Troicki: “I was always a fighter”

At the World Tour Finals in London, I had a chance to ask Novak Djoković for his thoughts on what Viktor Troicki has achieved this season.  “Well,” started the ATP #1, “I think he managed something that not many have in the history of tennis: to return, practically from nothing, to where he belongs—in the world’s top 25.”  Showing that he’d been following his teammate’s results closely, he added: Viktor “had a bit of difficulty in the last few months lining up successes and maintaining the continuity that he had in the first 5-6 months of the year.  But, all things considered and taking into account where he was 15 months ago and where he is now, I think he really should be acknowledged and congratulated, because psychologically that is extremely difficult and a big challenge and he managed to overcome it.  So, as his friend, I am extremely pleased that he succeeded in doing it.”

What does Troicki think of his own accomplishments?  Earlier this year, I sat down with the Serbian player and his Australian coach for two wide-ranging conversations about their first year back on tour after a year-long suspension.  With both Troicki and Reader, we talked a lot about the past: that fateful day in Monte Carlo and its aftermath.  Even though it’s been two years since the CAS tribunal decided his case, the emotions of both men are still strong.  (Those needing a refresher on Troicki’s case, which led to his being sanctioned for violating the ITF’s anti-doping rules, can read this overview from 2013.)  Here, though, we’ll focus mostly on the positives: Viktor’s comeback and what he’s learned about himself and the man who travels with him for much of the year.  Read my exchange with Jack Reader here; the Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.

AM: The week you returned, you were ranked 847 in the world and now you’re in the top 25.  But those are merely numbers.  What are you most proud of in terms of the last year?

VT: Well, it was hard.  Before starting, it was hard mentally—not knowing what was going to happen.  There was a lot of pressure, from everyone, and I wasn’t sure myself how it was going to be, whether I was going to return at all.  Who knows, if I’d lost the first five matches, how I would have felt or whether I’d play again?

Even though a lot of people were doubting if I’d ever come back, I’m a very stubborn person—you know, Serbian inat.  So, I wanted to prove, first of all to myself but also to others, that I could do it and that I could be even better.  Of course, if I get into position to say out loud to the whole organization of the ITF that they were wrong in trying to end my career…

AM: But you know it wasn’t personal, right?  I don’t mean for you—simply that the ITF would have gone after anyone in that position.

VT: Afterwards, I felt it was.  Everything they said in public, they made it personal.

AM: Well, they have to maintain their position.

VT: Sure, sure.  But, afterwards, whatever I felt before from the ITF, it’s not the same.  For example, I asked for a wildcard for the US Open last year—just for qualies—and there was no response.  I didn’t expect to get the wildcard, but it’s proof that they don’t care about me.

AM: To return to the good stuff, what else are you feeling after this year?  Although you may not be at your career-high ranking now (he spent three weeks at #12 in 2011), have there been other high points?

VT: Definitely, winning the Sydney title was huge to start the year.  I’ve had some good results, on grass especially.  But I had a lot of good matches, good wins, and feel my game is improving, which is the most pleasing thing to see.  I don’t want to stop here.

Troicki Triumphs in Sydney. Photo: Getty Images

Altogether, I’m still hungry for more results and for being better than I am.  It’s nice to see where I am after just one year, but I still want to improve.  That’s my goal and that’s why I’m working hard.

I have to say, though, that sometimes I’m disappointed that I’m not getting much credit.  You know, when a player comes back from an injury or a long break, they write about it and it’s a big thing: “He came back; he made it!”  A lot of players use their protected ranking; they get wildcards.  It hurt me that I didn’t have any of those.  It doesn’t even matter about last year—just for being where I am, right now… It seems like [the media] are almost forbidden to say anything about me because of what happened.

AM: From my perspective, it may be that doping is such a serious issue in sports that there’s a risk in criticizing the ITF and WADA or even appearing sympathetic toward a player like you, returning from suspension.  Certainly, it’s been suggested that I’m naive for believing your version of events or that I don’t understand the bigger issues at stake.  Sports journalists may be afraid to do or say anything that could make them look “soft” on doping.

What about sponsors?  I know Babolat stuck with you—anybody else?

Photo: Lotto Sport Italia

Photo: Lotto Sport Italia

VT: Lotto, the clothing company, stepped up right away.  They wanted me to wear their stuff as soon as I came back.  But apart from that, no, nothing.  Ok, being Serbian, it’s already tough.  But having this situation, it’s even tougher.

AM: What was it like returning to the Challenger tour after all these years?

VT: It was definitely weird, you know, being on the tour for however many years and being used to it and then coming back to the qualies of Challengers.  It was different.

AM: Did you talk to any of the young players?

VT: Yeah, they helped me because I felt they were sometimes scared of me.  They knew who I was, obviously, and my ranking in the past.

AM: There was an intimidation factor?

VT: Yeah, but on the other hand, they all wanted to beat me because they knew I was a good player.  So, they were kind of scared but also had more motivation to go for it.

It was kind of weird, being on the Challenger tour, meeting some of the guys I’ve never seen and some kids that are coming up and probably going to be great players.

AM: How was the road trip with your team?

VT: It was fun—we were all excited about it, even though it was the Challengers and I had to play qualies.  I felt like I was 19 or 20 again.  When I finished juniors, that’s how I felt—I wanted it so bad, I was running for every ball and fighting for every point.  It was definitely a great experience.

I was always a fighter—I would never give up.  That’s why, I think, I made it—both times.  When I was first coming up, trying to build my ranking, I believed in myself.  Even though, when I was a junior, they told me I couldn’t have a career because I wasn’t talented enough.

AM: As juniors, Janko [Tipsarević] was always considered the more talented one.

Flashback: 2004. Photo: Getty Images.

VT: He was older than me by two years.  I never even got to hit with him before I was about 18—he was way ahead of me, already playing professional tournaments at a young age.  Novak was one year younger, but he used to play with the older guys.  So, a lot of people never thought I could be any good or make it as a professional.  I was never the best of my generation—there were a lot of kids who were ahead of me.

But I started playing better and better when I was 18.  And that helped me a lot [last year], remembering these old times.  I was fighting even then, working harder than the others, just to prove to people that I could make it.  I had no sponsors, no help from anyone.  Actually, a friend sent me an article recently from when I was young, saying that I shouldn’t get monthly support from the Federation because I had no future in tennis.  It was funny to see that.

All these things help now.  Just like when I was young, I want to do it because I believe in myself and that I can be where I want to be.

AM: When you came back, one of your first big goals was to make it into the top 100.  What kind of goals do you have now?

2015 Stuttgart finalists. Photo: Peter Staples/ ATP

2015 Stuttgart finalists. Photo: Peter Staples/ ATP

VT: A definite goal is the top 10.  As I’ve said, I’m hungry and I want more and the top 10 is the next step.  It’s not easy: there are a lot of great players who want to be there, but I feel I have a chance.  I believe in myself—that’s one of the main things you’ve got to have, other than quality and hard work.  But if you don’t believe, you’re never going to be there.

AM: Even if this whole ITF case hadn’t happened, you weren’t doing too well in 2012.  Weren’t you already in a bit of a slump before you started working with Jack Reader?

VT: I got settled into this kind of position—being in the top 30, 40, 50—and nothing major was happening.  I got pretty used to this feeling of going to tournaments, playing matches, and not really enjoying it.  When I was a kid, I always wanted to be here; but then, I wasn’t feeling the excitement.

When we started working together, even though I was top 50 in the world, my game was really bad.  I wasn’t feeling confident at all and I was struggling with my game—it was falling apart.  Jack came right in the moment when the new season was starting.  Of course, it didn’t start great immediately, but we were going step by step and by working on specific things, I felt improvement.  Everything was going better and better—already by the French Open I reached the fourth round, which was a good thing.  At Wimbledon, I made the third round, beating Janko and playing other good matches.  So, I felt like my game was back… Then it all stopped.

Such a coach, he could have gone with anyone.  I know he had offers.  When I got sanctioned, when we knew it would be a year, Jack took it hard.  During the first call, he felt sorry; he was also very shocked and down. But then he called me back right away and said, “Ok, we’re going to do this.  We’re going to come back.  We’re going to prove that we belong there and be better than before.”  He was pumped right away—it was crazy to see, but he was.

AM: That must have been especially helpful since you were so down at the time.  I remember seeing you on the front page of a Serbian tabloid, with a headline like “I don’t know what to do with my life,” and being worried for you.

VT: Well, I was shocked more than anything.  It was all over the news—all the attention was on me and nobody knew what really went on.  All of a sudden, it was happening and it was a big thing, you know?

I’ve got to thank the Serbian media. They were all really supportive and I never expected that.  My personal feeling is that they were behind me.  First of all, they were trying to understand what had happened; but after that, they were trying to encourage me to come back.  That helped me.

Photo: Jason Reed/ Reuters

AM: What have you learned about your coach in the past two years?

VT: That he is a really great person, first of all.  That he is genuine and honest—a true friend.  It’s not just a professional relationship.  He was never after any money or anything like that.  He would always help you out.

It’s incredible how many friends he has around the world.  I’ve met many of them and they all say the exact same thing—that he’s a great person and he cares about his friends.  With me, he’s been really caring a lot and it’s unbelievable to have such a person next to you.  He’s not just in it for business—it’s also to have a nice relationship outside the court.  People love him on the tour: they know he’s funny, very relaxed, and always positive.

He also made me more happy on the court and helped me enjoy tennis more.  There are a lot of things he’s taught me and a lot of things I’ve seen from him.  It’s great to have him with me.

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)

Kiki: “Sport is in our blood”

DSC_728019330Birmingham Kiki friday new

Before her breakout run to the US Open quarterfinals, Kristina Mladenović was kind enough to talk to me in the players garden behind Arthur Ashe stadium.  Our conversation was published in Serbian by B92; an extended English version is posted at Tennis Translations.  Her wins in New York will earn the Franco-Serbian player a new career-high singles ranking of #28.

DSC_610518699Holland Kiki

Photos by Christopher Levy.

Rohan Bopanna on Bangalore, Davis Cup, and Tennis in India

Somdev Devvarman & Rohan Bopanna at the pre-draw press conference in Banglaore. Photo by Srdjan Stevanović

This weekend in Bangalore, India will host Serbia in an intriguing Davis Cup World Group play-off. Under different circumstances, 2013 finalists Serbia would be hands-down favorites for staying in the elite sixteen-nation group at the top of men’s tennis. But a Serbian side without three of its top players is vulnerable, as seen this past February when the “B” team—composed of Ilija Bozoljac, Filip Krajinović, Dušan Lajović, and Nenad Zimonjić—lost in Novi Sad. Serbia’s second city also happens to be where these two nations first met to contest a Davis Cup tie, a 4-1 win for the Serbs in 2011.

India’s team for this meeting will feature three of the same players: relative youngster Yuki Bhambri and veteran Somdev Devvarman alongside doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna, who together with Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi makes up the ATP tour’s “Indo-Pak Express.” Though he and partner Katarina Srebotnik were still in the US Open mixed-doubles draw, Bopanna was kind enough to sit down for a conversation about the city he calls home, Indian tennis, and the growth of the sport in Asia. (An edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.)

Create your own caption… ©ATP

When we talked, the final rosters for both teams were uncertain. Bopanna thought he’d be paired with Saketh Myneni, with whom he’d played—and won—doubles rubbers during India’s previous two ties, and the status of the ATP #1 was up in the air. While the rest of the Serbian team was preparing to compete without their singles star, Novak Djoković spoke about both what it means to him to participate in Davis Cup and the decision he was weighing: “Of course playing for the country is something that awakens a real passion in me and a sense of. . . belonging and really positive emotion and drive. But [on] the other hand, I also have a very important stage of my life. I’m about to become a father, so that’s something that is a priority now.” Given the “wait and see” situation, I started by asking Bopanna an obvious question.

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AM: You said in an interview for the Davis Cup website that you think it’d be good for tennis if Novak comes to India, regardless of the outcome. But in the interest of your team winning, wouldn’t it be better if he didn’t come?

RB: You can’t think like that. At the end of the day, he’s been such a great player for his country and won the Davis Cup title with them. Not only that: if you look at it that way, we wouldn’t want any of the top players competing. Davis Cup is such a format that the rankings never matter—I mean, on one given day there can be many upsets. If you saw the last one, Wawrinka was playing Golubev in Switzerland and that was a big upset.

So, I think it’d be great for Indian tennis—not only if Novak’s playing, but even if he’s just there as part of the team. Tennis needs encouragement in our country and having a such a great player like him come and participate in an event like this would be wonderful, no matter what. Of course, it’ll be much tougher, no doubt: their team goes up from 10 to 20 with Novak on it. But we have to be ready for the best team to come to India and play. The thing is that before Thursday, they can still change the nominations.

AM: It’ll partly depend on what happens here, of course.

RB: Exactly. And Novak isn’t thinking of Davis Cup right now, because this is such a big event.

AM: There’s the US Open on this end and his baby’s due-date on the other.

RB: Yeah, he has a lot of things going on.

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Since then, Leander Paes was called in to play his fifty-first tie for India and Djoković, after a disappointing semifinal loss to Kei Nishikori in New York, opted to skip the play-off to recuperate for the final stretch of the season and spend time with his expectant wife, Jelena. Luckily, Bopanna and I discussed more than how the two teams match up.

The Garden City was named for its numerous green spaces, including Cubbon Park (where this tie will take place) and the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens.

AM: Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to attend the tie, though I’d love to see India. But I’m still curious: what would you tell Serbs visiting Bangalore (or Bengaluru, as the locals call it) for the first time?

RB: I live in the city! The first thing is that language is not a problem, because everyone speaks English; so, that’s a big bonus when you’re going to a new place. I know a lot of people do speak English in Serbia, as I’ve been there. Of course, there are a lot of great restaurants around the city, many different cuisines to sample. Bengaluru is known for its breweries as well, so people who like to drink beer will enjoy that.

Though it’s called the Garden City of India, do expect a lot of people on the road, a lot of traffic and honking. That’s normal—it doesn’t matter which city in India you go to. We are used to it, of course, living there; but if you come from a country that doesn’t have all that it can be a bit overwhelming. There are various different categories of hotels and the hospitality in India is always very good—the service is good, so that’s a good thing to expect. People in Bengaluru love tennis, so I think there will be a great crowd, too, to come watch the tie.

Tipsarević gets a lift from Paes after finishing his second final at the 2012 Chennai Open. © AFP/Getty Images

There are a number of connections between members of the Indian and Serbian squads. Most notably, Nenad Zimonjić has partnered Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, collecting trophies with both men. Two other Serbs, Janko Tipsarević and Bozoljac, have also had success with Indian partners, winning titles with Paes and Devvarman, respectively. While Tipsy kicked off both the 2012 and ‘13 seasons with quality runs in Chennai, this year was Bozo’s turn for a hot streak in India: he made the semifinals in New Delhi and won the Kolkata Challenger. Not least, the two nations have this in common: they’ve both produced remarkable results in tennis despite not having the world-class infrastructure of some of their Davis Cup rivals.

AM: Obviously, it’s a big deal to have Davis Cup at home, and I know you have the ATP 250 event in Chennai, as well as the series of Challenger tournaments in February. You have had so many top players in the past couple of decades, and a long tennis tradition as well, rooted in the British influence. How would you assess the current state of Indian tennis?

RB: I think there’s still a long, long way to go because our system is not really good. So, that is slowly picking up. [To give an example,] I have a physio from South Africa, Shayamal, traveling with me for a while and he’s now opened his own clinic in Mumbai, trying to help and get physios involved in tennis. Especially for an athlete, after training, you need a physio. So, even the awareness of that—plus fitness, along with coaching, and building a few more academies—makes for more progressive tennis. It’s going to take a while, I think, to really come up. There’s also good corporations coming out and helping a lot of these academies and teams, which raises awareness and gives everyone hope.

Bopanna & Bhupathi won the 2012 Paris Masters. © Getty Images

You know, in India it’s still the fact that people think, “Ok, so you’re playing tennis, but what else are you doing?” In India, the [professional] priorities are such that everybody needs to be either a doctor or an engineer—studying is such a big thing. A lot of people don’t realize that tennis could also be a living. And they don’t realize that it’s a full-time, committed career. . . It’s not a hobby.

Also, we have cricket in India—and it’s grown so much in recent years. Now, there are corporations trying to invest in other sports as well and trying to get recognition for them. So, tennis is still very much at the grass-roots level and needs a lot more building. Luckily, we have many more athletes coming up. . . . The fans are looking for new, different sports as well, which is nice.

AM: Speaking of other sports: in the US, there’s been some excitement about an Indian basketball player who’s going to be in the NBA, playing for the Sacramento Kings. Have you heard of him?

RB: That’s right, Sim Bhullar—I know because actually he’s the nephew of one of my friends. He was telling me when we were into Toronto [for the Rogers Cup] and they actually came to the tennis courts. My trainer took a picture with them and he’s about 5’8” and these guys are 7’5”!

AM: India, given its size, has a huge pool of potential talent that hasn’t necessarily been tapped. Will his being in the NBA make a big difference for basketball in India, like Yao Ming did in China?

RB: Definitely. I think it’s great. Hopefully, we have more of those 7-foot athletes—that’s not there in India so much. Even when I go back, at 6’3”, I’m considered above average, which I’m not when I’m traveling on the tennis tour! In tennis, I think 6’2” is the average. Especially for the NBA, you need the height.

AM: Among people in the former Yugoslavia—and not only tennis players—there’s certainly interest in forging ties with the East as well as the West. For instance, even before his Uniqlo sponsorship, Novak was quite attuned to the Asian market for tennis. Do you think the IPTL (promoted by former partner Bhupathi) is also going to help the growth of tennis in India and other parts of Asia?

RB: I think it’s going to be really good for Asia to have all these top athletes coming and playing night matches. And for us, as players, it’ll also be fun to be a part of it and playing on these different teams.

In June, Bhupathi hosted a London reception for players committed to the new International Premier Tennis League.

In June, Bhupathi hosted a London reception for players committed to the new International Premier Tennis League.

Three of Serbia’s biggest names have already signed on to play in the IPTL later this year: Djoković and Zimonjić (along with Croatian legend Goran Ivanišević) were selected by the UAE team, while Ana Ivanović is on the India team along with Bopanna, Sania Mirza, and Rafa Nadal. The league runs for two weeks, starting in late November.

Postscript: The day after this interview was published, the ITF announced that Rohan Bopanna will be one of the players honored with the Davis Cup Commitment Award this weekend.

Starting from Scratch: The Return of Viktor Troicki

What follows are two interviews in one.  The first half contains excerpts from a conversation I had with Viktor Troicki at the 2012 Cincinnati Masters.  The second half is a recent interview conducted by Nebojša Mandrapa, the tennis reporter for Serbian newspaper Večernje Novosti, who has kindly permitted me to post a translation. Troicki, considered a hero of Serbian tennis ever since he scored the clinching point in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over France in 2010, was suspended from professional activity last July.  (Those needing a refresher on his case, which led to his being sanctioned for violating the ITF’s anti-doping rules, can read my overview and other players’ reactions here.)  He’ll return to action in just over a week, in all likelihood playing on the Gstaad clay for the first time in his career.

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

As fans of men’s tennis will recall, Troicki rode the wave of his team’s triumph all the way to a career-high ATP ranking of #12 in June 2011.  Although he broke into the top 100 as a 22-year-old in 2008, and finished both 2009 and ‘10 within the top 30, it wasn’t until his first singles title in October 2010 and the Davis Cup win six weeks later that Troicki’s career really took off.  In fact, many in Serbian tennis circles were surprised at just how fast and how high he rose, given that he had long played second fiddle to not only Novak Djoković but also Janko Tipsarević, who was a more talented junior player.  Although Troicki’s time among the men’s tennis elite—thirty-four weeks in the top 20—was relatively brief compared to the elder Tipsy’s, it was Viktor who made more efficient progress up the ranks as a young pro and he who earned an individual title first.

1. “I just hope it happens again.”

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

When we sat down in what is technically Mason, Ohio, Troicki was feeling good after demolishing former #1 Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets.  Knocking off top players wasn’t a new experience for Viktor (for instance, he beat Andy Roddick in the Washington quarterfinals back in 2008, when the American was #9), but he’d been having a difficult year.  Though his recent struggles became our focus fairly quickly (even before I’d asked about them), we began by looking back to 2010.

AM: Can you compare winning the Davis Cup with winning your first ATP title about a month earlier?  Together, they mark a key turning point in your career.  (Troicki was ranked #54 before a semifinal run in Tokyo, #43 before the Kremlin Cup in mid-October, and #30 at the end of the regular season.)  So, do you think of them together, as a sort of unit, or separately?

VT: Yes, definitely different things—totally different things.  It also felt different.  Of course, my first title gave me a lot of confidence.  I played great that week in Moscow, beat some big names, and I think I played my best tennis at the end of that year.

Then, the Davis Cup finals came and, for sure, knowing that I had a title already and that I was playing very well, I was more confident than usual.  I think that’s why I played very well in Davis Cup also.  Winning Davis Cup was the biggest moment of my life—it was just a great experience.  It felt unbelievable on the court, winning that last [rubber].  I just hope it happens again.*  I mean, it’s the moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life—just an unbelievable experience.

AM: How was the first half of 2011 different from the previous few years—coming off of Davis Cup and rising to your career-high?  (One thing that struck me here is how quickly Vik turned to the second half of the year—that is, to negative stuff.  Even at the outset of his answer, it sounds like he’s brought down by what he knows is coming.)

VT: Well, I started 2011 great, continuing to play very well.  I came to #12 in the world playing really good tennis.  And then I had some matches where I. . . (sigh) had the chance to win, where I was very close to winning, for example against Murray at the French—I had a chance to go to the quarters, I was serving for it—and also in Montreal against Monfils, I had match points which I didn’t use.

So, all these. . . those two matches, like, [set] me back.  I lost a bit of confidence and then I started to play less [well] than I was playing before; my ranking was dropping and I was losing some matches that I shouldn’t lose and I was unhappy. . .  I would say 2011 was a year with ups and downs.  Luckily, I hope, that’s over and I think I’m going to rise again in the rankings and get back to the top 20 and then, hopefully, go for the top 10.

AM: You talked about the effect of those two losses on your confidence, but is there anything else you want to add about why it’s been hard to maintain a high level consistently.  I mean. . . people are going to say that you’re in a slump, right?  But I don’t know if you think of it that way or not.  When I look at your playing activity, there are actually only a few losses that jump out at me as unexpected—like Bucharest.  Something like losses to Rosol no longer look weird after what he did at Wimbledon.

VT: It happens to every athlete—it happens that he has good days and bad days.  (Sigh.)  We all have ups and downs.  I guess it’s normal for every tennis player also.  I mean, the thing is to get out of it as quickly as you can, try not to think about it, and try to improve from those things—what you did wrong.  So, I hope I’ve learned some things from those matches.  I work hard every day to improve my game, so I hope these things won’t happen again.

AM: How much do you work on mental aspects of the game—not so much strategies or tactics, but things like positive thinking?

VT: Yeah, I had a person this year, during the tournaments in Europe, who I was talking to.  We were doing some sessions—mental sessions, psychological treatments.  He helped me a lot, I think.  We did a good job and I still use those things.

AM: Did you guys actually identify, say, types of negative thinking?

VT: We talked about not just tennis, but how to make life a nice place—to enjoy life, to be happy on the court.  Sometimes when I was on the court and I was losing, I was really not happy.  When it was not going my way, I was pretty unhappy—those were the things that were maybe not helping me.  So, we tried to improve that and to start thinking positive on the court, even if it’s not going well.  Hopefully, I’ll still improve on that point.

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

AM: What do you consider your best or most satisfying performance of the year?  Dusseldorf strikes me, since it was several wins in a row. . .

VT: Well, I played Wimbledon fourth round, which was my best Wimbledon so far.  I reached the fourth round (lost to Novak), which was a good result for me.  Beating Juan Monaco, I also played a good match there.  Maybe [today] was the best win, against Hewitt: to beat him 6-2, 6-0 was pretty surprising, even for me, and I think I played very well.  But my best tournament, I would say, was Wimbledon.

AM: You won a couple five-set matches in a row—arguably, it’s especially important to get through those.

VT: Definitely, definitely.  Actually, I made a record in Grand Slams for most consecutive five-setters.  So, it’s definitely a good thing when you’re winning those important matches, when it’s really tight—it means a lot and gets your confidence back.

♠♣♥♦

* I just hope it happens again.”  This line is especially poignant in light of the fact that a requisite part of “it”—Serbia making another Davis Cup final—did happen again (in 2013), only not for Viktor.  Due to his suspension, he was able neither to play nor even to cheer on his teammates from inside the Belgrade Arena.  Watching the final two rounds on tv from home was, understandably, an emotional experience for Troicki: “When Janko dedicated the [semifinal] tie to me and Novak took the microphone and got the stadium to shout ‘Viktor,’ I had a breakdown and started crying like never before in my life.”

It wasn’t only Troicki who suffered through those ties, however.  Due to his and the injured Tipsarević’s absences, Team Serbia was significantly undermanned when they faced Czech Republic in the final.

2. Making Up for Lost Time

Speaking with Mandrapa in Belgrade last week, Troicki was both bursting with motivation to return to the top ranks of the ATP and anticipating mixed emotions when he steps on court at his comeback tournament.

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

Q: What will you be feeling when you return to action?

VT: From the wish to show that they were wrong to suspend me, to the hope of proving to myself that I can do even better than before— above all, a desire to make up for lost time… All of these emotions and much more will be present. To be honest, I don’t know myself how it’ll be on court in the beginning, until I get used to it.  At the same time, all my points will be gone by July 21 and I’ll be starting from scratch, completely from scratch. However, I often remember a very good saying, “Once a doctor, always a doctor.”  That’s why I haven’t given up on tennis: because it’s who I am.

Q: This period, from July 2013 until today, did it feel like an eternity?

VT: Too long, I’d say.  It was hard for me without tournaments, very hard.  But, I have to admit, some moments were nice and interesting, too.  I had time for everything.  Now, I’m completely recovered mentally, and not so nervous and burdened with all of this like at the beginning.  When [the CAS tribunal] made their decision to uphold my suspension, it was a huge shock.  But since then, I thought about it all in peace—about the future, not so much about everything that happened.

  “If you run into the [Doping Control Officer from last year] at a tournament, what would you say to her?”

“It’s better that you don’t know.  They [presumably, the ATP] will see that this doesn’t happen; but the woman continued to do her job, even though she’s a total amateur (not to say something harsher).  I think it’s too bad that she continued to work without any consequences, even though the [CAS] judgment stated that she also bears some blame, because of poor instructions and irresponsibility.  I don’t know what would happen—I just hope that I’ll never meet her again in my life.”

Q: Have you had any psychological help to overcome all these difficulties?

VT: I tried, but I didn’t like it too much.  I realized that it was all up to me.  If I sort out the dice in my head, then that’s that—and I don’t need someone else’s help.  If I manage to straighten myself out, that’s enough.

Q: You mentioned that the year was, at times, interesting.  What did you have in mind?

VT: I went skiing four times last winter—more days skiing than ever before in my life.  I wanted to catch up on things I love and haven’t had much chance to do.  Often, I’d play football with the guys—we had an indoor league.  And I went on a couple of trips with Nole, including my first time in South America, which was interesting.  Then, when I started to train, I also accompanied Djoković to a few tournaments he played, so I’ve practiced with him a lot.

Q: Was it difficult for you to find sparring partners, players with whom to practice?

April: Viktor trains with Dutzee & Nole in Monte Carlo.

A: Exactly; that’s exactly right.  But Novak helped me there, too.  Mostly, I worked with him—in Monte Carlo, or during tournaments in Dubai and Miami.  I also sparred with our younger players: Lajović, Krajinović, Milojević in Belgrade.

Q: What were you working on, looking to improve?

VT: For the last four months, I’ve really practiced a lot.  Luckily, both members of my team—coach [Jack] Reader and [fitness trainer/ physiotherapist Miloš] Jelisavčić—are still with me.  In some areas, I feel progress, but I’m lacking competitive play: points and other match situations. That’ll come eventually, after a couple of tournaments.  I can’t claim that it’ll all be in place by the first tournament (at that point, everything will probably still be totally strange), but I hope it’ll be sorted out as soon as possible.

Q: Due to the loss of ranking points, you won’t have direct entry to the biggest tournaments at first?

VT: Some tournament organizers have kindly offered me a wild card.  I won’t play at the major events.  Right now, we’re waiting for confirmation from Gstaad, and I’ll definitely participate in the Italian Challengers, four or five tournaments which coincide with the US hard-court season. Novak will try to help me with securing wild cards for the Asian swing.  If he succeeds, that would be great.

Q: Serbia’s Davis Cup team heads to India in mid-September for a World Group playoff.  Will it be with or without you?

VT: I honestly don’t know what to say.  It doesn’t fit into my schedule at all.  At that point in the season, I plan to play on clay, and I don’t feel like going to India.  I’d be losing two weeks, not just one; I can’t play on the main tour if I don’t get wild cards and, just then, I’m planning to play some bigger tournaments.  I hope the younger players will help and that they’ll be able to win the tie.  We’ll see who’ll even be in a position to play.  Maybe Tipsarević will manage to recover by then, but I think we’re the favorites no matter who plays.

In a New Year’s statement, however, Viktor had a slightly different perspective on whether a return to the tour or the opportunity to rejoin the Davis Cup team is more important to his comeback.

  “Both things go hand in hand.  If I’m able to win on the ATP tour level, then I’ll be a help to our team.  Of course, coming back and playing Davis Cup in front of my home crowd will mean the real end of this chapter.  Then I’ll be able to say that it’s behind me.”

Q: Are you fulfilled on a personal level—because that can have an impact on your results?

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

VT: Everything’s in the best possible order.  My mother and father have been the biggest support my whole life.  They always believed in me.  There were also a few other people, like Neša Trifunović, who’ve been a lot of help.  From them, I got valuable advice.  They told me that a year is short period in life and that it’ll pass—that I have to survive mentally, to be even stronger and even better.  I appreciate that.  My parents are very excited that I’m returning to the court, although I won’t see them as much as in the past year.

Q: Do you believe you can do better than the #12 spot you once occupied?

VT: I don’t know, but I’ll try to prove I can.  We’ll see how well I’ll succeed in that.  Certainly, I’ll give my best—more than I gave before.  My goal is to fight to the last point, and to get into the top 100 by the end of 2014.  It won’t be easy; but if I start well, I think I have a chance.  In the end, it’s all up to me.

Davis Cup Diaries

The Davis Cup semifinal between Serbia and Argentina in September 2011 was the first sporting event I attended with credentials allowing behind-the-scenes access.  Knowing Serbia as I do, I suspected their tennis federation’s communications representative wouldn’t care that I wasn’t a journalist but an academic visiting to do research for a project conceived just over a month before.  At the time, I thought it was a one-off: a fun way to pass the time during a short stint between teaching jobs.  Little did I know that this was the beginning of an adventure lasting two years (and counting) and taking me to tournaments across the US and in three other countries.

Most people reading this won’t need a reminder of the kind of 2011 Novak Djoković was having.  (If you’d like to refresh your memory, Brian Phillips’ pieces about the final two matches of the Serb’s US Open run or Jon Wertheim’s nomination of him for SI’s Sportsman of the Year are good ways to do so.)  He returned home, just days after winning his third Slam of the season, with an almost unthinkable 64-2 record.  Though much has been written about his year, two things that sometimes get overlooked in reviews of his accomplishments are the fact that Novak wasn’t in great shape when he arrived in Belgrade and would be in even worse condition by the end of the Davis Cup weekend.  During the US Open final against Nadal, he received treatment on his back and was clearly hobbled in the fourth set, serving at well below his average speeds.  Add to this the mental fatigue of a long year and the physical exhaustion of jet lag (never mind the whirlwind media tour that preceded his flight from New York), and it makes sense that Djoković didn’t play in the first singles match of the tie.

But with his team down 1-2 entering the third day of competition, Nole opted to enter the fray.  It was a no-win situation.  On the one hand, he had to play—both because his team, the defending champions, would almost certainly lose otherwise and because his home fans expected it.  On the other hand, he couldn’t really play—he simply wasn’t physically fit enough for a five-set match against one of the best players in the world.  Despite this, he put up a brave fight in the first set, eventually losing to Juan Martin del Potro in a tiebreaker.  While it was obvious to anyone watching closely that he wasn’t 100%, no one expected him to fall to the ground three games into the second set.  Given that the DJ opted to play Goran Bregović’s rousing “Kalašnjikov” at that moment, I’m confident I wasn’t the only one in the Belgrade Arena who had no idea what had happened—perhaps, I thought, he’d merely lost his footing and would bounce back after being evaluated.

Despite the warning signs (grimaces and awkward stretches during the first set and a medical time-out before the second), Djoković’s retirement was still somehow a surprise.  In his press conference after the final rubber, Janko Tipsarević noted that while he was disappointed by the loss, he had a “full heart” due to the risk his teammate had taken for them.  Only later, when Novak missed six weeks of play with a torn rib muscle, was the extent of his sacrifice clear.  Although he returned for the last three events of 2011, one could say that Djoković’s season really ended there, with thousands of his compatriots looking on in shock and sorrow as he was helped off court, towel over his head.

***

I’ve been back to Belgrade twice since that fall: for the Serbia Open in 2012 and the Davis Cup semifinal in 2013.  Because the project I’m working on aims to explain something about Serbia itself (not just Serbian tennis) to non-natives, I tried to capture a bit of the city’s scenery during my frequent walks downtown.  First-time visitors to Belgrade will get a history lesson by observing the architecture.  The mix of styles and degrees of dilapidation make it fairly easy to identify different periods: from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences to the more decadent designs of the turn of the twentieth century, from the massive slabs of Communist-era concrete to postmodern structures of glass and steel (either from the 1980s or the first decade of the new millennium).  While many buildings of historic significance have been refurbished, plenty of evidence of both war and economic hardship remains.

Marked on the above map are the primary locations of the photos that follow: the temple of St. Sava (near my home-base in the Vračar district), the Arena (across the river in “New Belgrade”), Tennis Center Novak (venue for the now-defunct Serbia Open), Kalemegdan fortress, and Republic Square (the heart of the old city).  Since buildings, flowers, and food were my most frequent subjects, I have no choice but to share photos of some of them.  Taking far too many pictures of inanimate objects is, I think, one of the lesser-known hazards of traveling alone.  Other things I’ve learned: trying to take action shots with a pocket camera is not advisable.

In the spring of 2012, my visit coincided with the run-up to a parliamentary election, so I was able to observe that process in various ways—by watching tv, reading the local papers, and documenting political speech in public spaces, from graffiti to official campaign posters.  Soon, I’ll offer more analysis of the intersection of sports and politics in Serbia.  For now, suffice it to say that there were rumors that then-president Boris Tadić had deliberately called the election to coincide with the final day of the Serbia Open, so he could be photographed handing the trophy to the most popular person in the country.  As it turned out, Nole pulled out of his home tournament, due in large part to the death of his grandfather some ten days earlier—and Tadić lost the election (though I’m sure there’s no causal relationship between these two events).

In the fall of 2013, Serbian media covering Davis Cup were focused on three stories.  The most sensational of these concerned Viktor Troicki, who, because he is serving an eighteen-month suspension for an ITF anti-doping rule violation, was not allowed to attend the tie.  Contrary to comments from the understandably emotional Troicki and his loyal team members, there was nothing out of the ordinary—and certainly nothing personal— about this prohibition.  He was not being treated like a “terrorist” or “murderer,” per Djoković’s hyperbole, but like a suspended player.  The second story centered on members of the visiting team: three Canadians have strong ties to the former Yugoslavia, with Daniel Nestor and Miloš Raonić born in the region.  Needless to say, the locals were particularly interested in what the guests made of their one-time home, whether they speak the language, and which elements of the cuisine they enjoy.  The third story was really a question: how would Novak rebound from losing in the US Open final earlier in the week?  It was partially answered by his straight-set handling of Vasek Pospisil on the tie’s opening night.  As in 2010, the Serbs came from behind to win the semifinal, with Tipsarević once again scoring the decisive point.  But unlike 2011, the team’s top player got through the weekend unscathed.

(Most of the images marked with asterisks are the work of Srdjan Stevanović.)