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Djokovic's backstory showcases complexities of politics and sport

While marveling that we're only two weeks from the new tennis season...

Let's start with a discussion of Novak Djokovic. Particularly in the past year, we've gotten a lot of mail that's either praised or vilified the world's No. 1 player for being a proxy for Serbia. The discussion -- such as it is -- tends to be dominated by voices on the extremes. Still, it's clear that for many, he represents far more than a tennis player competing at an unsurpassed level.

I suspect that many of you, like me, are less than experts on the Balkan Conflict, the demise of Yugoslavia, the bid for Kosovo independence, etc. We don't get much help watching tennis. We joke often about how often the "swimming pool story" has been repeated by commentators, but how many times have we been given context? What was going on in Serbia at the time that caused NATO -- not an organization that tends to attack other nations indiscriminately -- to deploy a bombing campaign in and around Belgrade?

In any case, last week a reader drilled me for what she considered this media oversight and my complicity in what she deemed an ugly and uncomfortable aspect to Djokovic's success. It was a long, detailed, civil and -- in my judgment -- reasoned essay. After considerable thought, I tweeted a link to her piece.

The response was, predictably, swift, passionate and representative of a broad spectrum of views. I invited a response, and, after a few days, was fortunate enough to get this thoughtful, thorough and reasonable piece of writing from another reader.

A warning: Neither of these are studies in brevity. But sometimes complex issues and discussions can't be easily condensed. Block out some time and read these posts. The aim here isn't to assess blame or encourage anyone to take sides. It's to provide some context, offer different perspective and try to deepen some understanding -- both of a complex cultural/political situation and where Djokovic may (or may not) fit in. At a bare minimum, I think we can agree that he plays and performs with a burden that no other player today ever will know.

I know we'd like to hold off on Caroline Wozniacki a bit during the offseason, but after perusing the WTA website, I noticed an interesting fact. Wozniacki, 21, is the youngest player in the top 10. There's only one player younger in the top 20 (Anastasia Pavlyuchenokva), and only 13 women younger than Wozniacki in the whole top 100 (six of whom are within six months of Wozniacki's age). Would it be nice if Wozniacki had a Slam as world No. 1? Sure. But she is much, much too young in this era of old women winning Slams to be declared a perpetual runner-up. Let's talk when she's 25. Or, hell, when she's 23.--Jesse, Portland, Ore.

• Good call there. We forget that Wozniacki is even a few months younger than Petra Kvitova. I have my doubts about Wozniacki. The weapons just aren't there. But you're right to note that she'll have a lot more whacks at the piñata. Blanket declarations at this point are silly.

Good for Margaret Court for speaking her mind. If you actually read the article carefully and impartially, she is not being hateful at all, but merely expressing her inner beliefs, which derive from her upbringing and religious faith. If people happen to disagree, tough. Sure, you can express your disagreement, just like she can express hers. This doesn't give anyone grounds to deem the other side's comments hateful at all, and if you think it does, consider that I would consider support of gay marriage hateful toward my deeply held beliefs. It goes both ways. Comments about boycotting her court are ludicrous. What happened to respecting the other side's views?-- Robert B., Melbourne, Fla.

• It had been a while since Court had enlightened us, but she emerged again last week, giving one of her periodic rants against gay marriage, political correctness and abominations, and generally making Rick Perry's ad team members look like they were to the left of Abbie Hoffman.

Apart from igniting some strong responses from many of you guys, she triggered the predictable conversations and debates. "What is hate speech and what is free speech?" "Must tolerant people -- by definition -- tolerate intolerance?"

Personally, I found her remarks repugnant. But like Robert B., I skew libertarian here. Court is free to express her views. The rest of us are free to react and respond in all sorts of ways -- whether it's by ignoring her, excoriating her as Martina Navratilova has, or removing her name from a show court at the Australian Open.

I tweeted the other day that it would sure send a message about tennis' sensibilities if a player were to take a stand and decline assignment in Margaret Court Arena. Why is that ludicrous? I respect her right to express views, absolutely. The actual content of the views? I don't respect them at all. I find them deeply offensive and so do a lot of other people -- some of whom have at their disposal a superior megaphone.

Overall, I enjoy your columns. However, I was pretty gobsmacked by the SI.com roundtable on the ATP season. I know you're not responsible for all the opinions put forth, but how on earth could you (and several colleagues) choose Rafael Nadal's season as "biggest disappointment" over, for starters, Andy Murray? Rafa won a major. He also finaled in two others, won a Masters, finaled in four others, and clinched the Davis Cup for Spain. I'm sorry, but it's simply preposterous to call a season like that the "biggest disappointment," no matter how high a bar he has set for himself. Was his season disappointing in some ways? Sure. But biggest disappointment? You totally lost me there.

Meanwhile, Murray (who, by all accounts, should be winning majors by now) went mentally AWOL in two Grand Slam semis and one Grand Slam final, was nonexistent/miserable/depressed during Indian Wells and Miami, and even after recovering his game, still was somewhat chronically injured throughout the rest of the season (elbow, ankle, groin). He played well in the fall, but that momentum came to nothing when he withdrew from the World Tour Finals. Andy's season was almost the definition of disappointing, and yet, only one writer on your staff even mentioned him. Odd.-- KB, Maryland

• This is really a matter of semantics and defining terms. What "disappointment" means in this context, I can only speak for myself here, but I took to denote the biggest gap between expectation/potential and reality.

I hear what you're saying; I recognize the absurdity of terming the No. 2-ranked player and Davis Cup star a disappointment; I thought I acknowledged as much in my explanation. But, again, heading into 2011, Nadal was a threat to win all four Slams. He'd won the previous three. He had continued his mastery over Roger Federer. He was healthy, confident, in good spirits.

In 2011, he not only gives up his top spot and can't figure out Djokovic, but he also admits to lacking passion. Even he used words like "disappointing" and "difficult" to describe his 2011 campaign. Not unlike Federer, Nadal is cursed by the standards he set; you're absolutely right. But it doesn't change the fact that there was a vast chasm between what was anticipated and what actually happened.

As for Murray, the expectations are not nearly what you make them out to be. "By all accounts, [he] should be winning majors by now." Really? Whose accounts? I don't know anyone who expected him to win a major in 2011. He's No. 4 at a time when the Big Three will probably each end up among the top five players in the Open Era. For Murray to finish No. 4, make one major final, reach the semis in the other three, win a Masters Series and lose a half-dozen matches he had no business losing? That's about exactly what was to be expected.

I have only recently begun attending tennis in person after many years of TV enjoyment. I have enjoyed the Mason (Cincy) Masters event the last two years. However, I find that I do miss the commentary. The U.S. Open distributes earpieces to spectators -- why do you think the Lindner Tennis Center does not? Mere cost? Other considerations?-- Will Coy-Geeslin, Versailles, Ky.

• It's a sponsorship play with American Express. But given the presence of both Tennis Channel and ESPN at the event, maybe there's an opportunity. (There's a Xavier-Cincinnati joke here, but my wires aren't quite connecting this morning.)

I would support Congress creating a law that would make athletes who represent other nations in international competition ineligible for U.S. residency or naturalization, including forfeiture. This should apply equally to Alex Bogomolov and Maria Sharapova, along with many others in tennis as well as other sports, notably baseball and basketball.-- Larry Larson, Alexandria, Va.

• Congress? A law? I go in the opposite direction. All's fair in love and tennis country codes. The USTA has to know that when it supports a player with a complex backstory, there's a risk that the player may eventually forsake one nationality for another. I spoke with Bogomolov last week. He was going to write up a "position paper" for us, ending the speculation and rumor and explaining why he made the decision he did. We haven't heard back from him but we know -- we just know it -- that he'll be responding soon.

Regarding Daniel Nestor: Jon, does this statement hold true for anyone outside of the doubles world (male or female)? Nestor is the only player in tennis history to have won all four Grand Slams, all of the Masters Series events, the Year End Championships and Olympic gold medal in doubles at least once. Even if there is someone else, is this the most underrated, least-talked-about record in tennis history? He has (basically) won EVERYTHING there is to win.-- Mark Randmaa, Toronto

• The hitch, of course, is the conditional phrase "in doubles." Most players would rather win a solitary Grand Slam singles title than THE Grand Slam alongside a partner. While there aren't, obviously, Masters Series events on the women's side, Steffi Graf won an Olympic gold and every major title at least four times. But, yes, the breadth of Nestor's doubles accomplishments is exceptional.

I'm looking at Donald Young's playing activity for 2011 and if you take away his results at two tournaments (U.S. Open, Thailand), can we really say 2011 (12-15 record) was the "emergence" of Donald Young? Looks more like he got hot in the month of September?-- Scott, Atascadero, Calif.

• A few years ago, I offered up a Fabrice Santoro paean. A reader responded that he looked up Santoro and was surprised to see that he was a top-60 player, yet had lost more than half his matches. "How good can this 'Magician' be if he can't even play .500 ball?"

You're being a bit harsh here with Donald Young. He did beat Murray, reached the semis in Washington, D.C., and won a few rounds at the Paris Indoors Masters event. (I would also add that part of the hype here is tied less to his results than his overall image upgrade, his ability to go from "entitled hothead" to "nice, humble guy" in the span of a few months.)

But, yes, for all the talk of his "emergence," Young went 19-17 in 2011 and won a combined zero matches at the first three majors. The moral is not that Young is overhyped. The moral is that, for all the challenges tennis presents, a player can rewrite the script fairly easily.

I find it impressive and a bit crazy that Djokovic, at 24, has already surpassed Andre Agassi in career prize money. It's undeniable that prize money has increased exponentially over the past couple of decades for those at the top, but has it also been increasing for those ranking between 11th-100th? Do we also have a case of the 99 percent when it comes to tennis players?-- Corey, New York

• Mark Miles, Etienne DeVilliers and Adam Helfant all thank you for taking the time to make that point. Yes, for whatever else you want to say about the ATP -- and, for that matter, the WTA -- there's no question that recent leaders deserve credit for considerable prize money increases. We noted last week that Wozniacki made roughly the same coin in her Slam-less 2011 as Hana Mandlikova made for her career. I recall Wayne Ferreira making more in his career than Rod Laver did in his.

Cynics will point out that much of this comes from prize money increases at the Slams, not at Tour events. Others will note that television is driving these increases and if tennis had a more cohesive and coherent structure, prize money should be even higher, as the PGA figures suggest. If I had limitless free time, I would like to look into this: How much have prize money increases been caused by the weak U.S. currency? Remember that in most cases prize money is given in dollars. When $1 = 1 Euro, winning the French Open means one thing; when $1 = .6 Euros, it means something very different.

But still ...

Has this increase been enjoyed across the board? Yes and no. Djokovic made roughly three times what the top player a decade ago, Lleyton Hewitt, made. The No. 50 player for 2011, Juan Carlos Ferrero, made nearly $500,000 in 2011. Ten years ago, No. 50 Franco Squillari made just over $400,000. Granted, Djokovic had a silly-good year in 2011. Still, suffice to say the vast increases in wealth occurred at the top. If I didn't know better, I might think there was larger point about wealth distribution embedded in here somewhere.

Regarding the Stockholm commercial. The age listed for Nadal in the commercial is 7. He didn't start playing lefty until he was 8, when he won an under-12 tournament and Uncle Toni had a bright idea. Still, the depiction isn't accurate, because he apparently played two hands off both sides as a youngster.-- Jennifer Boller, Los Angeles

• Several of you -- pedants! Pickers of nits! -- mentioned that. I say this was supposed to be kids depicting the pros (not kids depicting the pros as kids) so Nadal should have been a lefty. With no Afro. Seriously, lost in our discussion: What a fun and inspired commercial, nej? (Nej, of course, being Swedish for "no." Ah, Goggle, what did we do before you?)

• From the icky, self-promotion department, my publisher has asked me to mention that Scorecasting makes a great holiday gift.

• It's our new favorite segment: Fans' Encounters With Pro Players. We're going all American this week. This week's featured guests:

Nancy Selph of Bound Brook, N.J.: "I was working for Merrill Lynch and they held an online silent auction every year for charity. I came across a one-hour tennis lesson with Lisa Raymond and I just had to bid. It was quite pricey but completely worth it. Lisa came to my club in Princeton, N.J. After a half-hour lesson, she played doubles with me and the owner and manager of the club. One set partnering with me and one set against me. She stayed long past the original set time. She was so kind and giving. Very engaged. We had a wonderful time and spoke for some time afterward. I love to see that she is still playing into her late 30s and looking better than ever!"

Nicole of Bartlesville,Okla.: "During the early '90s -- maybe 1993 or '94 -- I visited a friend in Cincinnati to attend the Mason tournament. One day, we went to a Graeter's Ice Cream shop. While we were there, Jim Courier walked in. I was a big fan of his and very excited to see him there. My friend's mom encouraged me to go request an autograph, placing pen and paper in my hands. I was incredibly nervous, but I approached him with the very witty, 'You're Jim Courier?' He looked down at me, smiled, and said, 'Yes. You're Sally ...?' His friend laughed (and I'm not sure what he meant by that). I said, 'No ... I'm just a really big tennis fan.' He smiled again, took the pen and paper from my hands, and responded, 'Well, I like really big tennis fans,' as he signed my paper. It was brief, but I was a wide-eyed young college student, and Jim's kindness meant the world to me -- especially when I later learned he had lost his match earlier that day."

Danny Reichert of New York: "I'm a huge Chris Evert fan. A few years ago at the U.S. Open, a friend and I spotted Colette Evert, Chrissie's mom. Too embarrassed to say anything, I followed her around a bit until my friend ran up to her and said, 'I'm with your daughter's number one fan!' I was mortified and started to walk away until I heard her say, 'Well, I'll have to meet him then!' She chatted with me and thanked me for all the support and then asked for my address so she could send me a picture of her daughter. She could not have been nicer. A month or so went by. I had given up on the photo until I received a note from Colette herself that said, 'I bet you thought I forgot about you' along with a personalized signed photograph from her daughter."

• Our man Kevin Lynch of Eden Prairie, Minn.: "Here's my mini encounter with Johnny Mac at Madison Square Garden. Go back to winter/spring 1993. I'm playing with the Hornets in a game against the Knicks. It's the end of halftime and we're on the court, warming up for the second half. Standing in the layup line, I see McEnroe sitting courtside just a few feet away from me. I know it's him but I can barely tell because his baseball hat is pulled way down, and the collar on his jacket is up. It looks like he's in a bad or sad mood and doesn't care to be noticed. I say loudly, 'Hey, Mac!' and give him a little head nod. Me doing this doesn't seem to cheer him up much, and I think to myself, 'OK, man, whatever.'

"So about five years ago I'm reading his book, You Cannot Be Serious. In it he mentions how in the winter of 1993 he was shaken, crying all the time because of his divorce with Tatum O'Neal. He also had just retired from playing tennis as well, AND Arthur Ashe had just died. Lots of stuff to deal with. He writes how during that period, he couldn't stop the tears. When I saw him at that game, it must have been smack dab in the middle of that time. As I was reading that part of his book, my encounter with him 14 years earlier made sense -- and I finally forgave him."

• Rusty Cohan of Los Altos, Calif.: "I'm a former teaching pro and two-time national men's team coach at the World University Games. I also had the opportunity to play on Tom Chivington's first California state junior college championship team way back in 1970. I have volunteered my services at Stanford University ever since Dick Gould began his career there doing both officiating and announcing. I have been the announcer for every regional and national Division I men's and women's championships they have hosted. It is incredible to me how the rosters over the years have so drastically shifted to foreign players. I have looked at the program for the entire 64-team draw and some teams have actually had 100 percent foreign players or their rosters are dominated by their presence. This phenomenon is also prevalent at the junior college level.

"I find it a real disincentive for American players because it is an unbalanced playing field. How is it that public institutions supported by American tax dollars and those of the particular state are allowed to do this? I feel that every school (public or private) should be limited to two scholarships that are awarded to foreign players. Having teams with predominately foreign players is very self-serving no matter what the sport."

• Aside to Patrick of D.C.: Loved your Anna Kournikova story. But surely you didn't expect me print it as is! (And also remain gainfully employed.) Rework it, please, and then file it again!

• Terry of Atlanta: "Roger Federer's ranking points record adjusted for today's system would be 15,745. Some tennis nerds have calculated this a while ago. You can check out the thread here."

• Mark Flannery of Fullerton Calif.: "Have you heard of a band called "Tennis"? Check this out."

Daniel W. of Eugene, Ore., has a topical long-lost siblings: "Marcos Baghdatis was playing left mid for the Magpies! As it turns out, it was only Argentine Jonas Gutierrez. Long lost twins indeed!"

Have a great week, everyone!

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