the final of a Grand Slam.” You could see that what he was thinking was, “I can’t believe he’s doing this to me in a Grand Slam.” My strong interpretation of that was that he was talking about behavior—because we all know that juniors, in particular, do a lot of limping around…

We disagreed on this matter of interpretation, so perhaps it’s best to leave readers with the transcript of Murray’s comments so they can read between the lines on their own.

AM: What I found odd about some of the British coverage of the match is that it gave the impression Murray was leading, when in reality the match was tied at a set-all and Murray had a single break and hold in the third before Novak came back. Do you think there’s some wishful thinking there?

Briggs: Some thought the distraction had lost him the match, whereas I didn’t think he would have won anyway. We all know how hard it is to put Novak away. There’s also just looking for a bit of drama.

AM: But not everybody wrote it up that way, which makes me wonder: how much of that drama-seeking is because they’re writing for a British audience?

Briggs: What you’ve got to remember is that tennis is a sport that is slightly odd and unique—a sport without boundaries. It sees itself as a land in which fans follow heroes who aren’t necessarily from their country. It’s not tribal in the same way as football or other team sports. So, we maybe bring a bit more of that nationalism to our coverage, possibly because we’re competing for readers with the Premier League. Whereas the Americans take an Olympian perspective, viewing the sport from a distance, we may focus more on the “blood and guts,” since tennis—lacking the physical contact of football—can seem antiseptic otherwise.

Recommended Reading:
“Different Strokes” (2015)

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Peter Bodo has been writing about tennis for nearly forty years, beginning as a newspaper reporter during the “tennis boom” of the 1970s. He is the author of numerous books on the sport, including A Champion’s Mind, which he co-authored with Pete Sampras, and his latest, about Arthur Ashe’s historic 1975 Wimbledon win. Additionally, he’s an outdoor enthusiast who has written about hunting and fishing in both fictional and non-fictional formats. Many readers will be familiar with his writing for Tennis Magazine and its associated website, where he worked for over two decades. Currently, his columns are featured on ESPN.

AM: Do you remember when Novak first appeared on your radar?

Bodo: I remember the early controversies—the breathing issue, I think, at the French Open. But I wasn’t there that year (2005), so I really zoned in on him the year I wrote a story called “The Perfect Player.” This was at Indian Wells early on (2007) and it raises the question of the theoretically perfect player. I sat down and interviewed him for that piece. It’s kind of funny: to this day, if I write something where I criticize Djoković or not even criticize him but praise his opponent, Serbs will come out of the woodwork and attack me. Some will remind me, “You once wrote a piece…”

AM: So, your early impression was that he was a complete player?

Bodo: He was on his way. I loved the fact that he was so clean and how much rotation he had. I loved how flat his back-take was—stuff like that. He was just very economical and I thought he had all the upside in the world.

AM: What about his personality? In 2007, when he first made the final at the US Open, he was getting a lot of press for the “Djoker” side of him, the showman.

Bodo: Like most of the Eastern Europeans, he tried too hard. I’m from there, too, so I know. [Bodo’s parents were ethnic Hungarians who emigrated from Austria to the US in 1953, when he was four years old.] They try too hard, they get shat on, and they never get the respect they either deserve or feel they deserve. There’s a fair amount of snobbery toward them. They try to impress the West and are looked down upon by the West and dominated by the East (Russia). That whole region is caught in that crunch.

Of course, I’m speaking in broad generalities, but you often see the symptoms of this kind of thing. They really try to impress, they work extra hard, they try to show how smart they are: “We’re not just peasants from the middle of Europe. We can do this.”

So, you know, there was a touch of that with Novak—there still is. I always get a kick out of the way he talks like a bureaucrat—he kind of gives speeches.

AM: I noticed that his press conference answers have been getting longer and longer.

Bodo: Yes. He never says, “I don’t think that’s true, period.” There’s always a preface to his answers, a middle part, and a conclusion. On the whole, though, I think he’s been a real asset. He really wants to do the right thing. He wants to be a good citizen, a good representative of his country, and a force for good in the sport and the world.

AM: Looking back to somebody like Lendl, it seems to me that he was not only from Eastern Europe but also a particular kind of player and personality. That lent itself, in a way, to certain stereotypes. I’ve seen a number of comparisons between the two, especially regarding fans’ response to them. But I’m not sure I buy it—for one thing, because I’m skeptical of using “machine” metaphors to describe Novak.

Bodo: Right. They’re different. Lendl came from a very different and harsher situation. When Lendl got off the plane here and saw the headline “John Lennon was shot,” he asked, “Who is John Lennon?” Novak went to Germany when he was fairly young and was exposed to Western culture. He grew up in a whole different time. Their personalities are different, too. I got to know Lendl pretty well over the years. He’s got a good sense of humor, and I quite like him, but he’s a cold guy. If you were drowning, I’m not sure Lendl’s the guy you’d want passing by in a boat.

AM: You probably remember the Roddick incident from 2008. To what extent do you think something like that changes how people feel about a player or how a player acts in public? Do you attribute how much more circumspect he is now to maturity or something more strategic?

Bodo: I think it’s all of the above. He was a young guy who had a sobering experience. I’m not sure what he took away from it, but he probably got back to the locker-room and said, “I don’t want to get in these situations.” I don’t think it mattered one bit to people. It didn’t matter to me. Even somebody who booed him at that moment, I don’t think they came back the following year and thought, “There’s that Djoković who did this last year and I booed him.”

AM: Do you think it’s inevitable that any player coming after Federer and Nadal would find media and fans slow to warm to him or could you imagine his being welcomed with open arms?

Bodo: Well, there’s not that much room at the top, for one thing. So, I think it would have taken an exceptional amount of a) charisma, b) results, and c) marketability—a last name like Federer, Nadal, Johnson, or Roddick would have helped, too. It would have taken a perfect storm of user-friendly features to make that happen, which weren’t necessarily there.

AM: When you talk about marketability, you mean mainly in the West?

Bodo: Yes, of course.

AM: So, the fact that Serbia’s a tiny market is relevant. Do you think its recent history matters as much to Novak’s reception?

Bodo: Nobody here knows Serbia’s history, trust me. (Laughing.) No, I don’t think it’s that he’s from Serbia—it’s because he’s from “Where the **** is that?” That’s what it is for these people. Nobody knows.

He’s exotic. His name’s hard to pronounce, he’s got the funny hair—all that stuff sort of plays into it, even his accent, though that’s changed a lot. It never gets to the level of, you know, “He’s from that place that did this or has this history.”

AM: You don’t think there’s an anti-Serb bias to it?

Bodo: No. It’s definitely not anti-Serb—it’s anti-otherness. Anyone who believes that must think all these people read about the UN and Serbia and what NATO did. No: 99.2% of Americans have no idea about that stuff.

AM: Especially after he won Wimbledon for the third time this summer, reaching nine major titles, there seemed to be a critical mass of articles saying Novak should be more appreciated. Have you seen any shifts in terms of the coverage he’s gotten over the years?

Bodo: Yes, he’s won people over. You know, I’m tempted to say it shows how fickle the media is, but that would take credit away from what he’s done, which is significant. And I don’t think it’s been calculated—I don’t think he’s this skeevy guy who decided that it’s going to serve his best interests to be nice all of a sudden. I think he’s just a guy who’s gone through a very appealing and heart-warming evolution into who he is today, which is a wonderful citizen of the world and tennis ambassador. He’s matured beautifully.

Still, I love the fact that he’s retained a lot of his original passion and he still cares about his country—he’s not one of these guys who doesn’t want to have anything to do with his roots. Some players in the past have wanted to escape all that—and they had good reason to in the past, given what they left behind.

It’s really a testament to what he’s done. He earned a renewed respect—he transformed the opinion people had of him through hard work and attitude and actions and success.

AM: How much do you think the coverage of Novak depends on the nationality of the writer or, more to the point, who he’s playing—say, the Brits and Murray? Even if you don’t read around, you must notice the kinds of questions Novak gets from them in press?

Bodo: I don’t read a lot; I do notice their questions. They’re fixated on Murray, just as the French are fixated on the Frenchmen. I think most of them are pretty fair, but they know where their business is. You don’t get as many of the antagonisms that you once did—there used to be that against German players. I remember (British writer) Rex Bellamy’s line about Becker, “It’s curious the Germans would take such a deep interest in a Centre Court that not so many decades ago they had chosen to bomb”—stuff like that. I guess he was trying to be clever, but it was definitely a dig. You don’t see too much of that any more. I think they’re generally pretty fair, but they’re looking out for their own guys and whatever rooting interest they have tends to be for their own people.

AM: They seem to play up the rivalry which, until Murray beat Djoković in Montreal, was pretty lopsided of late.

Bodo: None of that is, I don’t think, negative toward Djoković—they’re all just trying to whip up some kind of storyline and interest. We talked about this the other day: he knows that type of game is played.

AM: He even used the word “storyline” in responding to you, which I thought was interesting. Djoković has been asked, Becker’s been asked these kinds of questions: “Do you feel you get enough respect or appreciation?”

Bodo: See, that’s a storyline in and of itself now. That’s the next one. Sometimes it really helps to try to quantify these things. You know what? He’s appreciated in direct proportion to how much he’s won. He’s number three on the list—you can’t get around that—and he gets number-three appreciation. That’s pretty self-evident, I think.

People are awed by Federer—they’re “ga-ga” over him. He’s unique that way. Even Nadal doesn’t get that. Now that he’s down, you see that he never had the same aura. It’s not like they’ve abandoned him, but it’s awfully quiet out there in Nadal-land.

AM: It sounds to me that your perspective on Novak has been pretty consistent—is that the way you see it? Has there been a major turning point in your thinking about him?

Bodo: No, I don’t think there has. I’m kind of proud of the fact that I’ve always been accused by one camp or the other of being the other guy’s guy. You pick me up on Monday, and I’ve got a man-crush on Federer because I wrote that his hair was “lustrous” in a final. Then, you pick me up on Wednesday, and I’m ga-ga for Nadal; then, on Friday, I’m suddenly on the Djoković band-wagon and isn’t that unfair! I don’t like to shift intentionally, I try to catch myself and not to get too sucked into any of the narratives, and I like to look through different eyes sometimes. Frankly, if I look at my own work over time… I’ve taken my shots at all of them.

AM: Is there anything you find particularly interesting or challenging in writing about Novak?

Bodo: Frustrating? No, nothing actually. I love the stories about him when he was a little kid. I like this idea, this picture of him diligently packing his bag and waiting with his lunch—how earnest and sincere he must have been. I really, really like that.

You know, this isn’t just a Novak thing, but I regret in a way that the game has gone so far… When I started out, you really got to know these guys. They only occasionally became bosom buddies, but you could get fairly close to them if you covered them a lot. Not any more. So, I don’t really know these guys in the same way. I had one-on-one interviews with almost all of them when they were young, but not lengthy ones since then. And if I went now and made an effort, I could get an interview with this new kid coming up, Borna Ćorić. At the front end of my career, I would have known them much better as people.

Recommended Reading:
“The Perfect Player” (2007)
“Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer at heart of ‘great’ debate” (2015 US Open)

Views from Elsewhere: Talking with Newsmen about Novak

During the US Open, I had conversations with a number of tennis writers about Novak Djoković and coverage of him in anglophone media. For this first installment, I spoke to two Americans who aren’t, strictly speaking, sports “reporters.” While Tignor travels to tournaments much more often than does Phillips, you won’t find either of them asking questions from the front row of press conferences or posting updates on the tennis controversy du jour. Both tend to focus on one match at a time and their articles are generally stylish essays with an emphasis on analysis, not news. Our exchanges were originally published in Serbian by B92. To follow: my discussions with ESPN’s Peter Bodo and The Telegraph’s Simon Briggs.

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Brian Phillips has been writing for pop culture website Grantland since its 2011 inception. After college, he got his start as an Assistant Literary Editor at The New Republic—and his work is still as likely to be a book review as a sports story. Most recently, the literary and sports worlds collided for Phillips in a piece about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s detective fiction. Asked if he considers himself a journalist, he responded “definitely not… I’m not sure exactly where the line falls, but I feel too devoted to subjectivity” for that label to fit. As for what drew him to tennis, Phillips recalls it was heartbreak: “my high-school girlfriend broke up with me in January 1996, and since I couldn’t sleep for a couple of weeks, I stayed up watching Monica Seles win the Australian Open. After that, I was hooked.”

Stephen Tignor is the author of High Strung, a history of men’s tennis in the “golden age” of the 1970s and ‘80s. He has worked for Tennis Magazine for almost twenty years and written a regular column on their website for a decade. He played tennis competitively as a child as well as for his alma mater, Swarthmore College. After that, he moved to New York and tried his hand at music journalism, becoming a bigger fan of the sport when he wasn’t playing as often. “But writing about tennis became a natural fit,” he says, “because I knew how to play the game.”

AM: What were your early impressions of Djoković?

Phillips: “My first impression of him was very much filtered through the ‘Djoker’ persona—I particularly remember his impersonations of other players and thinking that here was a brilliant tennis talent with a perhaps debilitating need to be liked.”

Tignor: “My first Djoković sighting is very vivid in my mind, because it was a real discovery, with no warning. At the US Open in 2005, a fellow writer and I went out to a side court to see Gael Monfils, an up-and-comer at the time. Then both of us found ourselves watching the guy across the net instead… I remember seeing Djoković hit a series of forehands that looked like Top 5 material.

Then, in the fifth set, he began to hyperventilate after a long point. He walked over to the sideline and sat down. That was it; no word to the chair umpire. Finally, after what seemed like 10 minutes, a trainer came out, and Novak eventually got up, came back, and won the match. I was left with a very favorable impression of him as a player, but I didn’t like the way he handled the ‘timeout’ situation… By the time my friend and I got back to the press room, though, there was already a buzz about him.”

“That’s the way it continued for me. I loved to watch Djoković play, and was excited that a another full-blown Hall-of-Famer was suddenly in our midst. I wrote a short profile on him for Tennis Magazine that I titled “The Player’s Player”; there was a purity to his game that I liked, and which I felt was especially evident to anyone who played tennis. But I still didn’t like how he pulled the plug in matches when things weren’t going his way: the French Open in 2006 against Nadal, Wimbledon in 2007 against Nadal. Djoković retired in part, I thought, because he couldn’t face defeat. For the most part, though, I was a fan.”

AM: How, to your eyes, has Novak changed since then?

Phillips: “I think his consciousness of the crowd has remained a vulnerable point for him through the years—I am thinking of his 2013 US Open match against Wawrinka, when at one key moment he parodied Stan’s arms-raised ‘applaud-me’ gesture. But one of the ways in which he has changed over the years is that he’s developed a fascinating ability to compartmentalize what could be seen as weaknesses; he hasn’t exorcised his uncertainties, but he has figured out how to keep them to one side of his tennis. You could call that ‘maturity.’ He certainly seems to have grown and changed more—and to have become more comfortably an adult—than many tennis players do during their careers.”

Tignor: “I think that right away Djoković wanted to be something more than just a tennis player. He also wanted to take his place with Federer and Nadal, who were the kings of the tour at the time. Those were the days when Novak said he was going to be the next No. 1, as if it were only a matter of time. And he did shoot right up behind Federer and Nadal; Rafa said he knew from the start that Djoković was going to challenge him very quickly. But he couldn’t pass them. It was during that period of stagnation that he lashed out at Roddick, and took a contrite beating from Federer two days later.”

Memory Lane: 2008 US Open

(By his post-match press conference, Novak was already expressing regret.)

“But I think that changed when he helped win the Davis Cup, and then really did pass Rafa and Roger in 2011. He didn’t need to prove himself as a personality anymore, and I think he has taken the ‘job’ of being No. 1 and presenting himself as a representative of the sport and his country seriously, and done it well.”

AM: Would almost any player rising to the top right after Federer and Nadal face resistance from both fans and media?

Phillips: “Yes, I think it’s inevitable. But it’s also easy to imagine cases where the resistance would be less than the resistance to Djoković; an American player would have had an easier time winning American fans, for example. I think there’s also a psychological dimension to the resistance to Djoković. I always think of a line from a poem by James Merrill when I think of him: ‘What least thing our self-love longs for most / others instinctively withhold.’ I think he wants the kind of love that Federer and Nadal receive, and the crowd in New York or London senses that desire and turns ever so slightly away. In a strange way, he might be more popular if he held the crowd in more contempt.”

Tignor: “Yes, I think it is inevitable. Federer and Nadal aren’t just one-of-a-kind tennis players, they’re one-of-a-kind sportsmen. Federer is the most popular player since Bjorn Borg retired 35 years ago, and Nadal has brought an electricity to the sport that didn’t exist before him. Just as important, they became linked in the public eye, first through the 2008 Wimbledon final, and then the 2009 Australian Open final. The most famous image of them isn’t of a handshake at the net; it’s the shot of Nadal with his arm over Federer’s shoulder during the trophy ceremony in Melbourne in ‘09. Between them, they also embody so many opposing traits—elegance vs. passion, effortlessness vs. effort-fulness, lordliness vs. stoicism—that it’s hard to know how any other player could find something to represent to fans. They’re the Beatles of the Golden Era, the originals.

The tennis writer Joel Drucker wrote something similar about the ‘70s generation. Borg was the Beatles and McEnroe was the Stones; that made Ivan Lendl, the man who vanquished them, Led Zeppelin—brutal, awe-inspiring at times, and hard to love. Djoković is nothing like Lendl in many ways: he doesn’t rule by intimidation, he doesn’t play a brutal style of tennis, and he does go out of his way to connect with fans and entertain them. But he’s portrayed at times in a somewhat similar light—he’s ‘efficient’ instead of ‘elegant,’ ‘clinical’ rather than ‘artistic.’ It’s like he’s taken the fun out of the sport. It’s interesting that Djoković and Lendl are two of the only Eastern European men to reach No. 1. I do think it’s a barrier for U.S. fans.

But I also think Djoković is winning people over, first and foremost with his sustained excellence. These days I hear from more people who call themselves Djoković fans than I once did; his name is universally known now, which isn’t easy for a tennis player in the States. But I do think he could have made life easier for himself along the way. There were the early retirements; there were the shirt-ripping celebrations; there was his bellicose father; there was the brazen challenge to the beloved Federer. Fairly or not, I don’t think any of those things endeared him to people in the US, and it’s obviously hard to shake a first impression.”

AM: How much does Novak’s being from Serbia impact the Western response to him?

Phillips: “As the only male world #1 from a country that’s been bombed by NATO, Djoković may simply seem complicated to fans in Western Europe and the US, in a way that a player from somewhere else might not. My sense is that most fans don’t think consciously—or much—about that complicatedness. He simply offers a kind of felt, unexamined friction that doesn’t point to hostility or malice, necessarily, but just to a difference that no one is coming to tennis to deal with.”

Tignor: “I do think there’s a barrier with Eastern Europeans among US tennis fans, but I think Djoković has made strides in crossing it. In my mind, being No. 1 in an international sport kind of raises him above other divisions.

From my own experience of Americans and our collective lack of interest in, and knowledge of, the world outside our borders, I don’t feel like there’s a widespread recognition of Serbia, for example, as the home of war criminals. I think people here have trouble telling, or remembering, which country did what in the Balkan Wars. I followed the wars in the papers at the time and had a hard time keeping track even then. I also never associated, in any way, the Serbian tennis players of the last decade with the country’s leaders or its past—it never entered my mind. I could be wrong, but I think this is true for the majority of tennis fans here.”

AM: Has English-language coverage of Djoković shifted over the years?

Tignor: “The coverage has changed as he has changed. You read and hear little about his parents now. Physically, he’s now considered invulnerable rather than vulnerable. As a figure in the sport, he’s no longer an apprentice to Federer and Nadal. I think the coverage of his childhood in Serbia has brought some depth to his image. And I think there was sympathy for him after the French Open this year. There’s also no longer a sense that, when he beats Federer, that some cosmic injustice has been done, the way there was when Rafa first started to beat Roger. For the most part, I think the tennis public has the utmost respect for Djoković. If Federer loses to him now, I feel like the reaction from Roger and his fans will be, ‘Well, at least he lost to the best.’

The one negative I’ve seen since Djoković’s rise to the top is that there are attempts to undermine his credibility. Some say he’s faking his injuries, he’s over-dramatic on court, he takes suspicious bathroom breaks, he’s getting an unfair edge somehow. Or, like Lendl, he’s making tennis robotic. It’s all nonsense, and I don’t think the general tennis public in this country thinks of him that way. I think the sense is that, right now, like it or not, he’s just better than everyone else.”

AM: How has your view of Novak changed since he became the top men’s player in 2011?

Phillips: “That’s hard to answer, because I really only started covering Djoković when he was in the middle of conquering the world. My early Djoković pieces are mostly about being worried about him—worried that his psyche might be too normal or too fragile to stand up to the insane demands of elite tennis. That fear turned out to be spectacularly unfounded, but the basic tension it enclosed—the tension between the dominant, consistent, tennis star and the vulnerable human being—is still the lens through which I tend to view him. It’s a much more interesting tension in his case, I think, than in the case of Federer or Nadal.”

Tignor: “My own perspective has only changed only a little. I was always sympathetic to him, but I’ve grown to like and respect him more as he’s matured. His game is still great to watch, he’s a good loser, and he’s a good sport about his duties off the court. From what I see of him, I think he has remarkable patience with people, and does his best to handle every public encounter the right way. I’ll never forget him losing the French Open final this year and still walking over to talk to John McEnroe for NBC TV about it.”

AM: What do you enjoy or find challenging in writing about Novak?

Phillips: “I love writing about Djoković because he’s both one of the most complicated and one of the most talented figures in sports—he’s an extraordinary character, which is exactly what I’m drawn to as a writer. Players who offer easy answers are boring!

Any hugely popular athlete whom you write about for a reasonably large audience will have fans who feel you weren’t adulatory enough, and I certainly hear from angry Djoković fans who aren’t comfortable seeing him treated ironically or with much nuance. I mostly don’t find that kind of criticism very compelling and I mostly tune it out. Although my pieces on him are not hagiographic, they are sympathetic in the sense of earnestly trying to understand Djoković. Ultimately, I’m trying to share my own perspective, not write the piece that every Serbian will love or every American will love or every Djoković fan will love.”

Tignor: “As a player, I find Djoković’s ability to overcome his own anxieties and frustrations interesting. Unlike Federer and Nadal, he can pull the ripcord mentally when things aren’t going his way. But he’s one of the few players who can then gather himself, settle down, and win anyway (Serena is another). He’s as elastic mentally as he is physically, and that’s not something that was always true. I see a lot of my own on-court anxieties in him, so I feel like I have an idea of how hard it is to do what he does. For a guy who is supposed to be a machine, he’s very human. His screams and fist-pumps may not make him beloved by tennis fans, but I like that he’s himself out there. He wants to be loved, yes, but he can’t help acting the way he acts even if it doesn’t get him that love.

Off court, I’ve found his maturation process interesting, especially his ability to be such a professional and carry a lot of responsibility on his back. I also like his sense of humor—it’s broad, rather than cutting. And it’s great that tennis has a No. 1 male player who can dance.

Putting myself in his skin is a challenge. As an American, I sense the difference in the Serbian mentality, history, and way of life. I’m not so well-versed in that history that I feel like I know where he’s coming from, culturally, all the time. But reading about his life has been a good window into Serbia for me.”

AM: Any lasting impressions of Novak from the US Open?

Tignor: “The thing that struck me about him in the Open final is how bouncy and quick and spry he was. I’ve never seen Federer look slow, but Djoković came close to making him look that way. He’s really in his prime physically.

Unfortunately, it’s a trait that translates better live than it does on TV. You can obviously be impressed by his speed and athleticism on TV, but it’s not quite the same as seeing Federer’s shot-making and flair with a racquet. Live, up close, when you see and hear him move, Djoković is an equally exciting athlete.”

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Recommended Reading
Phillips: “The Problem with Novak Djokovic” (2011) “describes what I see as his genuineness in terms of the perils presented to it by major sports stardom. All things considered, I’d say he’s done amazingly well at dealing with the issues I described back then.”
Tomorrow in the Valley of Ashes” (2015 US Open)

Tignor: “Into the Lion’s Den” (2015 US Open)