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

This piece was published on the (apparently-defunct) Tennis Space in May 2013.  I was inspired to re-post it this week by a scene at the ATP tournament in Vienna, where Viktor Troicki had another of his infamous meltdowns.

After what he perceived to be a bad call to put him down a break-point in the first, Troicki made his displeasure known to the lines-person, Chair Umpire Timo Janzen, and his more experienced colleague Cédric Mourier, who was watching from the sidelines.  Upon losing the set, 6-4, Troicki had a further outburst—unlike the first, however, these complaints were both mostly directed toward a sympathetic member of his team and in Serbian.  As he walked to his chair, Troicki was followed by a line judge, who seems to have reported that the Serb’s yelling included some choice curses; only then does the umpire call him for a code violation.  Given how this incident was resolved, have matters improved over the past three years?

➼ ➼ ➼ ➼ ➼ ➼ ➼

In Madrid this week, there was a tense exchange between Novak Djoković and a crowd that was not simply lively or partisan toward his opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, but at times almost inexplicably hostile to the Serb.  After saving a match point and winning the second-set tiebreaker, the men’s No. 1 defiantly shouted a vulgar phrase in his native tongue.  While it stands to reason that few in the Caja Mágica understood what he was saying, Djoković’s outburst—or, more specifically, the lack of response to it from Chair Umpire Carlos Bernardes—nevertheless reignited an ongoing tennis debate.  In an international sport with a global television audience, is it fair for only those players speaking English (or, in rare cases, the language of the umpire) to get penalized for violations of the “audible obscenity” rule?

atp-audible-obscenity
1.  Players on both tours agree to abide by a code of conduct geared toward encouraging professional behavior and promoting the integrity and positive image of tennis.  In fact, the code is in effect throughout the tournament grounds, though fans generally hear about it only when it’s been breached during a match.  The audible obscenity rule, which can include point penalties as well as fines of up to $5,000 per violation (up to $20,000 at Slams), differs from rules about the game itself as it concerns consideration for those within earshot of the court.  As the rule is general, merely stating that a player can be called for a violation if he or she uses “words commonly known and understood to be profane and uttered clearly and loudly enough to be heard,” it makes sense that it should apply equally to all players.  Or, if that seems unrealistic, perhaps the powers that be will consider abandoning the rule altogether rather than maintaining a double standard.

2.  While audible obscenities are hardly a plague on the sport, it’d be a good idea for WTA, ATP, and ITF administrators to put their heads together and decide if they’re committed to the rule, what principles are behind it (for instance, is it intended to safeguard only the sensibilities of on-site spectators or those of all viewers?), and how to more fairly implement it.  With the number of languages spoken by players, however, this may be easier said than done.  We witnessed just how complicated—albeit entertaining—it can be earlier this year in Miami, when Chair Umpire Marija Čičak assessed a code violation to Svetlana Kuznetsova after she shouted a word that sounded like profanity in the player’s native Russian but turned out to be the Spanish word for “court.”  Still, given that umpires call the score and request fans to be “Quiet, please” in various languages, I see no reason why they can’t be asked to master a short list of choice words in the three most common linguistic clusters on tour: Romanic, Germanic, and Slavic.  (Readers who think this would be an onerous task for tournament officials are welcome to suggest alternatives.)  If such a change encourages more players to learn Chinese, so be it.

3.  The above example aside, determining whether a player has used an obscenity is relatively straightforward.  Umpires, then, have only two judgment calls to make before enforcing the rule.  Was the profanity sufficiently loud so that others, including ball-kids, will have heard it?  Was there anything “flagrant” or “egregious” about the utterance that would warrant the player’s being assessed with a major offense of “aggravated behavior”?  Unless the act falls under separate rules for verbal abuse or unsportsmanlike conduct, the direction in which a player is cursing—at him- or herself or in the general direction of the stands—doesn’t matter.  As likely goes without saying, players are expected to comport themselves professionally, however frustrated they may be or poorly a crowd behaves.

4.  Having said that, the umpire can and should warn a crowd if it gets out of hand.  (For the record, I think cheering for faults and whistling or booing a player’s winners is a pretty low standard of behavior.)  Everyone, especially players, likes an active and engaged audience.  But since tennis has a longstanding tradition of silence, excepting “oohs” and “aahs,” during points, there’s good reason for officials to intervene before the atmosphere gets too rowdy.  Even in Davis and Fed Cup, there are limits.  While all players must learn to deal with adverse conditions, no player should have to put up with deliberate distractions or disrespect from spectators.  To disrespect players is, after all, to disrespect the game.

5.  Call it wishful thinking, but I think that if the rule were more fairly applied, we’d see two positive developments.  First, non-Anglophone players would likely clean up their on-court exclamations.  Second, fans might be less inclined to make moral judgments in response to players’ colorful verbiage.  What sounds unusual or awfully vulgar to me may be common or fairly benign in another language, even another dialect.  Almost without exception, players curse—they’re human, like the rest of us.  And, in the immortal words of Andy Murray, they do so while “trying their tits off.”  By all means, apply the rule to all players; then, let’s cut them some slack.  Sound fair?

Troicki: “I was always a fighter”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: Well, they have to maintain their position.

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

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

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

Troicki Triumphs in Sydney. Photo: Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Photo: Lotto Sport Italia

Photo: Lotto Sport Italia

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

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

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

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

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

AM: There was an intimidation factor?

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

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

AM: How was the road trip with your team?

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

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

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

Flashback: 2004. Photo: Getty Images.

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

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

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

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

2015 Stuttgart finalists. Photo: Peter Staples/ ATP

2015 Stuttgart finalists. Photo: Peter Staples/ ATP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jason Reed/ Reuters

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

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

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

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

“He’s achieved a heck of a lot, hasn’t he?” Jack Reader on Viktor Troicki

When his 2015 campaign came to an end with a loss to Stan Wawrinka at the Paris Masters, Viktor Troicki didn’t seem particularly disappointed.  Instead, he posted a photo of his celebratory dinner on social media.

It’s no wonder: including his Davis Cup commitments, the Serbian #2 played 31 tournaments this year—the most of any player in the ATP’s top 30 (Djoković, by contrast, played only 17).  This heavy schedule might have taken both a mental and a physical toll, but Troicki surely won’t mind, given what he’s been through in recent years.

With tennis players vacationing or engaged in pre-season training in sunny climates, it’s time to reflect on what Troicki has accomplished during his first full season on tour after a year-long suspension in 2013-14.  Fans will recall that Troicki, ranked 847 upon his return last July, had already managed to boost his ranking to 102 by late November 2014—enough to earn himself a direct entry to the main draw of the Australian Open.  Even more impressive is what he’s managed since then: getting back to the ATP’s top 25.  Earlier this year, I sat down with the Serbian player and his Australian coach for two wide-ranging conversations about his comeback, their relationship, and, naturally, the case that forced him to sit on the sidelines for a year.  What follows are some of the highlights.  You can read the Serbian version of the interviews on B92.

*****

First came a discussion with Jack Reader, the straight-talking coach who stood by Troicki’s side despite having every right to break his contract due to the Serb’s ban.  Knowing that Reader has a reputation as an unconventional character, a “maverick,” I was curious to learn a bit about his life as well as his coaching philosophy.

Photo: Bianca De Marchi

Reader was born in England, raised in coastal Australia, and has traveled all his life—living in New Zealand, Florida, Germany, and Italy.  “I’ve had a few experiences in life,” observes Reader.  “You think, ‘What is life?’  I just try to enjoy it.”  This is an easy-going philosophy he’s tried to impart upon his Serbian pupil.  “I have to remind Viktor: what did you want to do when you were a kid?  You loved playing tennis and wanted to do it.  That’s what you’re doing now, so how can you be annoyed?  You’ve got to learn to enjoy this stuff.”

Before he teamed up with Troicki in late 2012, Reader worked with the talented but unpredictable Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov for three years, assisting his young charge climb from the Challenger level to the top of the men’s tour and a career-high ranking of #13.

AM: How do you transition between players?  What kind of adjustments are entailed when they have different playing styles, different personalities?

JR: I try and find the best in them.  It takes a while.  I look at them—I don’t just open my mouth and start saying things.  I’m quiet.  As I said to Vik the first time, “I’m probably not going to say anything for a while.”  I just relax, start to understand his personality, and eventually I find out how he feels his strokes, ask him to try a couple of things, ask what he thinks.

It’s their tennis—you try to guide them and get feedback from them.  You know, there’s not one way to hit a tennis ball.  Just take Rafa and Roger—it’s pretty much night and day in terms of the ease and effort put into hitting a tennis ball, isn’t it?  But who’s hitting it the “right” way? Whoever’s winning that day, I guess.

AM: In the coach-player dynamic, the player hires the coach—so people tend to think of the coach as an employee.  Presumably, though, you won’t work with just any player.  What you look for in a prospective partnership?

JR: First, you have to be able to get on well.  That’s imperative, because you spend a heck of a lot of time with them.  You travel together, having breakfast and dinner together most of the time.  And then there’s the work.  As you go along, you have to be compatible.  Alex and Viktor are quite different, but I find the good in both of them.

When Vik and I first decided to try, I wanted spend some time in Belgrade.  I wanted to meet his family; I wanted to meet his friends and see how he lives.  I went out with him socially—had a few drinks with his friends and spoke to them.  I had dinner with his mum and dad a number of times—to get to know them.  That way, you understand where a person comes from, see how they think and how they react to situations, how they’ve been brought up.

AM: What were your impressions of Serbia?

JR: I love going to Belgrade—I enjoy Serbia.  It’s totally different to how I expected.  In Australia, we have a lot of ex-Yugoslavs, and they seem to bring the problems with them.  There was always a lot of aggression between them in Australia.  So I thought, “Wow, this is going to be interesting to go to Serbia.  If it’s going to be full of people like that, what’s it going to be like?”  Then, I went there and the people were super-nice to me and I had a great time.  I like it.

AM: Viktor’s an interesting personality, I think, because he combines quiet and shy with a more emotional and demonstrative side.  Did you see the passionate part of Serbia on those trips to Belgrade?

JR: Oh, sure.  You get used to it.  I’ve lived in different countries and I speak German and Italian.  Like in Italy, when you don’t understand the language, you feel a little uncomfortable.  For example, the Italians scream and yell and you think, “Are they going to fight?”  Then they’re laughing and getting along—and you come to understand the nature of the people.  I think that’s much the same with the Serbs, too. You have to understand it.

Photo: Getty Images

AM: Before you started working together, Viktor had already hit a peak in 2011 (with a career-high of #12), but was struggling.

JR: Yeah, he was going down.  He hadn’t won many matches.  The worst thing that happened was that his forehand was, well, laughable.  At that stage, it was pretty bad.  But we got to Belgrade and I did a few things and he liked what I was doing and I liked how he approached things.  So, that’s when we both decided we’d like to work together.

Unfortunately, we had to wait until the Aussie Open to really start.  I couldn’t do pre-season with him because I’d given my word to somebody that I’d work with him for a month.  At first, Vik didn’t want to have an interview and trial with me because I said, “Yes, I’d be interested, but I’ve got to do this month because I verbally agreed to it and I stick by my word.”  Then, he spoke to his manager and decided, “No, I actually like that.  I admire that, so I think we’ll try.”  You know, sometimes Vik’s a bit impatient; then he reflects on it.  That’s something he’s got to learn—a bit of patience sometimes.  It’s a youthful thing: you want it straight away, in a day.  But I think he’s learning now that sometimes you have to chip away at things—tap, tap, tap.

AM: What have been some of his other improvements since 2013?

JR: It’s now twelve months since he started again and he’s reached #20 in the world.  There have been some bad losses, too, which could have made a big difference.  So, there’s a balance there. I expected him to come back, otherwise I wouldn’t have stuck by.  There’s only about twenty guys above him at the moment, so that’s not bad.

Physically, I think he’s a lot better—Miloš Jelasavčić has done a great job with him.  (He works with Gilles Simon as well.)  The year off, I think, also rested his body.  It’s a stressful game—lots of repetition, particularly in terms of serving, and unnatural movements all the time make for wear and tear on the body.  Especially playing matches: when you’re competing, you’re a bit tense because you’re making things happen, whereas practice is nice and relaxed.  So, I think he’s earned a couple of extra years on his career because of the time off—that’s how we look at it.

Mentally, he’s doing a lot better.  You know, everybody gets mad sometimes. But I think, in general, he’s improved very much and his approach to tennis has improved.

AM: Viktor is well-known for a few things: scoring the winning point in Davis Cup in 2010, of course, and now his suspension and comeback.  But there have also been some funny on-court moments that went “viral” —the ball-boy incident at Roland Garros in 2011 and the line call dispute in Rome. What were you thinking at that moment?

JR: Well, I wasn’t happy at first.  But then I was pleased at the way he turned it around and kind of made it into a joke.  The initial loss of self-control is something he’s had to improve on.  You know, sometimes you lose it that little too much; but he’s getting much more control now.

AM: You wrote an open letter to Viktor during his suspension, explaining why you were sticking with him, even though there was an “exit” clause in your contract.  Were you confident then that you’d made the right decision?

JR: Leaving money aside, my decision was made on moral grounds more than anything.  I thought it was ridiculous, what happened.

AM: How was your relationship affected by going through this difficult experience together?

JR: Well, I think it’s a false world, in a way, the tennis world.  You’re so popular when you’re doing well—and that’s how it is with celebrity.  But people are so quick to drop you.  Nobody gives a hoot and nobody’s prepared to do anything for someone like Vik, in this case.  They don’t want to say anything or get in trouble—they just leave it alone. So, I think he was appreciative of somebody being there, you know, sticking by him.  To me, it was unjust what happened to him.

AM: What did you do during the period when Viktor wasn’t yet training full time?

JR: I worked with an Aussie junior.  I had a few offers, but I made it quite clear that I was going back to Viktor to finish the job with him; so, I didn’t want to start full-term with someone else. Then, Sergei Bubka got in touch with me.  He’d had a big fall and broken a bunch of bones—he’s got metal here & there.  So, he came out to Australia and I worked with him quite a bit.  I’d go with Vik, then go back to Sergei, then go with Vik again.
AM: After all your experience at the top level of the ATP, what was it like to spend a few months on the Challenger tour?

JR: And the Futures! I did the Futures with Sergei.  Then, when Vik started back, he had to go to Challengers.  He did well enough that we didn’t need to go to Futures, but that could have happened.  We were prepared to have to go through that channel.

AM: Was anything about that interesting?  Didn’t you guys do a road trip through Italy at one point?

JR: Yeah, I kind of enjoyed that.  I missed that.  It’s nice to be able to just drive from tournament to tournament.  It’s really good.

And everybody’s pretty good—number 300, even 600 in the world. They play well, you know, so you have to compete. Good on Viktor for keep his mentality—a lot of the time he didn’t play very good tennis, but he managed to keep going and getting results.

AM: As Novak says, you can be the favorite in every single match—you still have to go out and win it.

JR: Sure.

AM: How much of your job is about physical aspects of the game—working on the forehand, for instance—and how much is about strategy or tactics?

JR: Well, you’ve got to have the strokes up to a certain level so you can follow up with the strategy.  It’s pretty hard to give a tactic if somebody’s not comfortable with how they’re hitting the ball. Vik’s still making some improvements in that area, which is very pleasing.

AM: What do you consider the best parts of Viktor’s game? What are his biggest challenges?

JR: Well, he’s a very good athlete—and such a great retriever. We’re trying to get him to be a little more aggressive and back himself a bit more. In too many cases, he’s ready to sit back and wait for the other guy to lose.  That’s contributed to a few bad losses he’s had—he stopped being proactive.  But he’s getting there.

AM: It’s been a year and he’s already made this huge comeback.  Is this the hardest part now, staying at the top?

JR: No.  I think we’ve done the hardest part.  He’s got back to the top 25.  Now, he needs time to sit on a beach somewhere and reflect—absorb what he’s done, be happy, and then be ready to go again.  He’s achieved a heck of a lot, hasn’t he?

*****

Lesson 2: Admit There Are Things You Don’t Know

“Well, I am certainly wiser than this man.  It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance.  At any rate, it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”                                                                                  —Plato, Apology

Rest assured: recognizing the existence of uncertainty or confessing to lack knowledge on a given subject doesn’t make one’s position any weaker.  One could do worse, after all, than take the lead from Socrates, who posited that awareness of one’s ignorance is a step along the path of learning.

In that spirit, here’s some stuff I don’t know:
●    What actually happened that day: what the relevant parties said, thought, felt, or did (beyond what is represented in the IADT & CAS reports).
●    If Viktor Troicki has ever used PEDs or was doping in April 2013.  (Some will argue that this is the only thing that matters & since Troicki didn’t submit blood for testing that day, he himself forestalled further discussion of the case.  Obviously, I disagree with that position.)
●    Whether Troicki &/or the DCO deliberately misrepresented anything (to anyone) on the days in question or in their subsequent testimony.
●    Anything about the DCO involved other than what’s contained in (and can be deduced from) the two decisions.
●    What was in the written statements submitted on behalf of the parties or the oral testimony of witnesses at either hearing, unless it was quoted in the case summaries.
●    What I would have done in the position of any of those concerned.
●    Many, many other things—for instance, what’s in appendices two, three, five, or six of this rather lengthy TADP document.

However, since the end of last July, when Troicki’s suspension was first announced, I’ve filled in a few gaps in my knowledge.  At this point, I should probably note that while my blog’s name is a reference to Lucy van Pelt’s sideline offering psychiatric advice, I am neither a medical doctor nor a psychologist.  Luckily, one doesn’t have to be a board-certified MD or a licensed mental-health provider to enter the phrase “needle phobia” into an internet search engine.  Here’s what I learned in a matter of minutes, thanks to Google.

●    “Needle phobia” is the common name for a specific phobia of the “blood-injection-injury” type.  Specialists estimate that between 4-10% of the population suffer from it.
●    A specific phobia—called that because it is an “unwarranted fear of specific objects or situations”—is, in turn, a subset of the broader category anxiety disorder.  As probably goes without saying, both the specific blood-injection-injury phobia and anxiety disorders are medically-recognized conditions, the criteria for which are outlined in professional guides such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
●    Blood-injection-injury phobias (BIP) are marked by “a strong, persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable,” and can be triggered by not only a present object (e.g., a needle) but also an expected procedure.  Whatever the specific stimulus, the response is anxiety, with physical discomfort and distress that can be severe—that is, a panic attack &/or loss of consciousness.  According to one clinician’s guide, “A person who must face one of these feared activities or objects will immediately begin to feel nervous or panicky, a condition known as anticipatory anxiety…. When it causes a patient to avoid feared situations, anticipatory anxiety can be a major inconvenience; it can even interfere with working” (259).  That the person may be aware his/her fear is “out of proportion to the actual danger or threat in the situation” doesn’t mean he/she has the power to control his/her response to it (6).
●    The condition—aspects of which can be genetically inherited, as well as learned—is a “neglected diagnosis,” in part because people who suffer from it “typically avoid medical care.”
●    Physiological symptoms associated with BIP include: sweat, muscle tension, trembling, heart palpitations, numbness, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, pallor, and difficulty breathing.  (While I consulted more authoritative sources than Wikipedia, much of the essential information is on that site.)
●    Significantly, BIP is also the only variety of specific phobia associated with vasovagal response, a type of neuro-cardiac episode involving decreased heart rate &/or blood pressure which can result in fainting.  Even if he/she doesn’t faint, a person suffering from a vasovagal episode “may experience an almost indescribable sensation of weakness or impending doom” (9).
●    As scientific studies have observed, BIPs “can be so severe that they interfere with receiving necessary medical care.”  Also, unlike patients with other kinds of phobia, those who suffer from BIP “are typically less responsive to relaxation techniques, which in fact may be counterproductive.”
●    Because BIP can cause fainting, falls, & associated trauma, it’s important that those drawing blood from a needle-phobic patient be aware of the condition and have ready assistance.

With this information at hand, let’s return to Pete Bodo’s assessment: “Personally, I have some trouble buying the idea that a strapping, 6’3” professional athlete in the full bloom of health is so squeamish that he can’t give blood.”  In concluding his post, Bodo observes, “The reality is that not you, not I, not even the great former No. 1 and six-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic, really knows the truth about how and why Troicki decided to skip that blood test.”  He’s not entirely wrong, is he?  We don’t know the whole truth: after all, none of us were in the room or, more importantly, in Troicki’s body that day.  But here are a few things someone even minimally curious about blood-injection-injury phobia does know: that it’s not about being “squeamish” (consider both the imprecision and connotation of that word choice, if you will); that one of the three basic criteria of the condition is avoiding needle procedures altogether or, when unavoidable, enduring them with considerable distress; and that, yes, a professional athlete—whether “strapping” or not—can suffer from it.  That’s the thing about such medical disorders, which (in Troicki’s and some 75% of needle-phobes’ cases) have both inherited physiological and learned psychological components: they don’t discriminate.  And they don’t cease to exist or cause real difficulty in people’s personal and professional lives because some unaffected others are resistant to “buying the idea.”

While Bodo is certainly not the only tennis expert to establish himself as something less than that when it comes to needle phobia, his invocation of Troicki’s size, strength, and line of work in expressing his skepticism does considerably more harm than others’ inaccuracy or silence on the subject.  For starters, Bodo is among the most accomplished and respected of anglophone tennis writers; so, his word carries more weight than it might if he had a lesser reputation or smaller platform.  Next, he perpetuates ignorance and incuriosity about a mental-health condition by displaying his own—if not proudly, then certainly without hint of self-consciousness.  Further, he reinforces the stigma associated with the condition by implying it’s a kind of weakness.  (Although Bodo didn’t go the extra step of telling the Serb to “toughen up,” plenty of others suggested precisely this as a solution; one example is in the first reader question to which Tignor responds here.)  Not merely privately doubting but publicly questioning if Troicki—neither a tennis aesthete nor one of the WTA’s “tear-stained drama queens” but, let’s face it, a manly man—really suffers from an occasionally debilitating anxiety disorder speaks volumes about Bodo’s assumptions about physical ability, gender, mental health, and the relationship between them.  More than that, it speaks to the freedom people feel to judge and dismiss things they don’t understand.

This sort of attitude wouldn’t be so troubling if it weren’t so common.  That it is, unfortunately, so can be seen in many pop-cultural spheres, though sports appears to be lagging behind other parts of the entertainment industry when it comes to mental-health awareness.  Not incidentally, one of the best pieces of sports writing I read last year is “Man Up,” an essay Brian Phillips wrote on masculinity and mental health in response to a bullying scandal in the National Football League.  Tennis is not the NFL, and the mere fact that the former is an international, individual sport in which women and men compete alongside one another—on the same courts and, often, for equal prize money—means that there is more awareness of and sensitivity to difference than there might otherwise be.  But, as I’ll discuss in the next lesson, tennis is hardly ahead of the athletic pack when it comes to tackling mental-health issues among its ranks.

That Viktor Troicki suffers from a needle phobia—as opposed to being a person who simply “doesn’t like giving blood” or “didn’t want to provide a sample that day for his own personal reasons,” per Richard Ings’ characterizations—is abundantly clear from the IADT summary.  And if one doesn’t want to take Troicki’s word for it that “the giving of blood is something that he faces with trepidation and that induces feelings of panic,” that he has fainted during the procedure in the past, and “that he feels unwell for the rest of the day after” the process, there’s the testimony of Professor Slobodanka Djukić.  A specialist in microbiology and immunology who has treated Troicki in Belgrade, Professor Djukić confirmed that he “reported dizziness with vertigo, nausea and chest pain following the taking of blood samples” (B9I).  We might know even more about his condition had the IADT or CAS quoted from the statement the FFT’s Dr. Bernard Montalvan submitted on Troicki’s behalf.

Since neither the original decision nor the appeal went into much detail about how Troicki has responded to previous needle procedures as an ITF athlete undergoing required anti-doping tests or a human being seeking routine medical care, I decided to look into it myself.  Taking a bit more time than in my initial Google search, I gathered the following information about the condition.

●    Blood-injection-injury phobia—in part because it was only added to the DSM in 1994 and in part because people wrongly assume it’s “a simple issue”—is poorly understood and often dismissed, even by health-care professionals.  Still, as this clinical psychologist notes, “Good management of needle phobia can literally save lives.”
●    One of the challenges of researching BIP is that “the physical body is studied ‘in pieces’ in a number of different disciplines…. This is very apparent when reviewing the quantitative literature in and around needle phobia.  Classification as a specific phobia places needle phobia within the realm of psychology and psychiatry… and yet this is a fear that is accompanied by wide ranging physiological responses” (21).  In other words, while BIP isn’t “all in your head,” it is often regarded as the exclusive concern of proverbial “head-shrinkers.”  Several of the pieces I read indicated that needle-phobes are actually (even if not consciously) afraid of vasovagal syncope, not needles or blood—that is, of their body’s response, not the procedure in question.
●    Though many who suffer from BIP simply try to avoid triggering stimuli (e.g., by staying away from doctor’s offices), the condition can also be managed through alternative injection methods; with medication, from topical anesthetics & anti-anxiety drugs to sedation; and in therapy, particularly of the cognitive-behavioral variety.  Matthews notes that stories about treatment suggest “therapy, at best, needs to be highly individualized and is both very time consuming, expensive, and has variable success” (13).
●    Specific tips for managing phobias can be found here.  It bears repeating that trying to get someone who is needle-phobic to relax may well be the wrong thing to do, as it can actually increase the possibility of fainting.
●    A cognitive-behavioral psychologist I consulted recommended this title from the self-help aisle (and I can attest it makes perfectly decent airplane reading): Overcoming Medical Phobias: How to Conquer Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, and Dentists.
●    Unfortunately, “doctors, nurses, and other people tasked with administering vaccinations and drawing blood are not typically properly educated about needle phobia.  They’re accustomed to patients who dislike needles and may reassure them with promises that the puncture won’t hurt or will only take a minute.  But with a true needle phobic, these reassurances don’t work.”
●    As I wish went without saying, “the behaviour, skill and care afforded by health practitioners makes a significant difference in both preventing the development of needle phobia in children… and in lessening the phobic response and reported fear of adults” (13).  Chapter six of Matthews’ study offers recommendations for clinical practice, “in terms of [both] caring for patients with needle phobia and supporting and assisting nurses to provide expert technical and pathic care” (96).  Perhaps someone who works for the ITF &/or IDTM should read it.
●    Some evidence to support the claim that everything’s on YouTube: video tips for medical professionals who deal with patients’ fear of needles during the phlebotomy process.  Of course, not all such fears meet the diagnostic criteria for BIP.
●    Last, but not least, more needle-free procedures may soon be in our future.

What I take away from all of this is that there was nothing in the least unusual about Troicki’s seeking to avoid a needle procedure on that April day—or, for that matter, on any other.  Ings is no doubt correct when he observes, “seeking a pass that day was not necessary.”  At the same time, a statement like this fails to take the nature of the phobia into account.  Although it may not have been medically necessary “to skip it this time,” it clearly felt necessary to Troicki; in his words, he was “not able” to give blood (3.15C).  People with untreated BIP never want to give blood; they’d always prefer to bypass needle procedures—such is the condition.  In a case like this, where occasional blood testing is one of his professional obligations, Troicki has to cope with his condition better than he did that day.  This might be easier for him to do if he sought treatment (for all I know, he has done so over the past year).  In all likelihood, his condition would also be easier to manage if Viktor felt confident that the BCOs with whom he interacts on the job had been trained to deal with the challenges to the routine process someone like him poses.

There are so many “what if…?” questions we could ask about how the circumstances and outcome of that encounter might have been different.  What if Troicki had only been selected to give a urine sample that day?  What if he weren’t already feeling physically ill?  What if he’d encountered a DCO less inclined to be sympathetic and accommodating (this is not my view but, rather, how both Troicki and the CAS interpreted her behavior; see 9.12-14 and 9.28C) and more inclined to speak in authoritative, unequivocal terms about the seriousness of the situation?  I’m sure anyone reading this can think of other such questions.  The hypothetical question I think is most important (because it has implications far greater than Troicki’s one-year suspension) is this: what if the ITF recognized that needle phobia is a psychological disability that needs to be accommodated—for example, by modifying sample-collection procedures, as the International Standard for Testing, adopted by WADA signatories, allows for other forms of disability (see Appendix Four, section 5.4 and Annex B)?  I’ll return to the issue of disability in sports in lesson 4.

As I said at the outset, I don’t blame the DCO for not having been better prepared to handle the predicament last April.  It’s not her fault that “this was the first time [in 15 years of anti-doping work] that [she] found herself in the precise situation which she faced with Mr Troicki” (29aI).  (For that matter, we don’t even know if “the precise situation” refers to dealing with a player who’s requesting to get out of or delay giving a sample, dealing with a needle-phobic player, or both.)  Going forward, however, I will blame the ITF if they do little to learn from what transpired that day.  That writers weighing in on the subject, or other players and fans opining on it, could also stand to learn a bit more is fairly obvious from responses to Troicki’s case.  But the stakes of their not knowing relevant things—and, in many cases, seeming not to be aware they don’t know—are much lower.  Regardless, all those responding, whether formally or informally, would benefit from practicing empathy, the focus of lesson 3.  (Return to the discussion overview here.)

Lesson 1: Do Your Homework

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.—Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”

Different tennis constituencies—including players, the ITF, and sports journalists—have work to do in order to avoid or better respond to similar situations in the future.  Many discussions of the case have focused on Troicki’s seeming naiveté or ignorance of the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme, suggesting the problem could have been avoided if only he’d known and followed “the rules”—that is, had he not sought an exemption from them in the first place.  This “lesson” identifies and discusses a number of other things that the case reveals need, at minimum, review.

Players
The 2013 anti-doping cases, as well as responses to them, have revealed that some—perhaps many—players don’t know as much as they should about a key aspect of their professional lives.  (We assume they know the rules of the game itself, but not even that is always so, as USA Today’s Doug Robson discovered last year at Indian Wells.)  A few players’ public statements on the issue, including Troicki’s, also raised eyebrows— whether with confusion, concern, surprise, or disapproval.  While top players, especially, have certain media obligations during tournaments, no player is required to answer any specific question from a journalist.  Particularly if asked about a controversial subject, responding with some version of “No comment” is always an option.  Players choosing to speak on the topic du jour—be it time limits between serves, equal prize money, or anti-doping policy and procedure—would do themselves a favor to know whereof they speak.

●    When in doubt about tennis basics, players—as well as fans, media, & officials—can always consult the ITF’s various rule-books.
●    Regarding the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP), this “wallet card” outlining the essentials is a must-have for both players and their team members (ahem, Jack Reader).  New in 2014: a “wallet card” for mobile phones.
●    That players need to understand the TADP requirements, familiarize themselves with standard procedures, and know which substances are prohibited—as well as, more broadly, what constitutes a rule violation—seems like a no-brainer.  At the same time, I think it’s a bit much to expect players to have read the entire TADP document or to know the sanctions for rule violations they have no intention of committing.  (I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you how much speeding tickets cost in my city, though I exceed the limit knowingly and on the regular.)
●   As important as players’ TADP responsibilities are their rights.  Note that there are a number of valid reasons for a player to delay reporting to—or temporarily leave—the Doping Control Station (DCS).
●   Significantly, the ITF’s sheet on players’ rights & responsibilities is missing one key point listed on WADA’s Doping Control Form: “If you are an athlete with a disability, [you have the right to] request modifications to the sample collection procedure” (4; I discuss why this might be so in section 4).

Viktor Troicki, were he more familiar with his rights or had he consulted his wallet card (what are the chances that players bring their wallets to the DCS after a match?), may have been able to remind the DCO of the following: “Provided that [players] are chaperoned, [they] may delay reporting to and/or leave the DCS for one of the following activities: …obtaining medical treatment… [and] other exceptional circumstances, which must be approved by the DCO.”  Even if Troicki wasn’t aware of this right, the DCO—noting “he did not look well; he looked tired and weak,” having been informed of his needle phobia, and hearing his concerns about giving blood in this condition—certainly could have sought assistance herself or recommended he seek medical attention from another doctor (11I).

In fact, the CAS addressed this possibility both directly and indirectly.  First, they included the following detail, missing from the IADT report, in their overview of the case’s “factual background”: the DCO’s supervisor, when informed by e-mail of what had happened with Troicki that afternoon, responded by asking, “Did you call for the ATP doctor on site?” (3.21).  Comparing the CAS decision with sections 18-19 & 21 of the IADT document, it becomes clear that the latter presents the matter as if the player’s actions, not the DCO’s, were in question.  After hearing from her supervisor, the DCO made several inquires about whether Troicki had subsequently gone to see a doctor, and even suggested to the ATP supervisor that it “was not good for him” that he hadn’t.  (There’s no indication where that idea originated, but one effect of it in the IADT text is to imply that neither player nor coach took Troicki’s condition seriously.  There are certainly other ways of interpreting the flurry of activity on the DCO’s part, as well as the fact that Troicki wasn’t the one who took the initiative to follow up with officials the next morning.)  Second, they note that they would expect a DCO to “have been provided with the telephone numbers of relevant tournament personnel she could have contacted to assist her in such a situation” (9.28.1). Unfortunately, she wasn’t; nor did her office have internet access.  Third, their conclusion observes that the panel “finds surprising that there is no provision in the [TADP] requiring a DCO to call for the attendance of an ATP representative (for example an ATP doctor) in any case where an athlete refuses or fails to submit a sample collection, for medical or other reasons, or to remind the athlete about his or her rights and duties under the Programme” (10.2).  Not incidentally, while both the IADT and CAS decisions make numerous references to requirements and responsibilities, this sentence contains the only mention of a player’s rights in either document.

The CAS analysis confirms that the DCO didn’t clearly articulate the possible—indeed, likely, if not certain—consequences of failing to submit a sample to Troicki or his coach (see sections 9.9-14 and 9.28).  What the the arbitration panel didn’t do, in my view, is press further regarding other ways the DCO and Troicki could have resolved their impasse.  Specifically, they didn’t seem to challenge a rather beside-the-point comment from the DCO: that “the DCO and his or her assistant cannot leave the DCS” (9.28.1).  As the TADP materials establish, the player may temporarily leave the DCS, as long as he/she is chaperoned.  As it happens, Roger Federer provided an example of such “exceptional circumstances” in London: once, after being selected to provide a urine sample, he couldn’t “go to the toilet.”  “It’s happened to me one time,” he shared; “Then the [chaperone] has to stay with you all night.  It just becomes really complicated.”  (Maybe it’s me, but that sounds more awkward than complicated.  Was Mirka there, too?)  In the case at hand, the player or his coach could have gone to fetch an ATP doctor—whether to provide treatment or to assist with the drawing of blood.  And had Troicki been accompanied by a chaperone over night, his blood test the next morning may have meant much more than it did.  So, while it may be true that the DCO didn’t have the authority to tell Troicki if his medical condition was a “compelling justification” for skipping a blood test altogether, it’s not the case that players aren’t ever allowed to delay giving samples.  Unless I’m misinterpreting the TADP, that is, both Troicki and the DCO had other—likely mutually agreeable—options that fell within the rules.

✍✍✍

As for players speaking to media on anti-doping issues, I was impressed by the measured comments in press from most who were asked about the subject.  (Reactions from the week after the two ATP suspensions were announced are here.)  However, when addressing the Troicki case, specifically, I think a few players erred in saying too much on the basis of too little knowledge.  For instance, Federer’s comments in Shanghai and London suggest he wasn’t following the case very closely (which is, of course, his prerogative).  His general responses wouldn’t be a problem in the least if those quoting them noted that they were just that—general responses.  Granted, it doesn’t make for great copy to quote the GOAT saying, “Uhm, look, I don’t know the conversation, the situation, exactly what happened” or “Honestly, I don’t talk a whole lot with other players about it.”  But it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge that he is speaking largely from personal experience, so that statements like “I believe whatever [the CAS] decided on” should be taken with a grain of salt, since they’re not coming from someone who has spent much (if any) time looking over their decision.

On the other end of the spectrum from the diplomatic Swiss is Djoković, who was arguably following the Troicki case too closely and not closely enough at the same time.  What I mean is that Novak, while proving to be a loyal friend and passionate advocate of players’ rights, did not always establish himself a master of objectivity or reading comprehension.  This last may be a bit unfair, as I doubt Djoković had time to read a 31-page document (in its entirety or closely) before making his “statement” following a match with Federer the day of the CAS decision.  But, in both London and Beijing a month earlier, Novak made what I think are ill-advised, even irresponsible, comments about the DCO in Troicki’s case, saying “she was lying a lot” and accusing her of “negligence and… unprofessionalism.”  Though I appreciate that he was speaking from the heart, and believe he had plenty of worthwhile criticisms of both the procedure in this case and larger issues of tennis politics, his legitimate points were somewhat overshadowed by the less accurate, more sensational (and thus headline-grabbing) ones.

ITF
As Troicki’s case makes abundantly clear, the ITF—and, specifically, the IDTM firm to whom they’ve outsourced their drug-testing efforts—needs to improve sample-collecting protocols to decrease the possibility that their staff are muddying, rather than clarifying, the waters.  Comparing the IADT and CAS decisions, it’s tough not to be struck by the different pictures they paint.  Little of this helps the ITF’s credibility with regard to anti-doping efforts.
●   The CAS panel’s analysis (especially sections 9.7-14 and 9.27-28) and conclusion merit review by everyone involved in the TADP.
●    ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti is certainly right to encourage interested parties to read the CAS decision, and probably isn’t wrong that some “critics of Viktor Troicki’s doping suspension have misunderstood” aspects of it.  At the same time, I doubt it’s true that all disagreement with the decision is due to “a problem of words”—for instance, a failure to grasp the difference between “no fault” and “no significant fault.”  Ricci Bitti might earn some credit with players by indicating a willingness to listen to critics’ legitimate concerns about how this case was handled by both the IDTM representative and the IADT, in particular.
●    The ITF has already indicated procedures are “likely to be changed in 2014 to say that, where a player refuses or fails to provide a sample (as Mr. Troicki did), the doping control officer should try to offer the player an opportunity to speak to the event supervisor or referee to confirm the player’s responsibilities under the program.”  Hopefully, this change will also mention that players should be given a chance to speak to a doctor or other advocate—not merely rule-enforcers—before or during DCS visits.
●   From manager Stuart Miller on down, those involved in any aspect of the TADP might review players’ rights under the program (elaborated upon in Appendix 4 of the TADP).
●    The ITF leadership could also stand to reflect a bit more on the fact that the stated purpose of the TADP is not only “to maintain the integrity of tennis” but also “to protect the health and rights of tennis players participating in Covered Events” (1.1).

In reading over the relevant documents, I didn’t find a lot of evidence to support the idea that the DCO in this case did much to “to protect the health and rights” of a player who was physically ill, experiencing anxiety about his needle procedure, and looking to avoid a full-blown panic attack and/or fainting episode when he entered the DCS.  On the one hand, I don’t blame her: regardless of whether the Blood Collection Officer holds a medical degree, it’s not actually the DCO’s job to treat patients.  Instead, as their titles— emphasizing “control” and “collection”—indicate, they are officers of the “law” that is the TADP: specifically, the World Anti-Doping Code (see 1.2, 1.7).  Further, if this DCO was less than adept in handling a needle-phobe, she is hardly unique in this and likely didn’t get much help from the player, as I’ll discuss in the next section.  On the other hand, while they are not technically doctors caring for patients but officers implementing (and, to some degree, enforcing) the “law” upon its “subjects,” BCOs are still operating in the guise of health-care professionals.  The procedure they are responsible for isn’t an administrative transaction (like filling in a form) but one involving fairly intimate contact with real—and sometimes vulnerable—human bodies.  So, in cases like this, as the CAS suggested, it’s reasonable to expect the DCO to seek assistance from another doctor on site or at least advise the player to get medical attention elsewhere since he/she is not in a position to provide it.  Neither of these things happened in Monte Carlo last April.

Nor did I find evidence in the IADT or CAS decisions to indicate that they gave much thought to the matter of Troicki’s “health and rights.”  Although both groups accepted his needle phobia diagnosis as a fact, it was barely discussed in their decisions.  They did acknowledge Viktor’s “stress” as a mitigating factor when it came to determining his penalty (46I).  But they didn’t, in my view, take it sufficiently seriously when addressing whether he had a “compelling justification” for committing the rule violation in the first place or in considering how the ITF, going forward, might adjust their procedures to accommodate needle-phobic players—specifically, with reference to the part of the TADP that addresses, in a limited way, “modifications for athletes with disabilities” (Appendix 4, section 5.4.1 and Annex B).  That Troicki’s preexisting medical condition played a significant role in the interaction between him and the DCO would be self-evident to anyone who understands what needle phobia entails.  But maybe that’s precisely the problem: it’s not obvious that the anti-doping authorities involved—from the DCO on up to the two doctors who sat on the IAD tribunal—had the requisite knowledge.

Nevertheless, the IADT felt free to repeatedly opine on Troicki’s “state of mind” (50I).  Most notably, they judged his credibility as a witness, assessed how “reasonable” he was on the day in question (39, 44I), and concluded that “Mr Troicki acted in the way that he did in consequence of the stress that he was under—in this case, as a result of a combination of his physical condition and his panic at the prospect of giving blood” (46I).  Call me crazy, but it would be my preference that those using “a little psychoanalysis”—as Tignor describes the Tribunal’s process in deciding to accept the DCO’s account of events over Troicki’s—be trained in the field and experienced with the medical condition in question. (The IADT members in this case are specialists in sports medicine, physiotherapy, and anti-doping; as far as I’m aware, no psychologist provided testimony.)

Tennis Experts                                                                                                                Many of those addressing anti-doping policy and procedure need to take greater care with such work, starting with reading the IADT or CAS rulings before commenting on specific cases.  While I’m using “experts” to refer to journalists above all, I also have in mind tv commentators, bloggers, and those with expert or informational power, if not formal positions, in the tennis world.  (Among the second group, for example, I include the anonymous blogger who runs the THASP site and Richard Ings, the former umpire who headed the ATP’s anti-doping program a decade ago, whose Twitter feed focuses on “drugs in sport”).  The expert’s professional position—and social media platform—brings with it some responsibilities.  Since informing readers is first among them, it seems worth double-checking to see that one has gotten the facts right, quoted sources accurately, provided relevant context, and not left out any important details.

For what it’s worth, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to wade through lengthy documents about the Troicki case.  After all, not every tennis writer relishes close-reading texts or has a law degree (though at least three North Americans—Courtney Nguyen, Kamakshi Tandon, and Jon Wertheim—do).  But if one is going to discuss it in print, can’t we agree there’s a minimum amount of preparation one should do?  After all, an opinion unsupported by a decent grasp of the issues is next to worthless to tennis fans, who can access the reports themselves.

Before proceeding, let me be clear that I don’t think any journalist discussing the case deliberately or maliciously distorted it to favor either Troicki’s or the ITF’s claims.  Repeatedly, though, writers got aspects of the case wrong—or not quite right.

A sample:
1.    A BBC article on the case claimed that “two independent panels have concluded that [the DCO] did inform the Serb of the consequences of leaving the anti-doping room without first providing a blood sample.”  This is simply not so.  The IADT accepted the ITF’s argument that the DCO hadn’t given Troicki “unequivocal assurance, without any qualification” that “he definitely would not be sanctioned if he did not give blood on that occasion” (39, 44I; my emphasis).  Further, the CAS agreed with them that the DCO a) told Troicki that she did not have the authority to determine if his reason for delaying the blood test was valid, and b) eventually got him to sign the BCF acknowledging awareness that his behavior “may be treated as an anti-doping rule violation” (12I, my emphasis; the corresponding phrases in 9.29C note that he “could” or “might face sanctions”).  However, they were quite critical of a number of things the DCO “did and did not do,” going so far as to say that she’d “failed to heed [IDTM] recommendations” that might have prevented Troicki from exiting the DCS believing there would be no problem (9.11, 9.13C).  Notably, there was no evidence that the DCO told Troicki that the standard penalty for breaking the rule in question is a two-year suspension.  Had she done so, there would have been no need for this information to be conveyed in a footnote of the IADT ruling (40I) and, needless to say, no reason for the CAS to make the recommendations they did (10.2-3C).

2.    Predictably, Serbian media were most interested in Troicki’s version of events and the reactions of their other top players.  Unfortunately, there was widespread failure to note that short of the CAS overturning the IADT decision, the one-year mandatory minimum ban was the best possible outcome for Troicki.  Nor did local journalists correct Djoković’s assertion that his teammate’s not being allowed to enter Belgrade Arena during the final stages of Davis Cup was “not a normal situation.”  Who knows if ITF spokesman Nick Imison’s idea of circulating hard-copy excerpts of the relevant policy for suspended players resulted in more accurate coverage of the matter; after all, a headline quoting Novak—“Troicki’s not a terrorist or murderer”—draws more eyeballs.

3.    In various English-language outlets, including Sports Illustrated, Troicki’s reasons for seeking to avoid or delay having blood drawn were understated, with writers saying Troicki didn’t “give a sample because he said he felt unwell,”  “was ill on the day,” or was “too sick.”  (In fairness, both Nguyen and Wertheim had mentioned Troicki’s fear of needles in earlier posts on the topic, although only the former used the clinical term “phobia.”)  Still other articles, while raising plenty of good points about the case, didn’t mention Troicki’s mental &/or physical condition—only that he did “not want to take a [blood] test.”  Such oversights seem telling, even if it’s not obvious what they’re saying.

4.    Unsurprisingly, then, top players also described aspects of the case in incomplete, if not entirely inaccurate, ways.  For example, Federer: “I do believe that when you are requested for a sample, you have to give the sample.  It doesn’t matter how bad you feel.  I’m sorry.”  As I’ll elaborate in the next section, “feeling bad” doesn’t adequately capture what’s involved during a needle-phobic episode; nor does it address the other factors contributing to the misunderstanding between Troicki and the DCO.

✍✍✍

At the risk of alienating my friends at Tennis magazine, I’ll single out their colleague Pete Bodo for not doing his homework before weighing in on the matter.  Focusing on three sentences of his “Three Controversies” post should be enough to make my point.  Bodo offers: “Personally, I have some trouble buying the idea that a strapping, 6’3” professional athlete in the full bloom of health is so squeamish that he can’t give blood.”  I’ll get to the most problematic parts of this comment in the next section.  Suffice it to say here that anyone checking Troicki’s ATP profile will learn he’s 6’4”; further, witnesses to the day in question attested to his lack of a rosy glow (including the DCO, who had nothing to gain by doing so).  It may seem petty or pedantic to call attention to minor errors like this, but my motivation is a serious one.  If readers can’t count on writers to get basic, easily verifiable facts right, how can we trust them on more complicated matters of interpretation or argument?

“What happened to Troicki was a manifestation of the drug-testing protocol working exactly as it should,” Bodo continues.  Other than Stuart Miller and other ITF executives looking to save face in the wake of a major controversy, how many people familiar with the case would endorse this claim?  Bodo is, of course, welcome to disagree with Djoković—and to agree with the CAS and virtually everyone in the anglophone media—about whether Troicki had a “compelling justification” for failing to give blood when selected.  But even those who take no issue with the ultimate outcome of the investigation and appeal are likely aware of the problems with the ITF’s testing procedure illuminated by Troicki’s case.  Can’t or don’t want to read the full CAS report before pressing “publish”?  That’s ok.  You could skip ahead to its conclusion and peruse two paragraphs to discover this statement is off-base.  If you have a bit more time on your hands (say, enough to read five pages), you could look over the measured criticisms of the process in section 9, too.  For that matter, you could read Steve Tignor’s analysis of the decision, posted the day before his colleague’s piece.

According to Bodo, the ITF’s testing protocols operate by way of the “same rules for all, zero tolerance for cheats or excuse making.”  This statement is fine—in the abstract.  But how well does it apply to Troicki’s case, in particular?  Not even the ITF tried to prove that the Serbian player was a “cheat.”  Those who read the CAS analysis know the panel agreed with the IADT’s finding that “there is no suggestion that this failure or refusal [to give blood] was in fact prompted by the player’s desire to evade the detection of a banned substance in his system” (9.28.4).  Was Troicki “making excuses” on that April day or engaged in “outright lying” subsequently?  Interestingly enough, all four aspects of his argument for “compelling justification” (a pre-existing needle phobia, physical illness, a panicked state of mind, and the DCO’s lack of clarity) were either accepted as fact or granted considerable weight by the CAS.  They’re the reasons, after all, that his appeal was partially upheld.  Lastly, is it even a good idea for the system to treat a player with a needle phobia the same way that it treats a player without one—that is, to fail to acknowledge or accommodate a disability?  The criticisms Djoković and others have made is not of a rule, per se, but of how it was and should be implemented in practice.  In sum, Bodo’s presentation of the case leaves a lot to be desired and leads us to lesson 2: feel free to admit when there’s something you don’t know.  (Return to the discussion overview here.)

Headcases & Homework: Reactions to Viktor Troicki

Preface: I posted parts of this introduction in December, then decided to hold off on the rest until the completion of Troicki’s ban.  Now that he’s returned to action, the time seems right to reflect on what we did and didn’t learn from his case.

In a review of the 2013 tennis season, Steve Tignor called doping suspensions the “controversy of the year.”  Here, I’ll focus on reactions to the case that generated the most debate, aiming to develop a point Tignor makes at the outset of his column: “the game’s testing system remains a learning process for all concerned.”  Perhaps unlike him, I consider those concerned to include not only players and doping authorities but the tennis media and fans as well.  Because I’m not writing for a tennis publication, I’ve also got more latitude in drawing four general lessons from Troicki’s case and connecting them to issues in the wider world.  So, expect fewer citations of anti-doping policy from me and more references to psychology, philosophy, and even literature (does Peanuts count as “literature”?).

As will become increasingly clear, I’m interested in one dimension of the Troicki story above all others: the mental-health angle (an imperfect phrase I’ll parse in lesson 2).  Why this is so has partly to do with the extent to which it seems to have been neglected in most discussions of the case, and partly to do with how important the matter of mental health is—not simply in this specific instance, or sports more generally, but in life.

After this introduction, I’m not going to rehearse familiar details of the case, as they are available for all to read and have been dissected elsewhere.  Instead, I want to stake out a position from the start: I believe this incident, including how it was resolved, raises more questions than many others writing about it (not least, those publishing 140 characters at a time) seem to.  Further, I don’t think it makes sense to separate the issue of whether Troicki submitted the required blood sample that spring day in Monte Carlo from that of why he did or didn’t do so—something we can’t address without exploring his needle phobia in greater depth.  Troicki’s failure to fulfill his professional responsibilities has gotten plenty of attention.  What has generated less discussion than I think they deserve are his rights—how he should, ideally, have been treated as both a professional tennis player and a human being.

✍✍✍

Analyses of the case, including the ITF’s Independent Anti-Doping Tribunal (IADT) and Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) appeal decisions, tend to rest on three questions.  The first is about as straightforward as they come: “Did Viktor Troicki give a blood sample immediately after he was notified that he’d been selected for testing?”  Since Troicki himself doesn’t dispute that the answer to this is “No,” most concluded that he had clearly broken an anti-doping rule and moved on to the second question, one of judgment rather than fact: “What is the appropriate sanction for this violation?”  Not even Troicki’s staunchest public defender, Novak Djoković, argued that his compatriot bears no responsibility for what transpired in Monte Carlo: “as a tennis pro, our job is to play, of course, tennis and respect all the rules and know all the rules of our sport…. I’m not saying that it’s completely not his fault,” the Serb acknowledged during the World Tour Finals in November.  But because he nevertheless regards the outcome of the appeal as a “total injustice,” we can assume Djoković disagrees with the CAS on the stickiest point: “Did Troicki have a compelling justification for failing to provide a blood sample?

Like many others viewing the case, the then-ATP #2 zeroed in on the “he said, she said” conflict between the player and the Doping Control Officer (DCO) as central to the case. (Though one is tempted to refer to them as “patient” and “doctor,” this is would be a mistake, for reasons I’ll elaborate in lesson 1.)  Did the DCO tell the player that “it will not be a problem” and it “should be all right” if he didn’t give a blood sample that day, as Troicki claims (16c, 3.13.1*)?  Whereas the IADT found the DCO’s account much more credible than Troicki’s (and thus concluded the DCO had not offered “an unequivocal assurance” [39I]), Djoković, unsurprisingly, believed the word of his friend of nearly twenty years.  Though they still assigned the player a degree of fault, the CAS panel scrutinized the DCO’s role in the interaction more closely, calling it “a misunderstanding,” enumerating a number of the DCO’s “acts and omissions” that contributed to it, and reducing Troicki’s suspension to the ITF-mandated minimum of one year (9.9, 9.14).  As Tignor has observed, “Djokovic may not agree with the CAS’s decision, but the CAS agrees with him,” offering both criticisms of the procedure and suggestions for how it might be improved.  Given that the CAS determined Troicki bore “no significant fault or negligence” with regard to the rule violation, it’s entirely possible they would have reduced his penalty still further had that been an option.  (*Parenthetical citations refer to paragraph numbers in the two rulings, abbreviated I for IADT and C for CAS.)

I take a different position from both Djoković and the CAS, though I similarly focus on the interaction between player and DCO, as well as between the DCO and others, including her supervisor at IDTM, to whom she reported immediately after the initial encounter.  (Those familiar with the case will recall that player & officer met again the next day, at the latter’s initiative; see 21-24I and 3.22-25C for details).  Troicki’s team argued that the case against him should be dismissed due to four intertwined factors: not that “the facts of his illness at the time, his phobia of needles and his panic at the likely physical consequences for him of giving blood would of themselves amount to ‘compelling justification’” for not providing a sample that day but, rather, that these three things “in conjunction with” the DCO’s assurances do (38I).  Based on my research, I believe their interaction was likely complicated by additional factors not discussed in the IADT report and mainly alluded to by the CAS: namely, that Troicki was not aware of his rights—particularly, but not only, as a player with a disability—and that the DCO was both unaware of (or ignored) other options available to her and ill-equipped by her training to handle someone experiencing a phobic reaction to the prospect of a needle procedure.  Ultimately, both of the latter, if accurate, are failings that must be addressed at the administrative level by the ITF.

Because I was not in the room last April and, more importantly, am not an expert on needle phobia, some of my claims are necessarily speculative.  (Call those “thought experiments,” if you wish.)  The evidence I invoke to support my points, I hasten to add, is not.  My view, developed at what is almost certainly too great a length for most readers, is that Troicki’s was a mismanaged disability case, in addition to—or perhaps more so than—a case of a Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP) violation.  In other words, I believe the above-mentioned circumstances amounted to compelling justification for Troicki’s breaking the rule in question.  In the best-case scenario, of course, that would have been avoided altogether through a joint effort by both player and DCO, in consultation with other officials on site and in line with established policy.  However, I don’t believe that Troicki’s condition at the time or lack of awareness of his rights is a justification for representatives of the ITF not to respect them, either during or after the fact.  It’s obviously too late now for the CAS to reconsider the case or for Troicki to get a year of his professional life back.  But given that similarly challenging situations may arise, with Viktor or another needle-phobic player, both the ITF and those governed by their rules need to be better prepared.  In order for that to happen, policy and procedure related to the taking of blood samples require updating, and affected players and staff need educating.  Such things, in short, will require advocacy and follow-through on someone’s part.  While, to my knowledge, no one with power to effect change is actively discussing these issues or pursuing them through concrete steps, I hope to be corrected.

✍✍✍

From Umag, where Troicki first learned of the ITF’s decision to suspend him, to Washington, where other ATP players responded to the news, from Belgrade to Beijing and London to Lausanne, this case made for much controversy.  On Twitter, in online comment sections, and in press conferences—not least, of Serbian Davis Cup team members—there was often more heat than light.  The source of this heat ranges.  Look and you will find strong emotions, misinformation, ignorance, hyperbole, conspiracy theories, and (what is to me) unwarranted certainty.  Also significant are a number of oversights, oversimplifications, and silences, the reasons for which may be more difficult to pinpoint.

In case anyone reading needs this reminder: learning is a lifelong process.  Here are highlights from the lessons I’m taking away.  For further discussion &/or more sources, please click on the individual section numbers.

1. Do your homework.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.  There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,/ And drinking largely sobers us again.
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)

Different tennis constituencies—including players, the ITF, and sports journalists—have work to do in order to avoid or better respond to similar situations in the future.  Many discussions of the case have focused on Troicki’s seeming naiveté or ignorance of the TADP, suggesting the problem never would have arisen if only he’d known and followed “the rules”—that is, had he not sought a partial exemption from them in the first place.  This section identifies and discusses a number of other things that the case and subsequent coverage reveal need, at minimum, review.

Troicki’s resistance to having his blood drawn at the requested time was greeted with surprise and incredulity in both media and player circles.  A typical response, for instance, was to point out that “the rule is there for a reason and is pretty simple.”  The thing is, there’s not much evidence to support the claim, made by too many to name, that Troicki disregarded or didn’t understand the rules.  He reported to the Doping Control Station directly after his match, gave the required urine sample, and then asked to be excused from giving blood; he also delayed signing the requisite form until after he’d had a discussion with the DCO.  Say what you will about those last two steps and their implications (and I’ll say lots more about the former), the fact is that neither of them is against the rules and actually show an awareness of them.  Nevertheless, people discussing the case and Troicki’s reaction to the penalty implied that he “arbitrarily” broke the rules by “skipping” a test, as if he rather capriciously failed to show up altogether, and was then confused about why he got in trouble.

One of the most frequently misrepresented aspects of the case is the suggestion that Troicki asked to and “claims he was told by the ITF official that he could take the test the next day.”  In fact, Troicki did not ask to take the blood test the next day.  What he was after was not a 24-hour delay but a pass, essentially, until the next time he was randomly selected for testing.  Per the IADT report, “he asked if there was any chance that he did not have to give blood on that occasion” (15b).  In Troicki’s own words, from the explanatory note he appended to the required form: “I always did blood tests before, and I [will] do them in the future, but today I was not [able to] provide [a] blood sample” (15e; my emphasis).  That he ended up giving blood the next day is almost entirely a result of the fact that the DCO herself initiated contact with him.  She went looking for him, enlisted the ATP supervisor’s help in finding him (recall that, as he had lost the day before, Troicki was officially out of the tournament), and told Viktor “there could be a problem” (see sections 21-24I).  Upon hearing that, as if for the first time, the player then asked, “Does it make any sense to do the blood test today, since I am feeling better today?”  If the DCO were entirely confident about how she’d handled the previous day’s encounter, would she have gone in search of him and would he have had the opportunity to ask this question?  We’ll never know.  But the fact is that she certainly didn’t need to talk to him or take his blood the next day.  Nor was that procedure something Troicki, who left the DCS the day before thinking he’d gotten out of the blood test altogether, is likely to have requested if left to his own devices.  Why this is so will be discussed in the next section.

2. Feel free to admit when there’s something you don’t know.

Socrates: “Well, I am certainly wiser than this man.  It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance.  At any rate, it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”                                                                                              —Plato, Apology

Rest assured: recognizing the existence of uncertainty or confessing to lack knowledge on a given subject doesn’t make one’s position any weaker.  One could do worse, after all, than take the lead from Socrates, who posited that awareness of one’s ignorance is a step along the path of learning.

Unfortunately, saying “I don’t know” doesn’t bring many readers to one’s website, newspaper column, or talk-show (for you youngsters, a “podcast”).  Journalists, bloggers, tweeters, and other sports commentators make a name for themselves and develop a following by having opinions and being able to come up with them as quickly as the news cycle (or tennis calendar) demands.  This is obviously not the place to diagnose the current condition of sports journalism.  Rather, I want to point out that the need to say something—fast and frequently—can yield less than well-supported views and positions, which are often not adjusted, even if or when new information is acquired.

In terms of the Troicki case, needle phobia is the topic most commenters would have done well to acknowledge an insufficient grasp of—both in general and in terms of how it may have affected the events of that specific day.  Many addressing the controversy simply ignored this aspect of the incident (which is certainly one, if not the best, way of dealing with the unfamiliar).  But some writers took the opposite approach: not proceeding as if it didn’t exist or wasn’t worth discussing but acting all-too-certain about its relevance.  As I’ve noted above, I think Troicki’s needle phobia is central to understanding the case; hence, it’s the focus of this “lesson.”

I’d already written this section when I ran across a recent piece that’s an example of the type of thing that set me off on a weeks-long research binge last November.  As a result of that reading, I can state with confidence that Troicki’s needle phobia is a corroborated matter of fact.  It’s a preexisting medical condition with both psychological and physiological symptoms—not a claim, not a suggestion, not a figment of his imagination, and not an “excuse” Viktor came up with one day because he was selected to submit a blood sample.  It was accepted as such by both the IADT and the CAS on the basis of, among other “clear and convincing evidence,” the testimony of one of the French Tennis Federation’s chief medical officers, Dr. Bernard Montalvan (9I).  In spite of this, numerous journalists felt free to dismiss it as a significant factor in the case—in the process, casting doubt not only on Troicki’s word (plus that of his coach, trainer, father, Davis Cup teammates, and friends/colleagues since childhood like Andrea Petković) but also, if indirectly, on that of the medical experts who submitted statements supporting it.

While this may seem, to some, an overly strong reaction to the skepticism, my view is that any journalist who suggests this part of “Troicki’s story was not corrobarated [sic] by the authorities” is open to numerous charges, including poor reading comprehension skills, sloppiness, laziness, irresponsibility, &/or bias.  Frankly, unless you’re an experienced phlebotomist, psychologist, or someone familiar with current thinking on blood-injection-injury phobias, I don’t want to hear your musings on whether “having a little blood drawn was. . . going to harm Troicki if he was feeling a little under-the-weather.”  In fact, I think it’d be best if no one heard such ill-informed speculations.  I do my best in this section to help readers become more informed about the condition and consider the ways in which it may have influenced matters for both Troicki and the DCO that day.

3. Practice empathy.

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.  Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers.  They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.  Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case.  It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy.  By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.  His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.  For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.
—Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

None of us—not members of the two tribunals, the tennis media, other players, or the author and readers of this piece—witnessed what happened in the Monte Carlo tournament DCS that day.  Though we may have read Troicki’s brief version of events in the case documents or a handful of interviews, what we haven’t heard in vivid detail is what it feels like for him to go through a phobic episode.  I suspect there are good reasons for this.  For example, while the word “phobia” appears three times in the IADT (B9, D38, E46) and once in the CAS decision (3.8), Troicki himself doesn’t use that word in any of his quoted statements.  This linguistic choice, which likely reflects “a tendency to downplay the fear and the significance it had in [his life],” aligns with what researchers have observed: “The very nature of the fear means it is not generally thought or talked about” (54, ii).  Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate because it means we’re missing a key part of the story.  But even in the absence of first-hand experience, observation, or abstract knowledge of something (what some might call “book learnin’”), we can still use our imaginations.

This section focuses on the difficulty of talking about mental-health issues in public—and thus, of combating both ignorance and stigma.  These difficulties may very well be why we haven’t seen much discussion of Troicki’s condition in media reports on his case. However, recognizing that something’s unfamiliar or difficult isn’t a reason to avoid it.  On the contrary, it’s a reason to pursue it by whatever means we have at our disposal.  My effort is ongoing: I’ve reached out to the player’s representatives and hope to interview him once he’s settled back into the routine of week-in, week-out life on tour.  But there’s no guarantee he’ll be willing to delve into the topic that I think most needs his insight.  After this “lesson,” I hope more people will understand why Viktor might be reluctant to do so on the record.

It’s worth emphasizing from the outset that practicing empathy in this case doesn’t necessitate changing your position on whether the CAS decision was correct or Troicki’s suspension just.  What I’m most trying to encourage readers to do, going forward, is imagine what needle-phobes (in general) and needle-phobic players (in particular) experience every time they’re faced with a blood-drawing procedure.

4. Acknowledge ambiguity & complexity.

Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing. —Jean-Martin Charcot

The Judge does not make the law.  It is people that make the law.   Therefore if a law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the law, that is justice, even if it is not just.                                                        —Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)

This section is dedicated to two groups, in particular: those, like Andy Murray, who seem to believe that following the rules is the (only or best) solution to the problems Troicki’s case presented; and those who haven’t to this point understood why some think the outcome of the CAS decision was unjust.

If you’re someone who has made categorical statements along the lines of “Read and respect the rules and everything is very simple,” “He should have taken the test,” “A player would only refuse to be tested if there was something to hide,” or “No excuses,” this section’s for you.

Starting from Scratch: The Return of Viktor Troicki

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

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

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

1. “I just hope it happens again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♠♣♥♦

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

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

2. Making Up for Lost Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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