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)

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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.”

✍✍✍

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.

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.

✈ ✈ ✈ ✈ ✈

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.