Tipsy Turning Point?

Sometimes a person can surprise you even when doing something you recognize as entirely in character (at least what you know of it).  So it was in a recent conversation with Janko Tipsarević, following his third-round win over Jack Sock, when he reacted to my telling him I wasn’t going to ask him much about specific matches.  “Let’s talk about the war in Syria,” he suggested, without skipping a beat.

What does this wry response reveal about Tipsarević?  He’s quick on his figurative feet (about the literal ones, more later), aware of the world beyond tennis, and not afraid to poke a bit of fun at himself, his interlocutor, and convention—in this case, of the athlete interview.  His response to my opening question was telling, too.  Though sometimes impulsive off court or less than completely focused on it, he’s both self-aware and willing to engage in analysis with others.

Below, our discussion of his year in tennis: past, present, and future.

On his recent form:
AM: A year ago, you obviously would have been a clear favorite coming into a match against somebody like Jack Sock. But he’s progressed quite a bit and you’ve been struggling, so even though rankings-wise you were still the favorite, this feels like a significant win.  Does it to you as well?

JT: It feels significant because it’s the first time after a while that I was able to win three matches in a row.  I’m very aware of that and I’m not ashamed to say it—if I don’t say it, somebody else will.

AM: Yes, that was my next question.

JT: So, I’m really happy that I was able to beat a young player, a crowd favorite, a guy who came out with all guns blazing.  I was able to sustain him and, at the end of the day, at least in my eyes, have a very comfortable win.

AM: The Australian Open was the last time you won three in a row; you’ve gotten to some other tournaments’ fourth rounds, but you had a first-round “bye.”  What do you think has made the difference?

JT: The story goes that I got injured at the Australian Open and I came back to the tour too soon.  I wasn’t fit enough, I wasn’t healed 100 percent, and I wasn’t ready to play guys at the ATP tour level.  I had some bad draws—playing Davydenko first round, Gulbis first round, Llodra first round, whatever—and then I started losing to players that I shouldn’t have lost to.  Then, when you lose confidence, the ball starts kind of rolling, you lose matches that you shouldn’t lose, and your ranking starts to drop.

On the other hand, I was too much focused on things that I could improve, instead of keeping with the things that had gotten me to the top ten in the first place.  So, I learned that I just need to keep it simple—nothing else.

AM: We talked a year ago about how being in the top ten brought additional obligations, especially off court.  Have there been any other activities that have been distracting or may have contributed to the misplaced focus?

JT: No, not so much—and I think I proved that in 2012.  In 2011, I moved from 49 to 9, and one of my biggest goals was to play London at the end of the year.  Eventually, I ended up playing because Rafa got injured; but I proved in 2012, even with all the activities I have (which didn’t change that much this year), that I can be a top-ten player.  I was nine, then eight, the majority of the year.  So, I didn’t add any other activities in 2013 that I didn’t already have in 2012.  The biggest thing is that I came back [from injury] too early, not ready, and I got lost in this “improving my game” kind of thing, which eventually ended up in my losing to players I shouldn’t lose to.

On injury & recovery:
AM: When you retired at the Australian Open, it wasn’t entirely clear what the injury was.  If you recall, Andy Murray had blisters on his feet in the final, which affected his movement.  Linking these two incidents, what I’m wondering is if you can explain how a seemingly minor issue can have a major impact or last much longer than initially anticipated?

JT: You know, I don’t want to put other sports down, but tennis is a very, very physically demanding sport and so tough in terms of getting injured because we are using almost every single part of our bodies.  Even if the little finger on your right hand is injured…. If you have a small pain somewhere, at the end of the day, you are alone on the court.  You can’t get a cheap or fake win against anybody because you’re not a team—you are alone and you don’t have anybody to pass the ball to.

So, sometimes maybe to the fans it might look like the injury is not that severe or serious.  But, trust me, it’s doing way more damage than it looks.

AM: How long did it take until your heel felt normal—or you felt comfortable playing on it?

JT: I came back after three weeks, after getting injections, after getting cortisone and it still wasn’t right…. It was a bone bruise [caused from impact to part of the heel that doesn’t have as much fat padding].  The problem was that this is part of the body we use so much and there’s no treatment for it.  So, I was lying in bed for three weeks wanting to shoot myself from boredom.  I wanted to do something, but the only thing I could do is rest, even after the injections.  So, then, my attitude was, “Ah, it’s not that bad, it’s going to pass…”  But it was affecting every single move I made.

On Team Serbia:
AM: How much contact have you had with Viktor over the last month and what’s your sense of how he’s dealing this difficult period in his career?

JT: He’s handling it very well.  I don’t want to talk in his name, but my guess would be that he’s waiting for a final decision from the Swiss court.  The guy with whom I prepared for this US [hard-court] tour was Viktor—I practiced with him every single day for three hours, back in Belgrade, when he was still allegedly banned.  But he’s handling it pretty well so far.

It’s a big loss for us that we will not have somebody like him by our side facing Canada in Davis Cup.

AM: My impression of Viktor is that he does particularly well in the team environment.

JT: He’s such a big team player.  And in this scenario, not knowing how far Novak or I will go in the tournament, it would be so much easier for us to have him jumping in to play singles or doubles.

AM: If you were in Bogdan Obradović’s place, would you choose Lajović because he’s good on clay, Bozoljac for doubles, or think about who could best sub in for you or Novak in singles?

JT: Our captain did exactly what he should do: he invited both guys.  The good thing is that Bozoljac played pretty well in a Challenger [on clay in Como, Italy] this week—lost in quarters.  So, he invited both of the guys and will see what’s going on.  He also can’t predict how far we’ll go in this event, how we’re going to feel and handle the jet-lag, and so on.

Don’t forget that Zimonjić and Bozoljac beat the Bryans in the US…

AM: Oh, believe me, I won’t.  (Neither will Bob and Mike Bryan, by the way, who recently talked about their quarterfinal loss in Boise as one of the toughest they’ve suffered.)

JT: So, we have options.  Obviously, without Viktor on the team, they are a little bit less clear.

AM: Other than Viktor missing, what do you think is the biggest challenge the Canadians will pose the Serbian team?

JT: You know, if you’d asked me this a few months back, when Miloš wasn’t playing so great and Pospisil was ranked out of the top 100, I would have said that we’d be a clear favorite.  Now, with Pospisil being ranked around 40 and Miloš playing the tennis of his life, and us without Viktor, it kind of shifts the momentum a little bit.

But, I’m playing better and some of the best tennis I’ve ever played was in Davis Cup—I love playing in front of the full house.  I don’t think the Canadians, other than Nestor, have ever played in front of twenty thousand fans cheering for the other guys; so, this will be huge.  They’re a young team, excluding Nestor, of course.  But I don’t want to run away from the responsibility.  Even without Viktor playing, I am aware that we are favorites to win this match—obviously, having Novak on our side and playing in Belgrade, on a clay court.  I would say the chances are at least 60-40 for our side.

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When Tipsarević and I talked in the players’ garden outside of Arthur Ashe stadium in Flushing Meadows, I knew two things.  First, the number two Serb would be getting a stiff challenge from David Ferrer (who stopped his run at last year’s final Slam) in the next round.

Second, we’d be meeting again soon in Belgrade.  So, I resisted asking some questions until I see whether and how Janko carries his US Open momentum into Davis Cup competition.

When I visited the Belgrade Arena today, Tipsy and team appeared in good spirits.  Although he was there to practice with Lajović (known to friends and fans as “Dutzee”), Janko’s usual—that is, non-Serbian—support crew were there as well.  Dirk Hordorff, in a crisp-looking white Fila tee (and no cigarettes in sight), observed from the sidelines as Bernardo Carberol and Stefan Düll put Janko though his warm-up routine.  Dušan Vemić, lately of the #1’s entourage but currently helping coach Ivo Karlović and Andrea Petković, and Filip Krajinović were also on hand as hitting partners.  With Nole’s arrival late this afternoon, it’s safe to say that the gang’s all here.

Note: an edited Serbian version of this interview was published by B92.  I’ll post further updates as the week progresses.

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A Tweet Heard ‘Round the World?

Last night’s Twitter speculation about the nature of Novak Djoković’s ankle injury, full of needless anxiety about the condition of the world’s top male tennis player, holds two tennis-media lessons for me.

First, in an ideal world, journalists should feel a similar responsibility on Twitter as they do on their official media outlet websites.  In other words, if you wouldn’t print it, why tweet it?  I realize that many sports reporters’, writers’, and pundits’ Twitter accounts are as much personal as professional.  It’s an informal medium by design.  Hence, no one is surprised or bothered by getting tweets containing photos of Brad Gilbert’s dog, Neil Harman’s musical selections, or Martina Navratilova’s political musings throughout the season (let’s leave Boris Becker out of this, shall we?).  Nevertheless, these public figures have as many followers as they do on the basis of their professional expertise, activities, and positions—and particularly due to their access to key sources of information.  If your Twitter bio states your affiliation with a media outlet, chances are people follow you as a professional, not as an interesting person (though you may well be both).  So, it stands to reason that you should keep your journalistic function and the standards of the profession in mind when on Twitter—as well as how quickly a tweet can circulate around the world.  Such is, after all, the nature of a social media network.  Twitter may seem like an unreal, impermanent sphere, but what happens in this space can have real and lasting effects.

Second, all media access is not identical.  Although all press credentials are created equal, every individual with a badge on a lanyard is not the same—which is a good thing and fundamental to the meaning of the phrase “freedom of the press.”  The press is not only free in terms of being at liberty to say what it wants without fear of reprisal from government or other powerful forces but also in the sense of being open to a variety of people and perspectives.  Each member of the media brings his or her own unique background, knowledge, interests, investments (not necessarily biases), skills, m.o., contacts, relationships, and values to the occasion.  Specifically, as the RTS interview with Djoković after hed secured his nations spot in the Davis Cup semifinals illustrates, media from a player’s home country are often able to get more—or different—information from their primary sources.  This ability, related to the comfort of both native tongue and personal familiarity, is but one reason why it’s important to have media diversity.  Sometimes, though, it’s not enough to open one’s doors (or, technically, one’s online credentials application form).  In order to have media diversity, we—both the public and the institutions of the media—must actually pursue and cultivate it. 

But how?  As individuals with technologically-enabled access to the world, we can search out new sources of information easily.  This is one of the life-changing consequences of the internet: a kid with a computer in Kazakhstan may find relevant information about a given topic before a top ESPN analyst.  Anyone can post on Twitter; anyone can upload his or her video to YouTube; anyone can start a blog (even people, like me, who aren’t entirely sure they want to!).  The professional media, however, is only as diverse as the people in charge—editors, producers, publishers, advertisers, and investors—are committed to making it.  And commitment, ultimately, means money, even more than it does values or mental and physical effort. 

As I hope will be clear, I’m speaking of only one type of diversity now: cultural.  Leaving the selection of not-so-easily-accessible Boise aside, the central media problem in the case of this Davis Cup tie wasn’t, ultimately, that the USTA may have mishandled one credential application.  It’s that Serbian media are not in an economic position to send their journalists to events abroad— which is to say, virtually all of them.  As a result, while they do send television crews to major tournaments (in fact, their TV coverage of tennis is much better than in the US because all of it is on network TV &/or a sports cable channel that practically everyone has, unlike Tennis Channel here), Serbian newspapers, websites, and radio are not able to send their sports reporters.  Thus, it falls on bloggers (often paying their own way) or members of the Yugo-diaspora living in the tournament locale to provide eyewitness coverage.  This is not, as you might imagine, an ideal situation; but given economic realities, it’s not obvious what can be done to improve it. 

A related problem is that Serbian media are largely reliant on the foreign press coverage of tennis tournaments.  This wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t for the immense success of Serbian players in recent years.  So we must, in a way, be grateful to be facing this challengebetter this than to have no players in the top ten or twenty, right?  Still, much of what passes for sports journalism in Serbia is copy & paste—or, rather, copy, translate, then paste—from English-language websites.  Among other things, what this situation means is that questions Serbian media might have raised, had they been at the event, don’t get asked—or, almost as significant, they don’t get asked in front of the assembled group and widely circulated thereafter.  The resulting press-conference transcript is the poorer, I think, for their absence (though it is often quite rich, both because Linda and Julie of ASAP are great at their jobs and because the largely English-speaking tennis media are very good at theirs).  Not incidentally, some of the best press conferences are those at smaller events or those in which the media are faced with something or someone new: the intimacy or novelty of such occasions brings a welcome disruption to the perfunctory aspects of the Q&A sessions with the usual suspects.

A corollary of the above-mentioned absence was in evidence last night.  Because the only Serbian media at many events are the TV production crews, who generally occupy a different space at tournaments than members of the print media, there isn’t a lot of commingling or networking between Serbian and non-Serbian press.  Even when there are a few Serbs in the main press room, they tend to stick together or, if the only one of their kind, keep to themselves.  They’re not part of the fairly exclusive fraternity of traveling tennis media and many, even most, arent part of Tennis Worlds Twitter conversation.  Further, unlike Spanish or French, German or Italian, which some Anglophones speak, BCS (the somewhat confusing acronym for the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language) tends not to be understood by anyone who isn’t either a former Yugoslav or a professional who works in the region.  And don’t get me started on Justin Gimelstob’s pronunciation of Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjić: I watched Saturdays thrilling doubles match from the ITF stream and kept the volume low.

Put these different factors together and the result can look like last night: an English-speaking member of the media apparently misunderstands an exchange in Serbian (or perhaps overhears people talking in tentative English) and decides, for reasons I dont claim to understand, to tweet about it.  Because the tweet was prefaced with the words “JUST IN,” as well as sent hours after the conclusion of both match play and the subsequent press conferences, readers had every reason to believe it contained new information about the severity of Djoković’s injurySo, others re-tweet it.  Still others add their own interpretive layers and emotional responses.  Questions from the US to Serbia, from South Africa to the Philippines are asked and not answered because—guess what?—no one actually knows anything yet.

Add water and stir: we’ve got an instant controversy.

Why Novak Djoković Matters

This piece from August 2011 is the first thing I ever wrote about tennis—and it’s not even about tennis in the traditional sense.  It was addressed, initially, to a broad American audience, not necessarily tennis fans.  However, as I hope is obvious, the message is meant for anyone without ties to the former Yugoslavia.  What inspired me to post it today is Steve Tignor’s discussion of what distinguishes the fans of tennis’s “Big Three.”  Specifically, I wanted to add a few words about why Djoković’s “strong Serbian following” consists of lots of people who are either relatively new to tennis or not fans of the sport at all.  If, after reading this, you care to hear more on the subject, check out the initial post on this site or the article I wrote for the Tennis Space on what turns out to have been the last Serbia Open.

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Picture this: you’re flipping channels after midnight on a Tuesday.  Suddenly, you come across Jay Leno and Katie Holmes dancing a little jig with a bunch of people in funny outfits.  You pause, bemused.  What are they doing—and who’s that with them?

I can imagine the Tonight Show producers were thinking a couple of things when lining Novak Djoković up for an early August guest spot.  First, it’s the dog days of summer, so viewers will be happy not to be watching a re-run.  Second, Djoković is an attractive, charismatic guy who happens to be having an incredible year, winning his first Wimbledon title and achieving his goal of becoming the #1 men’s tennis player in the world in the same July weekend.

But let’s face it, Djoković still may not pass the “who cares?” threshold for most of Leno’s audience.  Sure, he’s an international sports star on a record-breaking run, but since when do Americans give a damn about tennis players—and foreign ones, with hard-to-pronounce names, at that?  Andy Roddick, the closest thing U.S. men’s tennis has to a household name, recently tweeted after a guy serving him in Panera innocently inquired, “Does someone in your group work for Lacoste?”

So, as a guest on Leno, Nole (pronounced “Noh-leh”), as he is known to friends & fans, faced a hurdle.  Add to the basic one—the marginal status of tennis in the US sports & entertainment industry—the fact that Djoković hails from Serbia.  The obstacle here isn’t simply that most Americans don’t know anything about this small, south-eastern European nation.  It’s that what they do know is likely extremely negative—based on nearly two decades in which Serbia, or the former Yugoslavia to which it once belonged, was associated with little more than ethnic conflict, war, and political corruption.  Before Djoković, the three most “famous” Serbs were strongman Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić (all three of whom ended up in the UN’s war crimes tribunal in the Hague)—not exactly the type of guys who get invited onto the Tonight Show.

Djoković matters—not simply to Leno’s viewers but in a larger sense—for three reasons.  This year, he’s a been a major story, both on the men’s tennis tour (where his record now stands at a remarkable 61-2) and in the world of sports more generally: a May Sports Illustrated cover banner proclaimed him the “most dominant athlete in the world.”  He’s also a big deal because he’s the first player to break the duopoly that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have had on the #1 spot for an incredible seven years.  In the long run, of course, it remains to be seen what kind of name Djoković will make for himself—or where he will rank in the history of men’s tennis.  For now, though, he’s on top—and showing little sign of letting up.

Ultimately, Djoković may matter most not as a tennis player but as a cultural figure: a global ambassador for a young nation with a lot to prove.  Serbia has only existed in its current form, as an independent country, since 2006—not incidentally, the same year a nineteen-year-old Djoković broke into the ATP top 20.  In the five subsequent years, Djoković (and, to a lesser degree, his 2010 championship Davis Cup teammates, all of whom were granted diplomatic passports in April) has quickly become Serbia’s top export and most reliable salesman.  While he normally represents his nation in Olympic and Davis Cup competition, you can now add late-night television to his list of venues.  There, he not only talked to Leno about tennis and his love for karaoke but also brought along a troupe of costumed Serbian folk dancers—with whom he proceeded to dance a traditional kolo (or “round”).  “The Djoker” even managed to charm both his host and Tom Cruise’s wife into joining him on the dance floor.  If nothing else, these moves should make it clear that there’s a lot more at stake here than selling a bunch of “Novak” t-shirts or US Open tickets to American consumers.

Novak Djoković and the Burden of Serbia

English: Novak Djokovic was interviewed after ...

Novak Djoković after winning a mixed doubles match with Ana Ivanović in the 2011 Hopman Cup (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Preface:
This essay was written over several days last week, in response to a new-media dustup that followed a tweet by Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim: “Have been debating whether to tweet this, but here comes quite an indictment of #djokovic http://tinyurl.com/l46nnbg; happy to link a rebuttal.”

My response to Wertheim began its life as a tweet, grew into a note, and graduated as a long letter, which I sent to him over e-mail.  Though there are a variety of reasons I chose him, rather than the blogger, as my primary—my first, if not my most important—interlocutor, I’ll name just one: these issues are contentious enough without making them personal.  No individual is responsible for creating the messy political situation that still exists in the Balkans; and no individual is alone in having incomplete, uninformed, &/or problematic views on the subject.  To me, this is not a time for the type of debate in which the main goal is to score points—to win—rather than to work, collectively, toward understanding.  Neither I nor the original blogger, Jon Wertheim, anyone reading this, or Novak Djoković himself is in a position to single-handedly solve a problem as complex as the conflict over Kosovo’s independence.  Together, however, there are a few things we can do—and keep doing.  Those include thinking, reading, writing, sharing our views, and engaging in civilized (and, yes, I use that word advisedly) conversation with others.

First and foremost, then, I am interested in dialogue.  However, this priority doesn’t mean that I’m not making an argument here.  Rather, it’s meant to emphasize my firm belief that there’s a big difference between making an argument and having one.  And, to the extent that I am writing to make an argument (and not to have one with either Wertheim or any individual blogger), part of my point is about argument itself.  Who’s already guessed that I’m a teacher?  Come on, raise your hands. . .  Good.  I’ll make a point of toasting you the next time I have something other than Earl Grey in my cup.

To give credit where credit is due, I want to acknowledge some of my own teachers.  To that end, I’ve scattered a handful of references to true experts on the subjects I discuss here.  Also, I should note that my views on writing have taken shape over approximately 30 years of being—alternately and simultaneously—a student and teacher, a reader and writer.  One huge influence on my thinking about both writing and the teaching of writing was Greg Colomb, director of the Writing Program at the University of Virginia, who sadly passed away a few months ago.  If anyone is looking for a great book on the subject, I would highly recommend his and Joseph Williams’ The Craft of Argument (of which there are several editions).

On the off, off chance that it’s not obvious merely from the number of words here, let me make it so: I take both the form and the content of this argument very seriously.  This is not only—or even mostly—because I take myself seriously.  Of course, I do that, too: it’s an occupational hazard of being a professor, I’m afraid.  (Though I’m also glad to laugh at myself: for instance, at the fact that I haven’t showered or changed out of my bathrobe for three days because I’ve been too busy writing this.)  I take what I’m saying here seriously because this is a very, very difficult subject about which to have substantive discussion.  Here’s another thing that likely goes without saying: while I certainly don’t expect anyone to read this entire piece or to take it as seriously as I do (other than my family, who loves me!), I hope that anyone who decides to read and comment will keep the sensitivity of the issues we’re discussing in mind.

Given this sensitivity, I want to put the following caveat up front: I am no apologist for a single one of the many horrific crimes committed—by any group—in the former Yugoslavia or the current Republic of Serbia over the past two decades.  There is no denying that these things happened and no number of apologies that could undo their damage after the fact (which is not to say that no one should make apologies).  Nor, because I am half-Serbian, do I feel any particular need or desire to defend or diminish criminal, unethical, or even morally & politically ambiguous acts by any Serb—any more than I would, because I am a US citizen by birth, defend an act by my own government or a group of Americans which I not only disagreed with but also found destabilizing of my faith in humanity.  (If you doubt this, I’d be glad to send you video footage of the fights that took place in my parents’ home during the 1990s.  Actually, and perhaps unfortunately for my current purposes, no such documentation exists.  But if you’re still uncertain about whether to take my word that plenty of Serbs had and have disagreements on these issues, I invite you to attend a dinner party in virtually any home in the Yugoslav diaspora, to raise the issue in a Belgrade café, or, indeed, to read the article linked at the very end of this missive.)  Thus, what follows should by no means be taken as an attempt to defend Novak Djoković from legitimate criticism.  Everyone is open to that; nobody is free from the consequences of his or her words or deeds.  But not everyone—in fact, not a single Serb—is as clearly in the public eye, and as obvious a target of criticism, as is Djoković.  For that reason, and even though I don’t believe for a second that this debate is really about the world’s top-ranked tennis player, I will begin by acknowledging and responding to one of the blogger’s central claims about him.
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