Prologue: 2022

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

I. Spain: November, 2019

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

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

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

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

Photo taken from a distance by Argentine photographer JP

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

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

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

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

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

II. Serbia: July, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Boy and His Teacher

English: Novak Djokovic celebrates his 2011 Wi...

English: Novak Djokovic celebrates his 2011 Wimbledon semi-final win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Victory meant that Djokovic successfully clinched the ATP World No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career. He also reached his first ever Wimbledon final, which he eventually won. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the fall of 2011, a reunion took place between Novak Djoković and his first coach, Jelena Genčić.  For reasons that remain unclear, and despite their obvious closeness, the two hadn’t seen each other for several years.  During that time, Nole won his first few Slam trophies, led the Serbian team to a Davis Cup championship, went on a 43-match undefeated run to start the 2011 season, and became the ATP #1.  It is significant, then, that the achievement the two most joyously celebrated on this late-November day was his Wimbledon title.

In my view, Genčić was not only Novak’s most important teacher but also the first Djoković “mythologist.”  It is she who first told him that he was destined for greatness.  It was her experience, insight, and faith that gave the Djoković family confidence to put so many of their hopes for the future in the prospects of a little boy.  Hers were the words his elders repeated amongst themselves to help justify the sacrifices they were making and would continue to make.  So, understanding the relationship with Genčić, his “tennis mother,” is a route to better understanding Novak: the child he was as well as the man he’s becoming.

While the March 2012 60 Minutes feature on Djoković excerpted a few minutes of this conversation, a Serbian tv program, Agape, aired its full length, providing a significant perspective on his early development as both a player and a person. The first segment and opening part of the second are mostly in English.  I will provide translations in updates to this post.

Update:

To start at the end, with the closing montage voice-over (42:11):

  When was the last time you heard a story that encourages, inspires, and endures?

  Kopaonik, 1993: Novak Djoković meets Jelena Genčić for the first time.  He watches the training through the fence around the court.  He’s there every day, until Jeca finally asks him, “Would you like to play tennis, too, dear?”  “This whole time I’ve been waiting for you to invite me.”

  A little man with a big dream, a neat bag for practice, and a short cross-court backhand shot.  “This one is mine,” thought Jelena, and said aloud, “For you it is written.  You’ll be in the top five in the world at 17.”  The boy drank in every word.

  He beat the best of the best, stronger in body and richer in soul.  Jelena taught him that the arm doesn’t play tennis, but rather the soul which leads it.  Jeca and Nole: thousands of hours on court, hundreds of serves, slices, forehands, volleys, and smashes—as well as hundreds of poems, books, concerts: the wisdom of the ages. And even many springs and falls and winters—until there came a summer, when… [cuts from images of childhood training in Serbia to Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2011]  He becomes first… and lifts the golden trophy above his head.  Novak Djoković, world #1.

Update II:

On Monday, September 23, while also celebrating his 100 weeks at number 1 in the ATP rankings, Djoković and his girlfriend of eight years, Jelena Ristić, got engaged.  In light of this news, it seemed appropriate to share some of Novak’s observations on his important relationships (34:47).

JG: Can I ask you about something different now?

: You can.

JG: You know how it always was when we talked like this—we wandered here and there… [Therein commences an exemplary digression about a dog of their mutual acquaintance.]  Can I ask, how is Jelena?

: She’s good—excellent.

JG: Give her my best.

: I will.

JG: He may not remember (or, he does) when he brought her—where else, to see me, but the tennis courts, right?

: Jeca, what can I say, other than that I’ve always liked the name Jelena.  So…

JG: I knew it!

: That has followed me.

The interviewer chimes in (35:59): How much does this harmonious relationship with Jelena [Ristić] mean to you and what about her won you over?

: Well, we’ve been in a relationship for six years now and she is also my great support, someone I lean on a lot.  She won me over first of all with her sincerity, her intelligence— and, ultimately, we developed a great understanding, a great love…. Without this you can’t maintain any relationship.

To be honest, that balance in my private life and the equilibrium that I have between my professional and private life very much helps me be happy and emotionally fulfilled and to somehow carry everything more lightly.  People need to be dedicated to their professions, particularly one like tennis, which is the most demanding sport today as it has a longer season than any other.  So, you have to be professional and persistent, in the desire to fulfill your dreams.  But, on the other hand, your whole life can’t be reduced to work.

You need to have the right balance, to cherish and respect love—toward your family, parents, brothers, girlfriend, wife, friends.  You shouldn’t forget where you come from, from what country.  You shouldn’t forget the past: situations you’ve been through, people who helped along the way.  That’s how I was brought up and I’ve tried my whole life to surround myself with people who honestly want the best for me.  And I really believe that it’s precisely because I was around people like Jelena [tapping Genčić on the knee]—both Jelenas—as well as my family, my friends, people who truly wished the best for me, people who aren’t there because I’m a successful tennis player but who’ve really been there, with me, for a long, long time.  Of course, my parents, who were there my whole life, who raised me and believed in me and my abilities.  So, there it is.  Because of these people and their support, I’ve managed to overcome my psychological barriers and crises, and so on (problems, even in puberty, like everyone else)—and succeeded in arriving in the situation where we are now: to be #1.

JG: Bravo!

: …and to come to Jeca’s house!

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 from 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.

✍✍✍✍✍✍✍

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.

Q & A: A Few Words on “Vika-Gate”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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