Tag Archives: Roland Garros

Belgrade: Wimbledon 2014, rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković…

12 Jul

TENNIS-GBR-WIMBLEDONGetty Images (click)

“What’s with you and all the Djoković?”

This is M. in Belgrade, after the sixth or seventh rakia, giving me a hard time about my Nole cult. M. is an old Serbian student of mine from New York. He’s one of my favorites actually; out of the nearly ten years I taught English at CUNY, he’s one of those special ones that I can count on one hand. Funny, charismatic, super-smart – when he came to class – he was a real asset to have.

“I was your best student,” he says, a propos of nothing and with characteristic modesty.

“Yeah, when you came to class,” I say.

We live ten minutes from each other in New York but never see each other – bumped into each other at some bars a couple of times – except that every year at Orthodox Easter he comes to my house. But I haven’t been home for Easter for the past three years, so we didn’t see each other then either. Except for one night, two nights ago, the stars arranged for us to both be in Belgrade together and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get some long-due drinking done.

So this is M. getting all up in my face Serbian style:

“If you’re such a fan, why are you here? Why aren’t you in Montenegro at his wedding trying to get a picture?”

I didn’t even know Djoković was getting married this weekend and M. knows I’m too old and probably knows enough else about me to know I’m not some idiot groupie:

“Like the other groupies…” he says nevertheless. “You could try to take a picture of him with the bride…one with the bride alone…one with…”

The thing is his teasing is so good humored it makes you wanna jump right into the ring with him and take him on, so it’s always fun and it only makes you like him more. I also came away from the evening feeling good because M. and I barely know each other actually, but a bunch of his friends showed up and it was obvious how loved he was by all of them and that was nice to see; I like when my instincts about a person are correct even when I don’t have much evidence to go by.  But he’s relentless…

“You could try to get a picture of the dog…”

Well for M. or anybody, if you still don’t know what my Djoković thing is about and how it relates to my Serb thing and how possessive and defensive I get about both, you haven’t been reading my blog very regularly. So let me try again. Back to Wimbledon…

I don’t think any real tennis aficionado could’ve asked for a better Wimbledon 2014 – unless you have the frankly hilarious misfortune of being a Nadal fan, in which case you deserve your fate and I’ll tell you when it’s ok to come out of your room and stop being embarrassed. For Djoković it was no easy climb. Great tennis all the way, but he wasn’t granted anything. With Čilić, with Raonić, with Dimitrov, there was practically not a single give-away. He had to wrestle every point from the hands of the universe.

Of course the finals match between him and Federer was a friggin’ dream. It was everything you want from good tennis, from good sport, competition, art, or a good war even: matched skill and guts, intelligent tactics, constant reversal and coming back from behind – and the masochistic pleasure or knowing that even if your guy loses, he’ll have lost to someone you respect. This was one of those matches that the phrase “toe-to-toe” was invented for. At no single point during the more than three hours did either man have enough of a numerical lead to allow his supporters to relax for a few minutes. Neither of them was ever more than just one step ahead of the other and that never lasted long enough for you to take even half a breath.

I watched the game in an empty Greek bar with a friend of mine and don’t think I actually sat back on my seat for a second. And I don’t know whether it was the emptiness of a bar in suburban Athens, perhaps, on a hot July, Sunday afternoon — the hours of high summer heat in Attica still turn the city into a desert — but this was the first time that Djoković’ loneliness on the court struck me so hard. Existentially.  How completely lonely he sometimes seems.  Of course, that day, Wimbledon had to do with it as well. For a variety of reasons we all know, Novak’s always been considered the kind of odd man out in the tennis world despite his stupendous capabilities as an athlete, and Wimbledon is clearly the most classist of all tennis venues where that would show up in its starkest form. I don’t know if it was the shots that the Greek network we were watching was being fed, but not once during the whole match, were the cameras able to get even a single shot of the crowd looking satisfied or anything but stressed whenever an exchange went well for Nole; except occasionally from Becker and his team; no one from his family even seemed to be there — getting ready for the wedding circus I can now presume, but didn’t know at the time. Unlike the always cool French, who’ll applaud you for your art no matter who you are or where you’re from, like the standing ovation they gave Djok for his battle against the Catalan that left him in tears at Roland Garros, here there was the unmistakable look of British and other jet-set spectators at a sporting event in the grip of pure class terror: that their suave Swiss aristocrat would lose to this Balkan nut-job…and at Wimbledon.

I remembered that shitty little article by Lauren Collins that The New Yorker had run last September — The Third Man — about Novak, which kept essentially asking whether he can learn how to act like a proper tennis player: “Can he make us like him?” Like you guys are the arbiters of what exactly and he needs your liking?  And all my pro-Serb and pro-Nole nerves got twisted into knots again, like when I had first read it. The whole article was just dripping with condescension and I thought to myself that if Collins had written an article like that about an athlete from a “country of color,” The New Yorker would have been faced with a howling riot of censoring anger and cries of racism. “Is Nole too ghetto for Wimbledon?” Collins had essentially wanted to know. She could’ve consulted me and I would’ve come up with at least twenty terms from half a dozen Balkan languages for “ghetto” that she could have used.

Then the fifth set started and it became clear that both men knew this was it, life or death, especially because it started to become clear that physical and – from the tightness of the game and competition – nervous exhaustion had started to set in. And Nole got that look he gets late in matches, where he alternates between a look of steely professionalism and hunger that’s ready to rip his opponent to shreds, and this strange watery-eyed look of almost spiritual exaltation, looking dreamily skyward, or gazing down at the ground blankly. And this latter look, though beautiful, is a little worrisome because it means he’s either going to start playing like a man possessed by some god and steamroll whoever he’s up against into the ground – or just start f*cking up and making a royal mess of everything.

It became clear that he was in a state of deity-possession almost as soon as the set started. And then he stopped looking lonely to me. Instead we was simply magnificently alone, the akritas fighting it out on the marble threshing-floor, the young kraljević single-handedly taking on the hostile hordes of pink frangoi in their sun-screen and appropriate hats.

NOLEUSE1404667649000-AFP-531415517Glyn Kirk, AFP/Getty Images (click)

And Federer hit the ball into the net and it was all over. And Nole cracked open; not up, open — like the cracks that Leonard Cohen says let the light get in, except the light here was not flooding in but out of him in this great luminous glow. I don’t know what mad idea of redemption or humility or gratitude was going through his crazed Slavic mind when he knelt and started eating the grass off the court, but in the back of my mind I could hear some Serbian Sonya Marmeladova crying:

“This is what you shall do! Go at once, this very moment to the crossroads and kiss the earth which you have defiled and bow down to the world and say: ‘I am grateful. I am humble. I am grateful. I am humble.’”

And then the tears of that gratitude and humility started flowing and I haven’t even wanted to watch any of the post-game interviews or read anything; I just want to be left with that image of him holding the cup and bawling. Weeping copiously.  Like a man.

wimbledon-men-novak-djokovic-wimbledon-trophy_3169070Getty images (click)

My sense here in Serbia is that there’s a little bit of a conflict between Djoković’ status as saintly national hero and the celebrity circus that’s constantly flowing around him, and that that’s what M.’s cynicism was about with the wedding and all. But a girl, I., who was in M.’s kompaniya that night: very smart and pretty, who speaks absolutely native-speaker American English and who is always running what’s apparently one of Serbia’s fastest-growing websites from from her IPad – which she was doing that night – while still managing to remain front and center of any conversation she happens to find herself in, says that’s the girlfriend and the media’s fault, not his, and that it really irks her.

“What does ‘irk’ mean, M.?” I decide to play professor with him, addressing him by his last name.

“It means like when something bother-… What do you mean what does it mean?!  I know what it means.  I was your best student!”

“Yeah. When you came to class.”

I. also talked some about some genuine darkness that was part of Nole’s childhood, the details of which are common knowledge here, but I’m not going to get into because it’s part of this blog’s journalistic policy not to go there with cheaply personal and especially hurtful personal issues, and especially not with someone I love and admire and who’s as much of a hero of mine as Djoković is. But let’s just say the redeeming, protecting hero archetype is a structurally core part of his psyche.

“He’s a beautiful man and he has a beautiful soul,” I. declared, definitively ending that conversation, as I imagine she must definitively end others when she wants to.

And I felt vindicated.

Do you have your answer now, M.?

Out of respect for this spectacular victory and the Djoković-and-tennis tolerance of my readers I promise there will be no Djoković or tennis at all until the U.S. Open.

But see you before then.


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Note:  Speaking of “marble threshing-floors…”  The court at Wimbledon is in such shit state that it can only be called a grass court in the most ideally Platonic terms.  Really; cute British shabbiness has its limits.  Beer and probably piss-stained pub carpeting is one thing.  A court where most of the playing is done on parched, packed, rock-hard dirt, made that much more treacherous by the fine layer of sand it kicks up and coats itself with, is another.  It definitely put a cramp on both players’ styles at several moments during the match and there were times where it even looked like it could cause dangerous injury.  With Nole I didn’t know whether his super-human flexibility would protect him or if it would make his propensity for taking acrobatic risks that much more risky.  Either way, do something.  It’s one of those things that’s not charming about England anymore.

From the New York Times: “And Novak all fired up now goes, ‘Serbia! Serbia!’ ”

27 May
DjokParisCITY-CLAREY-superJumboDjokovic defeated Joao Sousa in straight sets Monday, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. Credit Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters (click)


Djokovic’s Greatest Motivation Isn’t on Court By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY    MAY 26, 2014

PARIS — Novak Djokovic was safe and dry after his first-round victory at the French Open on Monday, and it was noted that he often seems to play his best when he is playing for a cause higher than tennis.

“You’re right; you’re right,” he said. “It’s an interesting observation. I did also feel this at times when I had the last couple of years certain kinds of situations in life, good and bad, that were a lesson in a way for me. I noticed that I found that extra motivation to perform well on the court and to go far.”

But can he go all the way here over the next two weeks and join an exclusive seven-member men’s club by winning the only Grand Slam singles title he is missing?
Playing for Serbia has been a powerful motor for Djokovic. An emotional run to the 2010 Davis Cup title, Serbia’s first, helped him make the leap from serial Grand Slam contender to serial Grand Slam winner in 2011.
Wojtek Fibak, the former Polish star who advised Djokovic at last year’s United States Open, said he used that for fuel again when Djokovic was upset after his semifinal with Stan Wawrinka was scheduled first during the day after he had played primarily night matches.

Fibak said Djokovic had “the worst warm-up” and was in “a horrible mood” so he tried his best to get him back to the essential. “I said, ‘Remember your parents, remember your father had to sell his car for you to play tennis,’ ” Fibak said. “I kept bringing it up, and Novak’s eyes were big, and I said: ‘Do you know why they did it? So you could play the U.S. Open, and now you are in the semis of the U.S. Open and you don’t want to fight and you’re not happy just because of the time? I said do it for your father, your mother, for Serbia.’ And Novak all fired up now goes, ‘Serbia! Serbia!’ ”

He went on to beat Wawrinka in five sets before losing to Nadal in the final.

Now, as he returns to the tournament he wants to win more than any other, Serbia is again at the forefront of his thoughts. He has been seriously involved in raising money and awareness for relief efforts after this month’s floods in southeastern Europe, primarily in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, that killed dozens and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Djokovic has donated his prize money — listed at 549,000 euros, or $750,000 — from winning the Masters 1000 event in Rome.

“I’ve seen the images and followed the news every single day, and it was something I’ve done because I felt like that was the right thing, and that’s it,” Djokovic said. “The second thing I thought about was that it was going to attract more of the donors from the international world to see that the situation is as serious as the prize money I donated. We’re talking about billions of dollars needed.”
Several players from the region took part with Djokovic in an on-court show of solidarity during an exhibition day at Roland Garros before the tournament. It was a small yet deeply symbolic gesture. Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia were all part of Yugoslavia before war broke the country apart in the 1990s. But Djokovic said that if there were any upside to this, it would be that former antagonists were now cooperating.

“To be honest there is something that I did not predict, did not expect,” Djokovic said. “And that is the solidarity of the people of the three countries that were in conflict only 15 years ago. That’s something that was incredibly moving and very encouraging for the relationship for the future of these people, because maybe we cannot be the same country again. Maybe people are thinking that’s not a good idea, but there is definitely a lot more room for improvement of the respect and solidarity between the people.”

When he is serious, Djokovic speaks in long paragraphs. He makes less eye contact than in his earlier days, but what remains remarkable is his ability to shift tone in a hurry. On Monday, marooned on a bench on a changeover during a second-set rain delay at Roland Garros, he invited the ball boy holding his umbrella to join him on the bench for a chat. He then finished off Joao Sousa, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
In a news conference, he doubled over with laughter and put his head on the desk when an Italian journalist asked Djokovic, who eats a gluten-free diet, if adopting the same regimen would help him improve his writing.  Moments later he was discussing the floods again and then, moments after that, answering a query about Boris Becker, the former champion who is coaching Djokovic this year along with his longtime coach Marian Vajda.

Becker won every Grand Slam tournament except the French Open and never won a professional clay-court title, which makes him an intriguing choice of mentor. What kind of advice might Becker be giving him for the French Open?

“He doesn’t tell me to serve and volley, that’s for sure,” Djokovic cracked. “But you know on a serious note, he is still one of the most successful players to play the game even though he hasn’t won Roland Garros.”  For Djokovic, Becker’s experience in big matches and big events is precious cargo even if he failed to win the Australian Open with him in his camp and has had most of his big victories this year with only Vajda in attendance. But the whole team was together in Rome.

“I feel that we understand each other much better already since Rome,” Djokovic said of Becker.

For now, Djokovic remains, with Becker, one of the best men’s players never to win the French Open, a list that includes John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras. But in light of Djokovic’s excellence on the surface, he may now be the best men’s clay-court player in the Open era never to win it.

Djokovic has won Rome three times and Monte Carlo and Madrid once. At Roland Garros, it took Roger Federer in full flight to stop Djokovic in the semifinals in 2011. It took Nadal in full fight to stop him in a rain-interrupted final in 2012 and then again in last year’s classic five-set semifinal.

Beating Nadal at Roland Garros remains the toughest task in tennis, and Djokovic said that the death of his grandfather inspired him in 2012, just as the death of his childhood coach Jelena Gencic in the midst of last year’s tournament inspired him before he fell just short, losing by 9-7 in the fifth.

“I cannot say that the images and memories of these people were not in my head while I was playing but I tried to channel this energy and information in the positive direction,” he said. “And I knew both of these people who were very supportive of my career would like me to play and win for them, so that’s
something I had in the back of my mind.” There is much more for the back of the mind this year. There are Serbia and
its neighbors. There is his coming marriage to Jelena Ristic and the birth of their first child later this year.

“It’s true; I have plenty of causes right now,” he said with the second round on the horizon.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Yesssssssss!!!!! Rome falls to the Serb

18 May



And what a welcome and needed morale booster for Serbia these days.

The Guardian: always has great play-by-play coverage of tennis, complete with slightly malicious Brit humour:

“Second set: Djokovic 4-6, 5-3 Nadal* (*denotes server) “In a stadium built for a dictator, Mussolini, it is Novak who’s doing the dictating.” Yes, someone said that. A thumping forehand is followed by a drop, and Nadal is in all sorts, a booming crosscourt forehand clawing back a point.

“Third set: *Djokovic 4-6, 6-3, 3-1 Nadal (*denotes server) This is brilliantly, beautifully, brutally dismissive from Djokovic – he goes to 30-0 with a backhand swiped crosscourt. But there follows the kind of forehand return that gives small children nightmares, whip-clubbed down the lane with intense prejudice. Still, though, Djokovic closes out the game with ease.

Third set: *Djokovic 4-6, 6-3, 5-3 Nadal (*denotes server) There’s a slightly forlorn look about Nadal now, two groundstrokes absolutely smelted past him.

“Brilliant tennis from Djokovic today, particularly in that final set. Nadal didn’t feel sufficiently confident to match his aggression, and was nowhere near in terms of execution – the winners count stands at 46-15. Whether or not this means anything remains to be seen – Nadal will be better for having played the game, and Djokovic won’t be able to use the higher bounce in Paris, where the courts play lower. Can Roland Garros start now, please?”

That’s right.  Start now.  Get obsessed.  Roland Garros.  Roland Garros.  Roland Garros.  Roland Garros.

And two good pieces from ATPworldtour.com: Read: How The Rome Final Was Won | Rafa, Novak: The Rivalry


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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