Djokovic's backstory showcases complexities of politics and sport
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
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
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.
• 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.
• It had been a while since Court had enlightened us, but she emerged again last week, giving one of her
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.
• 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.
• 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.)
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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
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.
• 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,
• From the icky, self-promotion department, my publisher has asked me to mention that
• It's our new favorite segment: Fans' Encounters With Pro Players. We're going all American this week. This week's featured guests:
• Our man
"So about five years ago I'm reading his book,
• 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
• Mark Flannery of Fullerton Calif.: "Have you heard of a band called "Tennis"?
Daniel W. of Eugene, Ore., has a topical long-lost siblings: "
Have a great week, everyone!